Letting Go of Books

I have always dreamed of having a personal library, a separate room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on every wall and a small sitting area where I could read in the sunlight of the window that looked out on the English countryside. Right now I settle for our apartment in the south of Houston, but it’s always a thought in the back of my mind. I had six or seven big boxes full of books when I moved back home after graduate school; I was well on my way to building my collection. So was my partner. She had her own collection of books that, when we moved in together and combined them, created enough to fill four bookshelves. It was beautiful.

The west wing of our future mansion

Nonetheless, my partner and I struggled to find enough shelf space for all our books. We both have always been hardcore readers and usually buy our next piece of literature before finishing our current read–because who wants to be without a book? Amid our physical maneuvering of spines and paperbacks as we tried to settle into our first apartment, I had commented that it might be a good idea for me to get rid of some books so we wouldn’t have to start stacking them to fit them on shelves. She looked at me with a very serious expression and promised to never make me sell my books. That’s when I knew loved her. The orchestra played “Tale as Old as Time,” the credits began to roll, and we’ve lived happily ever after.

So Many Books

Now, here we are, almost three years later, moving again, and we still have a lot of books. Not as many, but a lot for most people. (I’m using this description in reference to how much storage we have for them, not our opinion of how many one should own. We always want more.) Before we decided to move and when I was just starting to consider how minimalism might work in our lives, we began going through our books. We have three main book areas  in our current apartment, which are based on the types of reading. Our favorite ones are on a long shelf at the front of our living space that acts as a television stand; we also have a tall bookshelf that holds collections and my antique books that I collected through graduate school. Lastly is a small bookshelf in the bedroom for our non-fiction works. So when I began reconsidering why we had kept certain books, it was a simple process because we had already sorted them in how they were stored.

My partner keeps her books for legitimate reasons: she can re-read a book several times and does so when she hasn’t had time to purchase a new one. I can’t do that. If there’s no suspense keeping me up past my bedtime or making me finish the last page before leaving the apartment, I struggle to stay focused. So I keep mine for sentimental reasons, for the ability to pick it up and say with conviction how life-altering the prose was for me as a junior in college lamenting over the coming of age story of Avery in Fitzgerald’s The Other Side of Paradise.

Plus, books look cool.

But when we started considering minimalism, I was first drawn to our books because they were in an obvious spot and I knew I had held on to some for non-functional reasons. We started with our favorites that are shelved in the front of the living room and assessed why we kept each book. In some cases, they were books that we would read again–I have read a few books more than once–and those were sorted into a keep pile right away. But there were some that we had tried to read but never finished, a few that took us through the process several times. This was where it came in handy asking questions and answering them honestly. If I hadn’t read it by now after a few attempts or several years of it sitting on my shelf, would I read it anytime in the near future? The answer was simply no. What about my collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald literature. He was one of my favorite authors during college, and The Great Gatsby still at the top of one of my favorite books; so I collected many of his books over time–but I had never read them all. Now, despite still greatly appreciating his writing style, the heavy descriptions and Jazz Age settings don’t fit my tastes like they used to. That meant it was time to let those go as well because I knew after a quick glance at a random chapter that I wouldn’t be opening them in earnest any time soon. How about the ones that had made a significant impression on me, the ones that had taught me a lesson or opened my eyes to something bigger in the world? Those are special. Those are the ones that I like to talk to when I’m deciding what to read from the shelf; they understand me. Can I keep those? In short, yes and no–I kept some, the ones that I earnestly could see myself rereading because they were so eloquently written that I know I can recapture the magic despite knowing the ending. But I let go of those that were only visual reminders of how impactful books have been in my life so that someone else could possibly experience the same mind-blowing effect of well written book.

In the end, I held on to Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund but let go of Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb. I reminisced about my English degree as I packed away many of Fitzgerald’s works, but I knew I had to keep Dan Simmons’ The Terror, the first book my partner recommended to me. (I did donate our second copy of the book, though, since we only need one.) I passed on Dan Brown’s popular art-adventures, the full four hardbacks that I had rushed out and bought with each release (even in graduate school when I had little time to read for pleasure), but reshelved The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Through each text, my partner and I considered why we kept the books we had until we had pared down our collection to the ones that truly made us happy to see and read. We did the same with the paperbacks on our tall bookshelf and eventually our small shelf in the bedroom until we had a pile of books that we knew we wouldn’t read again. This was our first full step toward decluttering our space and stepping into a minimalist lifestyle.

Now what?

There are several options for what to do with used books rather than tossing them so that they are reused in a way that benefits others. One of the major issues I had when I tried to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s take on Japanese decluttering, was how she approached her issue with getting rid of books. Once she had decided to sort through her books but wanted a way to keep her favorite quotes and passages for herself to reread, she started by copying them down by hand into a notebook. When this became too time-consuming, she actually ripped the noted pages from the books to keep in a folder and tossed the remainder of the books! She ripped pages from the books! As a book lover, I was horrified to imagine such an act because it damages the sacredness of the book–but how immensely wasteful is that? She admitted that she had to stop doing that because she realized she never went back and read he pages…and no one else ever got to read the books! Consider this my one PSA for the year: don’t rip out perfectly well-constructed prose; it’s a crime against the humanities. Instead, there are several alternatives hat you can consider to avoid tearing pages from their spines.

Give them away to friends

Book lovers tend to attract one another. Ask if any of your friends or fellow readers want any of the ones you letting go of. See if you can trade books if you enjoy reading the same genres and writing styles. In my case, I had several books that I had held on to from graduate school and I knew full well when I pulled them off the shelf that I would never read them again. I advertised them on Facebook and had a few friends who wanted to read them. Media mail costs just under $4 for an envelope with 4- or 5-day delivery. For less than $10 I was able to mail them three books and knew the books would be put to good use.

Sell them to a bookstore

I’m sure every major city has a version of Half Price Books but I hadn’t experienced them until I moved to Houston. For shopping, they rarely have what I am looking for but they are our go-to when we want to sell used books. When we did the bookshelf purge, we took around thirty books of various genres and popularity to our local store and walked out with $36 in cash. It’s good to realize in advance that you’re not going to be banking a chunk of rent in selling used books that way because the stores have to buy them cheap enough to resale them–but it got the books off our shelves, gave us some quick cash, and gave us the peace of mind knowing that someone else would get use out of them.

Sell them online

We very recently had our first experience with selling on Craigslist and we have a few items we’re going to research for eBay. But those sites also have listings for books. They’re slogans should be “People will buy anything” because we will! Including used books. Especially if you have some collector items or very popular books, considering selling them online. You might get more for them than reselling at a bookstore. The only downfall is arranging to meet someone if it’s Craigslist or shipping the book if it’s eBay. But if you’re comfortable with those aspects, give the websites a go!

Donate them

Books never go out of style (except the few that go out of date), so donating them is also an option of you don’t have a used bookstore to sell them back to or simply don’t want to mess with the hassle. Goodwill and stores of that nature take almost anything, including books, but don’t discount donating to places like your local library, schools, and even shelters or hospitals where limited budgets can affect what they can offer people. There are many options available for donating, so there’s bound to be something for everyone when you’re looking to find new homes for your books.

Books are difficult to let go. For us, they are a part of our lives and it’s tough to say goodbye to friends. But it’s good for us to consider why we keep them and how others can reuse them. Going through our books was our first step toward minimalism, and I feel like we did it rather successfully. In the end, we spent the money on lunch, which we already had planned, so our books bought us a meal as well! Whatever you do with your books, consider ways to reuse them, and please–PLEASE–do not rip out their pages as momentos! Just fondly remember them to discuss over coffee like the rest of us.


3 thoughts on “Letting Go of Books

  1. Ah, yes, letting go of books is a real challenge for me too! When I moved from a one bedroom apartment to a studio two years ago, I got rid of all my books except some spirituality and recovery books I read on regular rotation. It was hard! I donated mine to Goodwill. I’ve tried to refrain from any new book purchases and now rely almost exclusively on the library, except I will go buy a used book to take with me to read on the beach. I no longer have book shelves, but different flat surfaces in my apartment keep trying to BECOME book shelves. I have to be so vigilant!


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