long . lines and ripples

Reasons to Get Rid of Books

I do not get rid of books on a schedule, or according to a rule (“one in, one out”), but I have still been purging books lately because I need the space.

It got me thinking: there are signs that, even while print is in decline, Americans are still attached to the idea of the book–if not the particular physical instantiations of the book on one’s own shelf. The idea of cutting them up out of convenience has been a recent source of horror to book lovers

Murdered books

…as has arranging them on your bookcase by color, or applying the minimalist decluttering standard of “sparks joy,” has caused an outcry.

But still, I throw out books. So I need a reason. What I have found is that it is easier to think in terms of the positive case, the reason to keep a book, than to throw it out. Assuming you don’t have a space crunch, and have to get really aggressive, one good reason is enough to keep a book.

Here are a few reasons I have found to keep:

  1. A book that is difficult to re-obtain. For example, you had to order it from an obscure third party overseas, and there are not many copies left. I have many out-of-print guidebooks for hiking that fall in this category. Even if you think you have a low chance of using a book like this, if replacing it would be difficult or expensive, you’re better off holding on to it if possible.
  2. It has sentimental value. Pretty obvious explanation. If you attach value to this particular copy, then you should probably listen to this attachment.
  3. The book is needed for a known project in the future. For example, you know that you want to write a paper on the history of dandelion preservation this year (or maybe next), and you are stockpiling books on the subject. The project-based approach gives you a clear idea of when you’ll use the book, and when it’s headed for discard/resale.
  4. It is a reference in a field where you have or will work. “Reference” here means that you have a reasonable belief that you will pull it off the shelf on a regular basis to check or cite something. You might never actually “read” it, but it is such an important text that it is always in the background of everything else you do.
  5. You intend to read it in the near future. Everyone will define this differently. I keep a shelf (it gets scattered, but periodically I collect and re-assess it) of everything I intend to read in the next 1-2 months. Sometimes priorities change, and I do not always get to all the books on the shelf, but at least I know what I want to read. And I know that I do not have anything hidden on my shelf that I want to read; if I did, I would never find it. Texts that you re-read periodically (I once heard of a guy who re-read Ulysses every year) are a subset of this category.

The above reasons to keep lead me to several surprising rules for discard:

  1. It is a “classic,” in a non-specific sense. For example, this book represents part of an all-around education, or what an “educated” person should have read. But most of us (at least, us apartment-dwellers) do not have space to hold everything that represents an all-around education. “Generally valuable” has the potential to be a very large category. What I am trying to avoid here is having tons of stuff on my shelves just sitting there, with no realistic prospect that I will pick it up in the next–let’s be honest–5 to 10 years. In that time, I will probably move, meaning I will have to carry it all, and find space for it in the next place. All for something that, in my particular life at this point in my history, amounts to a heavy wall decoration.
  2. It is something I haven’t read, but feel like I should have. This is obviously not in the spirit of the method I am developing. See #5 above. If you are going to read it, put it in a pile to read. Otherwise, it is just going to nag you.
  3. It is important work in my field or interests. Again, “important” does not necessarily mean I will use it any time soon. Figure out if you will actually use it, and distinguish between a “reference text” (that which comes up in a particular expert discussion, over and over) and an important text. If you are a scholar of modern literature, Joyce’s Ulysses is an important text, but the Bible is a reference text. Unless you work in the right subfield, you could go a long time without ever actually looking something up in Ulysses. The Bible, on the other hand, is going to be a reference text for large numbers of people in many subfields. Even if you do not cite it, others frequently will.
  4. You have kids, and you think they will probably read some these books. That is a long shot. Research has shown the importance of having books around to encourage kids to read, but if you are thinking about how to winnow your library, you likely have more than enough books to suggest the activity of reading. Think again about the replaceability standard. Most of what you want them to read can be found again easily–and odds are they aren’t reading any of it, anyway. If a kids show an inclination to read books of a certain genre, getting the books as needed (borrow or buy) is likely to be more in line with their interests–more than what you can realistically anticipate on your self.

These reasons are biased toward researchers, and other people with working libraries. But that says something in itself. If you are not working with your books, they are inert objects–decorations, at best–that weigh your shelves, and you, down. Once you have enough of them, they might even discourage you from picking up something new. I want books on my shelf that I am likely to pick up. Libraries are huge for a reason, and we should not try to compete with them.