Spring Cleaning: Simple Steps to a Healthy, Happy Book Collection
There’s a handy quotation, generally attributed to William Faulkner, that always seems to crop up a few weeks into any creative writing class: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” The idea is that, sometimes, the essay or story you’re writing evolves into something that’s no longer served by some pithy line you thought up early on. It hurts, but for the success of the whole, the writer must kill the lovely darling that just doesn’t belong.
Serious readers and writers all know the importance of good editing, but when it comes to our book collections, we’re not so savvy. We keep our darlings, understandably, but we also keep the less-than-darlings, the boring acquaintances, the irritating cousins. I have personally been guilty of keeping just about every book that has ever crossed my path. I never even sold back my high school math textbooks. Recently, though, I’ve come to understand that an unedited bookshelf hinders happy reading almost as much as an unedited manuscript does. Yes, the moment has come: it’s time to clean out your book collection. Read on to learn just how—and why—to do it.
But Why Would I Get Rid of Books?!
Let’s start with the obvious: a nicely organized book collection is a thing of beauty. I recently visited an apartment so full of ceiling-high shelves and prettily bound editions that I was ready to propose marriage to its occupants, and I came away wishing to make my home just as pleasant a place. It’s helpful, also, to keep your books in such a way that you actually know what you have and where everything is. No more wasted minutes digging through teetering stacks of paperbacks for that one Agatha Christie you’re pretty sure you haven’t read.
But the real reason that tidy, well-curated book collections are so compelling probably has to do with psychology. Though it seems counter-intuitive, a growing body of psychological research suggests that, after a certain point, having an abundance of choices actually makes us less happy. Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor and foremost proponent of this idea, calls this phenomenon “the paradox of choice,” and his book of the same name delves deeply—and fascinatingly—into the multitude of reasons for that paradox. But you don’t have to understand the complex causes of the paradox of choice to recognize the feeling of it. We’ve all been there. You spend so long deciding which Netflix movie to watch that, by the time you press play, you’re still preoccupied with wondering whether one of your other options would have been better. Or you go to a diner with a twenty-page menu, and spend your whole meal thinking that maybe the Cobb salad would have been a better choice after all. Personally, I always experience the paradox’s inverse when I’m stuck in a waiting room with only a handful of mediocre magazines on offer. Would I normally read Lucky magazine, given a choice of my favorites? No. Am I totally content to read it while I wait for my appointment? Yes, because I’m certain that it’s my best option in that moment. I might even enjoy it more than I enjoy reading my beloved Atlantic at home, surrounded as it is by so many other viable options.
So, when you’re facing an overstuffed bookcase and trying to select your next read from all the perfectly good books before you, that twinge of anxiety you feel is the paradox of choice in action. By narrowing down your book collection, you’ll not only rid yourself of inferior options—you’ll actually make yourself more likely to deeply enjoy the gems you keep. I’ve always fantasized about living in the grand library from Beauty and the Beast, but what’s the point of having an enormous collection if it’s not also a joyful one?
And in case you’re not persuaded: just think how many more books you can acquire with a little freed-up shelf space.
The Bad News: What to Get Rid of
So, here you are. Staring down that overflowing bookcase (or ten.) Where do you begin? I recommend methodically scanning your collection of the following categories, which are the primary offenders in bogged down book collections.
- Books that don’t belong to you. When you lend someone a book, don’t you expect to get it back one of these days? If you’ve borrowed something and finished it (or don’t think you’re going to read it anytime soon), let it go clutter up the shelves of its rightful owner.
- Multiple copies of the same book. You don’t need these. You especially don’t need these if they’re the same edition of the same book. Pick the copy that’s newer or in better repair (or that you love because it has all your notes from high school in the margins), and do away with the other.
- Books that are in bad repair. No matter how much you love a book, it’s no good to you if half the pages fall out the second you open it. If a book is unreadable, get rid of it, or, if you’re hopelessly devoted to it, figure out how to repair it. (Joyce Godsey’s book on at-home repair is a great resource.) If you don’t care enough to fix it, you shouldn’t be keeping it, but remember, rejecting a copy of a book is not the same as rejecting the story on its pages. You can always get a newer copy if it’s something you truly want to own.
- Out-of-date volumes. Farmer’s Almanac, Zagat guide, travel manual, whatever—if it’s more than five years old, it’s outlived its usefulness, and it’s time to let the Internet replace it.
- Books that you use as mementoes. We all have these. The sonnet collection from the ex-boyfriend; the crumbling paperback you bought from the used bookstore on your college campus. Maybe you love these books in their own right, but if you never read them and are only keeping them for their sentimental value, then it’s time to let them go. This can even apply to, say, a book that your mother inscribed for you on your birthday; failing to love the book does not mean that you are failing to love your mother.
- Books that you’ve read and didn’t like. This seems like a no-brainer, but for me, it never has been. I frequently review books that I find utterly useless, and yet it takes me an embarrassingly long time to get rid of them. Will I ever really wonder what that main character’s mother’s name was and refer back to my review copy? Doubtful. If you don’t like it, you don’t need it.
- Books that you’re just not excited about. This is the hardest one, and it goes for both books you have read and those you haven’t. When you pick up the book, are you full of excitement at the idea of reading it, or happy memories of the first time you did? Are you actively glad to have it in your life? If the answer is no, then this book should move on to someone else. This can be especially tricky for books like classics or bestsellers, which we often feel like we should own even though we might not always enjoy them. It’s okay to dislike Dickens. It’s okay to let go of the critical darling that you’ve never been able to get into. Your reading life is your own, and it doesn’t need to be dragged down by external ideas of which books are and aren’t essential.
The Good News: What to Keep
Yes, this is a shorter list. But that’s because you already know, deep down, which books are your true keepers. Some pointers nonetheless:
- First editions; signed copies; rare books. If you don’t love these, there’s nothing wrong with cashing out and selling them now. But if there’s a good chance that they can make your great-grandchildren some serious money down the road, it might be worth hanging on to them; this is the rare occasion where I encourage you to keep a book you don’t really want. Complete collections of authors’ works are also worth keeping together, if you have the space and inclination. If you’re not sure about the value of something in your collection, set up an appointment with a local appraiser and find out.
- Books that you will happily refer to or read again. These might be evergreen stalwarts like Strunk and White, or they might be trashy romance novels that you turn to when no other comfort will do. You don’t have to think that a book is the pinnacle of fine literature in order to keep it; you just have to be sure that it serves a viable purpose in your life.
- Your darlings. No, you don’t always need to kill them—provided they’re still serving the whole. Just as good writers know which great lines really further a piece, good readers know which books really suit a book collection. And just as in writing, the trick is learning to focus on genuine meaning, rather than showy turns of phrase (or pretty covers, or intellectual titles.) You’ll know your truly darling books by the way they make you light up inside, and by the feeling you get when you imagine passing them on to children or grandchildren. Take a moment with each book, be honest with yourself about how much or little you really want it around, and keep only those books that you’re sure you would miss. You might end up keeping quite a few, but that’s okay, so long as you’ve made a conscious decision about each one’s right to live on your shelf.
Hooray! You’ve done the hard work of paring down your book collection, and your shelves have never looked better. They’re full of a smaller selection of useful, joyful books that you know you’ll be happy to read—you’ve helped keep the paradox of choice from bringing you down. But here’s the kicker: what’s useful and joyful today may not still be useful and joyful a year from now. So take note of today’s date, and in about a year, return to this project and go through the above steps all over again. By doing so, you’ll keep your book collection as tidy and rich as it is now, and perhaps even more interestingly, you’ll get to see how you and your life have evolved over the past year. In the meantime, continue being clear with yourself about which books you do and don’t need to acquire. Remember that libraries and generous friends are always happy to provide you with whatever books you don’t personally own. Be judicious, and don’t give less-than-darlings a place in your home.
And if you come to love a book and just have to have it? Well, then I congratulate you on your find. If need be, you can always do what my mother did: build rows of bookshelves above every doorway in your house. And watch in awe as they magically fill up.
Image credits: nSeika and julesjulesjules m via Creative Commons.
But wait, there’s more! Click here for ways to find new homes for old books.
So, now where do these books go?
The following are just a few of the many excellent options for passing on the books you no longer need:
- Libraries are often on the lookout for volumes in good condition; check your local branch to find out when its next book drive is.
- The Salvation Army, Goodwill, and local thrift stores (both nonprofit and for-profit) are all likely to appreciate used book donations.
- The Philadelphia-based Books Through Bars program—which accepts donations by mail—provides books to prison inmates, and is especially in need of textbooks, references books, and study guides.
- Better World Books raises money for literacy by selling donated books, and it also passes them along to nonprofits in need and recycles any unreadable books.
- Books for Africa sends academic reading material to disadvantaged students in Africa, and accepts donations by mail.
- The Little Free Library program has adorable miniature branches all over the world. See if there’s one in your community, or consider building one of your own.