The Great Book Keeping Debate

101-Books-Stack ColorWith an eye toward an eventual move to Atlanta, I’m looking at each room of the house with packing in mind.

Two years ago, Clyde and I voluntarily downsized. We moved from a 3,000 square-foot house to a home with just over 1,000 square feet of floor space. We gave away or sold three bedrooms full of unused furniture. We cleared our cabinets of dozens of hand-held appliances — many of which had remained in their boxes, untouched, since the day they were purchased.

We gave away piles and piles of sweaters, slacks, and shirts — many still new, some unworn. We trashed my sizable collection of movies on VHS. We disassembled and repurposed bulky office furniture. We tossed out boxes that, years after our last move, remained sealed and unpacked in the closets. We divested ourselves of all outdoor Christmas decorations. We unloaded more than 300 paperback and hardback books.

Now, two years later, our house remains remarkably uncluttered; when the time comes, packing won’t be too much of a problem. My only real challenge? What to do about the one category of items that still, despite harsh pruning, dominates the shelves and storage spaces in our current home.

Specifically, what am I going to do about all these books?

101-Books-Stack ColorWith an eye toward an eventual move to Atlanta, I’m looking at each room of the house with packing in mind.

Two years ago, Clyde and I voluntarily downsized. We moved from a 3,000 square-foot house to a home with just over 1,000 square feet of floor space. We gave away or sold three bedrooms full of unused furniture. We cleared our cabinets of dozens of hand-held appliances — many of which had remained in their boxes, untouched, since the day they were purchased.

We gave away piles and piles of sweaters, slacks, and shirts — many still new, some unworn. We trashed my sizable collection of movies on VHS. We disassembled and repurposed bulky office furniture. We tossed out boxes that, years after our last move, remained sealed and unpacked in the closets. We divested ourselves of all outdoor Christmas decorations. We unloaded more than 300 paperback and hardback books.

Now, two years later, our house remains remarkably uncluttered; when the time comes, packing won’t be too much of a problem. My only real challenge? What to do about the one category of items that still, despite harsh pruning, dominates the shelves and storage spaces in our current home.

Specifically, what am I going to do about all these books?

Our dining room shelves are covered with books chosen more for their visual appeal than anything else. For example: at one point in time, reading the latest Dune novel was very important to me; now, I care little for the series. I will never reread these books. I keep them, though, because they’re big, slick, colorful hardbacks. Other than looking great on the shelf, though, they give me little joy. Should I trash ’em?

Here in the office, books dominate all available shelf space. Some I refer to frequently. A few I pull out and review on occasion. Many, though, are books that have nothing more than sentimental value — books I care about, but will never read again. Some random samples:

Early Graves. This was the first gay-themed detective novel I ever read. It opened up an entirely new category of literature for me. The idea of parting with it really makes my heart ache.

– Donald Barthelme’s The King. I picked up this post-modern classic during my college years. It’s written by the brother of the man who taught me graduate-level fiction. I’ve not opened it in years. Should I keep it?

Building Better Plots. This is one of the weaker books from Writer’s Digest, promising much but delivering little. I opened it once, skimmed it, and dismissed it. Does it really deserve space in my home?

Story. This is a classic screenwriting text by Robert McKee. I’ve read it once and referred to it several times, but I haven’t cracked the cover in over two years. Should I be boxed up for transport to Atlanta?

– Four volumes of the Encyclopedia of Tarot. These are the exhaustive reference guides to thousands of published and unpublished Tarot decks. When I get a new volume, I go through it page by page; after that, the book is rarely removed from the shelf. Treasured tomes … or books I could do without?

– About two dozen Feng Shui books. During my Feng Shui craze, I bought a ton of Feng Shui books. Now, with the general principles of the art internalized, these books don’t mean so much to me. Pack ’em … or leave ’em?

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I loved this thick commentary back in the day, but at this point, I rarely have the opportunity to prepare the kind of lessons that require insights from this book. Is it time for it to move to the great Library in the Sky?

This list could go on and on and on. These books all survived our downsizing efforts, making the cut for various reasons. Now, with an eye toward our extremely compressed future space in Midtown Atlanta, they strike me as heavy, bulky items that demand far more space than their value merits.

In a perfect world, I could have them all reduced to electronic copies: tidy, weightless digital files I could store without sacrificing shelf space and refer to as needed. (Heaven!) As things stand, though, I’m stuck with thick, heavy analog copies. Are they, literally, worth their weight?

How easily do you part with books? What rules govern which books are keepers? And at what point should an emotional connection to a book give way to practical concerns over the space required to store it?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

2 comments

  • Hi Mark,

    In the last 3 years or so, I part with books very easily. That wasn’t always the case and I kept books for reasons very similar to the ones you mention.

    I’m not exactly sure what happened and I’ve been known to give different answers at different times. Today I like the modified Clinton and Stacey answer. You know, from TLC’s What Not to Wear? People often keep clothes for emotional reasons…C & S say “keep the memories, ditch the clothes.”

    Maybe start a book journal where you write about special books, maybe include of copy of the cover or something, and then pass the book on. Keep the memory, let go of the book.

    Lisa has an idea, too: pack them all up and store them for at least one year. Pay attention to how often you find yourself going into the boxes or even thinking about going into the boxes. After about a year open them all up, go through them and you’ll have a fresh perspective on whether you “need” them or not.

    Love,Barbara (and Lisa)

  • I’ve had to downsize several times lately, and my books are continually “upsizing”, as a I read a couple a week… this means that I’m constantly deciding what I should keep or not. Over the years, it’s developed into a pretty simple rule – If I would (truly) read it again or actively recommend it to friend or family and lend it to them to read, I keep it. Or, if it will serve as a reference for work or tarot. There are a couple of sentimental books I keep that I probably won’t read but just want to have – those shouldn’t occupy more than a shelf or so, though.

    This rule has gotten well-established enough in my psyche that I now sort them as I read them into one pile that I set aside to give away, and the others I sort into their places on the shelves – saves a lot of trouble when moving 🙂

    Otherwise, it is recycled to a friend that sells books on eBay. Before that, I gave them to libraries. Or, you can FreeCycle them – books always have a use 🙂 – Teresa

Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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