Do I Need Books?

In order to begin the restoration project we commenced a month ago, I had to box up the contents of our bookshelves. Not once have I had any need or desire to open any of those boxes and retrieve a book. Which leads to an uncomfortable question for an author: do I need to own any books?

One of the extreme tidying methods suggested by Fumio Sasaki, author of Goodbye Things, is to box your possessions, wait for a reasonable period of time and if you don’t use any of those items, send them to the thrift store. If I were to use this method my entire library, with the exception of a few books I left out of the boxes, would be cast off.

I’ve realized that in those boxes I have books which:

  • I’ve read and will probably never read again.
  • I will probably never read but think that I should read.
  • Are a souvenir of some place or experience.

These need to go. More tricky will be the books:

  • To which we contributed articles or chapters.
  • I know the library doesn’t have and that I think I will read someday.
  • Which are reference books or cookbooks that we regularly use.

These latter books I will keep but could probably do without (I lack the iron will of Fumio Sasaki).

Interestingly, I’ve found myself reading more now that I can’t access my books. Three days a week I go to the YMCA which is mere steps from the vast Los Angeles Central Library. I can, pretty much, find any book I want there. I also have an iPad which I use to download public domain books as well as some new ebooks that the library makes available for free.

Sometimes one’s personal library can devolve into a kind of virtue signaling, a way to seem smart when visitors drop by. In my case it’s definitely time for a book winnowing and, yes, I will still have a bookshelf populated with books I use for reference. Kelly has her own books and shelf.

Of course books have a tendency to accumulate and I have no doubt that I will have to go through a book cleaning process again in the future. In the meantime I hope to remember that books are meant to be read, used and passed on to someone else.

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  1. My problem is that my books feel like friends. Even if I’m not going to read a book again, I have an emotional attachment to it if I read it at an important time in my life–almost as if it were a person who went through the experience with me.
    Add to that the fact that I *do* re-read many of my favorite books, and… well, I have a lot of books.
    I think I own more books than any other single category of thing. By weight, certainly, and possibly by volume as well.
    And this is AFTER moving a dozen times (including once a 1/4 of the way around the world).

    • I understand the emotional connection to books. I can pull almost any book off my shelves and remember the first time I read it, where I was living, what was happening at the time. Kinda hard to give a book away with all that shared history.

  2. We got rid of about 80 percent of our books a few years ago. The question we asked was, “do I feel I cannot live without having this book close by?” Those books we answered “yes” to got to stay. There were so many books we’d collected that we did not LOVE. Now every book on our one bookshelf is truly treasured by us, and if we found we made an error and got rid of something we shouldn’t have, most of those books are easily replaceable, either going electronic (Kindle) or second hand.

  3. We’ve got a set of bookshelves in the living room and I’ve decided to limit my book collection to whatever fits on those shelves, because books could take over if I’m not careful. Every summer I try to cull the herd for the library’s used book sale, but it gets harder each time.

  4. I am a comfort reader, and I have a shelf of dear favourites that I read over and over again whenever I need a little pepping up. As addictions go, I think this one is pretty harmless! Having said that I culled my book collection by almost half when I moved house two years ago. I liked your comment, and Sasaki’s point that books are often a form self-advertising – ‘Look how intellectual/civilised/well-travelled I am’
    Thank you, by the way, for your review of Sasaki’s book. I ordered it from the library and it arrived last week. I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book where he examines the benefits of minimalism in his life. I found it a very courageous and vulnerable philosophical baring of his soul.

  5. I have lots of books. Mostly sourced from what we Australians call “op shops”, or thrift shops. They replace the lots of books that I lost in a house fire 4 years ago.
    I have not necessarily replaced tome for tome and have in fact resisted doing that with some of the books I have seen.
    I like to look at them like someone looks at a magazine.
    Mind you I do discover that I have bought a bargain book and when I put it in my bookshelf there’s already a copy there.
    Perhaps that should tell me something.
    I did find one of your books in the op shop.
    Claire in Melbourne, Australia

    • Thank you for the op shop report. I love that one of our books make it to an op shop in Melbourne!

  6. I’ve split the difference. Any new pleasure reading I do from kindle/audible.

    But reference books on gardening, healthcare, first aid for dogs, diy, & survival, I get as paper.

    The sun has thrown off several potentially electronic crippling coronal mass ejections recently, just not aimed at earth. And any govt could unleash an EMP.

    Never know when you might have to fend for yourself for awhile.

  7. YES, you need books! Your ideas for lightening your book load are good, and I too am an avid patron of my excellent local library system–partly to reduce the burden of buying and storing books at home, and partly because an unused public library is in danger of falling victim to budget cuts. I try to avoid digital formats as much as possible, because I prefer the tactile experience of holding the book, turning actual pages. My own book shelves are in need of some pruning, but that’s nothing when compared to my partner’s collection, including years of National Geographic magazines. Sigh….

    • I like tactile books too and, given the choice, would choose them over ebooks. That said, Google books has opened up a trove of old books that would be difficult to find otherwise such as the one I’m reading right now with the lengthy title, An authentic narrative of the loss of the American brig Commerce: wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the month of August, 1815, with an account of the sufferings of the surviving officers and crew, who were enslaved by the wandering Arabs, on the African desert, or Zahahrah; and observations historical, geographical, made during the travels of the author, while a slave to the Arabs, and in the empire of Morocco.

  8. There are many kinds of books and they flow in and out of my house steadily. I am really, really bad at getting books back to the library on time, so I prefer to either buy or just read at the library. Our small town library is also just very small, so it can’t compare to having easy access to LAPL. Most of my pleasure reading is from library sales or secondhand shops, and mostly goes back to them except for books that were so good I would read them again, or so good that they bump something else out of the curated guest room library. Reference and learning books are another case. Books are still one of the best ways to gain a good breadth of knowledge in a new topic, and they tend to be a lot cheaper than mistakes. For example, a lot of homesteaders like ducks. I was wondering whether to start up again with chickens or to try ducks instead, so I bought a good book on raising ducks and some duck eggs. After consuming both, I’m pretty sure I’ll stick with chickens, and I’m glad I learned that for under $50. Now, the question of whether the duck book gets to stay is more complicated… as a child I was completely absorbed by my hippie parents’ collection of old back to the land books!

    • Fifty bucks seems like a good investment given what some friends of mine have said about ducks!

  9. I can relate. I use a flexible rating system for decluttering books. I have many categories, e.g., Reading Now & Soon; Reference; Part of Collection X; Collection Y; Collection Z; but perhaps the trickiest category to deal with is Sentimentally Attached.

    What works for me is to pick up each book in this particular category, and a la KonMari, check in with how it makes me feel. Does it spark joy? I rate my response on a scale of 1 – 10. Then I figure out what rating the available space corresponds to– say, a 7. Easy, whoosh, every book I rate below a 7 goes to the box labeled “Friends of the Library.” If that doesn’t work, I either get more bookshelves or, ouch, lower the shelf space number.

    • I love your system. I’m going to steal it for when I need to go through those book boxes.

    • KoniMari made me realize that keeping so many books because I “was going to get to them someday” was seriously cluttering up my shelves.

      Good system!

  10. I keep professional reference books and cookbooks. Everything else is on the kindle or on Audible, including a bunch more cookbooks. I do *need* books. I do not *need* most of them in hard copy.

  11. I don’t intend on getting rid of mine. I have one wall-full. I made the bookshelf myself, and I love having all of them there. They bring me joy, so Kondo (or any other de-clutterer) can talk to someone else.

  12. Yup. Reference books I will always keep on hand. When a kid or critter (or husband or self) gets some condition in the middle of the night, while I may end up on google, it’s nice to have a small collection of key resource books where I don’t have to fire up a gizmo. And especially for the kids and homework or their general “why” questions, often worth it to have old fashioned resources like a dictionary and thesaurus etc. I think there is something to be said for modeling for kids that not ALL information is contained within the confines of, nor has to be retrieved from, an LED screen.
    All of that being said, we’re in a rental and needing to start packing before moving to a new house. The bookshelf space has been dreadfully inadequate from the get-go, and I felt no need to bring in more for a temporary arrangement. So, like you, many, if not most, of my books got boxed up. I then winnowed quite a few in the “do I really want to have to pay to have this moved?” mode, but I’m also realizing how many I can likely do without once we get to our new place.
    And three cheers for books saving you bucks. There were several books I purchased recently that saved dh and I from making a HUGE mistake. (And on the note of purchasing, while I LOVE libraries, I rarely library anymore because I’m horrid at returning them to the point where it’s cheaper to buy used than to risk the guilt plus pocketbook hit of late fees, though I do often donate purchased books to the library when I’m done).

  13. After I rid my 8 bookcases of 800 books, leaving over 1000 on the shelves, I looked at my bookcases and realized that I had rid my home of any idea of culture, classics, and important books people would recognize. I felt like my shelves no longer represented me and my interests. I found myself apologizing to anyone who browsed a moment that I really had read Shakespeare and other “important” works. It was a weird feeling.

    I did keep reference books. I own about 5 dictionaries and gave away a dozen. Reference books hold a huge part of my heart.

  14. My books are being weeded as we speak. I have three bookshelves which I don’t really like. They’re press-board garbage leftovers from my college days–one is literally held together with tape. And my library/music room/spare room is too cluttered with furniture…including these ugly crowded bookshelves. So, in a fit of KonMari I dumped all the books on the floor and am seriously reassessing things. One book shelf will be more than ample, as it turns out. It was oddly hard to let go of some of them (I am a librarian bibliophile for added fun), but in the end it is a load off. Honestly, I get 99% of my books from the library anyway….

    I am also a big fan of the box-it-up-and-see-if-you-miss it philosophy. It works quite well.

  15. I had a large collection of Sci-fi and fantasy books collected from thrift stores and such. I had a bunch of reference books. Three years ago, I gave all but 2 bookshelves up. I have a Kindle reader and now kindle unlimited so I can read lots of book. when I move all I have to do is move my two bookshelves and my kindle ereader.

    When I got rid of the books, I realized I never I would never read all of those books and if i really wanted to read them I could get it either on Amazon, other ebook place or get it cheap from a online book seller.

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