I feel kind of like that scale in "Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" that determines that Egyptian kid's fate, only I'm not Osiris, and these are books, not souls.
January 17, 2010 6:44 PM   Subscribe

What strategies can I use for culling books?

I'm a book editor. As such, I have lots of books.* I recently sacrificed my personal bookcase at work so that we wouldn't be drowning in boxes of books all the time, but now, of course, I have to assimilate all the books that had lived on that shelf.

I know where I can take books once I've decided which ones need to go; what I'd like help with is a plan of attack. What's the threshold for books that stay and books that go? What questions should I ask myself to determine a particular book's fate?

*In addition to the ones in that photo, there's another full size bookcase in my bedroom (most of the contents of which I've recently moved to the big living room shelves) and a small bookcase dedicated to art books and cookbooks.
posted by ocherdraco to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
When purging I have always found it easiest to get rid of the books I really liked --- pass them on to someone who will read and like them too. I've done that several times, pretty much whenever I move. Beyond that I find it easier to get rid of whole categories rather than individual books ... I have a few cookbooks left but I boxed up a bunch, and I don't have any political nonfiction at all. The questions I ask myself are, will I read it again? will one of my kids read it? will someone else appreciate it? will I be able to get my hands on another copy if I change my mind later? And for things like cookbooks & other reference books, can I google it?
posted by headnsouth at 6:53 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

'Am I going to read it again', 'do I want important people in my life to read it especially so we can discuss it?' Those are my first two, followed by 'is it replaceable?' Anything that's on a best seller list is always going to be available in a used bookstore for cheap, so those are the most disposable.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:00 PM on January 17, 2010

Anything you can buy used, cheaply, almost anywhere, you can get rid of because you can get it again. Anything that is cheaper to buy again than to move, I get rid of. I automatically keep first edition hardbacks. Anything I don't want to read again is fair game, but I also hang on to some things because they were gifts, or for other sentimental reasons. Personally I'm a completist, so if I have a series or, for example, all of Niel Stephenson's books, I try to keep them together. Any technical manuals that are three years old or more, and you haven't used in as much time, probably can go (though I hang on to my Turbo C++ 3.0 manual for sentimental reasons).
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:04 PM on January 17, 2010

Best answer: I have four questions I ask myself when looking to get rid of books:

1) Is there any good reason to expect I'll read it in the next year (either re-read or read for the first time)?

2) Is there a good chance that I'm going to want to lend/gift this book to someone in the next year?

3) Is it likely that I'm going to want to use this book as a reference source in the next year (AND is that information unavailable for free via a google search)?

4) If I suddenly wanted this book, is it unavailable at my local library and unavailable or more than $5 at AbeBooks?

Unless a book gets a "yes" to at least one of these questions, it goes to Goodwill.
posted by 256 at 7:07 PM on January 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

This may not work for you, because I think I'm crazy about things like this, but what I personally would do would be to first figure out how many books I will be getting rid of.

Then I would pull my first that-many books off my shelves, and put them in a group.

Then I would pull the next book. I would look at it and the books in the group. If there is some book in the group that I want to keep more than I want to keep this book, I would remove that book from the group, and put this one in its place.

Then the next book, then the next, and so on. Always keeping the group with the exact same number of books - the number that I will be getting rid of.

When I have gone through all my books in this manner, the resulting group would be those that I would get rid of.
posted by Flunkie at 7:11 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I purged from our gigantic collection, I looked at it with an eye to genres and stories that I would likely reread. Some of the more kitschy books I discarded, as well as singletons and series-parts where I didn't have the rest of the series. I ended up purging some books that I had enjoyed a number of years previously but that I had outgrown.

Questions like "Will I reread this?" or "Will I enjoy this again?". If I looked at it and went "That was a fun read but I probably won't read it again", it went in the discard pile.

To determine the threshold, I set aside a given amount of space for book type X. Now, once I fill that space, if I get more books I also have to discard to get the total shelf space back to its allotted size.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:12 PM on January 17, 2010

More specifically, on any given swap, swap the current book with the best book from the current group.

"Best" in the sense "want to keep it the most", whatever that may mean to you.
posted by Flunkie at 7:13 PM on January 17, 2010

That is, "total shelf space per book type". Currently, it's measured by bookcases per genre, but smaller units seem to work too.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:14 PM on January 17, 2010

I keep anything that I liked so much that my rereading it over and over is likely, or else it's a reference or cookbook that I use frequently. Everything else goes on BookMooch so I can replace it with another book. My reread threshold is so high that those kept books barely take up a shelf, and I read a LOT. The rest of my bookshelf is books I haven't read yet.
posted by Nattie at 7:15 PM on January 17, 2010

Response by poster: 256's four questions is precisely the kind of concrete schematic I was looking for. To that, I'll be adding "0. Did I work on this book?" but that's a special case.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:35 PM on January 17, 2010

Best answer: I have a very small set of bookshelves compared to previous apartments and my basic rule is that I can't have more books than bookshelves. BUT, more books come in than [normally] go out. So I have to have a heuristic for what goes out. This is mine...

- is book signed, by me, about me or with significant contributions by me? [in which case keep or give to mom]
- is book readily available at the library or via paperbackswap.com? [if so, ditch my copy]
- have I been saying I've wanted to read this book for more than two years? [if so, get real, ditch my copy]
- is book exceptionally lovely? [in which case keep]
- is book exceptionally old and/or awesome? [yes, I do sleep with 20 volumes of the OED in my bedroom....]
- is book hard to replace? [Richard Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn... now that I have replaced my copy I am not giving it away]
- do I have more than one copy of book? [again, get real please....]

Then there are a few more things that matter, but only somewhat depending on other features

- was book a gift?
- is book the perfect color for my books-arranged-by-color shelf?
- will I reread it?
- is it important in my personal timeline for some reason?

I've gotten a little ruthless lately, but only because I don't have much space. I rarely regret having gotten rid of a lackluster book and I still have enough to keep me intellectually warm
posted by jessamyn at 8:31 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cross-check the books on your shelf with the catalogue of your local library. If the library has a copy, give your copy away. If you ever need the book again, you can simply borrow it.
posted by embrangled at 8:56 PM on January 17, 2010

I've recently started a new method for purging things that works well for books, other media, keepsakes and things like clothing and accessories. I'll gather up everything I own in a specific category -- like photography books, or t-shirts -- and instead of deciding which ones I'll get rid of, I pick out my favorites. That might seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but so far it's worked for me.

Pretend you're moving into a much smaller space and can only keep your absolute favorite items. Or to be really ruthless, imagine you've only got twenty minutes to evacuate because a wildfire or hurricane is heading your way. What do you grab first? Once you've determined what's really important to you, deciding what to purge from the remainder becomes much easier.

I tend to be a sentimentalist at the expense of having an uncluttered life -- though I really want to have a streamlined living space, I often feel weird or guilty about getting rid of inanimate objects, even if they don't give me much utility or pleasure. It's especially hard when the objects represent a past era of my life or are connected to a certain person. The above method, though, cuts through that for me.
posted by lisa g at 9:23 PM on January 17, 2010

Man, I hear you. We have over 20,000 books right now. One bookshelf took a dive this week, so back to Ikea. We don't HAVE any more walls to put a bookshelf up against, so we need to clear out and cull as well.

A LOT of our books are signed first editions, antiques, or VERY hard to find. Anything like that HAS to stay! And a few of my books I went to great trouble to replace after losing all my possessions, so I'm a bit clutchy about them...

There are books I haven't read, and will not read that do need to be passed onward. And there are some that just aren't going to do me any good any more, as it appears children are NOT in the cards...

I take my books to the local VA hospital/clinic. They leave book carts around that people can take or leave books at, which is nice. Some might go to Brand books, especially the AVID books that DO have a value still...
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 9:54 PM on January 17, 2010

Eerily, my system is exactly the same as 256K's: I only keep books I plan to

a- read
b- lend
c- use as a reference.

The (d) (if I needed it, could I easily find it at a library?) is an elegant addition that may now cause me to jettison another pile.
posted by Miko at 9:56 PM on January 17, 2010

I asked the same question in 2006.
posted by matildaben at 10:54 PM on January 17, 2010

Response by poster: I'd argue the questions are rather different, but there you go.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:37 PM on January 17, 2010

True, but some of the answers may apply just the same.
posted by matildaben at 5:29 AM on January 18, 2010

Just as a point of reference, I also work in publishing, and a long time back decided to *not* continue keeping all the books that I'd worked on. Of course, I may be one of the few people in the print publishing world who does not fetishize books. Some of the books I've worked on are simply "meh," others are time-sensitive or in a field outside my personal interests, and yet others would make an awesome gift and be more appreciated someone who's not read it 4 times through already like I have.
posted by drlith at 6:09 AM on January 18, 2010

Related to Jessamyn's question: - is it important in my personal timeline for some reason?

Here's how I got past that (assuming the book is still readily available):

Use digital resources. You can track the books you've read on all kinds of websites (GoodReads, LibraryThing, etc) or use personal software or even take digital photos of your actual books and sort the photos however you like. So I no longer need to keep the physical book to keep the memory of having read it. I can browse my digital version of the bookshelf to trigger the memories, then go acquire the actual book if I choose one to read from the past.
posted by CathyG at 7:11 AM on January 18, 2010

I agree with what was said above - I always ask myself before culling my collection (and it's heart-wrenching but necessary) "how easy is this to get at the library?".

New York Public Library's system is so vast that it's easy to go online and search for a book, find it, and have it delivered to your local branch. I do it all the time, and especially with more popular books it usually arrives in 4-5 days. I figure that by keeping so many books at my apartment, I am sacrificing space and relaxation for the expensive luxury of being about to read something RIGHT NOW. And how often did that happen? I am rarely in such a hurry that it cannot possibly wait.

Once I realized this, it was much easier to donate books to Goodwill or give them to friends who hadn't read them before. Honestly, I hardly remember many of the books that I clung to so stubbornly. Good luck!

And what CathyG says, I keep a list online of every book and DVD that I've seen, which is fun because I'm able to scroll back to 2007 and see books that I'd forgotten I ever checked out. If I had kept those books I would be drowning in literature.
posted by amicamentis at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2010

Honestly, I hardly remember many of the books that I clung to so stubbornly. Good luck!

This is so true, and is part of why this process gets easier and easier--after the first cull, you realize that pretty much none of those books, whose names you don't even remember now, meant anything to you. For me, the book-weeding process happened again and again over several years, until at the low point we were down to only maybe a couple of hundred books, other than science fiction, which my partner wanted to weed very conservatively.
posted by not that girl at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2010

1. Is it a book I'll probably give away in the near future?
2. Do I have multiple copies?
3. Is it a reference title?
4. Is it something that will be readily available in libraries for the rest of my life?
5. Is the particular physical copy personally significant to me?
6. Is the book in print? More broadly, how difficult/expensive would it be to replace it?
posted by box at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, I see! Sorry, matildaben, I thought you were saying "This is a double," when you were actually saying "Here are some more answers that might help you." Thanks!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

I see only one person mentioned out-of-print status. To me that's absolutely decisive. Even if a library holds a book today, it will regularly cull its rarely checked-out volumes. This includes a lot of out-of-print books. And new books aren't sure to last: of today's best sellers (multiple copies by the dozens!) there may be one lone copy in just a few years, then none.
I'm a major re-reader, and don't want to lose access to a good book. This includes old favorites, but also new books that might seem disposable now, but won't last in the general book market. Even with online used book sources like Bookfinder et al, there are no guarantees.

So: to cull my own library (which I do each year) --
The easy cut --
Ditch: books that, as a reader, I really don't care about (books I recently got to try; gifts that were only worth one read; mind-candy that is truly substitutable by another). Exception: books of "non-reading value" (first editions or other special qualities). But, then, these can be taken off your bookshelves to save space if you need to, and stored safely.

The harder cut -- reads I want again, ever:
Ditch: those I'm sure will be in the library or in print, long-term (e.g., Austen). Exception: personal value (Grandad's bible).
Ditch: those that I want just for information I could get elsewhere, and don't need to have right at hand (i.e., for work). That gets rid of a huge bunch nowadays, because of on-line sources.
Don't Ditch: the rest. You'll thank yourself later.

Yes, as I cull each year, more books do move from the "want again" to the "not care" category. But that's because I'm a reader, not an archivist. But I try to serve my future reader-self.
P.S. Ditch means "give to the library" -- they'll go to shelves or fund-raising book sales -- either way, into the hands of another reader.
posted by Bet Glenn at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2010

1. Might my kid want to read it?
posted by xo at 9:42 AM on January 18, 2010

In my last move, a friend came over and took each book off the shelf, one by one, held it up, and said "Why do you love this book?"

If I didn't have a good answer, or realized I didn't actually love that book, he put it in the discard pile. The first few dozen interrogations were painful, but after a few hundred, I was able to do it myself without him standing there. It's a good exercise, even if you end up keeping the book, to figure out what it is you love about it.
posted by judith at 7:11 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Give them all to friends and family from whom you can borrow or steal them back as needed. Now they're using up their shelves, not yours.
posted by pracowity at 6:10 AM on January 19, 2010

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