Reader question: Letting go of books

Reader Heather wrote in to ask advice about letting go of some of her books.

I read a lot (up to four books a day) and I have a number of books that I read over and over from select authors. I also have an advanced degree and am going back to school soon. I have novels, books about writing, poetry, birds, science, and art. I never know when I’ll be up all night or stuck at home for several days. I have been reading through, but that limits me to books for which the copyright has expired.

I have three regular sized bookshelves and one double sized bookshelf. I know I need to get rid of at least one bookshelf, or all the books on the floor in stacks, or both. My one-bedroom apartment is cluttered with books, birds, plants, and art supplies. It depresses me and it’s hard to take care of. I’m pecking away but often my chronic health problems interfere so it’s hard. Can you offer any suggestions?

Thanks for the great question Heather. Many bibliophiles have difficulty getting rid of books — myself included. I grow so attached to some novels that getting rid of them would be like throwing away my best friends. However, there is only so much space we have to store books that tough decisions (and yes indeed, they are tough) must be made.

Unclutterer has a great article about what books to let go. These include books you won’t ever read, books you won’t read again, and books you don’t like. Below, I’ve included a few more unconventional ways of uncluttering. Perhaps you will find one or more helpful.

Evacuate your home. Pretend you have been ordered to evacuate. You can take only the books you can fit into three smaller moving boxes and you only have 30 minutes to choose your favourites. Set a timer with an alarm and start boxing up your favourite books. When you are done, the books in the boxes are those you will definitely keep and everything else is negotiable. This tactic makes you react on instinct and not overthink your decisions. It doesn’t work for everyone, but if you might want to give it a go and see what you discover. It is a similar process to asking yourself if the book sparks joy.” However, with many book lovers (myself included), every book sparks joy so giving yourself this evacuation challenge might help.

Worst-case scenario. Ask yourself what would be the worst possible thing that could happen if you got rid of the book. Would you lose important information that would be difficult to find elsewhere? Would part of your family heritage be lost? If so, then the book is a keeper. Everything else that you could find in a library or on the internet, is negotiable. If the book is essential for working on a current, active project, then the book is a keeper. Convenience is important too. Once the project is complete though, the book becomes eligible for elimination.

Book Custodian. Are you looking after the books as if you were a librarian? Do you practice proper book storage and cleaning techniques? Are you able to keep up with repairs any books might need? Are your books organized in a way that you can find exactly what you need when you need it? Consider letting go of books that you don’t feel compelled to take care of.

Gamify it. In this technique, have a friend pull a book off the shelf at random and tell you only one significant detail of the book such as the title or author’s name. You have to tell your friend all about the book. For fiction, you could provide a brief summary of the plot. For non-fiction, provide some facts within the book. If you can’t provide details, the book leaves your home. If you haven’t yet read the book, the friend puts it in a separate “to read” pile and comes back in a month or so. If you haven’t read the book by then, it goes.

Here are a few other Unclutterer articles about books that you might find helpful.

Thanks for your great question Heather. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

8 Comments for “Reader question: Letting go of books”

  1. posted by heather andrews on

    I had to get rid of a lot of books to prepare for moving to go to graduate school. Here’s my story!

  2. posted by Meg on

    Corollary to worst case scenario – check Amazon and its links to see how quickly you can get a replacement and at what price. If there are 100s of copies available for less than $10, it is probably not too risky to discard it.

    Time to love the public library. You can get print and ebooks ordered from all over. Our system will let you reserve popular books even before the publication date. Your university library will be a great resource

  3. posted by Minnie on

    I’m starting to sort through what I’m willing to keep on a Kindle and what must be kept in a “real” book. For example, Lisa Lutz’s book series on the Spellmans must be kept in real books. They are footnoted and in Kindle the footnotes are only shown at the end of the chapter. It loses humor and nuance reading them later or scrolling back and forth. But I can see that I could eventually have all of Evanovich on Kindle since there are so many and I can free up so much space. What I would love to know is where I could donate an entire author series intact. It feels like splitting up a family to piece them out 🙂

  4. posted by Tina on

    One of Heather’s concerns seems to be having access to fresh reading material if she’s up all night or home for days. If she has internet at home and a tablet, laptop, etc., she should see if her public library offers downloadable ebooks. They would be available 24-7. Some libraries offer downloadable audiobooks and current magazines online too. That might solve Heather’s just-in-case needs.

  5. posted by Evelyn on

    Freecycle is a great way to get rid of books, particularly series of mysteries, etc. (I just freecycled the first fifteen “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books and a half-dozen “boy’s books” from the late 19th/early 20th century.

    (Actually, Freecycle is great for getting rid of a lot of stuff!)

  6. posted by grace on

    A number of years ago I downsized my library. My criteria was: 1st edition-Keep; reference for my fiber work-Keep; books I read over and over-Keep; book that I know local library has-Go; book that I know I can get with interlibrary loan-Go. What was not around when I downsized was all the e-readers; now I have books there that I might have purchased in a physical edition. I just managed to link my Nook with the e-book and e-audio book system of my local library so I can always find something new to read or listen to while I finish handwork.

  7. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Check book prices on eBay as you go, to make sure you are not discarding something valuable: this includes older books in worn condition. I let an old, worn series go for $20 to someone who sold the lot for $125, an expensive mistake for me. Box the rest of the good condition discards up and send them to Amazon for consignment sale. The unsaleable but readable bunch will be gratefully received by a women’s jail or prison, where they might start someone on the path to a good, legit career.

  8. posted by Rebecca on

    My one criterion is that any book on my shelves must be something that I know I will re-read. Currently there are some 550 books shelved, with another 1200 “want to read” waiting their turn. No, those are not physically in my home. When I decide that I no longer want to keep a book, it goes in a box. When the box is full, it is delivered to a local convalescent center. I’ve singlehandedly almost doubled their library.

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