The Help Desk: No one is free when others are alphabetized

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I turn 50 next year. Will I ever be able to alphabetize my bookshelves without singing the A-B-Cs to myself?

Barbara, Queen Anne

Dear Barbara,

Normally, I save lectures on the patriarchy – my albatross, my muse – for more appropriate arenas, like weddings, first dates, or when any fool I call friend ignores their parental instincts and asks me to watch their children for an evening.

But you do not need an alphabetized library in order to be happy, no matter what Melvil Dewey – A MAN – or the thousands of librarians chained to his decimal system will tell you. The perception that we need the "alphabet" in order to tame our collections is socially structured and enforced by the patriarchy. RESIST. The alphabet contributes to our oppression – just think of "woMAN" and all the English words like spinster, nag, and nymphomaniac that are gendered slurs with no male equivalent.

There are better ways to organize books you love – for instance, the internet suggests by color, height, or how "woke" the author is. I have bookshelves in half the rooms in my house and this is how they're arranged: My bedroom books are books I do not lend out; my living room and bathroom books are fine for anyone to read; and my guest bedroom books are either duplicates of beloved books (the lendable copies) or books I enjoyed but am happy to pass on if a special guest wants to take one. As a fun twist, I've begun further arranging my guest bedroom books by the first word in their titles, so each shelf secretly spells out a fun message:





You are nearly 50 years old, which means you have lived through many waves of feminism without drowning. Congratulations! Now go burn a bra (or put on two, whatever) and experiment with ordering your books in a way that has never occurred to you before. If, in the end, you find that you are most comfortable in the chains of your oppression, that's fine, too. Just chant, "I'm a strong, independent womyn, and I adopt these chains as my jewelry because this is how I like my books arranged. A, B, C, D..."