Too Many Books

The Husband and I are moving soon.  The other night, we invited a mover over to give us a quote.  He looked around and said, “It’s going to cost you a fortune.  You have too many books.”

I know what some of you are thinking.  Never!  Sacrilege!  No such thing!  These were not my responses.  I nodded, resignedly, and said, “I know.  I know.”

We do indeed have too many books.  How do I know this?  Because for days – nay, weeks – now, I have been ruthlessly culling books.  I’ve been pulling books off shelves and staring at them and saying things like, “Where did this come from?” and “Why did I buy this?” and “When will I ever, conceivably, read this again?”  The Husband has been doing the same, and we now have a pile of what looks like hundreds of books in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the second-hand bookstore man to come and sort them and judge them and, we hope, pay us for some of them.

Purging books is a painful business.  Why?  Why is it so much harder to let go of a book, even a book we don’t particularly like or a book whose purpose has been served, than it is to dispose of most other things, even more expensive things – an article of clothing, a tchotchke, an electronic gadget?

A friend recently told me that she regularly tries to winnow down her book collection and can’t do it, because even the books she doesn’t like or has never read symbolize something: her independent intellectual life, which is so different from the life lived by everyone else in her working-class immigrant family.  She described pulling a collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories from a shelf – a collection she’s never read – putting it on the “discard” pile, and then pulling it back out and returning it to the shelf.  “I bought it when I began university,” she said.  “It was a book that signified the person I was becoming, a person who read contemporary American literary authors.  I can’t stand Joyce Carol Oates!  But I still have that damn book.”

I find myself feeling exactly the same thing as I stand before my shelves staring once again at that copy of Swann’s Way that I have tried to read four times.  On my last attempt, I trudged 300 pages into it before giving up.  Every time I do a book purge, I consider getting rid of it.  This time I was successful!  Why?  Because I have bought myself the newish Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, and so I can still be the sort of person who has Proust on my bookshelf, and who can firmly believe that I will one day be the sort of person who has actually read Proust.

(Repeat for: Ulysses, The Voyage Out, about twenty back issues of Granta, Barack Obama’s memoir, and so forth.)

Other reasons I struggle when giving up a book?

  • It has a personal inscription in it, even if a) I’ve never read the book, or b) I didn’t like the book, or c) I no longer like the person who gave it to me.
  • It was given to me by The Husband, mostly because I know he will be peeved when he finds it in the “discard” pile.
  • It might, possibly, contain an article, short story or chapter that I might, possibly, use in a course that I might, possibly, design one day.
  • I loved it once, even though I will certainly never read it again.

One of the biggest problems is my collection of children’s and young adult books.  I keep some of them because I still love them  and can imagine re-reading them from time to time.  Others have sentimental resonance.  But I have far too many, including some I’ve never read all the way through.  I sometimes consider paring the collection down, but I have a fantasy that I will one day propose, and have approved, a project for a reading zone at my college.  This reading zone would be a quiet room full of books appealing to teenagers, and I would re-design my Preparation for College English course around it.  I would bring my struggling second-language readers to the reading zone and present them with shelves and shelves full of books that would instantly grab their attention because they are made to do so, unlike the dusty dun-coloured hardbacks in the library.  How can I get rid of these books when it’s possible that I can someday bring this project to fruition?  Never mind that it will never be approved, for a thousand reasons.  I need to cling to these books just in case.

I know: some of you will say, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of any of your books?  Who cares what the movers say or how much it will cost to move them?  Books are sacred!  Hold on to your books!”  (This is more or less what my father said to me on the phone this afternoon.)

But here’s the thing: I love books, and I find them beautiful, and I become very attached to some of them.  But they aren’t sacred.  They’re  things.

This seems to be a great point of contention for some people.  For example, I’ve been reading a lot of home decor magazines and blogs lately, and a lot of attention is paid to books as decorative objects.  This upsets some readers.  A lot.  Check out this post on my favourite design blog, Apartment Therapy, in which the writer argues for the practice of organizing books by colour, and some commenters respond with rage verging on apoplexy.

I’m not sure I could bring myself to treat books with quite that degree of objectification.  (Besides, I don’t think it looks all that nice.)  But there have been moments of my purge in which I have given myself pause because I have wondered if my house will look sad and empty because it will be less bursting with books.  If, god forbid, my house will look like less of a READER’S house.

And these moments have confirmed for me what I have suspected all along: books are stuff.  They take up space.  And the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love.  So I have to be ruthless to be kind.  Kind to myself, kind to our budget, kind to my house, kind to my movers, and kind to my favourite books.

Are you able to treat your books with both the love and the firmness they deserve?  When a book has had its day, are you able to let it go?  Or do you love your piles and piles of books as much as you love each book itself?  Do you wish you could liberate yourself from your mountains of books, or do those mountains make you happy?  I always feel lighter, if a little saddened, when a pile of books makes its way out the door.  I rarely miss a book once it’s gone, and in the age of Amazon, I can be pretty sure that if I do, I’ll be able to find it again.  If your home is full of books you don’t love, maybe it’s time to start saying goodbye.

But according to my movers, I’m no one to talk.

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

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33 responses

  1. Terrific post. You capture all the emotions with book collection and depletion. I knew someone who lost the entire contents of her house in a flood. After, she didn’t buy a book, only used the library. I try to use the library and trade books with friends too but still find we buy tons (and often the same titles.). Moving is a great way to cull the collection. As a teacher, I know how hard it is to THROW anything out. My attic is loaded with bags of lessons, art cards, books, etc. from my teaching days. While I don’t see myself returning to the classroom, I can’t seem to toss the stuff.
    And speaking of books- any interest in my book for your classes? Might would well with struggling readers.
    lisakwinkler.com will tell you all you need to know.

  2. I’m in two minds about your post. I love holding onto books that I adore. But I’ve also lent some of my most precious books to friends, and never got them back. So I’ve simply bought new copies. The only ones I don’t lend out are ones I’ve written notes in – for school or university studies – because they hold special significance.

    The beauty of books is that they can, for the most part, be replaced. Unless they are inscribed with some special message, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to palm them off to the second-hand bookshop owner – in which case, they become even more sacred, because you’re passing them onto someone else who is going to appreciate them as much as you did when you first read them.

    I think you sum up the value, and sacredness, of books especially well with this quote: “…the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love.”

    Keep the ones you respect the most. Pass the rest on to others who will appreciate them.

  3. Hi Siobhan

    I’m the same. Do you think it has something to do with the stories and myths we grew up on – of the penniless waifs who went on to become saints or explorers or writers through the library (of mythical, Hogwarts-esque proportions) being their favourite place in the whole world? Or perhaps it was the re-workings of Cinderella, as a refined and bookish wallflower… Whatever it was, it was powerful stuff!

      • Having read the quote in question, I suppose you could say ‘pessimistic, but true’. On the other hand, perhaps children as well as adults need some good old escapism. …

        Then and again, many of the messages in that escape can be deeply devisive. I recently read a blog post entitled ‘..ways modern men are trained to hate women’ (written by a man!!!) which decries, among other things, the ridiculous idea that all men are ‘owed’ a beautiful woman at the end of the story…

        Anyway, good luck with the packing.

  4. I understand! When I moved I had to have somebody else pack up my books after I seperated them. I didn’t want to change my mind at the last minute! Good Luck! 🙂

  5. My wife and I still refuse to get any sort of e-reader because we take great pride in displaying our hundreds (+) books. They’re so beautiful. I am fiercley addicted to them.

    • I received a Kindle for Christmas and have found this point right here to be the most difficult thing about using it. Yes, I can instantly purchase and begin reading a book at any hour of the day, which is nice. However, when I finish it, my bookshelf does not get any fuller. I still dream of having a small library room in a house some day and envision my eventual children spending hours in it, but my Kindle isn’t helping me there. Perhaps when I have the house, library, and children I will purchase copies of my favorite Kindle titles.

  6. I have managed to keep the book collection at home to a minimum, and bring any unused/unwanted ones to my office or donate them when there is a call to do so at work. Most of my house does NOT look like a reader’s house (I too had a hard time with that one, being an English teacher and all…), but that doesn’t mean that is not. Once you can make your peace with this discrepancy between your reality and appearance, everything falls into place and movers don’t charge you a fortune….

  7. I’ve purged most of my books (and other things) in the past year. It was hard to let them go at first because I always imagined having a library someday. What I found was it feels so much better to get rid of things and enjoy the space.

  8. I have done some purging, and probably need to do more in order to fit in that piano I want to. But I also want my kids to grow up in a house filled with books. I think it’s important they be familiar with all kinds of random(-ish) books, and I’ve heard being around books is possibly the only thing that generally means the kid will grow up literate (unlike income, parental education level, etc.) Besides, I am *so* sure I will get around to reading Ulysses this decade. I know Joyce wrote it by 33, I only bought by the time I was 33, I just hope I’ll read it before I’m twice that age.

    • Maeve:
      If I had children, or had plans to have children, my feelings about getting rid of books might be entirely different. That said, as another commenter mentioned (perhaps not here), we found so many books that weren’t in our houses, surely our children will do the same? I wonder if it matters whether there are 200 or 10,000 books in the house…just the presence of some books, and parents who read, might be enough.

  9. I’m glad to hear that someone else struggles with the same problem I do! When I started a library I had no idea how much dust would build up, and my library has outgrown the library room. I now purge books based on what I feel I have outgrown in terms of interest or will never read again, and justify it to myself as “making way for new books to come in, on subjects I’m currently interested in.” I do my best to give my books to people or groups who I think will appreciate them. And soon after, I find I have room for the new books I am buying! So now I don’t feel so bad passing them on when I’ve outgrown them.

  10. I’ve moved majorly, five times. Each time I had to cull books – the hardest thing to do. The last time, I sold most of my books to a second hand bookshop – even a book from my third year of highschool, that I’d done with my favourite teacher.. It was hard, but cathartic. I still buy books, love the smell of new books, and especially ones by favourite authors. A few I reread every so often, to see how I change as the years go. Love books, love this tribute post to them!

  11. Siobhan—

    I also collect, treasure, re-read, re-visit books—so understand your angst at letting some go…. But, I suppose, in the end, even books are just things, though we hold on to them because they provide meaning, inspiration, hope, provocation, comfort—“ballast against the updraft / of oblivion,” as the poet Eamon Grannan wrote.

    I won’t forget a neighbor of my youth, whose house my mother took care of after he died while his estate was being settled. He was a judge, a learned man, and in his basement, after his death, my mom and I discovered a vast library—shelves from floor to ceiling on every wall stacked with thousands of books of amazing variety. This man clearly cherished his collection, a lifetime’s enterprise. Each shelf was organized by genre, and within each genre the books were organized by author’s name. The collection was a sight to behold. What happened to this man’s efforts? Well, a couple months after his death, there was an estate sale, the basement was opened to the public, and the shelves were cleared in two days.

  12. It is SO hard to get rid of books for me, but as you said, sometimes it just needs to be done. One thing I have done in recent years is given my books to my students. This gives me some joy so the experience is not a total loss. Good luck with paring down your collection!

  13. I ,too, have hundreds of books. My husband is always trying to convince me to get rid of them, but I cannot. There are books that I still have to read, have reread multiple times, or the book has a story behind it. Whether I got it for my 5th birthday, or it belonged to my mother. I also save my books to lend to my students. It is very difficult letting go of my books, and I wish you luck. You know eventually your book collection will be up there again someday.

  14. I too have been accused of having too many books, and I have lugged them from one apartment to another, each time only being able to rid myself of a few. Living with a partner I always have the convenient excuse that HE may want to read it one day. Maybe..

  15. I too have a lot of books, and even moving them to a new bookcase is a hassle. I too have come to the realization that they are just things, but I do keep my favorites in safekeeping.

  16. I don’t think I will ever be able to get rid of any of my books, but then again, my shelves aren’t nearly as filled as yours appears to be. 🙂 I get attached to books very easily, especially ones I really liked, but even those I haven’t read. Like Alexandre Dumas’s “The three musketeers”, I can’t get myself to read it, but I just like the book so much.

    There is just something about books.

  17. Set them free with intention. If you’re going to start the reading room, start it (ready, fire, aim in that order). If not, then perhaps donate them to a shelter or a group home where those books might give solace to kids who need them now.

    I understand what you’re going through. Good luck!

  18. Wonderful post. I can relate to your sentiments completely. When I downsized recently I had to pare down from a home library to a single bookshelf. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I sobbed throughout the process. After a year and a half I can’t remember the titles to most of the books I gave away and I cherish the ones I kept that much more. Good luck with your move.

  19. “And the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love.” Well put. I have only in the past couple years begun to realize how much I can subtly turn something of value (reading, thinking, connecting) into a way to label myself and others. (I am not saying this is necessarily always what’s happening when I hold onto many books, but it definitely comes into play, for me.)

    At the same time, the struggle between what to let go of and what to hold onto is still there, for those books that are of value or have played an important role in my life in the past. There are books I have never owned that I feel I carry the key scenes and moments in my heart and mind, as moments that have resonated, and even continue to “ruminate” somewhere deep in my mind. I think for me, perhaps the best way to phrase that is not to celebrate “books” so much, as to celebrate the people who wrote those scenes which have stayed with me–what gifts we give each other through our insights and our stories. Even as I learn what would-be insights and stories have actually been harmful, and learn to purge them and turn away from them, to the good ones.

    Just some thoughts. 🙂 I appreciated your post, since I hadn’t encountered someone with the same or similar take on this.

  20. My husband is like you – CANNOT get rid of a book! Anybody want out-of-date software manuals? But I’ve lived among too many books my whole life, and now have quite a cavalier attitude;

    I rarely buy fiction; libraries exist for a reason, and I read fast (reading slowly makes reading much cheaper!) and will never get through what even a small libary holds, so am unlikely to miss what I don’t buy.

    I do buy fiction when travelling, and part of the pleasure is leaving the finished book somewhere someone else might find it, and appreciate it. Park benches (on sunny days), in rented apartments, in the public rooms of hotels and B and Bs, airport boarding lounges ….

    If the book is excellent and in excellent condition, I give it to a library. Worst that could happen is they sell it at their next book sale, but I have seen some of my old books in the stacks!

    This being Montreal, general interest books can also go in a box out on the curb, where they will be picked over by random passers-by.

    My brother got me a Kobo for Xmas, I am loving it, because not only can I get library books for it, it can hold a zillion books without getting any heavier or looking cluttered! Even so, I find I delete books I’m finished.

    Given all that, there are STILL too many books in our house, not all of them belonging to the kids or the husband. Lack of time to sort, and there are some I just cannot give up … and DO actually re-read! Those SF anthologies are ever fresh!

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