"A genteel black hole that knows how to read"
August 17, 2011 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Question for the bookworms of AskMeFi: I have waaay too many books, but don't know how to decide which to get rid of, and which to hang onto. How do you rationalise your library?

I have no impulse-control when it comes to buying books, especially cheap second-hand books from charity shops. My flat is small and overflowing with books. It used to be OK but now I feel uncomfortable, like I'm being a packrat. I simply do not have enough room for them anymore and it's time to rationalise.

My books fall into the following categories:
1. Read, will probably reread.
2. Read, will never re-read.
3. Haven't read yet, will probably read soon.
4. Haven't read yet, will probably read eventually.
5. My family own a copy of the same book.

So I'm ok with giving all the books in categories#2 and #5 to charity shops* but that barely makes a dent in the books I have. I also have a lot of books that are old, out of print or otherwise difficult to find, so i am hesitant about getting rid of those.

I don't own a Kindle and have no interest in buying one. No objections to the concept or anything (I think they're cool) but I just don't really want one. I don't know of any decent libraries near where I live.

This is obviously an area where everyone will do things differently so I'm interested in hearing how all you other book-lovers out there manage your library. How do you decide what to keep and what to throw out?

*A sub-question re: giving books to charity shops - it has been my habit to write my name and the year of purchase on the flyleaf of new books; is it ok do you reckon to cut these pages off to protect my privacy before I give them away?
posted by Ziggy500 to Grab Bag (43 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Answer to the sub-question: I love getting old books with people's names inside.

I have some of the same book issues. I've kept anything that is old and irreplaceable; anything that was a gift from family members; anything I've re-read and plan to re-read again; anything I know I want to re-read; and tools-of-my-various-trades books. I still have too many, but now I have a lovely office at work so I put some of them there.
posted by mareli at 5:58 AM on August 17, 2011

I've actually been viciously culling my books in the past few days. I'm keeping any books I have a sentimental attachment to and any that would be hard to replace, but if it's something I can find easily again when I want to read it (or is available for my Kindle), it's going in the box to be given away. Are you ever going to read those category 4 books? Can you find them again if you want to? Or even those category 3 books? If so, get rid of them.
posted by leesh at 6:00 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

figure out what space in your apartment you want to fill with books - clean all the books from that space and put them back one by one. when the shelf is full, the rest get donated. it will give you a more realistic goal - "ok, shelf is almost full - do i want this book or this book?" which to me seems easier than "how do i whittle down my collection."

the good part about this plan is that you either have to leave space for getting books, or when you get new books, you have to donate old ones.
posted by nadawi at 6:05 AM on August 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

4. Haven't read yet, will probably read eventually.

Having recently culled my enormous library for a move, I realized that these hardly ever get read. Unless you have a (particularly nice) first edition or something, replacing a book is usually a matter of a few dollars. If it is a rare/OOP book, I'd consider keeping it but, honestly, I have found that the back burner hardly ever gets dug into because of a change in interests, new books, etc. I say if it has been in the queue for months, and skipped over a few times, it can go.
posted by griphus at 6:07 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to buy books like mad, but after having to move them a couple of times, I decided to keep my books where they belong - the library. Plus, I work better under a deadline, so the limited check-out time of the library works better for me. If it's on my shelf there's a good chance I won't read it.

Personally, I'd only keep the ones that were so good you'd like to lend them out to people (turning you into the library). Or keep it if it has some sentimental value for some reason.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:07 AM on August 17, 2011

Set yourself a deadline for reading your category 4 books -- 1 year? 6 months? Don't buy ANY used or new books during this time. After the deadline passes, I won't say get rid of everything you haven't read, but maybe 80-90%.

Flag all your category 1 books however you like - a post-it note or a database. If you reread them in the next 2-3 years, you can take off the flag. Any books remaining flagged get tossed.

Obviously you can make exceptions for books that are out of print and genuinely hard to find, but with the proliferation of online used book-stores there aren't that many of those.
posted by Jeanne at 6:08 AM on August 17, 2011

Keep the ones that are unlikely to be available in e-book, or are particularly nice as paper books or a good edition.

e-book readers will get better over the years.
posted by Not Supplied at 6:08 AM on August 17, 2011

Can I get it at a library? Will I really actually use this to look something up, ever?
posted by sammyo at 6:08 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you know how many books you actually read per month? If you're like 99% of people out there, you probably get through, what, 20 or 30 books a year? Categories #3 and #4 are probably reducible to about a half-dozen books. Try this test with your existing books: have I picked up and opened this book within the past 3 years? If not, it goes in the category "Thought I would read/re-read, but didn't". Then throw it out.
posted by facetious at 6:10 AM on August 17, 2011

I have maybe about 30 books. Half of them are non-textbook-books from college that I either read an excerpt from and intend to someday go back to, want for reference purposes, or haven't gotten around to getting rid of yet. They're there because it was already a sunk cost--I "had" to buy them for class, might as well keep 'em around for now. There are a couple that were given to me that I'm not super-interested in, and haven't gotten around to reading yet. I have 5 or 6 volumes of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader (don't laugh!) because they're the perfect thing to read right before going to bed (short, interesting articles with no plot so I have no reason to stay up and keep reading). The remaining books are ones that I've had for years and years, have read many times, and love. Mostly Vonnegut, some Huxley, it doesn't really matter.

Every book I own was either 1) purchased for school, 2) given to me as a gift, or 3) purchased back when I lived in the crappy city I grew up in that had a really abysmal public library system. (Seriously, I went there once trying to check out Cat's Cradle. They (and by "they" I mean the city catalog, not just my laughable local branch) had one copy that was checked out, one copy that was lost, and TEN copies of it on tape. I KNOW.

Anyway, now that I live in Chicago (which has this beautiful thing), I don't buy books anymore. Everything I read I either borrow from a friend or check out from the library. The books I own I mostly just have around because of inertia. If they ever pose a complication to my lifestyle (i.e. I get tired of moving them around), I intend to donate all but my 10 favorites. Because, come on: LIBRARIES.
posted by phunniemee at 6:10 AM on August 17, 2011

Over the years I have decided to enact a rather draconian policy. I keep only:

1. Books I want handy to refer to (for writing, historical research, personal growth, gardening, music, other projects)

2. Books of sentimental value in more than one of the following categories:
- it's a gift from someone
- it's a book I really enjoy
- it's beautifully printed or bound
- it's special somehow (rare edition, signed)
- it was formative at some point in my life
- it's not readily available at a bookstore or through online retail

This means that just because the book was a gift, I don't keep it for that reason alone. It has to have additional value - be beautiful, formative, whatever. It means that just because I enjoyed it, I don't keep it for that reason alone. I enjoyed Of Mice and Men, but I can easily find a copy of that within 24 hours if for some reason I want to reread it. So it would have to have additional value - be a rare edition, or an inscribed gift, or something that helped form a component of my character.

It's getting harsh up in my bookshelves. But I decided i just can't justify keeping all the good books I've ever read. I'm an apartment dweller and they were overtaking things. It's enough that I've read them. Back when I was a recent college graduate English major it made sense to keep copies of all the classic works I'd read, for handy reference. But now, between libraries with late hours, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg, I don't feel that's necessary. These books are widely distributed and very available, so unless they have other special qualities, I don't need to personally maintain the library for the Western world. And I don't really feel I need the shelves any more as a record of what I've read. There are online sites now like GoodReads and Living Social Books that can serve that function.
posted by Miko at 6:13 AM on August 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Anything that is available on Project Gutenberg (unless it is a particularly nice copy) I have been getting rid of lately. So anything with expired copyright gets sold or donated.
posted by chiefthe at 6:17 AM on August 17, 2011

Oh, unread books: I keep all unread books on the shelves, horizontally (to distinguish them from the already-read books). When I need a new book I review this horizontal pile and sometimes pull one.

If a book has languished there for more than a year, chances are I'll give up and pass it on. It helps to recognize that some books are 'broccoli' in that I know they'd be good for me to read, but I just find I never really crave reading them.

If it's something I really SHOULD read for work or study, but I'm not making progress getting to it or through it, I'll stop trying to really read it and just skim through it in an hour or so to make a deeper evaluation of what's inside, and then decide if it goes in the 'reference' area (because it does have useful content that is just not super interesting right now) or just gets passed along.

A great way to get rid of old books, which Jessamyn turned me on to, is Paperback Swap. You list the books you want to get rid of, and people can request them. Then you mail them those books for a postage cost of about $2.50 in the US. The best part is that each book you mail rewards you with 1 credit good for any other book listed on the site. And the list is pretty comprehensive. I know, MORE BOOKS, but it means trading books you don't want or need for ones you will either actively be interested in adding to your collection, or returning to circulation.
posted by Miko at 6:19 AM on August 17, 2011

I keep:
- collector's item books that were hard to get hold of in the first place
- reference books that there's a fair chance I will look at again
- Russian and French books and secondary literature thereof
- self-help books I've been referring to lately
- self-help books I haven't referred to in a while, but that have been formative

The rest, they can just go. I have a nice bagful just from clearing off one shelf.

The rest are in a pile of "oooo! saw on the remainder stall today and dying to read this!" books I haven't got round to. The pile keeps getting bigger. I need a bigger bookshelf, anyone know good ways to get a six-foot bookcase delivered...
posted by tel3path at 6:25 AM on August 17, 2011

There was an interesting Metafilter thread on this topic a few years ago--strong opinons on all sides. Take a look there and see if anything resonates.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:40 AM on August 17, 2011

Have you actually given away all your books 2 & 5? Finish doing that before you start worrying about other things.

Then you enact the usual rule: get rid of 2 books for every new book you take in. (You can also do 3:1.) You don't need to make deliberate rules about which 2 you get rid of, just choose whatever 2 make sense at that time.
posted by jeather at 6:41 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mrs. Z and I are in the process of moving, so we've had to go through this very thing recently. We're both bookworms, too, so this is a real issue. What we've decided on is evaluating books on a "joy to stuff ratio." If it brings us joy, keep it. If it's just stuff, donate it.
posted by zooropa at 6:47 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was so resistant to Kindle until one was gifted to me! Now I find that it is helping me reduce my book stash. I am slowly replacing the books that I reread frequently with their electronic version, as they go on sale or become free. I agree with 2 and 5 being easily disposable. I also disposed of all my how-to books (including crafts and knitting,) after scanning the very few projects that truly interested me. I kept art books, but I eliminated of all reference books except a dictionary (for convenience) and a couple of commentaries.

I have found that a specific recipient for my books helps me dispose of them: I live near a youth center that gets my science fiction and fantasy, and an assisted living community that gets my bestsellers. There is a low security prison that also receives some of my books, but the female inmates cannot read romances, books with violence, science fiction, or religious books (don't ask me why), so they don't get many books.
posted by francesca too at 7:03 AM on August 17, 2011

My rule is that I only buy a book if one of the following applies:

a) I've checked it out from the library at least 3 times
b) I might want it for comfort reading at 3 am (generally limited to childhood favorites)
c) my library doesn't have it and I can find it used/cheap
d) brand new releases from a small list of favorite authors where I could get it from the library but I'm 25th on the hold list so it'll take months

Buying fewer books greatly simplifies the process of deciding what to keep, for me, since I keep things in categories a and b automatically, and I pretty much always keep things from category d. And since I've bought things in category c on the cheap, I don't have an attachment to them based on sunk cost. I generally only keep those if they're mind-blowingly good.

Since you don't have a good library nearby, I'd suggest being a bit more ruthless about your 'probably will reread' pile. If you haven't thought about the book or considered rereading it within a certain period of time (say, a year?) then it goes.
posted by marginaliana at 7:04 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have found that a specific recipient for my books helps me dispose of them
Agree strongly with this. My books go the the Library of Congress Professional Association booksale, held at the Library, attended mostly by Library employees (though open to the public). The proceeds go to a good enough cause, I suppose, but, mostly, it comforts me to think that someone might be really happy to find my heavily-annotated Klaeber Beowulf.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:14 AM on August 17, 2011

I have used (and suggested) the same method nadawi suggested upthread with great success. I used to hoard books, CDs, and DVDs and I was a little sad to see many of them go but I don't really miss them at all (I do miss living somewhere big enough to hold them all). I can count on one hand the total number of books, CDs, and DVDs I regret getting rid of. Deciding to only keep one shelf's worth of each (and sticking to it) was definitely a great move.

Although if you can't manage that, look at websites and blogs about small-space living and decorating. I've seen a few interesting ways to store books, such as putting up shelves about 12" from the ceiling to keep them in view but out of the way. Any room is fair game for this (kitchen, bathroom, hallway, stairwell). Just in the corners, or all around a room.
posted by K.P. at 7:17 AM on August 17, 2011

These previous questions might be worth reading.

Also, here's what I keep:

Books that I like that someone gave me as a gift.
Books that I love that are not readily available through interlibrary loan.
Ready-reference titles that a)have not been supplanted by online resources or b)would be useful in emergency or other situations when online resources might not be available.

That's about it.
posted by box at 7:17 AM on August 17, 2011

I'm impressed at the ruthless self-discipline displayed here!
I packed and moved books--hundreds, then thousands--a dozen or more times over the years simply because I couldn't bear to get rid of them. And then, finally, a few years ago, I sold, gave and donated all but a handful of books autographed by friends, and moved hundreds of miles away. Nice! Easy! No backbreaking boxes to schlep! Plenty of space in the new digs!
And then I started buying books again. Turns out I get a little rush with each purchase, and I'm talking about even cheap mass-market paperbacks, not just the rare, autographed David Markson novel I got for three bucks. The shelves started to fill.
I bought a Kindle, downloaded some Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and cranked it up. Loved reading the Kindle, it was perfect!
But I missed buying books, and I even started missing the old ones I'd dumped! I could remember specific books--and missed them. Insane! Pathological!
The shelves are filling again, and I sold the Kindle to a friend.
I still buy books, I still miss my old ones, and so this is just a tip. You may be right to cull yours, you probably are, but you might be sorry later.
YMMV, of course.
Good luck.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:22 AM on August 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm an academic, so the books go with the job. I've culled a few hundred over the past couple of years, what with moving house and changing offices, but there are still several thousand hanging about.

I almost never keep SF or detective fiction (with a few exceptions in each case). Those are either sold once read or dropped off on the department's free books table.

I sell/donate scholarly works I haven't used ever and can't see myself using in the immediate future. Occasionally, this causes problems ("wait, where's Alexander Welsh's book on Scott?!").

Contemporary fiction that I can't see myself teaching, writing about, or rereading tends to go whenever I have an attack of the culls.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:29 AM on August 17, 2011

I move too often to keep books around. My room full of books has dwindled down to a box (a very small box). I know you're not looking to get that small, but here's what I did.

As other mentioned, if I could buy it again I got rid of it.
If I could find it on Gutenberg, I got rid of it.
If I could find it online in ebook form, I got rid of it. (I know you said you weren't interested in getting an ereader, but that's what I did.)
If I couldn't find it anywhere else, I kept it.

Now, The only books I have are those that are no longer in print (and not yet on Gutenberg). The rest I can get from the library or download onto my computer and read with one of many ereaders. Since moving is part and parcel of my life, keeping boxes and boxes of books just doesn't work for me. One will work.
posted by patheral at 7:31 AM on August 17, 2011

When was the last time you moved? Not that there's much point in moving just for the sake of cleaning out your shelves, but changing apartments a few times has lessened my love for having tons of books around, because they're so, so heavy. Whenever I'm at someone's house and they have multiple full shelves, I silently hope they never ask me to help them move.

Whenever I'm going through stuff to give away, I start by dividing things into three piles: definitely stay, definitely go, and undecided. "Definitely stay" gets put back. "Definitely go" gets packed up for donation immediately (and the sooner out the door, the better). Once those are cleared out, return to the undecided pile. I've found it's a lot easier to let go of things when they're in an unorganized pile, because my mind doesn't focus on the individual things as much as "pile of stuff, must reduce." It's also a little easier when I've already separated the great stuff out, and I'm comparing all the undecided stuff to the great stuff - it loses its appeal.

Couldn't hurt for you to donate a shelf or two when you get rid of the definitely-go books, to make it harder to justify keeping so many.

It might work for you to put some of the undecided books in a box, set it aside in a closet (if you have the space), and put a note on your calendar to donate that box exactly one month from today. If you haven't gotten a book out of the box in that month, it's likely you won't need it around.

I never seem to have any luck finding what I want at libraries, so I don't think the library is always a good substitute for owning your own books. However, if you just like being around books, try heading to the library - or a bookstore that will let you hang out for a few hours - and just plop down with the first thing that looks good. If you do this in a bookstore or secondhand store, take only enough cash to buy one book, and don't buy a book unless you've started reading it and really don't want to put it down.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:38 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Several years ago, I realized my collection of books was becoming more of a burden than a joy. I had five full-height bookcases in my living room, and needed two more. After realizing I had a problem, I found a strategy that allowed me to let go of all but one bookcase of books. Here are the two techniques that made all the difference.

1) I decided I no longer needed to keep any book that I could readily find at a decent library system. I kept particularly obscure books, books that had deep sentimental value, porn and graphic novels that most libraries don't carry. The rest of my collection (well over three-quarters of my books) were available to be given away to friends or donated to libraries.

2) I made a list of title and author for all the books I got rid of. I don't know why this made a difference to me, but it made it much easier for me to let go of a collection of books I had spent so much time and effort acquiring and maintaining.

Anyway, that's what worked for me. Good luck to you.
posted by browse at 7:51 AM on August 17, 2011

One thing that may help you a) get rid of some books, and b) cope with categories 3 and 4 -- Paperback Swap. I've spoken before about how it works, and the web site does a good job of explaining.

But what helped me about that was that if there was something I hadn't read yet "but will someday," I'd check PBS and see if it was reasonably easy to find. If it was, I put it up on the block for trading, and figured that I'd just request a copy again in the future when I was ready to read it. If something was pretty rare, it actually prompted me to finally read it so I could put it up quick, get it traded out, and get a quick credit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:39 AM on August 17, 2011

So I am a little further along than the OP -- to wit, I have pulled half my books for disposal -- but how do I find a place to take/put/send them?
  • I already have a Paperback Swap account, but I don't want to replace these: I actually prefer the empty space to the books!
  • My area (northern Rhode Island) seems not to have any used book stores where I could take them. (I know, I know. *shakes head*)
  • I won't list them for sale online because I don't have the time.
So what's a culler to do?

Sorry for the semi-derail, Ziggy, but once you fill a few boxes you'll also need to know so you can move them out before you backslide!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:02 AM on August 17, 2011

I love books too. I'm in the process of packing for a move for the first time in ten years, which may be coloring the following advice:

1. Write down the titles of all books in category 4.
2. Get rid of all the books in categories 2, 4, and 5.
3. Acquire a library card, so you can read the books from category 4 if and when you get around to it.
4. Next time you're in a bookstore and see a cheap second hand book that looks like it'd fall into the "probably I'd read that eventually" category, add it to the list so you can get it from the library later.

I don't know of any decent libraries near where I live.
That's what interlibrary loan was invented for.

I also have a lot of books that are old, out of print or otherwise difficult to find, so i am hesitant about getting rid of those.
If you're not going to read it, it doesn't matter if it's difficult to find or out of print. If you're truly on the fence about some books, pack them away in boxes instead of giving them away. Then after a couple years go by (during which I guarantee you will never once consider opening the boxes), give the boxes away -- without opening them first.

it has been my habit to write my name and the year of purchase on the flyleaf of new books; is it ok do you reckon to cut these pages off to protect my privacy before I give them away?

Absolutely not ok at all. If for some reason you're truly concerned that someone browsing in a second hand bookshop might discover that someone with your name once owned that particular book, use a marker to black out your name rather than cutting out the flyleaf; but it's probably better and less labor-intensive to just recognize that there's no rational reason to be worried about this at all.
posted by ook at 9:08 AM on August 17, 2011

I already have a Paperback Swap account, but I don't want to replace these: I actually prefer the empty space to the books!

Ship 'em out and sit on the credits anyway. In the future, you may think of a book you've always wanted to check out, and if it's on PBS you can get it free. Then just put it back up on PBS when you're done. Or use it to get rare-ish copies of books as gifts.

I know what you mean, though -- my PBS account began when I had a roommate move out, and leave me with TWO BOOKSHELVES full of books I'd never read. I threw them all up on PBS, knowing I'd never swap them out for that many books in return and that I wanted the space. But those credits dont' expire, so over the next two years I had moments of "oh, hey, there was that book I always read when I was eight that I loved" or "you know, I've never read Oliver Twist somehow", and the credits were already there for me to get those books free. I mean, I've also got 40 credits on PBS that I may never use up entirely, but they're there if I need 'em.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:17 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my experience the "will probably reread" set is smaller than you think it is. If you've actually already reread the book in the past there is a chance that you'll read it again, but if you've only ever read it once and you think you might read it again in the future - you won't. If you were going to reread it you'd already have done so.

If you haven't read the book in the last five years it will never get read again. There are going to be exceptions, but damn few.

Looks guitily at copy of Ulysses on bookshelf and sighs. Someday
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:27 AM on August 17, 2011

Empress, I completely agree with the principal of horading PBS credits -- but I have several 30-gallon tubs of books to send out, and it would cost me an arm and a leg to send them all out via PaperBack Swap!

Perhaps I will compromise and find a couple of dozen that are in demand to send out, and donate the rest to my local Friends Of The Library booksale. Thanks!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:30 AM on August 17, 2011

We rationalized on our last two moves as follows:

1. Cross country move: "Is this worth 0.60/lb. to move?" which culled a lot of things, especially combined with the mantra "I'm not going back to grad school" which freed me of a lot of disposal guilt. Books I would have used as source material for Ph.D. work were broccoli and admitting I wasn't going to consume them was a relief.

2. Local move into purchased house: "I can either have more people in my house or more books." Understanding what I was giving up by keeping the books and devoting the room to them helped a lot.

Instead of buying everything I want, I now put great books on my Goodreads to-read list and keep a few on Amazon so my family can buy them for me for Christmas if they want. I'm working through the Goodreads list in order of adding them and if I don't want to read it, I realize it's OK to give up the broccoli in favor of fun books.
posted by immlass at 10:32 AM on August 17, 2011

You may be horrified by this:

I have no compunctions about putting books in the trash.


I'm a librarian, by the way. We put books in the trash. Publishers and booksellers put books in the trash. It happens. It's okay.
posted by Jeanne at 11:20 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no compunctions about putting books in the trash.

I agree with this as well. A lot of my books ended up in the trash. No one else wanted them. I tried freecycle, used book stores, a yard sale, the library - the works. At the time I worked two jobs and had teenagers. I had a limited amount of time and resources. There are millions of copies of most paperbacks. They are not sacred relics that must be cherished forever, so into the dumpster they went.

If you're having a hard time unloading books, I give you full permission to toss them into the trash or repurpose them into something else (book pages make great window shades and shredded books work as well as shredded paper for animal shelters).
posted by patheral at 12:16 PM on August 17, 2011

This is obviously an area where everyone will do things differently so I'm interested in hearing how all you other book-lovers out there manage your library. How do you decide what to keep and what to throw out?

I manage my library by deciding that I don't have too many books, I have too little shelf space. I haven't thrown out any books in maybe 15 years since I culled some garbage I read when I was a kid. I keep my mass market paperbacks in boxes in a closet or other storage space and my trades and hardcovers on shelves.

So if it were me I'd just redefine the problem as "How do I get more shelf space?". If I couldn't get more shelf space I'd probably move. Really.
posted by Justinian at 12:56 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Heh, I've broken my own books down into the exact same categories when it comes time to be rid of them. It's a really tough thing for me to do too because there is always that nagging voice yelling, "Hey, maybe you will get a huge urge to read this in two years!"

But I truly couldn't name more than 5 of the unread, impulse buy books (your category #4) that I gave away to used bookshops in the past year. So if you want to weed down your collection even further, I'd say go through that category one by one next and think of what you really can stand to part with.

Hold each one and think about it. Would you be OK just taking it out from the library if you suddenly happened to want to read it in the future? Did you read a sample passage before you acquired it and were you sucked in, or was it totally impulsive? Books that fall into the latter category are pretty easy to part with, even if at one time you thought you *might* read them.
posted by houndsoflove at 2:01 PM on August 17, 2011

I recently culled my list of books, and it wasn't easy.

First, I decided that I would only keep the types of books I am guaranteed to read. I had a few specific subjects and types of books in mind. These are books with subjects that speak the most to my interests. All the other books (novels, self help, kid's books, etc.) went into a pile for Paperbackswap and sale.

As far as buying books, I was like you as well. I could never step into a bookstore without leaving with at least 5 books. Nowadays, I'll look at the book's cover and then skim a few pages. If it seems to be something I will make the time to read, I get it. If it's just vaguely interesting, I put it back. Buying books must set off dopamine triggers in my brain, because I'm always excited when I'm at the counter. I just came to the realization that too many of the books I bought just sat there un my spare room, representing money I could have used for some other purpose.

The steps above are simple but tough.
posted by reenum at 2:59 PM on August 17, 2011

I take an approach similar to Metroid Baby's, of progressively categorising my books. I had a big cull recently and it actually got quite addictive and I ended up ditching about 150 - a decent percentage of my collection*!

I also take a somewhat curatorial approach; to wit, what is the "flavour" of my collection? For me, this means I tend to keep hard-to-find books, intersting books, books I might like to lend. If the book is two of the following:
a) Very easy to find and buy
b) Completely unremarkable and typical of its genre - not bad but in no way exceptional
c) Not the kind of book I am likely to recommend/lend to anyone.
d) Shit.
e) Never to even have a possibility of being re-read

It goes. Thinking about my books in a totality, as part of a collection, made culling a lot easier, because it felt like culling was making my collection grow stronger not weaker. This little cognitive trick was a great aid in ditching books.

*I decline to share what that exact percentage is. Sigh
posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I started this process after I'd had all my books in storage (along with all my furniture and most of my life) for four years. It's easier when you haven't seen any of them at all, but it's also hard because it's like finding your old friends again as you open each box. Believe me, I can relate.

I started with the easy stuff: technical manuals, books I got from publishers as review copies when I was teaching, hefty user guides, etc. Out of date Halliwell's Movie Guides. Science textbooks from the 70s. What Color Is Your Parachute 1989. Let's Go Paris 1985! London on $25 a Day. Etc. One Tip: I occasionally had to remind myself that I was not librarian to the world — I wasn't responsible for keeping access to all the books in the land. That's someone else's job. Made it easier when I had the "oh, dear, but this might be good to hold onto for posterity's sake" urge. That, and frequent viewings of "Hoarders" on tv.

These books were easy to dispose of, too. We have local collection bins, "Got Books?", that are for-profit and will recycle anything they can't use. Poof, like magic, over a hundred books gone. Anything that was completely trashed I put in our recycling bins.

Then, I carefully went through all of my fiction. Recorded the titles, authors, ISBNs, covers. While I was recording I culled, using most of your categories. I don't really re-read anymore, if I'm honest with myself. There are too many books in the world to read; re-reading seems like I'm wasting precious time. But I still have a fondness for my books, so this was still pretty hard. I managed to pull out a few hundred, though, mostly authors I no longer admire (or actively loathe) or anything I felt diminished my collection.

Finally I went through the rest of the non-fiction, and here I only allowed myself to keep what fit on the shelves that I already had, with no books stacked in front of others. With nothing shoved on top of others. And with nothing left over. They're organized into broad categories and they look good, so I feel good about them.

I donated the fiction and the decent non-fiction stuff to my local Friends of the Library. There's nowhere around here (Boston area) that buys fiction, and I really needed the house space fast so I didn't want to try amazon. Some of the local used book stores would take books in exchange for credits to be used in the store, but the point of the exercise is to get RID of books, not bring more in.

Another Tip: Keep in mind how much you read per year. If you average a book a week, let's say, and you have hundreds in your "I will read this some day" pile, you might want to be realistic and get rid of most of it. As others have mentioned, I find that even with the best of intentions I've very rarely gone back to read those. The gloss is off, and there's something new and shiny that distracts me. [On the other hand, if you read a book a day or more, well, those considerations are probably moot]. I like the idea someone suggested of not buying anything new for six months and see how you do on your pile.

By doing what I consider is my first pass, I've culled over 600 books (so far). It took me a couple weeks of after-work effort spread out over a year or so. I have almost 2,000 books left, so that's not as good as I'd hoped. I have to do a lot more in the next few months, as I expect I'll be moving and I need to get a smaller apartment. I plan to attack it much the same way, except that since I have some time and since I can now get at everything easily, I might list some on amazon. At least all the organizing and recording is done, so now all I have to do is stand in front of my shelves and ponder.

And man do I love my kindle for freeing me from acquiring new physical stuff!
posted by clone boulevard at 10:06 PM on August 17, 2011

Hey guys, thanks very much for the answers! It is difficult for me, because I do tend to think of my books as friends, so I appreciate the thoughtful and helpful responses. I will take a careful and honest look at categories#1 and #4 as well!
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:36 AM on August 18, 2011

I never get rid of a book. They're more important than almost anything else I own. Having books to read down the road is like money in the bank, but, you know, they're books.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:29 AM on August 19, 2011

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