Taming Book Clutter

The biggest part of my recent uncluttering project was gaining control of, and undoing the damage from, my impulsive book buying habit. Over the years, I had acquired somewhere near 850 books, mostly stored away in boxes and bins throughout my apartment.

Much of the book clutter I’d accumulated consisted of outdated technical references and one-reads that I’d likely never pick up again. As such, these books were doing nothing more than taking up space, and adding unnecessary clutter to my life.

This post over at Zen Habits offers a set of tips and tools for getting rid of old books, and cutting back on the expense of buying new ones. I used several of these tools to eliminate nearly three quarters of my book clutter!

The most important tool mentioned, of course, is a library card. Once you get over the compulsive need to own every book you’ve read, it’s quite liberating to have only those books that you’re currently reading. You’ll suddenly find yourself with more money in your pocket, less clutter in your life, and you may even notice that you read more frequently, because the books you’ve borrowed must soon be returned.

28 Comments for “Taming Book Clutter”

  1. posted by Scott on

    I just got rid of almost all of my books yesterday. I’m down to about 25 now. Much more manageable, and I won’t have to worry about breaking my back the next time I move.

  2. posted by hak on

    Amen to book clutter. I’ve been a book horder for years and have finally accepted the fact that I never go back and read these books. Most of my reference books have been replaced by Google and Del.icio.us. It’s a great feeling to donate those books to the library and see all of the wholesome emptiness on my bookshelves.

    The only books I’m having a hard time letting go of now are some of the older training and fitness books I’ve collected over the years.


  3. posted by kflott on

    I’m currently in the process of moving, and realizing I have a plethora of unused movies, books, and video games, I’ve started listing them for sale on half.com to make a little money while offloading some clutter

  4. posted by Ryan on

    I keep a number of books just for filling a bookshelf in my room. For books I actually read, I use a “book-network”.

    I usually buy comedy books or books on technology. Whenever someone wants to read a book like that, I lend it to them. I usually never get it back.

    My mom is a Harry Potter fanatic, so when someone wants one of those books, they get it from her (but you better return them or she’ll hunt you down!).

    My granddad buys a lot of this tear jerker novels about people who have really good dogs that die in the end. So if you like that stuff, you talk to him.

    My grandma is all about the lifetime-orignal-ish books about women getting rape, beat up and abuse, or children getting murdered or kidnapped and crap like that. Thrillers, I think they call them. Want those books, she’ll be happy to throw about 10 of them at you.

    My co-workers buy all the nerd books. Sci-fi crap like Star Trek novels, Douglas Adam books, Red Mars, yadda yadda. I won’t lie, I get most of my books from this area of the network. It’s easy to borrow a book from geeks like this, cause they often want someone to discuss the books afterwards.

    And my roommate is all for historical books or books that teach you something. I just steal one of his if I’m interested.

    Where this may clutter other people’s lives, I usually don’t bother hunting down a book I’ve bought once I’ve read it and lended it off, so the only books I ever really have in my possession are the ones mainly used for decoration on my bookshelf. Whenever I borrow a book I’m pretty good at returning it since I don’t like seeing it lying around all the time.

    Not a bad way about it, in my opinion.

  5. posted by Cliff on

    I have mixed emotions about book clutter. I have worked in publishing and do value the fact that book purchases of the “legitimate” variety (serious well-researched non-fiction; competent non-pulp fiction) in large part have dwindled in recent years thanks to the dumbing-down of America and the rise of electronic entertainment (like this board!). So I’m concerned about pulling even more water out of a drying pond, a pond I generally value. The royalties for books which I WANT to be written are too small already, to the point that few “professional” authors or intellectuals exist any more. They all have other jobs now: professor, shopkeeper, independently wealthy gad-about.

    On the other hand, I got a lot of books that I didn’t read, and I love contributing to the exchange of USED books in major urban centers. If you’re in New York and you’ve ever been to The Strand stores, you know what I mean. Other big cities have similar. Smaller cities in vacation areas (Florida, etc.) used to have “paperback exchanges”: places where pulp summer reading and bodice-ripper-romance novels could be turned in for a copy of something new. Now, even those places are disappearing in favor of video rental stores and cappuccino bars.

    There are some books you DO use more than once a year: dictionaries, reference manuals in your trade, favorite reading books you loan to friends and then get back. But most you won’t ever use again, right? Sell em or not? I’d say, if you are getting rid of them, then please do so at a used book place like The Strand. Take the store credit, and it’s almost as good as a library. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. posted by Haggie on

    Bookcrossing.com makes leaving the books around town fun instead of feeling remorse for getting rid of them.

    Getting a message that someone picked up your book makes it worthwhile. You’ll never regret giving a book away again.

  7. posted by Sheila on

    I recently moved and got rid of a ton of books beforehand. When putting the remaining books on the shelves in my new place, I decided the purging was far from finished — I filled up four more boxes with giveaways. Placed an ad on Craigslist and was contacted immediately by a lovely woman who was interested in starting a used bookstore, and she picked them right up.

    I’m nowhere near zero, but I’ve kept the books I truly relish by my favorite authors. I feel like they have earned a space in my home, and I love looking at them — they warm up the place tremendously and make the space mine.

    I love music just as much as I love books, but I’ve laid waste to the CD jewel boxes. That which can be compressed should be (in a studio apartment, anyway!)

  8. posted by Jason on

    Sheila: I’m with you on the CD cases… it’s amazing how much you can cram into boxes. Unfortunately, it makes it kind of difficult to unload them when all you have is the booklet and CD…

  9. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    Jason and Sheila —

    Check out PJ’s extensive post on handling CDs. I think that you’ll find it helpful.

  10. posted by Sheila on

    Erin, that’s awesome! Thanks. I asked for a gift certificate to a digital-music-compression service for Christmas, and I used it to have my 400 CDs transfered to six DVDS. The originals were returned to me in an album, and the company provided a box to send the jewel boxes to be recycled in. Loaded them all on my iPod, and now I have a backup in the DVDs. I’m still sort of attached to the CDs and booklets that I love, but they fit neatly into two albums, and I’m committed to buying new music online these days.

  11. posted by mamacita on

    This is a great place to pass along a “hack” I learned about earlier in the summer. There is a program/widget/plug-in (I don’t know what to call it) named Book Burro. You install it on your computer and when you go to any book’s page on Amazon, Book Burro pops up and checks for the nearest library with a copy of the book. For my library, you are then about two clicks away from putting a “hold” on the book and having it delivered to your choice of library branches. This is such an awesome tool — almost instant gratification, for free, and of course, less clutter, because you return the book when you’re done. Book Burro also searches a number of bookstores for the lowest possible price on the book. Here’s the link for Book Burro.

  12. posted by gadl on

    I second Haggie on the bookcrossing tip. I freed lots of space that way (and met lots of people too).

  13. posted by Tom on

    I’d love to donate all my books to the library IFF I can check them out again later.

    However, they have book sales and donated books end up there. There’s no way to ensure I can check out a copy of my book.

    I have reference computer books, historic computer books, science fiction and graphic novels. With the exception of the science fiction, my library consortium doesn’t have them. The Graphic Novels go out of print quickly and eventually are only available at a comic shop. Yes, I do reread many of my books.

    However I have gotten rid of books. I’ve used Amazon’s service to sell them. You name your price and they sell it for that + shipping costs (which cover book rates + packaging). The key is to find a price that will attract a buyer. On the best sellers you compete with vendors selling at 1 cent to make the $$ on shipping.

  14. posted by Andrea on

    My grandmother keeps a lid on her book clutter by using the local book swap. Its a used bookstore where you can get second discount by bringing in a book to replace the one you’re buying. So for every book she buys, she gets rid of a book.

  15. posted by Nancy on

    Speaking of outdated technical books, last year I finally parted with my huge college computer science & Law books from the late 1980’s. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with books on outdated law and computer books with floppy discs! What did I ever think I was going to do with those floppies? Donate them to the museum of computer science? It felt wonderful to get rid of them!

  16. posted by Zora on

    I have over 2000 books. Many are out of print; a fair number are rare or over 100 years old. I have shelves of specialized texts that I bought because the local university doesn’t even have them. When I can, I use free ebooks, my Questia account, or the library, but that isn’t always possible.

    Scholars are different. Books aren’t clutter, they’re tools of the trade.

    That said, you can replace many of the “classics” with free ebooks from Project Gutenberg or manybooks.net, which only take up space on a hard drive.

  17. posted by Pamela on

    I just watched Farenheit 451 again. It made me feel guilty for hoarding so many books, many of which aren’t even accessible right now. Watching was a great way to be reminded that books are about the ideas and the people behind them, not just objects.

  18. posted by st on

    I bought me a scansnap, and I scanned in over 100 of my books. Now I’m down to around 35 books, in one bookcase in my living room. The books that are my favorites, or ones that I couldn’t bear to destroy in order to feed them through the sheet-fed scanner. All the books are on my hard drive as PDFs. I catalog them in Delicious Library, and I can read them on my mac. Someday soon, when the tech gets just a little better, there will be a good, inexpensive handheld e-book reader, and it will display PDFs well. And I’ll be all set. It took a long time (I sawed off some bindings with a jigsaw, and sometimes I tore out pages one by one while watching TV), but it was worth being able to get rid of boxes of books from the closet, and to be able to switch from two 7-foot tall bookcases to one 4-foot tall folding bookcase. Very worth it.

  19. posted by Dayna on

    I love Paperback Swap. You can swap out your books for other people’s – hardbacks, paperbacks or audiobooks. They have over 1,000,000 to choose from. Great source for finding obscure titles and getting your books in the hands of those who will also love them.

  20. posted by Anonymous on


    Since you scanned a hundred books through your scansnap, you must have come up with a nice assemplyline process for it. Care to share?

  21. posted by Jennifer Logan on

    Recycling books, at used book stores, get credit for the books you take in, and get buy books with those credits. Paperbacks are wanted for the prisons, no hard back, since weapons can be hidden in them. Some churches are collecting books for just this project.

  22. posted by Jennifer on

    Excuse using my last name too, I thought that would be not included, but now you know me anyway.

  23. posted by Ellen on

    “Over the years, I had acquired somewhere near 850 books…”

    850 is a lot? I’ve been pruning my library for a year, in preparation for moving to a house half the size of my current one, and I’m down to a mere seven *thousand*. No sympathy ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. posted by sarah on

    I definitely also recommend paperback swap. it’s great!

  25. posted by Kitty on

    @st–Ohhh, sobbing at the thought of hacksawing books apart!

    I’m trying to work up the nerve to pare down the 13 bookcases in my house. I, too, have signed copies (from people I know, mostly history), long out-of-print volumes, books from my childhood (and my mother’s childhood), and they’re like old friends. And I reread almost all of them.

    Paperbacks, bestsellers, etc, go out as soon as I’m done with them. I’m the president of our local Friends of the Library, which helps, since I see firsthand both how much pleasure the donated books bring others (I’ve seen one of my old, distinctive books sold at least six times and then redonated), and the good that the money we make for our library can do. Even though our library isn’t huge, they’ve always managed to get what I want either through our system or interlibrary loan, too. But yes, as a writer, I also understand the worry about writers earning less when fewer books are sold. For me, though, digital will never replace the multi-sensory experience of a new book. ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. posted by Sonja on

    stop buying books? that’s insane.

  27. posted by Laura on

    At Bookmooch.com you can list your unwanted books, send them to others who want them, and then request those you want with the points you earn. Works much better for most books than trying to sell them online, as the dropshippers and penny sellers have pretty much saturated that market.

    Worldcatlibraries.org will tell you what the closest library is for any book you are looking for.

  28. posted by Cook everything in one recipe book « Sherdie on

    […] have. It broke my heart, but with all the other options it’s hard to justify the space books can take up. Necessity is a cold hard bitch at times and things like bookcrossing made it more bearable. But […]

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