Vexed Ex Libris
March 3, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Help me prune my book collection! I have over a thousand books and really need to slim it down. I'd like to reduce the book count by at least one hundred but can't seem to do it. Many have sat unread for years. In the past, I've said to myself that I'll read them 'someday' as an excuse for keeping them around. I'm fooling myself. What process, criteria or rule of thumb should I use to help me prune my library, overcome the (admittedly) irrational tome attachment, and make my collection a plum size once more.
posted by storybored to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Criteria 1 - can you check it out from the public library?

Criteria 2 - can you buy it for less than $10?
posted by valeries at 11:32 AM on March 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

I find it hard to get rid of books because I like to know that they're going into good hands. Presumably you have friends who like books. Let them know what you have.

Criteria 2 - can you buy it for less than $10?

This is a good one. When I buy books for under $10 or so, I like to joke that the coffee I'll drink while reading the book will cost more than the book.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:34 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep things in a few categories

- older books that would be tough to replace [not because they're valuable, but because they'd be tough to find]
- books in or about my chosen profession [librarianship/info science/inernet stuff]
- books I've contributed to or written or which were contributed to or written by CLOSE friends
- books I expect to reread
- books that make me happy when I look at them

I've gotten a lot more ruthless about other books lately, so specifically

- anything that is a trade paperback and/or easily replaceable for $2 on Amazon I get rid of
- anything that I've been swearing to myself I'm going to read real soon now for more than a few years I get rid of
- anything gifted to me by publishers or near strangers that I'm really seriously not going to read I get rid of
- old periodicals or goofy books that represent the road not travelled, I'll usually get rid of
- advanced reader's copies of books I'm unlikely to read I'll get rid of

I toss a lot of popular stuff on and it zips out the door fairly quickly and gives me credits which I can use to get other people to mail me books. You'd think you'd just be replacing books one for one but I use it as sort of a long-term library and/or something that's really handy around holidaytime. I have a box in my house which is just books that are going out, sort of slow motion-like. When people come over they can dig around in that box and take what they want [do not do if you have some sort of post office phobia]
posted by jessamyn at 11:34 AM on March 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

If you don't remember that you even had it, chuck it. And by "chuck it" I of course mean "donate it to a local library"
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 11:35 AM on March 3, 2011

They have libraries in Ottawa, don't they? My first criteria for keeping a book is "Will I read or consult this often enough that going to the library will be inconvenient?" (My second criteria is "was this book expensive or hard to find?" but that one is negotiable) There are a surprisingly small number of books on this list.

Also, I find that using the library (vs keeping unread books in my house) actually increases the number of books I read in a year - I put a book on hold, get a notification when it comes in, and then I have a 2 or 3 week deadline before I have to return it. Keeps me from the whole, "Oh, I'll read that eventually" stage.
posted by muddgirl at 11:36 AM on March 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

My friend once had a bazillion cds she wanted to get rid of. She invited everyone she knew to come and take what they wanted. She even set aside certain albums for certain people. Almost all of her cds went to good homes, and she got rid of her collection in a satisfying way. Maybe that might work for your books?
posted by shinyshiny at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's how I cull:

1. Any book which I bought more than 2 years ago and haven't read yet. My experience is if I haven't read it in that long, I probably never will. (The most common cause is me buying a book that I think I ought to like, rather than buying a book that I think I will like.)

2. Any book which I disliked so much that I didn't finish reading it. That's an easy one. I will never finish reading these books, nor will I ever loan them to someone else.

3. Technical books which are obsolete. As a techie person this means pretty much any computer-related book that's more than, say, 4 years old.

Now comes the hard part. Sit back and assess all the books you have left, and decide what percentage is reasonable for you to keep. 10%? 50%? 80%? This number will depend on:

A) The amount of shelf space you can dedicate to books.

B) How many books you were able to discard in the first part of the exercise.

Choose a number of books that you can keep. Then go through the books you have left, and pick out the ones you want to keep. Imagine that you're choosing players for a team. You only want to keep the best!

Basically in the first step you get rid of the crap. In the second step you skim the cream.

Then take the big segment from the middle of the bell curve, box them up, and take them straight to the used book store. Do it quick, like ripping off a band aid. Don't put it off until next weekend, because "next weekend" never comes.

Then rush home and marvel at all the shelf space you have free for all the wonderful books you will read in the future!
posted by ErikaB at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2011

Donate to the library! Think, just sit and think, of all the pleasure books have given you and imagine spreading that around to libraries!

As you go through your books, compile a "want to read" list or spreadsheet. Then go right back to the library and check out a book!
posted by motsque at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2011

I did this recently & weeded: most of my old, yellowed paperbacks; anthologies that I'd saved from undergrad; old textbooks; books I've gotten as gifts & will never read; books about political events from the last 10 years and bestseller/trendy/pulpy stuff that I've already read and can easily find at a bookstore, amazon or library if I want to re-read it.
posted by pluckysparrow at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2011

I find this one trips me up - keeping "books that make me happy when I look at them" so I take pictures sometimes before giving them away. I am also very careful about acquiring books in the first place because I know how hard it is for me to part with them later (I still read a lot - just use the library instead of the bookstore).

My dad is a book hoarder and it greatly diminishes my parents' quality of life, so I am quite ruthless. I feel the temptation to own and keep quite strongly, but I also see the consequences.
posted by valeries at 11:39 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My basic rule is: if I do not expect to reread it, I get rid of it. I have regretted following this rule maybe a half dozen times in 20 years, and I rebought a book once. I have a harder time getting rid of books I haven't read, especially if they are gifts, but I am hardening my heart on that one. I used to hit used book stores pretty often, but the used bookstores in Providence are horrible (with the possible exception of Ada Books), so mostly I just donate to the library.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:46 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find pruning my stuff is easier if I'm in a bad mood. If I'm feeling happy and optimistic, it's easy to convince myself that I will eventually read that book, knit that sweater, etc. I know, realistically, that I won't but it's just too hard to let go of hope.

A lot of accumulated stuff represents plans and dreams, and ditching it is the final admission of Failure To Launch. This is painful, and is a big reason why people shove stuff away in attics and basements so they don't have to officially admit they've failed, but they also don't have to see all those reminders of their failure.

So anyway, there are lots of good suggestions for the actual criteria to use in culling, but my advice is to do it when the weather is lousy, you're waiting for the plumber, you didn't get that promotion, or whatever else makes you pissed off at the whole world. Angry music can help too - anything to avoid feeling wistful or sentimental, or god forbid cheerful.
posted by Quietgal at 11:55 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found this post immensely helpful when trimming down my library, and refer to it often.

I also try to pass along books I think someone else will like, but I myself am unlikely to reread, and I immediately sell to a used bookstore any book that I hated or could not bring myself to finish.

With the impending arrival of my first child, I too had to confront the many unread books I had, and something Mr. Q&A helped me a lot. I told him I was fearful of re-buying the book and wasting money, and he told me instead to think of it as buying space in our home. He said he was not bothered by the fact that I might re-buy a book in the future if having more space now would be beneficial.

Additionally- and this very much depends on your family- given how often my family loans books to each other, I try not to own a book my family members own unless it has personal significance to me, I have written in the margins, or it is a book I feel I want specifically want to own and not just have available to me more easily. So I'm more likely to keep a copy of The Great Gatsby even if we all own it than a copy of a mystery I know my father also has.
posted by questionsandanchors at 11:56 AM on March 3, 2011

Other posts that may be helpful: here, here, and here.
posted by questionsandanchors at 12:05 PM on March 3, 2011

1. get rid of anything in the public domain unless it's a gorgeous edition or family heirloom.

2. get rid of anything you haven't read that you acquired more than a year ago, unless you have immediate plans to read it (i.e. it's basically "on deck" or maybe #3 in your mental queue).

3. get rid of anything cheap and paper-backish that you've read and are pretty sure you won't read again.
posted by Sara C. at 12:20 PM on March 3, 2011

Have you checked for duplicates? When I hit 2k books, I did some alphabetising and managed to free up an extra shelf, just by finding the stuff I had multiple copies of. (Particularly likely if you go in for trilogies/omnibus editions/collected works etc.)
posted by the latin mouse at 12:23 PM on March 3, 2011

I've been trying a new tack, every couple of days I pull two or three books to list on It's so much easier than making some giant emotional project out of it. Of course, you can choose a different method of book reuse.
posted by advicepig at 12:23 PM on March 3, 2011

I have two categories of fiction books, read and unread. My criteria for keeping books I've read is complicated and personal, so I won't go into it. Here's what I do with the unread stuff every few weeks:
-Go through and pick out 4-5 books. Sometimes all in one genre and sometimes one of each.
-Read the first chapter (or ~20 pages) of each book.
-If one is a total turn-off, I post it for swapping ( or
-I immediately start reading the one that grabbed me the most.
-I keep the rest in a small pile in my room and that is my Soon to be Read pile.
-If something stays in that pile too long, I figure it didn't grab me enough and I swap it, too.

You could do this with books you've already read. Page through them, read an excerpt and decide from there. Lastly, once I have a pile of about 5 books I've read, I take a picture of the stack of spines so I will have a record of what I read even after it is swapped away.
posted by soelo at 12:41 PM on March 3, 2011

One thing that helped me cull my books was to put every single one in my catalog on Library Thing. I tended to use Libary Thing for books I wanted to read or had read (whether I bought it or borrowed it). Putting all books I had in my "virtual" library made it much easier to get rid of books -- the ones I got rid of followed a lot of the criteria here.
posted by R343L at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2011

When I want to get rid of books, I take the culled ones to a used book store for trade. The ones they won't use I give to the local library or a charity. I'm not sure how much this will help in selecting which books to select, but it helps me feel good about getting rid of them knowing I will be getting either a credit or cash for the ones I don't keep.
posted by annsunny at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2011

My wife and I tried a new approach last time we culled the collection. Instead of deciding which books to get rid of, we decided which to keep. We went through every shelf, piling the books we would keep on the floor. At the end, everything left on the shelves went to the local used book store (where we now have $140 in credit). Choosing which books to save was somehow easier than choosing which ones to condemn.
posted by jon1270 at 12:50 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Forget the books themselves. Figure out how much shelf space you want taken up with books. Then start going through the books and choose the ones that get saved and put them on the shelf. When the shelves are full, you have to take one down and put it in the discard pile in order to add another.
posted by K.P. at 1:22 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. I even found moving from one hemisphere to another didn't help much. Here are two things that HAVE helped:
- Really think why you have all those books. Sadly for me, some of it was vanity - I thought it looked good to have those books. I am envious of people with houses full of books. I then realised that was a pretty vain and silly reason to keep all those books.
- A kindle. If you don't want a kindle, an e-reader of some sort. Take the money you make selling the books you get rid of and put it towards one. Books can be beautiful objects to admire (I make books, and I collect art editions) but most can be just as easily read on something that doesn't take up nearly as much room.
posted by Megami at 1:50 PM on March 3, 2011

I recommend moving across the world. It got my out of control book collection down to 30.

But since that's generally impractical, do one of these things:

- Make a list of 12/25/50/100 friends
- Go through your collection and find 8/4/2/1 book to give to each person on your list.


- Get 13 of those cardboard bankers boxes.
- On the outside letter them A-B, C-D, etc.
- Take random books starting with A-B off your shelf and put them in the A-B box until it's full. Continue through the alphabet.
- Tape the boxes shut and write the date on the tape.
- Put them in a friends garage. (Or get a small storage space.)
- After 1 year take all the boxes that are still sealed to the used book store, etc. Do Not Open Them!
posted by Ookseer at 2:02 PM on March 3, 2011

Would you buy the book today? If you were in a bookstore, right now, would you be willing to spend money on this book? If not, get rid of it. Thinking this way may be tricky if you find it really easy to buy books.
posted by medusa at 2:28 PM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

If something can be downloaded free from Gutenberg, get rid of it unless it's a nice edition.

Things like and bookmooch are unfortunately not so useful in Canada because we have no book rate and mailing books out gets expensive. At least on bookmooch, which I tried out for awhile, there's also the frustration that people post books you want, but won't mail them to Canada. Maybe try bookcrossing if the books don't have much inherent value.
posted by zadcat at 4:24 PM on March 3, 2011

I asked a similar question a few years ago (and still have way too many books, not through any fault of AskMe's advice-givers).
posted by matildaben at 4:25 PM on March 3, 2011

3. Technical books which are obsolete.

I'd add to this, most reference books (dictionaries, thesauruses, nature or travel guides, etc.). You'll be able to find more up-to-date info on this kind of stuff online, anyway.

Also I love this advice:
I find pruning my stuff is easier if I'm in a bad mood.

You need to go on a bit of a rampage. You are SICK of having all these books you never read! You want to pare down, clean up, make room for new stuff, whatever! Best time to do this is when you're seriously annoyed with the current condition of your stacks, bookshelves, bedside table, etc.

Motivation is the key. And ooey-gooey sentimentality is NOT the motivation you need here. Being a tiny bit pissed off IS.
posted by torticat at 5:51 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

FlyLady has probably the best collection of decluttering ideas Start with The 27 Fling Boogie and go on from there.
posted by KRS at 6:38 PM on March 3, 2011

The two biggest things that have helped me get rid of books are:

1. Learning about the "reserve" system at our library. I'm sure everyone hear knows about this, but in case anyone is as ill-informed as I was, the way it works in the two cities I have lived in recently is you go to the library website and find some books you want and then put them on hold. Wherever the books are in the system (which could be city wide or county wide), some nice librarian finds the book and it ends up on the hold shelf at my local branch. This is so awesome because my local branch inevitably never has the books I want, and I don't have to traipse all over town. Seriously, when I found out about this (FREE!) service, it freed me from (a) buying most books (b) keeping books around. So, if I was you I would go through your books and get rid of most of the books available in your local library system.

2.! Someone mentioned other virtual library services (which I haven't used) but I just love goodreads. It's my way of keeping track of what I've read and what I want to read. I just recently got rid of a lot of college books and I felt okay about it because I made a "college" shelf in goodreads and they all got put on that shelf. So, when I want to feel smart I can look back at all those great books I read. This is also my way of keeping track of what books I would recommend to other people, etc.

Good luck!
posted by lvanshima at 8:28 PM on March 3, 2011

Anything published by Project Gutenberg can be safely jettisoned... gods, I love me my Kindle... and any tech manual or academic text older than 2 years, unless it's a seminal work still referred to heavily (I still need all of my USAHs and Swordfish books, even tho some of them were "obsolete" when Bush I was in office.) Anything you didn't like reading.

Let me say that again.

Anything you didn't like reading.

If you look at it and say, "I want to read that again! On the couch! With hot-cocoa!" keep it.

If you look at it and say, "That's an important book, and it looks good on my shelf, and I don't know what it's about." Dump it.

Anything you love to read, and have a softcover of, and there's an e-book version for it... the shelf space is cheaper than the e-book, and you should steal an e-version of it anyway if you paid for it at a new-book-store. Jettison it if you don't love it enough for a hardback. (Example - my entire Hornblower saga. The softcovers are falling to pieces. My Kindle is sturdy. Counter example - My Sandman TPB collection stays, as it is lovely and to be held and beheld.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:50 PM on March 3, 2011

I'd like to reduce the book count by at least one hundred but can't seem to do it

Here's what works for me: I look at each shelf and say "2 books have to go from this shelf." It really helps narrow the choices down to focus on a small section. You can't move away from that shelf until you pull 2 books off to sell/swap/donate. Starting with 1 book per shelf might help, but I've done it with as many as 3 and felt fine afterwards.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on March 3, 2011

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