Getting rid of all my books

This post is more than 3 years old.

Tech BooksOkay, not ALL of my books.  But a few months ago I did start trying to significantly reduce the number of printed edition books that I was storing at home.  It was one part of an overall attempt to minimize the amount of physical stuff in my life. Here I'll share a few thoughts on how it worked.

I'm not quite sure when I made the mental shift toward being ready to get rid of a bunch of my printed books.  In the past I've always been someone who was skeptical of digital books and book-reading as a long-term substitute for printed books (though apparently I started changing my mind on that in 2011).  I've also always told myself that it's been worth the shelf space, moving boxes and related effort to own and carry around a healthy book collection.

If there was a book I thought I might ever want to reference for anything ever again, I should keep it.  A book that felt like it would be worthy of loaning out somewhere down the road was surely a keeper.  If I thought I could feel or seem a little smarter or a little more well-rounded by owning a certain book, it stayed on the shelf.  If a book was a gift or had an inscription from a friend or loved one, I felt obligated to keep it forever to honor that history.  If there was a book I hadn't gotten around to reading or finishing, I told myself it was better to hold on to it for when my interest returned.  Books on hobbies long since abandoned and ways of thinking long since changed were all there, just in case.

And so I had many shelves upon shelves of books around me.  Hundreds of books spread across different rooms of the house, the collection growing as I visited a bookstore here or received a gift there.

But I recently reached the point where the appeal of owning less stuff and breaking some of my connections to the past (just two of many reasons one might pursue minimalism) outweighed the value of holding on to all of these books.

A key insight (which feels obvious now) that allowed this shift to happen is that I don't have to hold on to the physical books themselves in order to honor the joy, memories or information they've brought me.  If a book was a gift or has a meaningful inscription, I realized I can write it down, jot out some notes about when and how I received the book, even take a picture of it so I can remember how it looked.  Getting unstuck with that technique was really helpful, and a text file with notes and a few digital photos take up a lot less space.

I also realized that I had a lot of books I was keeping out of skepticism that the same information would be available to me in as useful a format using the Internet or other digital resources, or that those resources would be available right when I needed them.  But as access to the Internet has become more ubiquitous and my enjoyment of my e-reader has (gasp) morphed into a preference for it over printed books, I was now willing to concede that many of the words, images and pages sitting on my shelves were there more out of nostalgia than utility.

I was tired of these things taking up mental, emotional and physical space in my life, space I wanted to free up to create new things and move forward.

So, I developed a list of questions to ask myself as I examined each book I owned, to help determine whether I really needed to keep it:

  1. Is it a one of a kind edition that I couldn't find anywhere else?
  2. Do I plan to read it in the next 6 months?
  3. Does it have so much sentimental value that I want to move it around with me for the rest of my life?

If a book couldn't satisfy any of those criteria, then I decided it would be better off being gifted to a friend or donated to the library or Goodwill.

Using those questions, there were only about 40 or so books left that I really wanted to keep.  They take up about one shelf, leaving lots of room for other stuff...or nothing.  I suspect that if I did another round of ruthless purging, I could get it down to fewer, so I'll do that in a few months.  I also now have a "must read in six months or get rid of pile," and the clock's ticking.

(There's definitely a theme among some of the books that remain, items I would really want to have handy if the Internet became unavailable for an extended period of time and for the broader implications of what that outage would mean: cookbooks, survival/self-reliance books, and home repair books.)

When all of this purging was done, I felt great.  I smiled as I hauled boxes and boxes of stuff I wouldn't be responsible for any more to donation locations.  I've waited for the feeling that I've lost something important to creep in, and it hasn't yet.  I even feel more free to buy/borrow new digital books to read because the sense of having so many unread books on a shelf "waiting" for attention has lessened quite a bit.

I should say that I found Robyn Devine's essay Breaking the Sentimental Attachment to Books to be invaluable in this process.  It led me to the great website and then to the helpful eBook Simplify by Joshua Becker.

As I said, the purging of books was one part of an overall effort to reduce the stuff I own.  I've simplified my wardrobe, my home office and the amount of tech/computing gear in my life using similar questions and ideas; more on that later.

How are you thinking about the books in your life when it comes to the ones you keep and the ones you get rid of?

One thought on “Getting rid of all my books

  1. Congrats on doing this!

    It's really neat to see many of your sentiments and strategies echoing my own; nice to see someone else converging in on the same conclusions I did. 🙂

    i found that "special" books, ones that held sentimental value, were easier to let go of if I knew they were going to someone that appreciated them; in fact it was actually a rewarding experience to let go of those books when I was giving them to someone who seemed like a fitting recipient, and who I felt would have their life enriched by a book I really enjoyed.

    Most of the books I hung on to were books that I knew I would still read, books that I honestly intend to read (really...I swear... I mean it!...I think?) and books that I wanted my kids to read someday. The few books I have that are autographed were also kept.

    Maybe I need to explore getting an eReader -- do you have any recommendations? I would prefer something that doesn't jail me to one platform.

    (here was my previous post about letting go of stuff: )

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