Argentine writer Carlos María Domínguez observed that ‘It is often much harder to get rid of books than to acquire them.’ How true. I acquired a bagful of new volumes last weekend – physical books, that is, yet more have amassed on the kindle – yet I am part-way through halving my collection.
Why? A number of reasons, relating to de-cluttering, freeing up space, a loose plan perhaps to move in the next year or two. Also, making the messy midden of an office I have been working in for the past 14 months into a respectable space. I do not know yet on what basis I will be returning to work, or even precisely when, but the proportion of working from home is due to increase compared to the pre-Covid days.
And why half? It’s a rough quantity, but if I don’t set a goal, I’ll cave in and keep too many. Also, just eye-balling the room, getting rid of half means I’ll be able to throw out some of the cheap and rickety bookshelves bought to accommodate the overflow.
How many were there to start with? Somewhere close to 1,000, roughly. Some might find this a sizeable personal library, though for many avid readers, I will appear restrained. For a number of years I lived overseas, and was used to shedding books on a frequent basis. So settled back in UK, I Have delighted in seeing tomes ranked along the shelves.
How’s my progress? I have almost got rid of one third – I say ‘almost’ because a lot of these sit in the hallway in bags, to take to the charity shop. Many are bound to be pulped. It’s not the same as sending a faithful old horse to the knacker’s yard to become glue, and yet…
What criteria am I using to sort them? There I have hunted down some advice.
On the becomingminimalist website, Joshua Becker is very practical on this matter, with such tips as ‘remove scarcity thinking’, i.e. the fear that in future, there won’t be enough: I recognise this from my years living abroad at a time before e-books – the dread of running out of reading matter! So, good reminder that my circumstances have changed. And I like Becker’s suggestion of giving away books being considered an act of love (except those bound to be pulped!). But a lot of the advice is too hard-headed for me. Normally pragmatic, advice to ‘go digital’ is not enough – I mean I have, in part, but I cannot conceive of wholly replacing physical books with electronic. Also, to give away books I won’t read again – there are some that fit the category, but some well-loved copies I cannot part with.
Seeking advice that emphasises the emotional attachment to books, I turn to the LiteraryHub article The heartbreaking difficulty of getting rid of books by Summer Brennan. Failing to follow the advice of decluttering guru Mari Kondo, Brennan opens books destined for the ‘give-away’ pile to find photos, tickets, and sentimental reminders of life between the pages, and remembers that books are not “impersonal units of knowledge” but represent moments in our lives. I find the same. It is not only the random objects stuck between the pages, but the inscriptions in books that were gifts, and the reminder of the time and place in which others were purchased, that makes them intimate. Still, Brennan succeeded in identifying books without – or with negative – personal associations, separated the read from the to-be-read on day, and managed to whittle her library down.
In How to Prune Your Book Collection, the Lifehacker site turns to the professionals for help – publishers, and author, a bookseller. Unlike Brennan, author Justin Taylor notes finding decisions most challenging when they relate to books that one has not yet read. The hard part is being honest about whether you ever will read them or not. For me, that’s a common predicament with classics. There’s that copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Am I really going to (finally!) read it because ‘I think I should’? Or keep it because it looks good on the shelves?
A small number I haven’t read and will probably never read – that’s easy. But those I have started and not finished (also a small number) – that’s harder. There is guilt, I admit. It’s a whole other topic this, to finish or not to finish, but I cannot help recall the words of author David Mitchell that ‘a half-read book is a half-finished love affair.’
In the end, I have arrived at a few, roughly applied ‘rules’ of my own, as below.
- Keep a few standards – surely any personal library needs a dictionary, thesaurus, an atlas, and the complete works of Shakespeare? Though ‘standards’ will vary from person to person.
- Keep books with a particular sentimental attachment – that have an inscription; that remind you of a place you lived, travelled to, of a lover, a special time in your life. You may regret being ruthless.
- Keep books you know you’ll keep returning to – whether out of love or comfort, whether it’s as a worthy literary classic or not.
- Keep a few books you want to pass on, particularly where out of print, specific editions, or featuring favourite covers. I have had to scout around for the very same editions of some of the books I had as a child, so my own children could have them, too.
- Keep poetry, in the main. These are works to be re-read and dipped into.
- Be as honest as possible about books you have had for years and really will never read. Rightly or wrongly, classics that are out of copyright are the cheapest to re-purchase.
- Keep books only because they are / were expensive hardbacks.
- As noted above, throw out books only because you’ve read them, necessarily. This is a hard one because it depends on book and author. To decide, recall the words of Ernest Hemingway: ‘In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done… Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.’
- Keep books just because they make you look good (well-read, intellectual, etc.) on the shelves. I have slightly broken this, but that also concerns ‘collections’ – orange Penguins, Virago Modern Classics, etc. that I fear I won’t find again easily. So I guess don’t….
- Discard books that are part of growing collections. The point is not (for me) to have no books, simply to stay on top of what I have.
Do you hang on to books or tend to give them away (or delete them) once you’ve read them?
How do you decide when to give books away – or do you hold on to them all?