How to Declutter Your Books

Why am I showing you a picture of books? Because over the course of the last two weeks, I minimized my entire book collection to just what’s in that picture (which means two and a half full bookshelves of books have now been condensed to fit on my TV stand and do include several books that are my husband’s as well).

A couple of weeks ago, I had coffee with a friend who had installed a Little Free Library in her front yard. She told me it was great for her, because, even though she’s a librarian, she rarely keeps books after she’s read them. Now, she can just put a book once she’s done with it in her Little Free Library. Unless a book is particularly amazing, I don’t read it again. I have never been one to give books away either because I love the look of them. I love having multiple bookshelves. I love having books scattered around my house (I even had a book-themed wedding, just to put it in perspective)

Looking through my collection later that day, I realized I had maybe only read a handful of my books more than once. Some, I had read for school (elementary, middle, high school, college, and graduate school: and yes, I even had books I had read in elementary school), and I had drug them around from apartment to apartment, even though some were unwieldy textbooks I could never sell and would never refer to again. I had many books that I read once and wasn’t blown away by. I had many that I had bought because I felt like I “needed” to read them. Most of them, I had picked up at least once, but then put them back down again and never finished them. The pattern? I had kept all of these books just for the sake of keeping them.

I asked myself the following questions to figure out whether I should keep a book or donate it:

  • Have I read this book? If I haven’t, is it likely I will in the next 6 months? No to question #2? Donate it.
  • Is it likely I’ll read this book again? What about in the next 6 months? For this, I had to be really honest with myself. Some books I want to say I would read again for ego’s sake: Of course, I’ll read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov again! But, really? Really? Most often, the answer is a resounding no. Donate it.
  • Is this book easily available somewhere else? This cut through a ton of my collection. So many of the books I had weren’t particularly special. Many were available online for free, or my local library had them. Donate them.
  • Is similar information in this book available on the internet? Those textbooks I was carting around? Most of the information in them is available online. Donate them.
  • Am I keeping this book out of guilt? Did someone give me this book and now I feel guilty because I’ve never read it/didn’t like it, etc.? Donate it.
  • Am I holding onto this book for sentimental reasons? If I am keeping a book for purely sentimental reasons, yet never pull it out to look at it, there’s a good chance I don’t really need it to remember a particular time in my life or a particular person. Donate it.
  • If I had to move tomorrow, would I want to pack this up and move it? I’ve carted my books between five different places, and this has never encouraged me to donate books in the past, but it might work for you.
  • If someone stole this book from my house and pawned it, would I re-buy it? For many of my books, the answer would be no. For several, I would buy them every time, and even those books, I’d still donate in response to one of the other questions.
  • Author-signed? Would I read the book again (or for the first time) and/or do I pull it out regularly to look at it? I have several books that had been signed by their authors. If I didn’t feel like I was going to read the book again, that I was just hanging onto the book for the signature, I either donated it or put it on eBay. My thought about this? If I’m not pulling the book out regularly to look at it or displaying it, then I shouldn’t be holding onto it. Someone else might enjoy it more.
  • Antique? Would I read the book again (or for the first time) and/or do I pull it out regularly to look at it? I have a First American edition, first printing, of James Joyce’s Ulysses given to me by my grandfather. It’s not in the best condition, and it has lived in a box at the top of my closet for three years now. I am utterly amazed that I own it, but I’ve never finished reading the book (though I own a paperback copy of it), nor do I pull it out regularly because I’m worried about damaging it. I’m on the fence with this one. I would like to display it, so I may look into buying a book display case for it.

After going through all of the above, I put my books into three piles:

1.) Ones I could donate to a local school (since I had so many books from elementary to high school, it made sense to donate those to a school that could use them).

2.) Ones I could donate to my friend’s Little Free Library (as in, more adult books).

3.) Ones I could donate to a local charity (whatever didn’t fit into the above two categories).

What did I keep?

-Ones that I have read more than once or know, for a fact, that I will (I may even continue to whittle these down, since some books I have clear intentions I will read one day soon, but I still may not).

-Literary journals, either my own contributor copies or recent issues that I refer to when sending my work out to that particular journal.

-Poetry collections that I refer to regularly for inspiration/manuscript ideas, etc.

I donated my bookshelves to a local charity, and now, that extra bedroom that used to house all of those books, now has quite a lot of extra space!

11 thoughts on “How to Declutter Your Books

  1. Yes, BUT…you are younger than I am so a) I have had at least twice your time to accumulate books (and periodically weed out, too, by the way), and b) you are younger than I am so you can probably look at a book and know whether you’ve read it or not–once, twice, or not at all.

    Seriously, this is a very good set of decision criteria. That one question, “If I had to move tomorrow…” is enough to make a sane person pare down!

  2. Amazing! I definitely need to do this with the novels and collections I have of short stories, but am hard pressed to do so with my poetry collections, mostly because I’ve written all over many of them.

    FYI: Better World Books ( accepts donated textbooks and uses them in literacy/education efforts worldwide (as long as the information isn’t dated a la science books).

  3. Great weeding ideas! I’m going to share this with my library friends because we are all guilty of hanging on to books just for the sake of having them!

  4. Oh, wow. I don’t think I could ever do this as unflinchingly as you have. I did donate several boxes of books prior to our move west, but I still have basically a full wall of full bookshelves. For me, just knowing that I could pull a certain book off the shelf if I wanted to is very comforting. Also I try to leave myself little notes in books, or a pressed flower, or a leaf — it’s such a lovely surprise to find them, sometimes after many years. Congrats on your book sort!

    1. I definitely hear you on the comfort. I went through a /lot/ of grieving. It sort of felt like shedding my skin! I too also leave things in books, and one of the hardest parts was pulling those out.

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