The question of getting rid of books is a very delicate one.
If you’ve been on certain parts of the Internet recently, you may have noticed backlash against Marie Kondo. (People argue she said you should get rid of all your books. She’s said she keeps about 30, but other numbers are totally fine, as long as they’re evoking joy for you.)
Now, I just moved apartments. Moving books is not a joy, even if the books themselves are. Even if you have movers. My books are now all on shelves again, and in the process I found four boxes full of books that really could find other homes now. So it’s time for me to talk again about keeping books, not keeping books, and some ways to think about that might be helpful.
Some things about me
Since I graduated from college in 1998 and moved into my first apartment, I have moved 8 times. Three of those moves have been long distance (Massachusetts to Minnesota, Minnesota to Maine, Maine to Massachusetts). The others have been within the same town or metro region.
I also like books. I like the physical objects. I like the information that’s in them. I have some tastes in reading (and in research) that aren’t easily supported by almost any libraries.
And I am still pretty much at ‘do I need this exact physical book’ these days. Because moving books is a pain.
That means that any book I hang on to for an extended period has to earn its keep somehow.
(said the oracle at Delphi, and many other people since.)
That means the self you are now (or at least recently, the last year or three). Not the self you were when you were five. Or the self you were ten years ago. Or the self you might in ten years. A little bit of reflection can help you figure out what books are really bringing you joy.
Here’s what I know about myself right now.
I’m living in a new space. The old place, I spent 95% of my time in the bedroom. My computer is still in my bedroom, but my living room is a lovely size and gets gorgeous light (even in a rather barren sort of January where it’s all leaves and bare branches). It’s a space I’d like to spend more time in regularly, not just when I have friends over. (And in the summer, it’s got an air conditioner.)
Most of my general reading is now on ebook. (Not only are they easy to move, but I can carry 800 books plus a bunch of fanfic in my pocket. As someone who reads fast, used to have to pack suitcases for trips that were half books and half clothes to have anywhere near enough to read, and who loves never having to do the “Will I run out of book while out of the house? What should I bring with me, no that’s a pain to carry, what else?” maths anymore, ebooks are great.
But I still get certain subsets of topics in print.
In the old apartment, I had a bathtub (the new place only has a shower. It is hard to read in the shower. The books get soaked.) So the stack of books I kept for purposes of reading in the bathtub is no longer necessary. And some copies really were falling to pieces and can now be replaced by ebooks when I want to read them again.
What books do I want in print?
Your list will be different from my list. I want to be really clear about that up front. Keep as many books as are meaningful or make you happy.
That said, here’s how I make the decisions currently.
1) Is this a book I want to share with other people?
I get most of my Pagan books in print, because I want to be able to pull them out and share with people (students of witchcraft and coven or group members). That’s hard to do with an ebook. Many of these are not necessarily books I read back to front, but they’re books I want to keep for reference for one reason or another.
2) Is this a book that makes more sense in print?
Cookbooks and herbalism books are much better in print, for me – they’re easier to browse and rummage through for the specific information I want. I’ve also got a few old collect books (mostly my Arthurian Legends materials) that would be expensive to replace in other formats, and where the linear nature of the print book is actually really appealing to me.
3) Sentimental value
I have a place on my shelves for books that are sentimental choices for me. A selection of my father’s books (he wrote over 30), a few particularly favourite editions of children’s books. But this move, I finally got rid of many of the British School stories I grew up on, keeping just a representative sampling of a few of my particular favourites.
4) Can I get this from other sources?
One of the challenges for my Pagan materials is that while many of them are available through various sources (currently in print or used), most of the ones I care about aren’t available through the library system.
This is because of the way libraries order books, and which review sources they mostly rely on, and the fact almost no public library is going to have really extensive resources in a specialised topic (just like they probably don’t have every book ever about really specialised fiber arts skills.)
Because the answer to ‘can I get this if I need it’ is trickier, that’s the other reason I’m more inclined to keep the Pagan materials..
How do these items relate?
My last question comes back to something we talked about repeatedly in one of my Master’s of Library and information Science classes, the one on collection development. Roughly speaking, collection development (aka collection management) is about how you decide what books you add to the collection, what books you replace in the collection (if/when they get worn out or go missing) and what books you eventually remove from the collection.
(When I am being flip, I sometimes refer to it as “buying books with other people’s money” which is also true, but most collections are not just books!)
The thing that stuck with me, however, was our professor talking about the idea of books being in relationship to each other as what makes the collection. Even in libraries with similar demographics and collections, different libraries will develop different feels based on hundreds or thousands of choices over time. That’s a fascinating and wonderful thing when it works well.
A public library has a responsibility to recognise and offer materials for the entire public they serve, and school and academic libraries need to first and foremost support the course-related projects and the needs of their students related to learning. (And special libraries – that is, libriares that aren’t one of those three – need to support the needs of their users for the reason the library exists.)
But when we’re talking about our personal libraries, we can and should make choices that make those libraries ours. Not the books we ought to read because they got good reviews, or the books we meant to read five years ago, or the book that a well-meaning relative who remembered we like books but not which books gave us.
Make your collection the books that make you light up and grin, or sit down on the floor and browse. The ones that make you want to engage with them in some way, whether that’s curling up with them or ranting about them to your best friend. And that’s where Marie Kondo’s ‘spark joy’ comes in. Keep the books you care about, whatever that means to you. If you don’t have a connection to it you want to keep, then think about finding it a new home.
How else does this apply?
I am very close to dumping all my saved Instapaper bookmarks and Pinboard bookmarks into an export file, and starting fresh, on the theory that if I really need something I can rummage in the export file. Very very close. Also clearing out and archiving some of my ebooks.
I’ve seen people talk about KonMaring their open tabs. (Do they really want to read the thing that’s been sitting there for a week? Or is it open because they feel they ought to read it?
Sometimes having many tabs open is legitimate. Sometimes it’s about being stalled on doing anything with any of them. That’s not a great feeling for most of us, right? So maybe we can try having less of that feeling. Does that feel better?
I think being openminded about it, and taking time to look at what works for you now – not the you of five years ago, or the you five years in the future.
Obviously, some things will have long-term consequences, but in other cases, it can help to realise we don’t need to hold onto the physical book to remember it fondly, or take away the pieces that were useful.