I’m thinking about getting rid of most of my books. I’ve been considering this idea for some time now. I look at my bookshelves at home and wonder what good all these books are doing. I’m never going to reread the overwhelming majority of them. There are some books I own that I’ve never read and I really don’t think I ever will at this point. They’re just sitting there.
What good is a book that’s not being used? *
How much good could my books do if I gave them away? Organizations like library friends’ groups could use them to fundraise. Used bookstores could put them into the hands of people who’ll actually read them. Various social support agencies are always looking for reading material for their clients.
It starts to feel selfish of me to hoard books that I’m not reading. That, in all likelihood, I’ll never read again.
It’s worth examining why I collected all my books in the first place.
I grew up in a house surrounded by hundreds of books. Having full shelves and piles of books laying around feels like home.
I was raised to believe books are sacred. There’s an aspect of worship in surrounding myself with books. I feel a responsibility to safeguard and preserve them.
I like to show off my collection. I want people to see all my books and be impressed. It’s an intellectual self-portrait, so people will know the breadth of my interests.
I love the idea that someone will look through my collection and find something they want to read. Be it a specific title or a new genre or subject, I love having a collection that can help people discover a new fascination.
I like having a visual record of what I’ve read over the years. I like being able to easily reread all my favorites. I used to buy books I might want to read someday. My shelves are a physical record of both my Have Read and To Be Read lists.
These are my old reasons. Do they still apply?
I work in a library and I’m surround by books every day. In my current house, all my books are in the back room where I spend very little time. Yes, I still love being surrounded by books, but my personal collection isn’t a huge presence in my home life anymore.
My sense of the value of books has changed dramatically since becoming a librarian. Very few books have value as objects in-and-of themselves. The value of a book is its content, not its container. Very few of my books are valuable—a few beautifully bound, one or two semi-rare. Just about everything on my shelf is mass produced and thousands of copies exist elsewhere. As a librarian and reviewer for Booklist, an increasing portion of my collection is ARCs which have literally zero object value.
And am I actually “safeguarding and preserving” my books? Any book I own worth preserving is already held in the collections of professional archives. All my books are most likely going to be donated or trashed when I die. My collection won’t serve posterity in any useful way. The idea that I’m fulfilling some kind of grand responsibility is self-aggrandizing nonsense.
I no longer feel the need to perform my identity though my books. All my friends and family have seen all my books already, anyway, so who am I even impressing?
Learning to do Readers’ Advisory has fundamentally altered how I view my collection. There are very few titles I own that I would recommend to anyone. If someone looks at my collection and says, “I’d love to read more about this! Which book should I start with?” I wouldn’t recommend anything on my shelf. Almost all my nonfic is at least 20 years out of date and I certainly haven’t kept my fiction much up to date, either. None of my collection is curated, timely, or comprehensive.
Collecting books as a record of my life is a wasteful strategy. I have all kinds of online tools to track things now: every book I read, every book I want to read. I also do 90% of my reading through the library and no longer buy more than a few books each year.
My TBR list is so long now, I’ll never be able to get through the whole thing before I die—and it’s only going to keep getting longer. I certainly don’t have time to reread old stuff if I want to keep up with all the new titles I want to read. I’ll never reread the vast majority of books on my shelf again.
The question remains: What’s the point of my collection? If I’m never going to reread my books, and if I wouldn’t recommend most of them to others, and if I no longer care about showing them off, why do I keep them around? The only value they have for me anymore is simply that it makes me happy to have lots of books in my home.
That joy isn’t nothing. My books bring me enough happiness—even just sitting there gathering dust—that I haven’t been able to make myself donate them yet, even though I’ve been thinking about it for some time.
If I donate my books, they can be used to do good for others, rather than just sitting untouched on a shelf.
The question I need to answer is this: Is the joy my books bring me more important than using them to do good for others in my community?
I know the answer but I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to it yet.
* I’m aware of the concept of an antilibrary and I agree with it. But that’s another personal use that begins to feel selfish compared to the good I could do by giving my books away. Also, I work in a public library so I’m not lacking in unread books to remind me how much there is yet to learn.