read or dust?

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France


A couple of people asked how I decided which books to keep and which to give away.  Faced with a wall (or several walls…) of books that you have carefully cultivated over decades is daunting.  You have invested a lot of money and emotion in them.  They have been old friends.  You have carted them from house to house, packed them up in boxes, unpacked them again.  Arranged them by size/colour/subject/Dewey Decimal Classification (well maybe that’s just me).  You may even have read them, maybe even twice.  All of them?  No.  Recently? No.

I rest my case.

Go up to your bookshelf/bookshelves/book piles/library (delete as necessary) Go to a random shelf and without pausing pick out ten books you have either just acquired and haven’t had time to read yet but know you will within the next two months or have already read but are so fantastic that you know you will have to read again within the next six months.  No cheating, no going to the pile of books that just arrived from Amazon, no wandering around cherry picking.  One shelf at random.

How many did you find?

I rest my case again.

The biography of the Duchess of Devonshire may well have been fascinating but are you a historian?  Are you going to go back and check facts?  Are you a Mitford aficionado and will reread it over and over?  Or are you just keeping it because it looks good on the shelf?

My first degree was in philosophy.  I had an admirable collection of philosophy books from original texts to commentaries and commentaries on commentaries.  Today I am a stay at home mum.  I do not have an illustrious career or a glamorous high-powered job.  I like that.  I love doing what I do and if you flick through my gratitude journal you would see I offer up my gratitude for that on a regular basis.  However, there have been times when I have been made to feel small and insignificant because I don’t go out to work.  At those times it is nice to flick through those philosophy books and remind myself I once read them all and even understood them.

Codswallop.  I don’t need a pile of dusty books to boost my self-esteem and furthermore I am never going to read them again.  Somebody else with a pile of student debt would probably be grateful for them.

Some books will have been presents or belonged to relatives.  You can’t get rid of them because you would feel guilty.  How about feeling guilty that you are hoarding all those precious books which you are never going to read again.  Think of the Tate, The National Portrait Gallery, The British Museum.  Imagine your indignation if they were closed overnight and only a very select handful of people were ever allowed to visit them and see the artwork and artifacts they hold.  But even worse, those people never bothered to go.  That’s you and your never to be read again books.

By all means keep some for sentimental value.  I certainly did.  Some of the hardest books to give away were books from my childhood.  Though oddly enough as I child and a voracious reader I regularly did deals with the chap who sold secondhand books from a dingy shop on the corner of  Hillgate Place and Uxbridge Street.  I took him 100 or so paperbacks in part exchange for another selection, which in turn would be returned to him for another and so on.  The shop has long gone and last I saw it was a trendy deli.  A shame, Notting Hill Gate has plenty of trendy delis, it needs good second-hand bookshops where children can learn to explore and learn the art of part exchange.

I’ve preached to you long enough.  But please, look at those bookshelves again, take off the rose-coloured spectacles and really look at them.  Somebody else could love them, could really use them.  Somebody else might read them rather than just dust them.



36 thoughts on “read or dust?

  1. Thanks for thoughtful words on book culling. It’s easier to give books away if one keeps a Books.doc file with author, (year published), title, place published & publisher. Mention the date you finished & scribble a comment or two. Then give it away. Martha & I plan another cull when refinishing the living room. We’ll lay hundreds of books down & photograph their covers. Then, ‘Bye-bye books!’ Sometimes we leave them on benches near Clayport Library or the train station, to find happy homes.

    1. Do you just leave them or do you use BookCrossing? I used to find it really hard to leave books because people kept running after me telling me I had left a book behind!

      A lot of people use the photography idea with clothes that have sentimental value. They put them on take a photograph and then pass them on. If I did that I would just hoard photographs. So off they go!

  2. I sifted mine at the beginning of the year, and I think I will sift again. I lost all my childhood books cos my brother (who was living alone in the family home at the time) stuck them all in the shed, the roof collapsed and ALL my childhood possessions, my dolls, my books, my artwork, everything was ruined. He didn’t sift through it for me, just binned it.

    I was mortified then and feel mortified again now. But in actual fact it saved me from worrying about whether I should bin them or not now.

  3. You really hit a nerve! I love my books and have tried to be good over the years and many house moves, to reduce, reduce, reduce but I still have dusty academic tomes form my high school years as well as university! I live in France and have tried to give away to the local library but they say they have enough books in English (they don’t, believe me), I’ve given loads to friends and tried to give them away at car boot sales but no one seems to want them. There aren’t any 2nd hand shops around here nor charity shops, so as there’s no way I’m putting them in the bin, for landfill (total sacrilege) they’re stuck with me for a while longer! I loved this post, whihc I found through the UBC. I look forward to reading more.

    1. Why don’t you just start leaving books at stations and cafes etc. Even if it was just one a day it’s a start. Or set up your own second hand bookshop!

    2. Maybe is an idea? Though you have to pay costs for sending books (and use those points you then get, to ask other people for books – so it doesn’t help to reduce your book pile, but it’s useful for if you want other books to read).
      Maybe you can turn them into Bookcrossing books and leave them at places where many foreigners come (who probably speak English), maybe train stations?

  4. That post made a lot of sense, but I’m not ready to pay heed yet! I love my books too. But I don’t think I have it in me to give them away. I’m not even ready to lend them. It feels too much like giving away a part of myself. Someday I shall, but I’m not ready yet.

    1. There is no point decluttering anything until you are ready. Otherwise it will be a painful and unpleasant experience and you will make catastrophic mistakes and never declutter again. It will happen eventually, when the time is right.

  5. There are lots of good book exchange programmes (like the Books for Free scheme run by Healthy Planet based in the UK) which are good for people like me who get through a lot of books but don’t necessarily have room for them all at home. The Kindle is great for the shelf space issue too. I’m also very lucky to have access to a lot of good libraries which stops me hanging on to things!

  6. I grew up in a house laden books, and I loved to read them. Even now I love to go to my parents house, and find something to read.

    But. I’ve never read a book twice (at least not intentionally) and I’ve never had the space for wall to wall books. So I read, and pass them on.
    In fact, now I tend to read on my kindle which is good and bad. No more clutter but no sharing either.

    We just took loads of books to the school summer fair. I kept a few special ones and some cookbooks. But not many at all.

    1. It’s odd how people are happy to take shedloads of clothes to charity shops but have a think about keeping books. Keeping special ones is good 🙂

    1. Well, whether you pick it up or not is up to you. But just think what Amina could do with the books you are never going to read ………… 🙂

  7. Some books, for me, are just more than books and I could never get rid of them. For all the others, well, there is the Kindle now, right?

  8. I reread a lot, but I also have a lot of books! And I borrow a lot of books as well (from the library and from other people). I do only keep books if I want to reread them again, so that’s what I use to decide whether or not the book can stay in my bookcase. I started buying more books when the library didn’t have the kind of books I wanted to read, as I wanted to read more books in their original language and the library mostly had Dutch versions of those books, or didn’t have them at all. So if I wanted to read them, which I did, my only option was buying.
    To keep track of the books I have (as well as the books I still want to read), I use , which is a very useful site for me: I can also give the books tags so I can easily sort them and see what kind of books I have duplicates of (Librarything also notifies you if you have real duplicates).

    1. It is much harder if you have a niche interest or want to read in a specific language. But you can still pass on the books once you have read them. It is rare that they will be read again and then somebody else in the same situation as you can have that Aahhhh moment when they find your book in a second hand bookshop!

      Thanks for commenting. Feedback is so good 🙂

      1. Yes, I pass on a lot of my books 🙂 I sometimes find books in other languages here in the 2nd hand bookstore too (Japanese, Ancient Greek) which are impossible to find in normal bookstores. It makes me happy when I find such books, so I pass on my other-language books too! I also turn them into Bookcrossing-books or bring them to the 2nd hand store or to the give-away store (a “store” where people can drop stuff off and take away stuff for free).


  9. Gillie, this is a good post. I have really culled my books. I have an Ikea Expedit 5X5 bookcase and 11 of the 25 squares are empty of books and another 5 are not full. Three of the squares are full of scrapbook albums. So my actual books don’t take up much room. I”m really excited about that. Would dump a few more if Mom would agree. She did let me get rid of 35 the other day.

    1. Another scrapper! Tell me do you scrap more now that you have easy access to materials? I started in 2000. There was almost nothing available in the UK and I scrapped regularly. Today I have a shedload of stuff and I hardly scrap at all. It’s too time consuming to work out what I want to use….

      1. I no longer scrap much at all and I have gotten rid of $100’s worth of supplies–sold, gave away. I have only kept a few tools and a few other supplies. I went from a scrapbook room to a couple of small drawers worth.

  10. Gillie, I am over here because of a link posted on 365 Less Things. And I am so glad that I came. Decluttering books is something I think about a lot. I have gotten rid of quite a few already but long for insight to further diminish my stacks. You helped me go one step further because I had not recognized a fault I had until you articulated it. I had not realized how many books I had for the purpose of what other people might think about me. (I do tend to judge people by the books they have!) What a useless trap! This will definitely help me cull more. I would love to affirm you also on turning away from a high-powered career to focus on being a mum. If one has the means to choose that it is really is quite wonderful. I commend you for it.

  11. For this reason, I have so few books. I did an inventory of them a week or two ago (to show people), and almost all of them are hidden away, so that they don’t appear cluttery to my eye… It’s so nice to have so few books, and use libraries almost 100%

  12. When we bought our house and moved a year and half ago I was ruthless with my books. I am a librarian…I have a book shelf or two or three…. Afterwards there was actual SPACE on the shelf, not just packed to the gills with books so tight it was hard to pull them off the shelf! But, I can see that I have been filling them up again. The spaces are gone. Perhaps I shall go be ruthless again.

    1. I know just what you mean about the space. That was the thing that I loved most of all, I could see between the books, and like clearing out a wardrobe and finding new outfits I found loads of books I didn’t know I had!

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