The challenge of letting go of books

Do you love books? I mean, do you love books with paper pages? Do you enjoy the feel of turning the pages? Do you relish that experience? While digital books offer the same content as their paper counterparts, the experience is not exactly the same, is it? You can’t smell the paper. You can’t feel the paper’s texture. I used to think that it was these nuances that made books so difficult to let go. But, could it be more than that?

The author of the blog Epic Writer summed up the complex relationship she has with books (and that many people have with books) in her post Show Me Your Book Clutter:

The problem is I have so many books I want to read. Or, that I need to read. It’s funny how varied the genres are–from reference to family history to novels to religious to just about everything. Aside from my cluttered side table, I have digital and paper clutter where I have recorded books I want to read. From my “wants” list on to titles scribbled on scraps of paper, I am overwhelmed with the amount of books I will get to someday. Even with feeling almost buried by it all, I have no desire to change. I love books. I want to see books everywhere.

I also discovered that how one selects a book to purchase seemed almost as important as the book itself. From Dell Smith’s post on the blog Beyond the Margins, The Psychology of Books: Why We Read What We Read:

Buying and reading books are deeply emotional and personal acts. Your choices of reading material are based on an intricate and truly limitless combination of marketing influences and mercurial emotions. This goes for both buying books and deciding which book to read next. Two different things, but closely related as each is influenced by a mysterious algorithm of instinct and urge, want and need, stimulus both external and internal. Your desire to buy and read a book uncovers the dark hinterland of your soul. Your choices are often a reflection of your id.

Clearly, people love books and everything about them. But, it is possible keep a reasonable number so that they don’t contribute to the clutter in your living spaces. As challenging as it may be to let your books go, if they are truly meaningful to you, you won’t let them languish haphazardly on bookshelves and nightstands. Otherwise, they would simply be taking up space and you wouldn’t benefit from having them.

And, if your books feel like old friends, then it would seem like a one-sided relationship if they simply lay about your home, untouched and waiting to be read someday. Most people tend to interact with their friends, to call them on the phone, and even meet them for coffee. So, instead of waiting for some far-off day to eventually read (or finish) that book that you will probably never read, why not pass it on to someone else who would appreciate it? Like an interesting movie or new restaurant, books are meant to be shared with others. When you share (let go), you’ll be creating new memories (that you can capture with pictures or record in your journal).

The books you choose to have in your life can indeed be very meaningful to you. They may very well be an extension of who you are, of who you aspire to be. You can honor them by being selective about the ones you purchase and by keeping your collection in order. Then you wouldn’t have to choose between enjoying them and having a uncluttered space.

37 Comments for “The challenge of letting go of books”

  1. posted by Suzanne on

    I appreciate your take on this. As a hopeless bibliophile, I collected books until our bookcases were groaning under the weight. My husband persuaded me to let go of a few — ‘let others enjoy them,’ he said, ‘that’s what libraries are for’ — and eventually I was able to be somewhat ruthless about parting with them. Most went to charity, though some went to friends who might enjoy them. I’m also a thrift shop buyer (rarely retail), so if there’s something I really want to read and I can’t get it at the library, I try to get it used, then part with it. My favorite children’s books, which are prone to go out of print, are given used as gifts or, in rare cases, tucked away for relatives yet to come. And a few sentimental favorites remain on my shelves, especially if they are or are likely to go out of print. But that’s one area in which we’ve managed to manage the clutter.

  2. posted by Todd on

    The psychological attraction of good design suggests that we may also feel tethered to our books because of their very shape. Following is from an interesting article by Lance Hosey that appeared in the Sunday NY Times (2/15/13):

    “For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the ‘golden rectangle’: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.” (😉

    Just having books within our field of vision may feed a psychic need for these types of geometric patterns.

  3. posted by Doug Bleeker on

    I wrestled with my lack of space for more books. I began selling used books before I took on any more. Then I met with a scholarly friend who had three more books I needed to read. I threw up my hands and he introduced me to the e-readers. I did the research and went with the Nook product. I can store 8,000 books on my e-reader. Now I can cull my hardcopies down to the timeless ones I’ll keep and the new ones are all electronic. I can highlight, bookmark, annotate and they’re all easy to find. Still doesn’t work in some travel situations (international flights where power cords are different), but my book storage problem is getting handled.

  4. posted by Joe on

    Book storage is what libraries are for. The only books I buy or store are those the library doesn’t have (rarely happens, and donate them on after I read them) or those I read over and over (there are maybe 10 of those).

  5. posted by Egirlrocks on

    Todd’s comment is well taken. For me, I think I love being surrounded by books for their shape, the way they feel in my hand, and the knowledge literally at my fingertips. Yes, I can find anything on the internet, but I look at an electronic screen all day and half the night. I don’t want to do my pleasure reading electronically. When it’s time to wind down and get ready to sleep, I derive a lot of comfort from a book in my hand, especially a hard cover. I also still carry a magazine with me on errands in case I have to sit in a waiting room. I do feel my books are like friends, but they don’t languish around my house on shelves. I appreciate and enjoy their company and accessibility.

  6. posted by Michael on

    Just saw this today and thought it was appropriate to the discussion. “A Device That’s Thousands of Years Old, and Still Inspiring”

  7. posted by infmom on

    We have multiple bookcases in every room in our house except the bathroom (and there’s one in the hall right across from the bathroom door). We also have at least a dozen boxes of books in storage.

    Several years ago, when I lost my job, we pretty much stopped buying new books (we do still get them from secondhand book stores). Anything we want to read, we get from the library. That really hasn’t been a hardship, because we always have the option of buying any book that seems like a real keeper.

    For a couple years I have been going through the bookshelves and taking a hard look at the contents. There turned out to be quite a few books that I doubted I’d ever read again. And we take good care of our books, so most of them were in like-new condition. I started pulling those out and setting them aside to be donated to our favorite branch library. Anything that they can’t use for the collection, they put in their monthly book sale, and thus our old books bring in much-needed money for the library. It’s a win-win situation.

    This month I will begin pulling boxes of books out of storage and going through the contents. I’m betting, given that we haven’t even looked inside those boxes for a very long time, that there won’t be much in them that we need or want to keep. Now that I’ve culled most of the extras out of the bookshelves, there will be room for the keepers from storage.

    Getting my husband to part with his books has been rather difficult. He’s got shelves full of books that he really, really, REALLY is going to read someday… that have been sitting there for 10 or more years already gathering dust. He did manage to pull a few out the last time I was gearing up to take donations to the library, so there is hope. 🙂

  8. posted by Jen on

    I love as a way of letting my books go. I get to physically remove them from my house, but by giving them a Bookcrossing ID I get to hear back from them, find out where they end up next, and what their other readers think about them.

  9. posted by Beverly on

    Love my books (have 175 linear feet of bookshelves which are full) and I have over 500 books on my Kindle. Yes, I love to read. But there is only so much space and my Kindle does a great job. I still have my books but my new books are digital. Not quite the same but the Kindle is every so much easier to pack and move!

  10. posted by momof3 on

    my mom was a saver (packrat) and kept so many of my books from my childhood…my kids enjoyed them. Then I had my own three kids and i saved all theirs.

    My oldest is almost done with her schooling, and will be a teacher when she graduates.
    Both younger siblings and my hubby and I have all agreed that oldest can take 90% of the kids books to establish her own classroom library.

    10% will stay with me, as a some day grandma…and I do have my favorites I want to keep.

    had any of my kids not become a teacher, off to charity or handed down to the preschool/grade school they attended.

  11. posted by Sandy/HoarderComesCln on

    I’m downsizing my book collection too, plus the books I inherited. I’ve been selling used books on amazon as well as donating to libraries and sharing with friends. The only problem I see with buying fewer books or using only the library is this: we’re no longer supporting the writers. Maybe going to e-readers will help with this. I hope so.

  12. posted by Pammyfay on

    Sandy–you’ve raised a good concern. Concerning libraries, tho, there will always be demand for certain authors, so the authors will get a check that way, altho certainly not in the amounts that per-person book sales stack up (and the money that libraries make through annual book sales, if they do them, is frequently divvied up between books and technology from the “Friends of the Library” organizations, which in my neck of the woods runs the sales). But authors that might not be considered mainstream will likely suffer.

    It’s funny — I recently bought a tablet, thinking that the first thing I’d do is download a few books and get reading, but I’m still reaching for the books on my bookcase.

  13. posted by Pammyfay on

    A question for you folks: How do you rationalize the books you keep? I have tended to take a few books at a time to either the used-book store, for credit, or to the library for their book sales. But I do have some that I really enjoyed and put on a shelf in my guestroom, thinking that any guests would enjoy them, too.

    Of course, I could say to myself, “If I want to read them again, I can just go to the library,” but for some reason having them close by is almost like having a few favorite family photos always with me!

  14. posted by Bonnie on

    I’m realizing this very painfully at the moment. I live in a 24sqm (258sqft) flat and I am currently gutting the place out (after living here for 4 years). So far I have packed over 35 large boxes of books.

    I already had a rule in my place when I moved in that I only buy non fiction dead tree books – novels I will download on the ebook reader as I consider them “disposable” – once I read once I will never return to them again, so it isn’t worth having a permanent copy. However.. this has still left me with a monster collection of non fiction (mostly food related, I’m an avid cook). I love the browserbility of it all.. being able to pull a book at random from the shelf and be inspired by the pictures, but I’ve realized as I’ve progressed as a cook that I don’t really need recipes for the majority of the simple things anymore, only for the more complicated dishes.

    What I will be doing while I am twiddling for my thumbs for 1 month waiting for the renovations to finish:
    1. I’ll be going through books armed with a digital camera and scanner, and evernoting the few articles or recipes I am interested in.
    2. For books that I can’t part with, I will try my best to replace with a digital copy.
    3. Once complete, will donate the lot to the city library.

    I’m aiming to reduce my 25 boxes down to 1 by the time I move back in. Wish me luck all ;D

  15. posted by Mary on

    Great timing. Have a passion for books and magazines since a child. Don’t understand people who don’t. I am an information addict and contribute my finest education to books and magazines. Finally don’t believe everything I read. Going thru and returning them to the universe for more life. I have a small gold star basket with a lid and keep notes and scraps of paper about future books I’d like to read. Pinterest has all but replaced my magazine purchases. Limitless subjects to peruse and gorgeous pictures. That said, I have a huge library of books related to Quilting, my hobby. Think I am ready to part with some of those, too. Beginning to have more emotion about “baggage” than delight at owning them. Have thot I am not a candidate for a Kindle but other posts have made me wonder. I do think it will be so sad if we don’t have books someday in paper form. Books sometimes jump off shelves to be read.

  16. posted by Ramona on

    I used to have a room set aside as a library in my house, with wall to wall bookshelves and thousands of books. I eventually got tired of how cluttered it always looked, and I had to move and it was a real hassle. I donated a bunch, sold a bunch online and realized I could make my reading habit less expensive by reselling books once I’ve read them. I now have very few books, maybe 300 or so, and I only keep them because I do reread them occasionally and they are out of print and hard to find. I like the idea of keeping books moving around the community/world so that lots of people can read them. I like buying books at yard sales, too, or thrift stores. I have started reading online, too, and it’s all right. So, result, much less clutter, much less baggage, and more affordable reading habit.

  17. posted by romney on

    As much as any other possession, unread books are a representation of who we want to be, not necessarily who we are. Sometimes the dream is hard to let go of, likewise the books that pile up beside my bed. Every now and then I go through the unread books, realise I’m never going to be that person and discard the books. Then I start a new dream and a new book pile.

  18. posted by customic on

    Rarely do I comment on these posts and write about my personal experience, BUT… I need to get it off my chest.

    I wish someone talked sense into my parents. I know, I know – you cannot change anyone but yourself. However, they’re such packrats that it’s beyond anyone’s imagination! And as far as books are concerned, our home is literally infested with old books! It wouldn’t be so bad if they were only filling up the shelves, but the situation got out of control a long time ago – one of the rooms in our house turned into what I call “book cemetery”… They’ve been lying on the floor there in heaps for a few years now. Nobody even touches them, let alone using them. Most of those books are outdated, there are textbooks, manuals, dictionaries, you name it…

    I’ve been trying to talk to my parents about it for some time, but they won’t change their mind: “we’re keeping them, you mustn’t throw away books”. They’re the generation who lived in the Communist Era (we live in Poland), so they still remember how it was hard to buy new things and that’s why they hold onto them so much. Not only do they not want to throw them away, they won’t do anything to get rid of them. But the amount of clutter in our house is overwhelming and I don’t even want to think what I’ll be going through when they pass away one day. I thought that simply talking to them repeatedly will solve the problem, but it doesn’t.

  19. posted by Deborah on

    Have you heard of the website Paperbackswap? (hard cover too) You join the site, and load up the ISBN numbers of books you’d like to swap. You can then peruse other’s books and order one for each book you ship to another person. (You get book credits for each book you ship.) You can print out a mailing wrapper with postage right on the site and drop it in your mailbox. Between that, my Nook and library e books on the nook, we’ve kept the book clutter down rather well!

  20. posted by Lisa on

    Long time lurker, first time commenter here.

    Customic, I understand some of what you’re going through. I dealt with a grandparent who bordered on a hoarder. (She grew up in the Depression, couldn’t throw out anything. We found newspapers from the 50s.) Have you tried telling your parents you will not throw out their books? That they will go either to a used bookstore or be donated to a library/school? That was the only way we were able to pry a lot of old books which were never read anymore out of my grandmother’s keeping. Knowing they wouldn’t be thrown out gave her peace of mind and let those of us trying to winnow the clutter in the house to manageable proportions get on with it.

    For myself, I’m a big time bookworm, but started a new rule last year- read before I buy and only buy if I like it well enough that I will actually want to read it again. My to-read list on GoodReads is as long as ever, but now instead of buying, I visit the local library on a regular basis. (What they don’t have they can often get on inter-library loan.) It’s working out well so far- it’s cut down on most book buying, so I’m less pressed for space. Now I just have to steel myself to deal with what’s already on my bookshelves.

  21. posted by Gypsy Packet on

    My rules are simple. Budgetary constraints dictate that I purchase only nonfiction ebooks. Dead tree books are acquired at garage sales, flea markets, or secondhand stores. Health constraints dictate no clutter, so books in excess of six are torn down, scanned to ebook files, and then recycled.

  22. posted by Roberta on

    I bought my current house for two reasons: the barn and pasture for my horses (now gone) and the bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. A decorator (waste of money for me) wanted to split up the books with nick-knacks; I wanted more books. I have donated and sold a large number; now, my first reaction is can I get it at the library but I still have tons of books to go through again. I just love the feel and comfort they give – I grew up reading with my entire family; my best last memory of my parents and me in this house was all of us, sitting under a different lamp, no radio/TV, each absorbed in our book. They have passed and I just bought a “Bob” book – The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. A friend at Barnes & Noble got me the best price online. It is the type I would read, then send to my dad; he would stay up till 3 AM reading it and “yell” at me for making him be up all night – even as he enjoyed every minute. They are so, so hard to divide and give up.

  23. posted by Diane on

    I love books… I love to read them and I love the shape, look & feel of them. But I also love clear spaces.

    My compromise is to buy (or get free) novels on my Kindle that I used to purchase in paperback. I’ve released most of my paperback collection, offering them 1st to my sister, then donating what was left.

    I keep reference books, hobby books, some self help books that I enjoy, and special interest books that are not available from libraries. I’m considering carefully which ones are worth keeping.

    Like Customic, I’ve had the experience of dealing with my mom’s things that she simply wouldn’t get rid of, books included. She kept the entire World Book Encyclopedia set, including year books that were purchased around 1972 and refused to let them go, even though they were dusty, dirty, smelly. When she died in 2011 it was difficult dealing with all her stuff, while dealing with the grief. I don’t want to leave that stuff for my kids…

  24. posted by Michelle on

    I used to be a design book hoarder. I hoarded them for inspiration for design projects I was working on. Then I realized I could find more fresh and updated inspiration on the internet. Suddenly many of those design books felt stale and outdated. I listed many of them on Amazon, and started selling them, sometimes for much more than I paid because they are now out of print. I am now a convert. I still have 2 large bookshelves in my dining room (I love using the dining table as a library table) and another secret one where I store my first editions and signed copies. Slowly, I am emptying the dining room bookshelves. Now, when I read books, I read them on my iPad or Kindle and do my visual research on-line. I like having a nightstand free of piles of unread books (which made me feel like a slacker). Thanks for this article. I love to read, but have discovered the joys of reading on an electronic ereader.

  25. posted by Zachary on

    Great post. I find that I also enjoy giving books to people I love. If I have thoroughly enjoyed a book, then I feel I am (sometimes) more able to give it away as opposed to a book that I didn’t quite get. But like you say, it is always a toss up between wanting to collect books to someday have a library or share them with others.

  26. posted by Rob on

    Awesome post!

    It can be so difficult to give up the books which you have accumulated over the years. The key is to give them to someone who is in need of them. In that way you know that someone else will get as much joy from them as you did.


  27. posted by Dan Erickson on

    Sometimes I buy too many books. But I’m also good at getting rid of things. I trade a great portion of my books back in. This keeps my book clutter to a minimum.

  28. posted by WilliamB on

    “If [books] are truly meaningful to you, you won’t let them languish haphazardly on bookshelves and nightstands. Otherwise, they would simply be taking up space and you wouldn’t benefit from having them”

    On this subject, I do not agree.

    I benefit from owning the actual books.

    I benefit from having an annotated, tabbed physical copy I can leaf through quickly, something I can’t do with ebooks.

    I benefit from having physical historical atlases I can open up and refer to as I read a history. If I used ebooks I’d have to laboriously switch back and forth – or buy two – and I still wouldn’t be able to see the whole picture.

    I derive emotional benefit from having signed books from my favorite authors.

    Also, getting rid of books means deciding that I am no longer the person who should own/use those books (for books already read), or that I will never be the person that would read those books (for books not yet read). In some cases that’s not true, in other cases its not something I want to decide.

    Finally, as a historian of repressive governments I recognize the power of information and I feel that, in a small way, having all this information immediately available is supporting freedom of information and, by extension, good goverment and civil rights. (My slight craziness re books is confined to books, btw. These are issues unique to books – or maybe just my books – and you won’t catch me saying that about a spoon collection or shoe boxes.)

  29. posted by Allison Stadd on

    I LOVE this post. It’s so relatable. I have hundreds of books in my apartment, the great majority of which I’ve only read once and will probably never read again. I take great comfort from their mere presence, and it’s always the thing I save until last to lovingly unpack when I move. I like your idea, though, Deb of thinking of letting go of your books as “sharing.” Thanks for this!

  30. posted by AnonAnon on

    Thanks for the great post, links, and all the thoughtful comments. Books have always been my sticking point and with my last move into a 600sq-foot studio, my last big sticking point in getting things finally unpacked and organized.

    I’m inspired by the commenters who have finally licked their habits — thank you for sharing. Nice to know there is hope for me!

    Maybe I should cancel my AmazonPrime account? It’s just so easy to order something after reading a glowing review. Or maybe I need to limit to ebooks only…. ? I’ll keep working on it.

  31. posted by TimR on

    My wife and I maintain a large collection of books in multiple rooms in our house, well enough organized to find any book quickly. Skandia is our flexible shelving of choice, along with some oak bookcases my dad built us.

    But I’ve soured on electronic readers since losing a bunch of books to the obsolescence of my Palm Pilot Vx. I can read well-cared-for physical books for decades – no software/hardware system will ever be able to claim that.

  32. posted by Stacy on

    My daughter is 3.5 and has a ton of books. I go through them regularly to weed out anything she has outgrown or no longer shows an interest in. About a year ago I asked our pediatrician if they would like some books for their waiting area and patient rooms and to my delight they said yes. Whenever we have a doctor visit scheduled I just bring the discarded books with us. The doctor appreciates the freebies and my daughter is comforted by seeing some familiar books in the office. It’s a win win 🙂 You can also ring up local preschools, day cares, church nurseries, pediatric hospital wards and see if they would accept your donations. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    As for my books… Yes, I do library donations, but I’ve also been exploring the option of leaving a copy of something I’ve read in waiting rooms or even at the salon with a post it note saying TAKE ME. Nursing homes are my next stop .

  33. posted by Jane on

    It’s really hard to let go of books and their sentimental value. You really do end up seeing them as friends and feel like protecting them! Plus, having books around can be very comforting… that’s until they start taking over all your living space, though! As hard as it is I agree that you need to “honor them by being selective” and recycle your old books by donating them to libraries, charities or friends, so that they don’t just lie there gathering dust and you can feel tidier and more organized.

  34. posted by MayT on

    We have thousands of books.

    We also have multiple e-readers. Not all paper books cannot be replaced by e-readers. Libraries may be a good choice if you like and read common stuff but often I can’t even get a book I want on ILL from my local library and if I can it often costs more to get it that way than to buy a copy! Not all libraries can do ILL for free.

    IMO e-readers are worthless for books in color and often many rare books are not available as electronic versions at all.

    To solve the DRM problem of e-reader books I use Calibre, an open source SW system that will strip the DRM form any books I buy for my personal use.

  35. posted by Julia on

    I have tonnes of books at home. Heavy and dusty. Recently, my friend recommended me an E Book on curing acne holistically. It has more than 240 pages. I find it convenient as I can read the book on my handphone or on my iPad when I am traveling around. No hassle of having to carry a heavy book around. Think I am switching to E Book.

  36. posted by Cheryl on

    What a great article and comments.
    I too love book crossing, it lets you leave a book for someone else to enjoy.

    My night stands, yes both of them, are stacked with my reading list of books and magazines. I rationalize my book clutter as a healthy vice. I could be gambling or drinking instead!

    I only have a handful of favorites that I keep in my permanent library, the rest I try to give away for others to enjoy also.

    My new clutter frontier is my kindle. I have hundreds of books on there. One day I will read them all and clear out my ebook clutter also. 🙂

  37. posted by Janet from NC on

    I have downsized 300 boxes of books. Obviously, I love them.
    What has worked for me –
    1. Will I ever read it again? if not, it goes(to Goodwiil, Salvation Army, or local women’s Shelter thrift store).

    2. Did I ever ‘get around to reading it’? If not, it goes to charity or friends.

    3. Does it still fit my current interests & is not available on the internet or the library? It stays.
    4.All the others, I check the ISBN on Amazon to see if I should sell it or keep/donate it. There can be some good money to be made re-selling there. Most money is made from non-fiction, especially if they are out of print. What I love about Amazon is that I don’t have to mess around ‘taking a picture’ & they every 2 weeks will xfer the amount to my checking account electronically. Love that & have made some really good money while decluttering!
    5.To make it quick & easy when decluttering a bookshelf, I use the i-phone free app Red Laser to scan the bar code to see the lowest online price. That way, I know if is worth trying to sell it.

    Good story & comments. Very helpful to me.

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