How I Culled My Library with Ruthless Precision (And You Can Too)

Books are among my favourite things and I’m a packrat at heart. This means that my homes have always been overrun with reading material – books piled on side tables, spilling from the shelves, and tucked into corners like Easter eggs.

I’ve been more and more interested in experimenting with minimalism lately – or at least a version of minimalism that suits my family’s lifestyle. We’ve been ridding ourselves of clothes, media, and furniture that we don’t use/need, and I’ve got to admit: it feels as good, if not better, than getting something new. Honing my belongings down to only the useful and beloved has freed up more space for living and given me a better appreciation of the items that I choose to keep.

We have two large bookshelves in our home, and they were full to the brim. That meant that new books were stacked on the sideboard, on the couch, on the coffee table – I’d even brought home a smaller bookshelf (and then another) that I crammed into the bedroom. You know, for more books.

It was an impressive, and overwhelming, collection.

I decided to cull as many books as was needed to fit my collection onto only the two big shelves in our home office. I rounded up every book in the house and then asked myself a few questions, book by book. Here’s how I decided what made the cut, and what you might ask yourself if you’re wanting to do the same:

1) Does this belong to me?

People know that I’m an avid reader and so I get loaned a lot of books. I made the decision to remove anything that doesn’t belong to me –  whether I read it or not – to be returned to its rightful owner. As much as I appreciate someone lending me a book, and my own good intentions to read it aside, if it’s made it onto my shelf then I’ve had it too long.

2) Is this something that I enjoyed?

If the answer is ‘no’, then that’s easy. Only keeping books that we enjoy, or plan to enjoy, makes a collection unique to you. To me, there’s little sense in keeping anything in a personal library that doesn’t speak to its owner. I believe this across the board – from novels to cookbooks to reference material. If it doesn’t feel good in your hand or make you happy, chuck it*.

3) Is this something that I plan to enjoy/ Is this something that I will enjoy again?

I have a lot of unread books in my collection, and some of them were just not appealing to me anymore. Some were gifts or impulse buys. Some interested me at one time but have since fallen completely off my radar. If it’s just taking up space, or aspirational, say goodbye.

If reading it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you have no emotional attachment to the book (or its contents) then let it go. I culled quite a few books that I’d enjoyed as airport reads, 3-star ARCs, and novels that I had once loved but since outgrown.

4) Is there someone in my life who might enjoy this more?

I have some beautiful kids series that I don’t see myself ever rereading. They’re good books in good shape: wonderful candidates for being re-homed among my friends or family. This is not a call to saddle your loved ones with crap you’re too guilty to throw away – only if there’s something in your collection that someone special to you might genuinely cherish should you consider passing it along as a glee-maker.

5) Is this something that can be easily replaced?

I owned a generic, paperback copy of Mario Puzo’s the Godfather. I reread it every few years, but there was nothing special about the particular copy on my shelf. It’s an easy book to find, be it at the library, borrowed from a friend, or at almost any second-hand bookstore. I donated my copy, and when and if I want to read it again, another will be readily available.

6) Can I replace this with a digital copy?

There were a few books that I would like to read again but that I didn’t feel particularly strongly about having as a hard-copy on my shelves. Classics, especially, are easy to find as inexpensive/free ebooks. Some of my old, scruffy paperbacks were just asking to be replaced with digital copies, and doing so freed up valuable shelf space.

7) Is this something I can replace with a nicer copy?

If there are beloved stories in your collection that you can afford to upgrade, don’t be afraid to do so. My copies of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman, are from three separate editions. I picked them up second hand. One of them is a different size than the other two. The cover art is nothing special, and the books themselves have all seen better days. Even though I love the series, and will read it again, I donated the copies I had with the plan of replacing them in future with copies that match one another and have cover art that excites me.

It’s still a big collection, but winnowing away the chaff has made the real treasures shine. It’s also changed my mindset about what I actually need to keep going forward. I’ve gotten rid of the secondary shelves and the entirety of my library can now be found in a single room, which makes choosing a book easy and enjoyable. Letting go is hard, but I think it’s a great way to start a new year of learning and reading.

* I realize that with school, or certain jobs, there comes the necessity to keep some books that don’t make us happy. That is, of course, a different story, so chuck accordingly.

Image credit: original image by George Gross, and has been cropped

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