On Getting Rid of Books

There is a deep restlessness gnawing at my bones. I want a change — to learn something new, dive into something that I feel truly passionate about, grow a garden, be crazy and impetuous for once in my life. Most of all, I want to move. Away from my neighbors who fry fish at 7am. Away from smog, highways, concrete, light pollution, and strip malls.

I want a small — or perhaps even a very small — house.  Kevin and I can’t afford one (plus things like, you know, land) just now, but it’s not entirely out of the question within the next few years. We’ve started talking about downsizing from our current 1100 sf condo, looking at Tumbleweed cottage floor plans (the lofted Whidbey at 557 sf is our favorite), thinking about what spaces we use and how often, and what things we use and how often.

Even librarian kitty thinks we have too many books

Kevin and I have reached an unavoidable conclusion: we currently have too many books to live in a very small house.

This is not surprising. We are both ex-English majors. We have both worked at bookstores. I review for Amazon Vine. We are shameless zealots of the written word, the smell of good quality ink, the warm heft of cotton-rich paper. Kevin’s collections include Japanese poetry, modern photography, modern literature, and surrealism. My collections include fairy tales and mythology, natural science, art reference, and British literature. Despite knowing that books = dead trees, we refuse to worship at the altar of the Kindle.

However. We want this small house to happen enough that we’re finally willing to part with some of our books. The first handfuls were a wrench. I felt terrible putting books I’d had for years on the cull pile, as if I were consigning old friends to the guillotine. But then I found a kind of momentum and realized that I was making better, more conscious decisions about my books for the first time.  The books I keep have to meet two basic criteria: 1) I anticipate wanting to reread and/or reference it in the relatively near future; and 2) I actually like the book. It’s astonishing how I don’t actually like maybe 25% of my books but have kept them anyway. Finally, I’m getting rid of books I’ve kept for bad reasons, including:

  • Books that belong within a certain collection, even if I didn’t especially care for them (e.g. fairy tale picture books illustrated by Michael Hague, whose people look like trolls)
  • Mediocre books by authors  whose other books I enjoy
  • Books that I acquired for a former interest that I am now unlikely to return to (e.g. costume history books)
  • Books that make me feel smarter when they’re on the shelf (see the Machiavelli? the Plato?)
  • Books that I paid full price for (regardless of whether they were enjoyable or not)
  • Books that people I love have given me
  • Books that just look pretty (I am a sucker for 19th and early 20th century gilt and leather bindings)
  • Books that I have been meaning to read for years and never got around to
Do any of these sound familiar to you? I’ve never been this ruthless about books — they were always exempt from any new shopping or spending limits I set for myself. For the past few years, I’ve been at net zero, with as many going out as coming in. That’s all beginning to change.

I’ve said before that I’m no minimalist, and it’s still true. I don’t feel the need to strip my belongings to just the bare essentials, or to part with books I truly enjoyed and will want to read again. At the same time, there is something exciting, even liberating, about not having more stuff than what I consider beautiful or useful.

What do you think about living in small spaces? How would you feel about getting rid of books?

30 responses to this post.

  1. When I bought my home (it is a condo so I can hardly call it a “house”), I realized that I was going to have to move a lot of my books to my new locale. Instead, I gave them away on PaperBackSwap (dot com) in exchange for credits.That site tracks the books you give and receive by ISBN so I know that if I ever want any of them back, I can use those credits to get back the exact same edition (though not necessarily the exact same book). That was good enough for me to feel okay about not having the books in my immediate possession.

    Also, I’ve slowly warmed to eBooks; mainly because I have a smart phone. The beauty of an eBook on a smart phone is that those stolen moments can be spent reading when you hadn’t thought ahead to bringing an actual book with you. I found I’ve read more books that way (those small moments) than I ever did with dedicated reading time.

    Reply

    • Hi Jai Infame,
      That’s an idea. I think I’d heard of PaperBackSwap before without looking into it. I know I do continue to keep things I think I may want to reread but will probably never end up doing. If I need to cull my library more aggressively, I’ll look into it. A lot of my books are also available at the public library, so theoretically I could just go there whenever I wanted to reread something.

      I don’t have a smartphone (I can see how it would take over my life!) and am at home most of the time. I’m not against eBooks in theory; I just think they’re kind of bland compared to paper books.

      Reply

  2. As someone who moves frequently, this is a constant problem that I still have no real, lasting solution to! I have loads of “things” – books, movies, comics, video games! When I came to visit my dad in GA, I had too many books in my suitcase and had to rid of whatever I don’t want or read. It was so hard! And since I’m going to Korea in March, I’m trying to be mindful of what I purchase. I’m not a huge re-reader but I also don’t like ebooks (to save space). But I don’t mind re-selling my books or donating them if I really need to.
    😀

    Reply

    • Hi Tatiana,
      Moving is definitely good for decluttering! One of my problems is that I hate to move and rarely do, so I don’t typically face an urgent need to get rid of things. That said, I thought much more carefully about what I acquired when I was in the UK and knew that, at the end of the year, everything would have to fit in my suitcase. Maybe when you look at the books you get rid of, you can think about how you got them in the first place and how you could avoid buying books like that next time (borrow from the library, from a friend, get it through a swap program and send it on its way when you’re done).

      Korea — wow! That sounds exciting.

      Reply

  3. Good for you! I’ve been trying to cull my books down to only the ones I love or will reread too. I’m still hanging on to some sentimental books, but I did get rid of half my 220+ collection this year. It is a challenge.

    About small spaces, my house is 742 sqft, but that doesn’t include the basement or attic. Storage space for rarely used items is NOT a problem here. When I bought it, I considered it a temporary home, before I moved on to something bigger and better. But now that I know how much work houses are, and my priorities have been changing, I don’t see the need to upsize anymore. But I’m also don’t think I’d want to go any smaller. Seems like I managed to pick the just right size home on the first try.

    Reply

    • Hi Candi,
      Your house does sound like the perfect size. (I have to admit that the Whidbey cottage I like so much is bigger than it sounds — the upstairs loft space isn’t included in living space!) Good for you for getting it right on your first try!

      I remember reading your blog post about downsizing on books just a little while ago and thinking, “Nope. Anything but that.” How quickly things are changing.🙂 I’m probably never going to get down to 220 books. Right now, Kevin and I probably have over 1,500, and that’s lower than it has been. But 500 each might be doable…

      Reply

  4. I am having the same issue right now-with children’s books. Our home is filled with books for kids and adults and it’s time to weed through them. Much like you Jennifer, they are taking over our living space. I have found that I have a strange attachment to many of the books-memories of one thing or another-and I can’t let them go. You have inspired me to go through them and get rid of them. Pass them on to someone who will enjoy them. I think you’re right-it will feel very liberating!

    Reply

    • Lori, you might consider donating them to a children’s organization, shelter, low-income school or domestic violence organization, where they’ll be appreciated diversions in areas where there are few resources.

      Reply

    • Hi Lori,
      I definitely also have sentimental attachments to some of my books. I still have a copy of Roald Dahl’s Mathilda that I picked up at the book fair when I was in fourth grade. It has a slight reading crease on the back cover that still fits my hands pretty well. It’s great that you’re realizing that having too many books takes up space you need for other things. Good luck paring down your collection. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to let go of things (books, music) if I don’t revisit them before I put them on the cull pile. There’s always a reason to keep something, even if you’re initially sure that you’re ready to let go of it.

      Reply

  5. I know if I became a minimalist and got rid of most of my stuff, I’d spend much less time at home. Which would be great! I got rid of half of my book collection recently in anticipation of moving. I gave some coffee table books to neighbors, and donated the rest to a book shop.
    I’m reluctantly buying an iPad soon to read books and magazines on. I used to buy a lot of hardback and soft-bound books and never read them. Once I get the iPad, I will no longer allow myself to buy any paper books of any kind. I don’t think I will ever be able to let go of the rest of my book collection, even though I don’t have anything of great value in it.
    I read an article a few years ago that said kids who are raised in a house with less than 100 books don’t read much as adults. I suppose it was written before kids started reading on Nooks and Kindles–or whatever it is that little kids play with nowadays. My friend got rid of her entire book collection so that her kids could have more room to play. I felt really bad for her kids! But she said it would be better for them to go to the library to read books.

    Reply

    • Hi Joyce,
      I am a total homebody and LOVE hanging out with my kitty and my books. Can’t imagine not having books at home, or being happy to get out of the house more! But do I need thousands of books around me all the time? Well…no. Your iPad plan sounds like a good way to break with your old book habit, if you’ve chosen that path.

      I’m not sure I like the idea of getting rid of all the books in the house if you have kids (although I’m totally unfamiliar with eReaders for kids — maybe they’re an adequate substitute). I was an opportunistic reader as a child and happily picked up old favorites just because they happened to be around. I also read my mom’s National Geographics and cookbooks. Maybe kids don’t need tons of books, but getting rid of all of them seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Kids who love to read have so many advantages later in school.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Stephanie on 09/06/2011 at 15:42

    I think I would be okay living in a small space if I had a lot of land so I could take my activities outside. But on the other hand I’ve lived in small apartments and even a mobile home, so larger homes are appealing as well.

    The most difficult books I’ve had to part with are my sociology and anthropology books from college. Knowing that I’m donating them to good second hand bookstores or the library, however, makes me feel that someone else will have the opportunity to learn from them, too.

    Reply

    • Hi Stephanie,
      I’ve also lived in fairly small dorm rooms, and you’re right — some extra space has its benefits! Actually, what I figured out was that I needed light more than I needed space. Of the two dorm rooms I had in the UK, I was much less happy in the dim, shadowy one with the small window. I’m not opposed to space, but I do know that I hate to clean and that more space (and stuff) doesn’t necessarily make me happier. Also, the thought of not having a mortgage is pretty darn appealing.

      I’ve also kept some of my college textbooks, although it’s becoming clearer that I don’t actually look at them. It’s hard to know when and how to let things go. I’m not sure I’ll ever be very good at it.

      Reply

  7. First of all, I have to say that buying my house was one of the BEST decisions I ever made. It’s 900 square feet with a full basement, and it truth it’s HUGE for 1.25 people (CatMan’s here about a quarter of the time) and 4 cats. But I love having the space to play and I particularly LOVE being able to have a garden. Plus, I bought on the cheap in the mid 1990’s so you couldn’t even rent a studio apartment for amount of my mortgage payments.

    My feelings towards owning books totally changed when I started an online bookstore about 10 years ago. I’ve since given it up because it was WAY too much work, but it totally changed the way I viewed the entire topic. I used to view books as sacred little irreplaceable treasures… but then my basement started to fill with them. I’d put aside things that looked interesting that I thought I’d like to read someday… and soon I had an entire book case full of things that I might like to read! It quickly became overwhelming, and I realized how paralyzed I was feeling by trying to “hang on” to everything.

    Suddenly it hit me that instead of hoarding books that seemed interesting, or books I’d already read, or books I intended to read, I could just let them go and then go find a used copy if and when I really wanted it. I also discovered that the library is truly an amazing resource. I order what I want on line and in a few days I get an email telling me that it’s arrived… so I walk a few blocks over to my local branch library, and voila, there’s the book I want. It was an enormous relief to cross that bridge!

    Of course, it’s not like I have no books… ones that were given to me by the author, or rare, hard to find books, or the ones I really, truly love, still grace my bookshelves, but the rest have found good homes, and my life is much less hectic!

    Reply

    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      Odd, Kevin also sells books online without having picked up that particular attitude…I think it does make a great deal of sense to let most books go. I do reread, but even my favorites only get picked up once a year at most. What I struggle with is a combination of 1) wanting books all around me, all the time — what kind of home is it if it’s not a foot deep in books on all walls? and 2) hating to break up collections. I have at least ten picture book versions each of specific fairy tales, and although I don’t like each version equally, I do like the contrast and the idea that they all have something in common. But do I like them enough to be worth the shelf space? I’m still figuring that part out.

      I love your 1.25 people + 4 cats household breakdown!

      Reply

      • Hmmmm… well you could look at it this way… a nice collection might fetch a good price on eBay.

        Or maybe you’re looking at it wrong. Maybe they are treasured possessions and not clutter after all. They always say you should keep what you use and what you love. If you love it, then keep it, but if you just feel like you “should” keep it, then you’re in the danger zone!

        Reply

  8. This sounds like a great leap! Congratulations.

    I’ve lived in small spaces with my husband for many years. Now, I’m grateful to have more space again. Chances are it will changes again. Too small starts to get too full for me and it starts nudge on my sanity. I’m keen for more simplicity, but somehow everything needs to fit with a little extra space for breathing.

    The idea of eliminating books you don’t like first is a great tip. All these suggestions are excellent. That seems to already reduce the pile significantly. And it makes so much sense. We gave around about 1,000 books when we moved from the US to Europe for awhile. We kept about 50. Now back in the States with that 50 the collection is probably around a couple hundred. Something to keep an eye on. I use a Kindle now and that’s my first choice for new books simply because the smell of books – new or old – can set off some sensitivities (to mold/chemicals in ink). This is a reminder to keep an eye on the numbers of physical books before they get too huge!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Sandra! I wonder, too, if I would eventually tire of living in a very small house and want a little more room. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote about how the price of getting what we wanted is getting what we want, and it’s true.

      A transcontinental move sounds like a good way to lose some books.🙂 Not much is worth lugging halfway round the world with you. The Kindle sounds like the perfect solution for you. I have to admit that I rather like the smell of ink and old books, even though it’s probably not very good for me.

      Reply

  9. Good luck, Jennifer! I have been pretty good at purging books from my collection over the years… but to be completely honest, it’s to make more space for more books!🙂 I want a “real” collection that reflects my true interests and passions, not just a random assortment of books that have come into my hands for various reasons – just like you mentioned in your post. I actually want books to make up a significant portion of my belongings, at the expense of other stuff that has never interested me, such as mementos from the past and random decorative items (except for art for the walls, that’s not a problem). I love books!

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,
      Yeah, I’m with you — I never want to be bookless, even if it means not having a lot of other things. At the same time, it makes sense for me to buy and keep them more consciously, and that in itself is going to keep my collection down to size (I hope, anyway). I weeded out another foot and a half or so of books today.

      Kevin is concerned about the wall art if/when we move to a small house. We have quite a bit of it, some of it his photography and art, and we might well face a choice between having books on the walls or having art.

      Reply

  10. I’ve just realized in the last few days that the room we need for a nursery is wall to wall bookshelves that I have filled to the brim. Once this kid is mobile, that seems a little hazardous, so it’s time to purge! I’m thinking about using Goodreads paperback swap or taking them to Half Price Books.

    Reply

  11. Just one question: Can you come clean out my bookshelves? You sound like you did a great job and have figured out a system that eliminates the need for procrastination. If the book fits one of those categories, then out it goes. Reminds me of how people approach (or are told to approach) their clothes closets: if you haven’t worn it in a year it goes. If it doesn’t make you feel fabulous, it goes. If it doesn’t fit you well, it goes. You may have the beginnings of a great article for a writer’s magazine here–“How to Part With Your Books.”🙂

    Thanks for the insight!
    Jen

    Reply

    • Hi Jen!
      Hah, I wish. If you saw my house, you’d realize that I’ve barely made a dent so far (even three big boxes later, nothing much looks like it’s changed). I think I’m going to have to try a lot harder than this if I eventually want to move to a 500sf house. I know I can part, fairly painlessly, with at least another box or two. Then things might start to get a little tricky.

      Reply

  12. Oh, how exciting. I live in a small house, smaller than your condo at about 1000 square feet. But without kids we could go even smaller! Who needs all this stuff anyway! I don’t have as many books, and need to cull some of the ones I do have. Like the university ones from 10+ years ago. And the silly paperbacks I will never read again. And the magazines I have kept for the pretty pictures, but will I ever really look at them again? Probably not. I don’t really buy books anymore, so my book collection does not really reflect my current interests. Good luck with the cull!

    Reply

  13. Posted by Anne on 09/18/2011 at 21:02

    Given that my household of 3 adults owns more than 3000 books, you may want to take this guardedly (although my husband and I less than 10 years ago owned more than 10,000 books). We have moved 4 times in 6 years (the last time last month) and do a book purge each time we move. This last one occurred after I acquired my Kindle I reevaluated my books once again. This time I got rid of many classics that are available via Project Gutenberg and Manybooks.net as I successfully read my first Sir Walter Scott novel this summer on my Kindle (my husband’s favorite author) so, when I want to read them, I can download them in seconds to either my Kindle or my laptop. I don’t mind reading ebooks. And I can adjust the font on both my Kindle and my laptop so I don’t have to wear my glasses while reading. I do have quite of bit of fiction, mostly favorite authors I reread that are not completely available at the library. But I also maintain a library list of books to request when I need something new. Anyway, although I will always, I suspect, have more books than anything else, there are ways to decrease the collection.

    Reply

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  15. […] there anything you collect? Between the two of us, Kevin and I have thousands of books. The number has stabilized over the years and may even be diminishing slightly, but we know that […]

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  16. I have so much empathy for your book issues! I love the physical presence of books, and just donated close to a thousand of my own. I actually couldn’t do it myself, so once I made the decision that the surgery had to happen, I had a helpful family member physically do it for me.

    Reply

  17. Posted by jdizzle on 03/03/2012 at 17:58

    If I read it and don’t really like them, I usually trade them. I’d say I have about 100 books and they are almost all excellent or reference material such as the Chicago Manual of Style, Elements of Style, and things like that. I was an English major also so…some of these things are certainly useful. I don’t really mind having them though… as I have 0 cds… 0 dvds… 0 furniture I wouldn’t mine putting on craigslist, and just a laptop. Books/Journalism is what I do. I am pretty minimalist as I am a journalist and I’m often on the road months at a time, and have had to put my stuff in storage.

    Reply

    • Hi Joe,

      I’m impressed. It sounds like you’ve stripped your belongings to what you find truly useful fairly frequently. To be honest, many of even my favorite books don’t get read more than once every few years, yet I can’t see myself getting rid of them until I have a clear and imperative reason. I’m not in love with the e-reader option, either!

      How do you manage with no furniture?

      Reply

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