Keep or Toss? My Personal Criteria for Culling a Library
Marie Kondo on My Right and Hoarders on My Left: How Do I Manage an Overflow of Books?
Books contain entire worlds, galaxies even; there is no limit to what fills their pages. Sadly, that’s not true of the shelves that hold them. So, when you run out of rooms, walls, and cases, what do you do?
At comical extremes there are Marie Kondo and hoarders. Should you throw out all but a few books (something Kondo doesn’t actually recommend, you’ll be relieved to know), or never part with a volume once procured?
In Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet describes his
monstrous personal library of several tens of thousands of books . . . a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read—including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title—as well as ones you mean to read one day.
The problem, as he says, is that once the library is sufficiently large it’s “impossible to move house,” and even moving within one’s house can prove difficult. Count me out.
I have a small library in our home. It’s one room with floor-to-ceiling, built-in shelves on two walls. I also have a couple other small cases. With my current setup, I can hold about fifteen hundred books. In the past, I’ve had a mix of bookcases in this or that room, along this or that wall. Whatever the arrangements, however, it’s never been quite enough room for all the books I own.
Right now, for instance, I have six medium-sized moving boxes full of books in a storage closet. And I have several new books coming in every month. Depending on what projects are underway, I might have a dozen or two looking for a home on a regular basis. Between capacity restrictions and inflow, I have to regularly cull my library.
As I write those words, I can imagine some people wincing or shifting uncomfortably in their seats, possibly some of you: “How can you possibly get rid of books? How do you decide what to keep and what to toss?” I can practically feel the angst vibrating across the internet through my keyboard as I type.
I find the following criteria helpful when deciding what books stay and which go. This list won’t work for true collectors, which I’m not, but it might prove useful to other serious readers with limited shelf space.
Am I finished with this book? Many books come my way for projects. Once the project is complete, I may no longer need the book.
Do I need this book? Can I see using this book in the future in any meaningful way? If yes, it’s probably worth holding onto.
Can I easily get another copy? Amazon and AbeBooks make the procural of used books relatively easy—and often inexpensive—if I ever regret culling a title. That lowers the risk when discarding a book it turns out I actually need. Then again, if it seems tough to find, I’m probably keeping it.
Do I love this book? Am I attached for emotional or sentimental reasons? I keep several copies of Augustine’s Confessions in various translations for this reason. This is also why I’ll probably never part with Sergei Fudel’s Light in the Darkness, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, or Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator.
Does this book represent an important shift in my thinking? If a book was instrumental at a fundamental level, I’m more inclined to keep it even if I never go back to it. Just seeing the spine on the shelf can remind me of what I’ve learned or how I’ve grown.
Do I enjoy dipping back into it? If a book brings me joy when I drop in for a few pages every month or so, I almost always keep it. I’ve got an increasingly worn copy of Montaigne’s Essays I hope my children place in my casket when I drop—because I’ll still own it when that day arrives.
Is it part of a set? Do I really need the entire set or just select volumes? There’s no crime in breaking up a collection, as much as the idea might scandalize some.
Am I tired thinking about this? This one is a little tricky, but if I’ve gone as far with a subject as I want to go, sometimes just seeing the spines on the shelf occupies enough headspace that I’d rather have them out of sight. That’s part of why I’ve got all those boxes in the closet; I’m not sure I want to let them go, but I am sure I don’t want to spend my scarce attention noodling on them anymore.
If you look at this list, everything pretty much comes down to whether I still need or value a particular book. “Libraries only last as long as people find them useful,” write Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weudwen in The Library: A Fragile History (review here). And what’s true for the forest is true for the trees.
If I don’t have a use for a book, I’ll consider losing it to make room for one I do. There’s virtue in subtraction. And that’s to say nothing of the risks of hoarding: Jacques Bonnet relates the grim fate of composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose bookcases eventually collapsed and crushed him to death.
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