Doing it by halves: to keep or not to keep books

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.

Hanging on to what you love

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Keep poetry, in the main. These are works to be re-read and dipped into.
  6. 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?

Image thanks
Main photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
Smaller image Sandy Millar.

26 thoughts on “Doing it by halves: to keep or not to keep books

  1. I’m going through that now…I’m trying to hopscotch move to somewhere else…New England, maybe, eventually?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness, the thought of moving house, sorting through absolutely everything, makes me sweat. Hope the move – and the decision on location – go well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, I’ve moved so many times, but for some reason, this move was extra stressful…a lot at stake! But I’m already looking forward to planning the next move!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hope the next represents more excitement and new starts than it does stress!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Me too! Would love to settle somewhere in a weird sort of “happily ever after”!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to have a lot of books. I got rid of most of them, leaving myself with about twenty. However, I use an ereader and have a vast e library!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find myself downloading more ebooks than buying paper copies these days, too. Cannot resist a second-hand bookshop, but rarely seem to buy new physical editions any more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I only buy physical books that are pretty and deserve to be looked at in physical form

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Beautiful (physically) books I find are like stationery; I have an aesthetic weakness for both.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Agreed. Barnes and noble just bought paper source. It’s like twin of my favorite stores got married

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Ooh lovely, that looks a bit like Paperchase in UK.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Love love stores like this!


  3. I’ve only given books away en masse one time. That was when I’d finished my doc program and had to come to terms with the idea that I didn’t need them to adorn the book shelves in my office.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must have been a wrench. There’s a lesson there though to give academic books away whilst someone can still use them. I have sorted some old university books out and no one will want them as they’re not current.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was…a lot lol I posted the photos to FB and offered to send them to whomever needed them…ended up being 4 big moving boxes worth. But I felt so free.


  4. A dreadful endeavour. Almost impossible to succeed. 😉
    And to pulp? There must be local library nearby?
    Having said that, very commendable. My rules?
    1) Keep the books you might read again. Those are the good ones.
    2) Get rid of those you haven’t read in 30 years. (Or 20 in your young case)
    3) I keep old leather bound books I may not read ever, such as a 1713 Horatius in Latin. 🤣
    4) And those I wish to pass on. Though I remember my father’s library, I had to give up more than half his books (I may have mentioned it before). Many books that were top of the shelf in his time are barely readable now.) I did keep his Graham Greenes though.
    Good luck my friend. 📚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good set of tips. Luckily, I have been able to find homes for them, without the need to pulp. I see lockdown has brought a rise in book sales, which helps. I also keep the beautiful ones. Not many leather bound, but the old linen bound ones, with beautiful end-papers, or with book plates – these I keep, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad they found homes. Do keep the pretty ones. The English style of binding is different from the French. More linen bound indeed. I wonder why. I have a few too. A Walter Scott Poetical works. Edinburg edition. Linen bound. All 3 side of the paper gold leafed. A few nice plates. Treasures. 🙏🏻

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess France had strong links (let’s call it) to North Africa, where Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, etc. had a large leather industry?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. They were part of the “Empire”, but leather had been a long tradition on the Continent. That 1713 edition of Horatius was printed in Amsterdam. I also have a Latin bible from a few years later printed in Amsterdam. That was the refuge for many an author, no censorship or King’s privilege in the United provinces.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thank you, and what beautiful gifts from the past to have. Books truly are the ultimate gift – for oneself or for others, in so many ways.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I remember Somerset Maugham saying in one of his short stories that he or one of his characters carried a whole bag of books with him when traveling. And that left with no books at all he would read the train schedule… (Probably no train schedule left I imagine) Cheers.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. That at least one reason I appreciate my Kindle – not more cases weighted with books!

                  Liked by 1 person

  5. I think I rather agree with your list. Currently, due to lack of space (and permanent residence), I keep very few books, which makes some question how much of a reader/ writer I really am. But, who cares… One day I will have a whole library of my own.

    Personally, I VERY rarely (if ever) re-read books, so that’s a no-brainer for me. If they were mediocre, it’s even easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so hard to know what the throw out. There’s the feeling of thinking you may want to lay a hand on a book in future – to find it gone. But there’s also something about an atmosphere of being surrounded by books – hard to put my finger on, maybe studious, perhaps calming – but most of all comforting.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close