Everything Must Go Part II: Books

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Will I ever read this Baudrillard scroll?

Kelly’s summary of the methods of Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo seems to have struck a nerve both on our blog and in Facebook. Some people find Kondo’s techniques liberating and in others they instill an existential dread. More than a few expressed a desire to drag a reluctant partner into a Kondo cleansing.

One of the first steps on Kondosans’ path to a tidy house is to go through one’s books. We managed to accumulate more books than our shelves could hold. An untidy and anxiety producing book pile had developed in the living room. It was time for a book cleansing.

But let me first state our rule about buying books. My gym is mere steps from the Los Angeles Central Library from which I can easily access over 6.2 million books, movies, CDs and downloadable media. I don’t buy books that I can check out at the library unless I need it as a reference book or if the library doesn’t have it. Even with this rule we still managed to accumulate a library’s worth of volumes, some never touched.

The triage I went through:

The book was released to the universe if:

  • I had read it and absorbed the information
  • The library has a copy
  • It does not give me joy
  • I don’t think I’ll ever read it
  • My interests have changed
  • I read part but don’t think I’ll read the rest

I kept the book if:

  • It’s a volume I refer to for reference on a regular basis
  • It gives me joy
  • It’s especially beautiful as an object (only one or two books actually ended up in this category–I’m not a book collector)
  • I really intend to read it
  • I want to re-read it

Both Kelly and I got rid of I came to much the same conclusion as Nassim Taleb does in this tweet:

If time passes and a book get more relevant it’s likely to stay relevant (this is the Lindy effect Taleb is referring to). Just like Taleb, the books on philosophy and theology stayed in addition to most of the appropriate technology and gardening manuals. We have no math books (not our subject to put it mildly) and popular science and non-fiction books I get at the library. Everything else “died” and went to our local library’s book sale.

What can make it difficult to let go of books, even ones we never really intend to read, is that our personal libraries are an external manifestation of our souls. And, in my case that external manifestation is so distinctive and crazy that our friend and neighbor Doug Harvey, when perusing the weekly library book sale, instantly recognized that I had purged my books. He actually bought at least eight of them. And he noted that I had gotten rid of The Food Journal of Lewis & Clark that he had gifted to me over the holidays. A lot of the books that I purged can only be described as 90s geek-boy paranoia. If you’d like some of those 90s books plus a few outdated poultry care books, get thee to the Edendale library book sale on Wednesday. That’s assuming our local hipsters haven’t scooped up all my books in a fit of 90s nostalgia.

Have you done or are you considering a book purge? What will stay and what will go?

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41 Comments

  1. We did a book purge before moving a couple of years ago. Our only rule was that if we LOVED it, it could stay. Consequently, my one remaining bookshelf is now filled with what I’d consider “the essentials,” which are books that mean a great deal to me and that changed my life or way of thinking. I’m proud to pass them on to my kids when I’m gone, and like to think they represent, possibly more than anything else I own, who I really am. And by the way, your Urban Homestead book is in the collection.

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  4. This is a fantastic concept that I plan on utilizing the coming weekend. When moving across the country, the heaviest component of my belongings were the boxes and boxes of books I could not give up. I wear books like some people wear designer clothing. I keep books I have read but should let go like a Girl Scout’s accomplishment patch. I should realize I don’t host dinner parties nearly often enough to account for that sort of behavior. (Intellectuals and literary nerds do not see my bookcases enough.) 🙂

    • It’s been a long time since we moved, but indeed weight is one of the reasons to offload books. I got rid of my record collection a couple of years ago. Records in boxes are incredible heavy. Now I just have light mp3s.

  5. One struggle (among many) that I’m having with my books is the idea that maybe one day my kids will want (or be required) to read some of them. I guess I need to remember that libraries will continue to exist in the future.

    • If we had kids I think I’d not want them to read some of the books I just got rid of! But, yes, I sure hope libraries are still around in the future. I have a feeling they will be here for a long time to come in spite of digital technology.

    • We went through a variation of the same thing, imagining that our library could be a lending library. Then we realized we really didn’t want to maintain a community lending library right now, and that any thoughts about the community–or us– needing these books in some darker future was just weird apocalyptic thinking. We kept our most essential reference books and that should be enough– in any future scenario.

  6. My wife and I do a quarterly purge of the house. It’s a great time to get rid of boxes for things that have gone past their return date; usually 30 days and always less than 90.

    When it comes to books what stopped me from buying more physical books and has led me to do book purges when I win ARC copies is that we bought 3 really awesome, sturdy bookshelves and then the manufacturer stopped making them. Since we don’t want another shelf with a different look, that effectively created an upper bound on the number of physical books we can own.

    What I’ve been throwing away first has been the easiest – tech books. I’m on Lightroom 5, why do I need a book on Lightroom 1. And we don’t even own an iPod anymore, so why keep that book. etc etc.

    When it comes to the public library, I’m torn. Just as I like to own some movies in case they’re removed from Netflix and I can watch them whenever I want, I like to have the book if I want to re-read it instead of the chance that it’s checked out. (Although I have so many books in my to-read pile that I’ll never re-read)

  7. A lifelong bookworm, I’ve always had trouble keeping books from taking over the entire house. Culling always led to less than 10% of books being sold to the local used-book store.
    So, when we moved to Costa Rica, I had a problem: how to cull 80-90% of our books. My solution was to invert the procedure I’d been using: instead of deciding which books to ELIMINATE, I decided which books to KEEP. Sounds silly, but it worked: making ALL the books candidates for the sale pile, then exempting the worthy few, eliminated more than 80%.

  8. Books are made to be read.
    If we keep them in our bookshelves the ideas stay inside.
    I’d rather to give them to friends. Most of the time they give them me back and I give them to someone else.
    If they don’t give them back, it’s not a problem.
    I’d rather to bought second hand book or pick up them in the streets or in the bins, like that, I’dont care about the object, just the story.
    Even if, I try to not keep books, I have a lot of them at home.
    And a lot of, that I haven’t yet read.
    Isa from the city where bookwriter/drawers have been killed last week

  9. Oh my gosh, books are kind of a tender subject. I. LOVE. BOOKS. But then about 4 years back I bought a kindle. I have spent some time since then replacing the ones I want to keep or just re-read to my Kindle. I even discovered that Amazon has this thing called Kindle Match so it was actually affordable to get the books, free to about 2.99 if they were part of the program. So now a few years down the road I have 3- 18” shelves (really 18 inches) of books and that’s it. These are books not available on Kindle or they may be reference books that apply to my business. It has been a 4 year cycle of either donating to the library or selling my excess on Ebay but I feel as an area of purging and decluttering it’s complete. It has worked out really well, I can lift my 300+ EBooks with one hand. I feel comfortable and unencumbered and really two small boxes of books is very easy to deal with, I’m so glad I did it. My main issue was and still is space, I had very little of it and I prefer the “decks” to be pretty clear.

    • In addition to Kindle Matchbook there’s an app called BitLit (bitlit.com — full disclosure I’m the developer) that lets you get free / highly discounted ebooks when you own the paper book. You just need to take a “shelfie” using the app and it’ll catalog all your books and let you know which are eligible for free / cheap ebook upgrades. It’s very similar to Matchbook, except you don’t need to own a Kindle and you don’t need to have purchased the print copy from Amazon.

    • Peter Hudson – thanks for mentioning that. I’ve been looking for something like that for a year or two now. I have lots of physical books where I’d like to get an ebook as fire/theft protection (since I have all the ebooks on the cloud). And with others, perhaps get rid of the physical book afterwards.

  10. I got rid of about 30% of my books (nine fileboxes, taken to the library book sale) just a few months ago. It hurt, but I feel clean and light now.

  11. I moved from Los Angeles to Canada last year, and that really motivated some book purging, some of them books I’d been moving from place to place since I was a kid. On one hand, I still miss having some of them around like old friends, but it helped me to sort the sentimental books into groups, then instead of feeling the need to keep a whole category, I could just keep one or two that summed up that feeling for me – I didn’t need to keep every book I’d been gifted as a kid, just one or two that had the best childhood memories.

  12. I have my “Friends Rush In” rule:

    Your best friends rush into your house, telling you they’re running late for a 30-hour journey and they’d like to borrow some books- otherwise they’ll have nothing to read. All your books (but for the collectibles and currently-being-reads) are visible to them, sorted and labeled by type.

    Your friends are rational, and if they pick up a book on “wildlife: California” or “philosophy: existentialism” they do want to read about that topic and they have the background to do so.

    Are there books you wouldn’t let them take, because the book just isn’t worth their time = you’d suggest a substitute book, or another topic? Why do you have the book?

    I found I’d been keeping books that I’d slogged through years ago, as if that past investment meant present value. But since I wouldn’t let my friends invest their time, I didn’t value the book. In retrospect, I was thanking those books for their service, and off they went.

  13. The picture was hilarious !!

    When the husband and I moved recently, we had 2 suitcases of clothes, a box of kitchen stuff and 10+ boxes of books. I have libraries in my parents’ and inlaws’ homes.

    I refuse to ever purge books (she said, flipping through a 1980s Soviet fairy tale book)

  14. I did an almost universal book purge when I got
    rid of almost everything I owned to move to the
    other side of the world. Along with the crap I
    also got rid of a lot of books I really regretted
    and haven’t been able to replace. Sometimes purging and minimalism is overrated!

  15. I had the unfortunate circumstance of my house burning down. I lost 4 large boookshelves of books, many of which I purchased second hand. Now I am in a new house I am busy buying books again. I have bought some I used to have that I would say were essential for me and now some”new” titles. I have seen many of the books I used to own but haven’t replaced them because I had read them or I had not ever read them. I like the physical act of turning a paper page and of being able to instantly place my hands on a reference/recipe without having to “log in”.

  16. How tacky is your neighbor to tell you he noticed you passed along his book. Konmari would remind him that a gift does not need to be physically kept, like a millstone around one’s neck, for all eternity.

    My tidying journey has led to deeper thoughts about my relationship to the things I own. Caring for each article of clothing that remains after The Great Purge, tenderly laying on hands to fold a towel just so, honoring the intentions of belongings that just want to be of use to me are actions that seem to dampen the consumerist impulse to abandon old stuff and go buy new stuff. This old stuff is MY stuff, my joyful stuff, and it has earned my respect and attention. Animism and anal-retentive dominatrix behavior aside, Konmari prompts us to reconsider the marketing matrix in which we live. Best wishes!

  17. I am loving this current topic. I too have purged most of my books in the last couple of years and it was very freeing. In preparation for putting our home on the market (downsizing=yay, but leaving a beautiful area=yikes) I’m facing major downsizing ahead and it scares the hell out of me. I regularly read the blog, Miss Minimalist, which is quite helpful. I always feel good after a purge, but the process is hard.

  18. “What can make it difficult to let go of books, even ones we never really intend to read, is that our personal libraries are an external manifestation of our souls.”

    Man, that hits it right on the head, doesn’t it? I have probably a shelf full of dense (both in weight and subject matter) critical theory books from grad school ten years ago that I keep carting around with me from house to house, more because they represent something that used to be an important part of my identity than because the books themselves are doing me any good. Maybe I’ll have to tackle those in my next attempt at a purge.

    • I had a pile of those books after grad school as well–but eventually did unload them, and I’ve got to say it felt really good and I’ve never missed them. And truly, libraries are like our wardrobes-they do express identity, but they also crystallize our identities, and become less relevant as we, inevitably, change.

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  20. Thank you so much for this very timely advice. The biggest pain point in this process for me is that I cannot find an appropriate venue to donate my books. At least in NYC – the local library and thrift shops will not take books. Though there are a few non profits that will accept books, they are very particular regarding what type of books they will accept (ie no hardcovers, no text books, etc) Any advice, recommendations, or ideas?

  21. For folks looking to donate (and where time is less of an issue), consider looking at bookmooch.com, where you can also accrue points for books that you give away, to be redeemed for other used books. I’ve given away a ton of books to folks who were looking for specific titles. It does take time to mail the books to folks and I’ve mailed books to folks in other countries, where books are not quite as cheap as they are in the US but it’s a nice way to give away books to folks who are looking for them. There are also paid services like paperbackswap.com but I’ve always appreciated the community of bookmooch.

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  24. My problem is what to do with the books we don’t want. Exchanging them via free cycle and other internet schemes is too slow and hit-or-miss. Libraries don’t want them, and the thought of relegating them to the recycling bin is painful for us.

  25. Books are the one area I keep on top of. As I’m reading a book, I think, “Who else would enjoy this?” Then I give it to them for a birthday or holiday gift. Others I list on Paperbackswap.com, put in one of the Little Free Libraries in our neighborhood, or for kids books, donate them to our school library or local family shelter. My husband and I have one tall bookshelf each for books that we keep. The 8-year-old, on the other hand, has three small bookshelves, but he re-reads everything constantly so that seems about right. 🙂

  26. @Theresa
    @H
    RE: finding somewhere to unload your books

    Our library doesn’t take books either (most don’t, I believe)but The Friends of the Library Association does. They hold book sales to help support the library. I’d look for associations like this which do sales for fundraising. Not necessarily library-oriented orgs, but also hospitals and such.

    Also, Erik did not mention that we sell some of our books via Amazon –you can also sell via Powells. You get a feel after a while which kinds of books are worth trying to sell and which are not. More obscure books can bring in quite a bit of money, though, and the process is easy. Amazon even has an app for this where you can scan the book and find out how much it’s going for, and list it from right there. You can do it as you sort.

    As the commenter above says, you can offload books to a little free library in your neighborhood (the leave one/take one boxes)–and if you don’t have one in your neighborhood, build one yourself! They’re super cool, and I’m very grateful to have one on my block.

    There’s always the garage/sidewalk sale. People like to buy books. Or just leaving a small pile marked “free” out on the sidewalk–I don’t think this is a bad thing as long as you keep an eye on the pile so it doesn’t become an eyesore.

    And there are the online sharing communities mentioned by other commenters here: paperbackswap, bookmooch, etc.

  27. Goodwill industries didn’t take books (or many of them, anyway) for the longest time, but they do now! You don’t have to go to one of their “bookstore” shops, but any of their donation locations (they started taking them again once they realized they could make $ for them selling them on Amazon etc). Their website has a finder for the nearest donation center etc.
    For those in LA, the Altadena libraries do take books, as does the “Boys’ Republic” Thrift Store on Lake.
    Barring that, I’ve definitely seen loads of success with putting out a “free books” pile, as Mrs. H. mentioned. For those living in apartments, I’ve seen people do that in public areas such as the laundry room. If you or a friend/school/church is having a garage/yard sale, that’s another way. We once had a yard sale a few years ago where we had a whole bookshelf full of books to unload. Very few takers until we put an “All Books are FREE” sign out. That not only got rid of the majority of the books, but got some people to stop at the yard sale who said they might not have otherwise! HTH 🙂

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