Keeping book clutter off the bookshelf

I’m possibly taking my April resolution for a Super Simple Month a bit too seriously. Instead of starting to read new books, I’m re-reading a few of my favorites — they’re books I love, books that entertain, as well as books that cause me to examine my view of the world. They’re also books that are so complex I fear I may have missed some insights the first time I read them.

I’m currently re-reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami is a gifted storyteller and I’ve wanted to re-read this mystery since I made it through the first time. However, the book lingered for many years on my bookshelf, and it was starting to become a “look-how-cool-I-am” book (one that sits on your shelf for the sole purpose of impressing other people, not because you’ll actually read it again).

When we were packing up books for our move, I committed to getting rid of all of my books that fell into the “look-how-cool-I-am” category. I thought I had been good at keeping these books off my shelves, but I certainly found a number of them when I was sorting titles. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was one that I initially put in the Donation pile because I hadn’t re-read it like I had thought I would. After a few minutes in the Donation pile, though, I moved it to the Keep pile and gave myself three months to re-read it. I wrote on June 1 in my calendar to donate it if it wasn’t re-read. I did this with three titles, all of which I hope to re-read this month before donating them to our library’s annual book sale.

When packing up our bookshelves, these are the standards I used for deciding what moved and what didn’t:


  1. Current reference books. These are books that are as up-to-date as possible and are more accurate or specific than what you might find online. For example, I kept two dictionaries — one Scrabble dictionary (because it’s nice to have a copy on the table during game play) and one illustrated French dictionary for my son (he’s learning French so he can speak with my husband’s family). I got rid of our other dictionaries since finding words online is easier than retrieving a book off the shelf.
  2. Regularly accessed cookbooks. Technically, these are reference books, but I think they deserve a mention independently. If you use the cookbook at least once a month, I think it’s a good book to keep. If you use it less than that, you might want to consider giving it away.
  3. Books you plan to read. My rule of thumb is that I can only have four months of future reading material in the house. Any more than that, and the books start overwhelming the bookcase. I read four to eight books a month, so for me that means only 20 or 30 to-read books on the bookshelf at a time. I have a Kindle, so I also count my Kindle books in this number, even though they don’t take up physical space.
  4. Books you have scheduled time to re-read. If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not really to going happen. Keep only the books you will actually re-read, and then get rid of them.
  5. Books of great sentimental or financial value. Maybe the book is a first edition and it’s signed by the author? Maybe it was the first book you ever read after you learned to read? Keep only those, however, that would break your heart to lose. A copy of The Scarlet Letter that you bought to read for an English class in high school can go (especially if you hated it). Keep the copy of the book that changed your life.
  6. If you have children, books for children. It’s easy for kids to work on their reading skills when they have many options for reading materials.

Donate, Recycle, or Toss

  1. Damaged books. If a book is damaged and it’s not worth salvaging, get rid of it. Toss it if it’s covered in mold/mildew, and put it in the recycling bin if it’s only structurally damaged.
  2. Books you’ll never read/re-read. Maybe you purchased the book thinking you should read it, but never got around to it. If you know deep down that you’ll never read it (or re-read it), get rid of it.
  3. Look-how-cool-I-am books. Bookshelves are for storing reference books, books of great value to you, and books you plan to read. Bookshelves are not for trying to impress other people. If you want to impress other people, get a trophy case.

We ended up moving 17 boxes of books, and 6 of those boxes were full of my son’s books. For a bibliophile like me, I felt like I did a decent job of getting rid of all (or at least most of) the clutter. Could your bookshelves use a good review? What standards do you use to decide what stays and what goes? If you plan to re-read a book, do you have a due date set on your calendar? Do you have more books on your to-read shelf than you could possibly read this year (or in your lifetime)? Can you stop buying books until you’ve worked through your to-read list?

107 Comments for “Keeping book clutter off the bookshelf”

  1. posted by ecuadoriana on

    @ Anne: You said “…I wonder, would there be a similar horrified reaction if I suggested converting all VHS tapes to computer video files…”

    Not a good comparison. VHS tapes need to be viewed in a machine and often that machine eats them and degrades them beyond playability. DVDs (and other media formats, like your e-readers) eventually will be under similar corruption from continued usage as well. The reason that you have to “convert[ing] all VHS tapes to computer video files…” is because the technology of VHS tapes won’t last a hundred or more years! Heck, some don’t last a year!

    Books, on the other hand, if kept out of moisture/heat/rodent environments can last virtually forever. Even while being read over and over. My grandson is reading books that were given to me by MY grandmother! One does not NEED to convert a book into another format to view it or preserve it, as the makers of “modern technology” have done. Everything that is manufactured today is made to become obsolete and will need to be “upgraded”, thereby perpetuating the problem of landfills overflowing with technology that “expired” or were designed to be unrepairable. Books will never expire, lose their warranty, or need to be upgraded to the latest “point whatever version”!

    I do in fact collect books- specifically old medical journals, children’s school primers, cookbooks- and some are 150 years old and still in excellent condition! No NEED to convert them to another disposable format!)

    Your suggestion to take a perfectly good object, and destroy it for convenience, is what has readers up in arms!

    By the way, I belong to an artist group that “upcycles” old cassette/VHS/reel to reel tapes into art pieces. We just don’t believe in destroying things for the sake of destroying them AND our goal is to keep YOUR destroyed items out of the landfills (which is just a fancy word for “human created poisonous hole polluting the earth”).

    Destroying perfectly good books (or anything!) and throwing them away for convenience- ARRRGGGHH!!

  2. posted by Kitty on

    Could I recommend This site is free to use. You list books you are willing to share via the ISBN number. People request your books and you mail them out via media mail. In this way you earn points, which you can then use to request books from others OR you can donate your points to charities. I’ve been doing this for several years now. I also have a kindle but from time to time I take a break from it strictly for financial reasons.

  3. posted by Susan on

    With 100+ comments I doubt that I can add anything but since I am this far; I question the no dictionary…. some people just read the dictionary… my grandmother read it each summer. Too, I went to a school that had speaking penances and we copied the dictionary for a given length of time…. didn’t hurt any….

    What I keep: If it is garden I keep it, if it is Roses (this IS different than garden) I keep it. If it is quilt I look to see if it is “pattern” or historical or cool designer…. pattern pretty much get rid of these days —- have plenty of quilts I want to make and there are always new ideas EVERYWHERE. Dog…. keep three training and the ONE about Bolognese. Took the time to do this as most would say I have too many books…. and the only books I can see to get rid of would be the computer books…. they become dated by the time they come home from the store…. Good exercise… But I am NEVER moving…. way too many books….

  4. posted by M.E. on

    Murakami’s books are of great value to me. ;)

  5. posted by JustGail on

    The comment about tapes degrading just reminded me – books made since wood-pulp paper got cheap will NOT last forever, due to the acid content in the paper. How many of us have opened a vintage book kept dry and in the dark, and it still has yellowing and brittle paper? They are essentially eating themselves away, especially in paperback books. Only books printed on archival-grade or rag-based paper will last. That’s why books that are 100+ years old often are in better condition that a 1950’s paperback. I *think* there’s a spray intended for things like newspaper clippings that will neutralize the acid, but unless it’s a special book, I can’t imagine spraying every page of every book I wanted to keep. And that doesn’t fix the issue of glued bindings cracking and pages coming loose.

    Anne – this may be a point in your favor on this discussion. Although I’m not quite ready to agree with the destroying of books in good condition yet.

  6. posted by Sandra on

    I came across this discussion while researching how to put books on an iPad. I just bought a snapscan scanner that automatically OCRs to pdf so that I can put my books and textbooks on an iPad. Yes, I will be removing the binding from the books in order to do this and I see nothing wrong with that. I also do not feel that the paper and binding that books are printed on is sacred…it is the words and ideas in the book that count. However, if I had any signed books or collector’s items, that is a different story and would not take them apart since it is the actual signature on the paper that makes them worth money. Also, non-bound books are selling on ebay…people like the idea of not having to take it apart in order for them to scan to ebook. It is much easier for me to carry around one iPad with 7 books than 7 textbooks and searching the books with goodreader app is easy too.

  7. posted by jodi on

    I don have an unreasonable number of books by homeschooling standards, but I will never likely be able to read ebooks, as I get migraines if I spend too much time looking at screens, and read too much for that to work for me.

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