More Thoughts on Thinning the Library


The books on our shelf we want you to see.

Kelly’s series of posts on the KonMari tidying method and my post on thinning out the our books, have thrown an ugly spotlight on the inner hoarder in all of us. I don’t think any other posts on this blog has been rewteeted as much as these tidying rants. Mark Frauenfelder linked to the book post on BoingBoing and the resulting comment thread contained a lot of great ideas and resources (and some awesome bookshelf porn). I thought I’d roundup a few BoingBoing reader notions:

Go Digital!
A BoingBoing commenter added a rule to my list, “If you can find a digital copy on Google books or other, toss it!” As far as ebooks go, I’m just not a fan of looking at screens for hours at a time. But the shift to “E-ink” displays is a game changer. Kelly has a Kindle Paperwhite she really likes. Ebooks bring up a lot of thorny issues, of course, about the future of libraries, digital rights management and the fragility of digitally stored information. These are topics well beyond my area of expertise. Let’s just say I’m open to both digital and old fashioned paper. I like that a lot of classics are available online for free and that digital libraries don’t take up space in our house. But I also appreciate the look and feel of physical books and the fact that they don’t require batteries.

Selling Books
I do this too. I sell through Amazon and just started using an Amazon seller’s app on Kelly’s iPod to facilitate this. One problem with this is that you end up with a pile of books that sit around until someone buys them. And just because a book has a high used price on Amazon doesn’t mean that anyone wants to buy it (weirdly high prices are often, in fact, indicate a book nobody wants). To avoid having stack of books sitting around waiting for a buyer, one commenter in Portland noted how easy it is to go down to Powells and sell and purge all at once. Alas, that doesn’t fly in Los Angeles (note to locals: please correct me if I’m wrong about that).
I had to resort to Wikipedia to grok Bookcrossing:

Bookcrossing . . . is defined as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” The term is derived from, a free online book club which was founded to encourage the practice, aiming to “make the whole world a library.”

The ‘crossing’ or exchanging of books may take any of a number of forms, including wild-releasing books in public, direct swaps with other members of the websites, or “book rings” in which books travel in a set order to participants who want to read a certain book. The community aspect of has grown and expanded in ways that were not expected at the outset, in the form of blog or forum discussions, mailing lists and annual conventions throughout the world.

For me, Bookcrossing confirms our hidden animistic view of our possessions. I’m not sure this facilitates getting rid of stuff. If you’re a Bookcrossing fan, please correct me. Despite reading the Bookcrossing website multiple times, I’m not sure I understand what it’s all about.

Scheduling Periodic Purges
Several people noted that curating a library (or clothes, for that matter) is an ongoing process. Some pare possessions quarterly, others yearly. Others, like us, wait for a crisis. Some have a kind of one in, one out rule–basically limiting your library to what will fit on your shelves, disallowing homeless tomes or buying more bookshelves.


Jennie Cook’s Little Free Library

The Little Free Library Movement
Our neighbor Jennie Cook installed one of these down the street from us. It’s a box in the parkway. Anyone can leave or take a book. One funny thing that’s happened is that I’ve managed to pick up an number of our neighbor Doug Harvey’s books out of this box while he managed to pick up a half dozen of my books at the local library book sale. Thanks to our local Little Free Library, I’m looking forward to reading Doug’s copy of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Public Library Quality
No doubt about it, local libraries vary in quality and the quantity of holdings. One the reasons I enjoy being in a big city is access to a large library system.

I love this comment by BoingBoing reader “Medievalist”:

You reveal my guilty secret… I arrange my books based on vanity, essentially peacocking my tastes and attitudes to visitors. Guy de Maupassant is not likely to be down at child’s-eye level, nor is Charles Schulz likely to be five feet off the floor. The bookshelves visitors see make me look far more erudite than I really am, with my vast collection of pre-1970 science fiction de-emphasized and my much smaller collection of philosophical, religious and art books well to the fore.

Yeah, it’s probably shallow. Or at least in my case it is, since I’m kind of embarrassed by it and would never have admitted it if you hadn’t done first.

Guilty as charged! My Harvard classics library is at eye level in the living room. My embarrassing books got purged. I suspect Doug now owns my copy of Nazi UFO Secrets.

Leave a comment


  1. The Last Bookstore downtown (5th and Spring) buys used books for cash or store credit. If they can’t buy it, they’ll put it on their dollar floor or donate it for you. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth visiting.

  2. Erik, I hope you enjoy “Oryx and Crake”, and the whole MaddAddam Trilogy, as much as I did. Being a Canadian, I am so proud of our Maggie!

    • You’ll be happy to know that the neighbor who left Oryx and Crake in the little library box is Canadian. As a joke, several years ago, he gave us a copy of Margaret Trudeau’s autobiography.

  3. After disposing of 800 books, I found that my actual IQ and level of erudition dropped dramatically. As I have said, I sold/donated/threw out 800 books in 80 days, leaving me with well over 1000 books. My books left did not reflect my true, abiding tastes and books read. It did reflect which books I might have a hard time finding or that would cost me. Shakespeare is available anywhere for loan or purchase. “Rat and Lice in History” will be hard to find on a bookstore or library shelf.

    I tried to actually go and rid myself of books every day or two because of my fear of changing my mind. I only grabbed one donated book, apologizing.

    I did keep certain books at eye level for adults when I had 1800+ books. That was in the den. Around the corner and not really available to anyone on their first visit to my home, I kept a secret, sort of, stash on shelves. They were my Women’s Studies and sociology books, most of which had some form of “women,” “feminist/female,” or “sex” in the title. Women and men alike feared me after reading titles from those shelves. “Oh, you must like killing babies” or “You are a lesbian?” “Why do you hate men?” None of those books were ever removed for purging. The answer to all the questions is a negative!

    Maybe I should put some recipe books and needlepoint books in with them to dilute the impact and show I do have domesticity in my blood. How about the one about Square Foot Gardening?

    There will be no more purging of books for me. I may even replace some of the classics as I decide to re-read them. I miss them.

  4. Ah, books. Books and craft supplies are absolutely my downfall when it comes to hoarding.

    I grew up in a family of big readers. Books would circle around the family. For instance, what my dad received for his birthday, he would read, then my mom, then my grandparents, and my aunt. As I got older, I joined the circle, then my sister. Repeat this book sharing for every member of the family! For years the books were saved after everyone had read them, but eventually we all realized that most would not be reread so some were sold/donated. Mostly the mass market paperbacks.
    Now, we still pass books around, but anything we don’t plan to reread gets immediately put on Paperback Swap when we’re done. If it doesn’t go online within a certain amount of time, it gets sold/donated locally. We like Paperback Swap because it translates into “free” books for us, that have been loved and read by someone else, and then get to go through the same cycle with us!

  5. I don’t usually hang on to novels. I like to read mysteries and once I know who dun it it removes all the mystery.
    I will keep some if I love the writing style, so I was rereading on of my mysteries. I was fine with knowing the name of the perpetrator, only when I got to the end I found I had misremembered and so it was, for me,quite a surprise ending.
    All this to say….I don’t easily discard books.

  6. I primarily use my library but I use to supplement what the libary has. When you trade an unwanted book, you pay the media mail shipping and get a credit. That credit is used to purchase a book another member lists on their site. You don’t pay cash when you order a book. I like it because it pushes me to read books faster when I know someone else is waiting for it. I have a problem with digital books that it is too easy for me to hoard them and never read them.

    I keep the books that are waiting for someone to swap in a box in a closet. If the box gets full, like once a year, I cull the less popular stuff and donate it to my library fundraiser bookstore. If I trade more books than I receive, I use the extra credits to get gifts for friends or large format print books for my grandma. I feel like it is a pretty efficient way of getting unwanted books to people who actually want them.

  7. I’ve found a bunch of friends who get into quarterly-or-so Naked Lady Parties. It’s surprising how differently we’re all shaped and how different our clothing interest is overall, and yet everyone comes away from the event with at least one new-to-them thing almost every time, with all the leftovers going to Goodwill.

    I live in Portland and loveloveloveadore Powell’s. But Powell’s has gotten much stricter in what they’ll buy back (not surprising, given the state of new- and used-item e-commerce these days). Even the public libraries can only take so many books. So to help keep them out of the landfill at least a while longer, I do BookCrossing. I’ll leave books at bus stops, on the light rail, in waiting rooms, in the bathrooms of various businesses, anywhere it might find someone who either wants it or will pass it on to someone who wants it. I’ve heard back on a small percentage of my books – it’s always fun when that happens. I also combine BookCrossing with Little Free Libraries. I’ll give my books a BC ID# and put them in LFLs around town.

    We managed to donate a few of our garden & hand tools to the local tool library that started up (I say “managed” because not everyone in my household feels the same way about clearing out the garage).

    I’ll also periodically post items to my Facebook page – “I have X needing a good home. If you want it, let me know when you can come by and I’ll leave it on the front porch.” It’s helped get some items out as well, such as old Girl Scout uniform pieces and the accessories to a blowgun I no longer had.

    • Wendy P – i really appreciate the way you speak of how you live your life. it worries me when people decide to clean up their lives and dump all their stuff on the earth like now that its out of their sight they are good to go. i like these posts from people who figure out ways to get their things to someone who needs them. i like when the other side of cleaning up ones things is stopping bringing it in in the first place. anyway thank you for the ideas/your thoughts.
      mr & mrs homegrown – thank you for the tips on the clothes folding. i am off tomorrow and will be refolding my drawers and hoping finding some things for give away in the process.
      good luck to us all!

  8. Why the need to tidy up books at all? Replace (non-weight bearing) walls with bookcases.

    Insulates, decorates, educates. And makes visitors think you’re smart. 🙂

    Michael Pollan did this in his tiny house (see: “A place of my own”, one of his lesser known works but a highly recommended read nevertheless)

    • We’ve come close to that state in our time!

      And you know, I’ve always wanted a library of my own, preferably one with those cool rolling ladders. And if I couldn’t have that, I always thought that if I ended up in a house with a dining room I’d make that into a library, books from floor to ceiling, and a table in the middle. A good use of space, yes? And conversation starters aplenty. But as the years go by and I stay in this same small house, sans library or dining room…well, I’m beginning to appreciate the appeal of a clear wall!

  9. This is a more recent video showing her helping someone clear their books. I don’t recall her mentioning the book about “awakening” the piles before you sort them, but this was another little interesting tidbit 🙂

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