Letting Go of Books

In an ideal world, our home libraries would be limitless. The walls would be lined with infinite bookshelves to hold every book we could ever want, and the library’s catalog would be comprehensive as well as easy-to-use, capable of placing the perfect title in our hot little hands in mere seconds. In other words, our home libraries would look a little something like this:

Jay Walker's three-story "library of the imagination"

Alas, unless you’re hiding out in a Hearst-sized mansion—in which case, why haven’t you invited us over???—you, like us, probably grapple daily with containing your love of books to a finite space. As problems go, it’s a good one to have. But when a lifestyle change forces us to flat-out get rid of books? That’s not a problem. That’s a full-fledged bluestocking crisis!

Maybe you’re downsizing your home or packing for a cross-country move. Maybe you’re merging bookshelves with a spouse or partner. Or perhaps you have a baby on the way and need to repurpose that spare room from library to nursery. Whatever the reason, at some point in our lives we’re all faced with the same dilemma: How does a booklover let go of books?

It seems simple from the outset. In the “to go” pile are novels you started reading but didn’t like enough to finish, paperbacks your dog tried to eat for dinner, DIY guides for the project you completed six years ago, grammar guides written before the advent of the internet. In the “to keep” pile you stack your first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, the memoir written and autographed by a dear friend, your grandmother’s well-thumbed cookbook, and (of course) every book you ordered from Bas Bleu’s Summer catalog.

But what about the book your mother-in-law gave you for Christmas, forgettable but for the sweet inscription? Or the novel you were reading on the subway when the love of your life spoke to you for the first time? How about that coffee-table book you bought during your first trip to Paris, or the dog-eared biography that inspired a career change? Even Bas Bleu’s reviewers aren’t immune to the challenge: Every one of us hoards books from our catalog that our colleagues had the good fortune to read first.

When it comes to books, there are so many reasons to hold on that it can be hard to draw the line. Sometimes it feels impossible to separate the books themselves from the memories, experiences, and people they represent. Getting rid of them feels like tossing out a box of love letters or our kids’ homemade birthday cards. Or, in the case of an unread book, like rejecting the possibility of an extraordinary adventure.

We confess we don’t have the answer. Maybe you can tell us: How do you decide which books stay and which books go?

4 thoughts on “Letting Go of Books

  1. Just packed up two huge boxes to take to Half Price Books. I only do this when there are stacks on the floor, stacks on the table, stacks on my nightstand . . . and we must have 20 bookcases around the house, so you can imagine! I use the same method that I do in deciding which clothes go to Good Will: If I have not peeked between the covers for reference or pleasure in ten years (for clothes it’s two years, but you get the idea), and if it has no significance for me, off it goes! I have a button on my favorite book tote that says, “Naturally you’re out of book space; everyone is always out of book space; if you’re not out of book space, you’re probably not worth knowing.”

  2. I went through this when we downsized to a smaller home. I went from 8 bookcases to 2. Some weren’t difficult; I had read them and wouldn’t care to read again. Others were education books that I used while teaching. Since I was retiring I had no problem giving them a new home with my former colleagues. Books that were in good shape(most were) I donated to the local library. The hardest part was making the decision to throw away books that were ragged and outdated. At least I was able to put them in a recycling bin with the hope that they would be reincarnated into something useful. I couldn’t part with some of my classics, favorite authors, or books that related to educational interests that I hoped to pursue in retirement.

    • From 8 bookcases to 2??? That must have taken serious discipline, Bernadine! Like you, we donate many of the books we can’t keep in our office. We also take solace in the power of recycling: Someday, those ragged books might be transformed into new books filled with new stories!

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