How can I part with my precious books? No, really.
December 9, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

All my books are assembling in one house. Help me figure out what is a reasonable amount of books to keep, and which books I should stoop. Also, how to emotionally handle letting go of lots and lots of books.

I have, quite literally, over 5,000 books. Some of them have been in different apartments and houses, others were in storage. The last time they were all together, I existed with books stuffed everywhere, double stacked, books on top of the bookcase, books on top of the books on top of the bookcase, books on top of wardrobes, and over 10 dedicated floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

I'm bringing them together again, as well as combining my books with my fiance's books. However, he is (reasonably) concerned about books living attractively inside their shelves. Books can live in the office, bedroom, and living room, but that is it.

At the moment, my collection closely resembles a miniature library in terms of depth and breadth -books in terrible shape and books in great shape, books three hundred years old to books bought yesterday.

Many of them I don't read, but what keeps me from getting rid of them is that someday, someone in my household (including kids as they age) might want to read them, and it would be wasteful of me to throw them away. Or we might need to reference them. (Who knows when you'll need a biography of Archibald Grimke! Or a guide to wildflowers of North America! Or to learn to speak Russian!) Also, some of these books I tell myself would be expensive to replace (even paperbacks add up in these quantities), others would be extremely difficult if not impossible. (I legally received some unclassified discards from the NSA library, for example)

Also, I've tried stooping some books, but with the varied interests, they are not all finding good homes, and I have strong moral aversions to throwing away books unless they're truly abysmal.

What is a reasonable amount of books before you become a book-cat-lady, what are good sorting mechanisms, and how do I let go of books, emotionally and logistically?
posted by corb to Home & Garden (45 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Why not just leave the ones in storage in storage?
posted by treblemaker at 11:32 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many of them I don't read, but what keeps me from getting rid of them is that someday, someone in my household (including kids as they age) might want to read them, and it would be wasteful of me to throw them away.

Can't you give them to the local library instead of throwing them away? That's what I did when I moved across the country in 2010. I had been building this personal library since about 1998, and I just gave them all to the library (with the exception of the mathematical texts I might need for my career). The way I convinced myself that this was the right thing to do is that other people would be able to enjoy the books that I've collected over the years which I kept in good condition. (I also gave the library about 1,000 CDs, that was hard to let go of too.)

Or we might need to reference them.

The internet pretty much guarantees that this will not be necessary, unless the book is particularly rare and its subject isn't already discussed at length on the internet.
posted by King Bee at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would donating some of them to a prison library make you feel better about them finding a good home?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 11:44 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Weed through paperbacks first. Also get rid of the ones you read and didn't like/hated. That should give you a good starting point.
posted by natasha_k at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would think about which books would be easy to eat rid of. Commercial paperbacks, books in poor condition, etc. The deal is that only you know what that first level is. Then comb through and get rid of those! It will feel so good to have some out of the way. As you are goi through, think about what the next level would be and start thinking about a deadline for that level.

For the ones that you aren't thinking you'll ever read but you think would be expensive to replace, would it be more expensive to replace the handful of books this might ever happen with than paying storage on all them this whole time?

Once you've gone through the not-so-much fun of task of sorting through these, it will likely get easier and easier to get rid of most of them.

Lastly, really be strict about having a set amount of bookshelf space and stick to it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:46 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In terms of the "might need to reference them" things, which are the ones that would be the most difficult to access? I mean, nearly every library will have a physical copy or twelve of Jane Eyre, and you can even get it on Project Gutenberg. So why keep your copy?

Think, too, of your shelves as very specific homes. The ones in the living room might be the "diagnostic bookshelves," as my parents call them: they're the books you want people to know you read, either because they're impressive or they look really good or whatever. They're the ones that tell your guests something about the people who live here.

In the bedroom, I take the opposite tack: books I DON'T necessarily want to share, and the ones I keep the closest. So here I have the self-help books (ha!), the romance novels, the books I'm reading right now, and the ones I love to pick up again and again on a moment's notice.

In the office, you might have technical manuals, business books or others related to your fields, how-tos, specialty hobby books like musical scores or knitting books or writing books, etc.

Then look at the ones you have left. Why didn't they fit into those homes? Do you really need to keep them if they're not in those top spots?

Some other tips I caught from Peter Walsh (seriously, I loved any TV show he was on):
--If something is in bad shape, particularly if it got that way while in your possession, do you really care about that item? Are you giving it the respect it needs?
--What a lot of this comes down to is your ability to trust yourself that you'll be able to provide what's needed in any given situation. You're hanging on to a lot of these books because you want to be ready for some random future situation. But (to use a knitting analogy) I can't tell you the number of times I've decided to start a project and looked in my stash for the appropriate yarn, only to say to myself, "You know... I really need something a little thinner/darker/more washable/fancier" and go buy something at the store. The same goes for your books.
--Which books can you tell yourself that you've used in the past year? How did you choose the books in storage (read: the ones that weren't where you could get at them easily) -- did you find yourself going in to the storage space to look for anything? More importantly, if you didn't need to get at them while they were in storage, why would you need to get at them again?

Also, maybe you can give your fiancé some veto power (assuming he'll do the same for you) as a sign of compromise.
posted by Madamina at 11:58 AM on December 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

The internet pretty much guarantees that this will not be necessary, unless the book is particularly rare and its subject isn't already discussed at length on the internet.

This is probably true in specific cases, but is absolutely not in others. The internet is an excellent reference for some topics (especially modern technical subjects, recipes, and maybe knitting patterns?) but is completely inadequate for others, especially if you're only counting free sources.
posted by pullayup at 12:00 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The books that you might someday want, how available are they? For instance, if my daughter wants to read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, the Wizard of Oz, or the Ramona Quimby books, the library has more than enough copies to borrow (and they've stayed in print long enough to be able to count on that). On the other hand, I keep my Elfrida Vipont children's books because I don't have a good place to borrow them from and I like to re-read them myself.

Giving books away gives other people a chance to enjoy these books too. So if you're not actually reading them and haven't referenced them in the past year, give them to a library book sale or used book store, and someone who actually will use them can get a chance at them.
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:06 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went from a house with bookshelves in every room to a tiny little studio apartment - it was either the books or the cats, and honest-to-god, some days it was a tough decision. I had stuff from elementary school, I kid you not. Buying books and reading was my hobby for years and years, and both my sense of identity (I am a book person!), and nostalgia kept me hanging on to them.

Know up front - it is HARD to let them go. You have to decide for yourself what is worth keeping, but these are some of the criteria I used, and how it worked out:

Anything I re-read on a regular basis (e.g., once a year or so) - kept. I would change that now to anything I re-read on a regular basis that I can't easily get my hands on (out of print or whatever) through the library or a used book store.

Reference books I actually use - kept. I got rid of too many of those, and wish I had gotten rid of other things instead. Reference books for hobbys I don't actually partake in (your wildflower book for example - if you don't regularly hike and/or have need to i.d. a plant, it's easier to look flowers up on the internet or get a book from the library when you need it).

Any textbooks (unless still used as reference), children's books (I don't have kids), popular fiction, especially series - haven't missed them at all.

Antique books - harder still to sort. Gifts, special meaning ones: kept. Sold any worth selling (fewer than you'd think), Gave away specialty ones to specialty museums (if they wanted them), gave as gifts any that met someone else's special interest.

Which leads me to: give away as gifts as many as you can. Sell anything worth selling (reiterating - that's not many, and is a pain in the butt to do) through local used book stores that give cash or credit, and take the cash. Give away to: your local Friends of the Library used book store, specialty museums, nursing homes, anyone who would take them.

Anything I was keeping for potential future use went in the get-rid-of pile: if I need it in the future, I will buy it at that time.

With what's left: invite all your friends to come over and pick out what they want.

*Anything* left over from all that I gave to the local thrift store. I did not throw away anything that wasn't in such bad shape it was essentially unreadable.

I now have two (and only two) bookshelves - one in the living room area, and one next to my desk.

My only regret, as I said, was not keeping some of the reference books I still occasionally reach for. Other than the initial trauma (and oh, it was) of letting all those books go, I find that I don't miss them nearly so much as I thought I would.

Good luck.
posted by faineant at 12:06 PM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Who knows when you'll need a biography of Archibald Grimke! Or a guide to wildflowers of North America! Or to learn to speak Russian!

All of these things are available in your local, not-personally-housed, library. In addition, when your children need, in 10+ years, a biography of Archibald Grimke, a guide to wildflowers of North America, or to learn to speak Russian, there will be a new biography from current historical resources, an updated edition of the wildflower field guide, and a more contemporary pedagogical approach to learning Russian.

For the ones that you aren't thinking you'll ever read but you think would be expensive to replace, would it be more expensive to replace the handful of books this might ever happen with than paying storage on all them this whole time?


I don't think that there is anything wrong with being a book-cat lady.

I don't either. But if you're a cat lady with more cats than you can house and care for and are continuing to acquire cats, you are not a cat lady, you are an animal hoarder. I am not saying that's what is going on here; I am saying that just because books don't piss on the floor, there is an assumption that their accumulation never represents an issue. That is not the case.

I have strong moral aversions to throwing away books unless they're truly abysmal.

That's fine, but have you thought very concretely about what is going to happen when you are elderly and your home needs to be cleared for sale, or when you die and your executor is left dealing with 5,000 books? The end destination of these books would in those cases not be something you control and probably not what you would want. The immediate way to solve this problem is to be your own executor now, and reduce your collection on your own terms. It will be painful but it will be better than your worse case scenario.

In your case, I think I would try a new approach: you have $300 to spend. Every book in your collection costs $1. What books would you buy again on this budget?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:12 PM on December 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

People who hoard books always have what seem to be good reasons for having books taking up all the available spaces in their places. Limiting book ownership to books you can put on shelves is actually a sane way to deal with this. This means that if you can not fit them on a shelf, you can't keep them which is a decent and objective way to look at a collection of anything. That said, it is totally fine to have many many shelves, it just should be clear that this is a choice you are making and not a compulsion that is framing the way you live your life. I have this problem to some extent and am also not perfect about it, but here are the rationales that I use.

1. I am not a hoarder and I should not look like one. Even if there is a "good" reason, piles of anything stacked on spaces that are supposed to be used for something else is a bad use of space and is clearly exhibiting a mixed sense of priorities.
2. The public library is a wonderful enduring institution that will have many-if-not-most classics and popular books for decades to come. I firmly believe this.
3. Realistically I refer to some of my books some of the time, others not at all and some of them I seem to not even know I have. It's fine to have a large "to read" stack/shelf of books, less okay to have 50-100 books in a state of partial read-ness if I don't realistically have time to read anything
4. To that end, using part of my day to actively read is a part of my deal with myself to be able to keep the books that I have.
5. I'm at least part Buddhist and my attachment to my books is a part, for me, of a desire that isn't really practical so I spend time thinking about that concept generally. An anxiety of what MIGHT happen that is causing a negative impact in what IS happening is problematic.

Looking around my office now, I keep

- books I have written or am in or that were written by friends of mine
- professionally relevant books even if they are somewhat historical [i.e. books from library school a few decades ago]
- old books that have some sort of personal meaning for me
- books that were gifts
- books that I LOVED and would re-read
- books I like having around that are not in the way
- old reference books which are my one area that I might be said to "collect" and books by two authors that I collect
- books that are the right color for my sorted by color shelf (don't hate)

Things I actively get rid of

- popular paperbacks and hardcovers that I realistically do not think I will read again
- reference books that have been superceded by the internet (dictionaries, language dictionaries, indexes to various things, old magazines, computer reference guides
- multiples of books that I collect
- books that are damaged
- books that gradually "age out" of their relevance to me. I don't have a giant barn so I don't keep my old farm books. I am not doing linguistics so got rid of most [not all] of my linguistics books

Things I do with old books

- Give them to the library, be aware that the library MOSTLY puts these books in their book sales, not on the shelves
- Give them to the thrift store so they can make some money selling these things or humanely recycling them
- Put them up on so I can trade them for books I might want
- give them as gifts to friends

What is a reasonable amount of books before you become a book-cat-lady

There is no answer to this. I know a lot of people with books and here are my wild-ass assertions anyhow. If you are a person for whom books are something you are strongly using in your job or family/home life, this could be as high as several thousand. If you are someone who just likes to have them to look at and keep "just in case" I'd drop that number down to three figures. I live in a small apartment and I am brutal about only allowing books on shelves and while it's a fight I don't always win, I think it's worthwhile from a discipline standpoint to show that you own your books, they do not own you.
posted by jessamyn at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2012 [16 favorites]

It may help to consider these previous questions:

How do I get rid of my book infestation?
I have about 300 books I need to sell or donate by the 26th.
Easiest way to donate books to soldiers?
Where to donate books?
Should I sell my books?

Not a one tagged as "copingwithabandoningpoordefenselessbooksomg," sadly. I know that my books are just more stuff, really, but I forget. When my MIL died, I boxed up her subject area books--the books which had formed a piece of her--and watched as people in her specialty happily carted them away. God, it hurt. But her stuff (and it was just stuff) went out into the world to do its work for someone else. So there's that.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

My criteria for divesting myself of anything:

1. If I can't find it the moment I need it, that's the same as if I didn't have it at all. So in this case, if I had to search through various stacks and various rooms and it would take me hours or days to find it, I am not going to keep those items.

2. If I haven't used it within 6 months (with the exception of tools or holiday decorations), I don't need it.

For me, when I got to the point where I was storing things in boxes in the garage and hadn't opened those boxes in years, I just decided I obviously didn't need it that bad.

When I was de-cluttering my home a couple of years ago I had a fair amount of books that I wasn't interested in re-reading. I hauled them to 4 different used bookstores in the area, and donated the leftovers to the library. Now I have a dedicated shelf space for books, and that is the only place books are allowed to live in my house. If something comes in, something else goes out. But really the ones I have I don't want to get rid of, so I have become much more disciplined about borrowing from the library rather than buying. I find the printed word very relaxing, so at this point I have no intentions of getting an ereader.
posted by vignettist at 12:25 PM on December 9, 2012

how do I let go of books, emotionally and logistically?

Logistically, I run a book swap on a bring-one-take-one basis. If you have a good local network, or are part of a online-community you would feel comfortable welcoming into some place your books are, you could turn it into a bring-food-take-books get-together.

Books of mine that don't go at the book swap (hey, we all have different tastes) often find themselves at a free-standing bookshelf in another city I visit frequently. Outside and accessible to all, the same bring-some-take-some principle applies. The bookshelf is highly-trafficked, and very rarely do I see my books there two days later, so someone is enjoying them somewhere. Maybe your town has something similar?

Emotionally, I started to consider the life of the book. Sure, the book had a comfortable life on my shelf, but it wasn't being let free as often as it probably would like. I am not a re-reader, and don't have the same tastes as my friends. It may sound childish to anthropomorphize the books, but sending them off to other people meant giving them a new life. From the perspctive of the next reader, they gained some knowledge or entertainment from the book as well. Many of my books are now in different homes, in different countries, even! Better than sitting in a storage locker, for sure.

If you have the time and the will, you may also actually enjoy putting them on Amazon for re-sale. Another belonging I used to collect is being sold off piece-by-piece on the internet. I find I am less attached to them now, knowing that they are welcomed in different collections and hey, money.
posted by whatzit at 12:28 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I keep books that I expect to want to reread. I reread a lot more than most people, so my collection is fairly extensive (somewhere around 1000 volumes) but they all fit on shelves. (I have devoted pretty much all the wall space in my very small condo to shelves, but I am fine with that.) I also lend books to friends profligately - I figure books should be read, and if I'm not actively reading something I should put it in the hands of someone who will enjoy it. I don't mind occasionally losing books this way. Books are replaceable, and my friends are generally responsible.

Non-fiction is pretty much library-only, with a very small set of exceptions. (I cannot build any sort of comprehensive reference of anything with the space I have, and the library does it anyway - why not let them handle it?)

Once I run out of shelf space (or come close) I peruse the collection, maybe reread a few things that I think are on the bubble, and sell some things to the local used book store. I have also traded up some of my mass-market paperback series for omnibus trade paperback editions that take up much less space. (I love these and am generally happy to drop cash money for new copies if that's what it takes.)

I've been running up against the limits of my storage space for the last couple of years, and it has made me much choosier about what I add and a much more active user of the local (excellent) library system. If I have not read a book before and do not know for sure that I will love it to death, I check it out from the library first. This also means that I buy more brand-new books, because I am buying fewer overall, so I can strategically support my favorite authors and my local indy bookstore.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait. You have a previous post that notes "I regularly buy romance/adventure books from the 1880's to the 1920's and school books, children's primers and things of that nature, from 1880's to 1930's."

If that is still the case, then this is a different issue than simply reducing 5,000 books -- you have an intact and growing collection that also needs to be addressed and planned for. Also read your own advice in that thread, and realise that you are setting your offspring up to be in the same awful position as the OP.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:38 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does your local library have a friends of the library type store that sells used donated books?
if part of your difficulty in letting go of books is wanting them to be use and enjoyed these can be a great place to give donate them.
posted by oneear at 12:46 PM on December 9, 2012

what keeps me from getting rid of them is that someday, someone in my household (including kids as they age) might want to read them, and it would be wasteful of me to throw them away

Honestly, I think the smartest thing is to reverse this thinking. It's wasteful to keep things that you aren't using. Somebody else could be using those things and getting enjoyment from them, instead of you using money and time and mental energy to store them.

I'm not saying that you need to live in a plain white cube with only a single plate and fork to keep you company, but that keeping stuff "just in case" is itself wasteful and not a good way to live.
posted by Forktine at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2012

Response by poster: For more data:

Storage is really no longer feasibly an option; it is, as others have said, just not cost-effective.

The antiquarian books are pretty solid in the keep category, because I actively want them and reread them frequently, but they only take up about two bookshelves, so they don't seem like as much of a problem.

Really appreciate everyone sharing their personal book-sorting criteria, though, this is actually really helpful, please do continue! (Particularly the bit about reference books that have been replaced by the internet, that's something I didn't even think about)
posted by corb at 12:52 PM on December 9, 2012

My policy is this: I go through books once a year. Knowing that I'm going to go through them every year makes it easier to get rid of things. If there's something I'm uncertain about, I feel comfortable hanging onto it, and then if I still don't want to keep it next year, off it goes. I either sell them to a local used bookstore, or I donate them to the library, which re-sells them in their used book store.

These are some of the criteria I've used:
1) Is it easy to get? If yes, probably toss it.
2) Does it have family historical significance, like the 1922 collection of Keats in which my great-grandmother wrote a letter to her sister? If yes, keep. No one else will value it more.
3) Have I read it lately? If no, off it goes.
4) Does it have emotional significance? All those L'Engle books, I can get again, and I haven't read them in years. But those are the copies I read when I was 14 that made me feel valuable as a human, so I keep them.

The major things that have helped me emotionally deal with culling books are these:
1) As whatzit wrote, considering the life of the book. Is it just sitting there, collecting dust? Do I really think my child will want to read it in the future? When was the last time I took it out and read it? It's good for books to be read. They get brittle and weird if they just sit on the shelves, and, yeah, they wear out faster being read, but that's what they're for.
2) Using the library regularly. I read a lot. I maintain an active holds list at the library (which I can do online) and have a weekly routine of returning books and picking up my holds. The routine helps keep my fines down, and my familiarity with the library has made me feel better about not owning all those books myself. Plus, my taxes are paying for someone else to maintain and weed the collection. I just get to read the books I want.

If I read something I know I will want to have on hand later, I'll go buy a nice copy of it. My book budget gets used more thoughtfully this way. If I want a book I can't find in the library, even through interlibrary loan, I feel okay buying a secondhand copy and returning it out in the world when I'm done with it.
posted by linettasky at 12:52 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went through this. Start with stuff that you can easily get rid of, because it can be easily replaced. Moby Dick, for instance, is available in every thrift store in American for twenty five cents. A lot fo my books were books I could replace with great ease and no cost if the need ever arose.

Next, I went through and replaced books with digital versions. This was a bit pricier, but a tremendous space saver, and a lot of those books I can just keep up in the cloud and download to my reader whenever I needed.

By this time, I had gotten a lot less precious about my books. The act of getting rid of a lot of them made the idea of getting rid of more of them much easier. So I went through and got rid of anything that I wasn't using, could be replaced (I checked on Amazon to make sure of availability), and didn't have any special meaning for me.

That just left me with books I couldn't bear to part with or made extensive use of. And that was, maybe, five percent of my library. Because it happened piecemeal, it wasn't especially traumatic. And I do not find I often miss the books I got rid of. Those I do find myself missing, if that feeling keeps coming back, I go ahead and buy again, although I always see if there is a digital version first.

For me, part of what I had to come to terms with was the fact that my library wasn't just a reference tool, it was a museum of my literacy. I always look at other people's bookshelves when I go to their houses, and feel I glean a lot about them from seeing what books they have. And so I wanted my bookshelf to represent me.

But I came to a few conclusions that allowed me to not be so concerned about this. Firstly, we're just not in that world anymore. Now that books have gone digital, a bookshelf is no more a document of literacy than a CD collection is a document of musical literacy. Most of us now know that these physical spaces are limited representations of somebody's tastes, and the stuff they really care about and make use of probably now exists in much more flexible and accessible bits and bytes.

Secondly, I realized that most of my books are so obscure that it's very likely that nobody would really glean that much out of seeing them. I had, I think, a pretend hipster in my head who would look at my collection and so, oh, Jack Black's You Can't Win, and Robert Stone's Hall of Mirrors, and Pamela Moore's Chocolate's for Breakfast, oh ho ho, what a fine collection! But there was only one real world hipster who would recognize those books as a collection and respond that way, and that was me. I already know what I have read.

And finally, I have become very utilitarian about what I own. I must make use of it, or it's gone (with some exceptions, such as books signed by authors, or very rare books that would be hard to replace.) And I think it's because I no longer want to represent myself by what I own or consume, but by what I do. And this might be a very personal thing, but I think it's a reaction to 20 years of me obsessively defining myself by how I consume, and trying to establish standards of taste that identify my unique excellence. But there's no real challenge in consumption. There's no exceptionalism in how cleverly I spend money. All I do when I show off an excellent collection is show that I can recognize the excellent work that somebody else does. And there is value to this, but I have better ways of doing it than just by having books on a shelf. The web, in particular, has made it easy for me to share with people things that I think are great, and I think my desire has always been to share awesome stuff I have found (as it sounds like your desire is). Well, it is so easy to find that stuff now that I don't feel a need to hoard it, or have it physically present, but instead to tell people about it and point out how they can track it down for themselves. And this has made the bookshelf less important to me. It made getting rid of books a lot easier.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:09 PM on December 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

At one time we had several thousand books too. My husband worked for years in a bookstore and I am a librarian who used to buy a lot of stuff from library sales. Then we moved across the world and took the opportunity to put a huge number out for anyone to take (in our neighbourhood it was very common for people to put things on the front fence). It was pretty satisfying to see our books go to new homes over the course of a few days - especially ones I had read already or that I had no intention of ever reading. We then shipped a few boxes and the rest went into storage.

We just donated another 2-300 books when we were back home recently, before they went we made a record of the ones that we wanted to buy digitally or refer to again later if necessary using Goodreads. Apart from Antiquarian stuff, and a few books from our childhoods, we've decided that content is more important than container. We also now make a spot by our front door for clothing and book donations and take this out regularly.

I recently moved again and a lot of my books were damaged in the move. Moving so much stuff makes it difficult to be mobile, and is a massive hassle and expense.

We also have a 5000+ LP collection. We've agreed the books may someday go but the records are a mainstay. They're a whole other problem, and are in storage on the other side of the world at a relative's house. Stuff keeps you chained down, that's for sure.
posted by wingless_angel at 1:10 PM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: Some things I think about when weeding my book collection:
  • Have I actually read the book in question? Did I enjoy it? If I did not enjoy it, why keep it around? If I have not read it, am I likely to read it in the next year or two?
  • What are my current personal and professional goals? I should keep books that support those, not my old, abandoned goals. If I've moved away from a certain hobby or professional track, it doesn't make sense to maintain a library of books meant to support it.
  • Books take up space, and space is valuable. If I'm willing to pay more money for more square footage in my home (and I am), then I should be willing to "pay" the value of some of my books to reclaim space they would otherwise take up. Keeping books isn't free; there's an opportunity cost, and it's not just the expense of having enough space to house them. (In your case, there's the "cost" of living comfortably with your fiance.)
  • For books that I've been keeping "for reference," how easy is it to obtain the same information from the internet? (I sometimes find myself searching Google Books or other online resources to look up quotations from books that are on the shelf two feet away from me because searching online is faster and easier than thumbing through a book physically.)
  • When looking at a given subset of my collection, thinning it out is a lot easier if I think about it as "I'm going to reduce this section by half" rather than evaluating each title individually. When I look at each book one by one, it's easy to let the what-if arguments creep in, but if I imagine that some exigency is forcing me to cut the collection in half, it becomes easier to recognize which books are the must-haves and favorites. Everything else can go away and I know I won't miss it.

posted by Orinda at 1:14 PM on December 9, 2012

A point that I think has been implicitly made by some of the other posters-- SIZE can be a major criterion in deciding what books to get rid of and what books to keep. If one of your constraints is shelf/storage space, and especially if you are double-stacking, big old textbooks and reference books should be viewed much more skeptically than dime-store paperbacks.
posted by willbaude at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: If you have a properly arranged collection of books, where you know what you've got, you know where it is, and the collection looks like an interesting part of the furnishing of the room, then you're not a book cat lady, whether that collection is 1000 or 5000 books. If you end up buying books because you don't realise you've already got a copy, if the boxes of books are an eyesore, if you can't actually find books that you thought you had, then you're certainly in hoarding territory.

I was to some extent in this position a couple of years ago. Two things pullled me out of it:

I bought more shelving. Once I had decided on the amount of shelf space, I could be strict about it. Everything has to go on the shelves, which means that if I acquire any new books something else has to go. I still have over 2,000 books, but they're all arranged on decent shelving and they look fine.

I catalogued the whole collection. This was certainly a lot of work, but it meant I had to take a good hard look at every book and decide whether it fitted into any category I wanted to keep. (I used LibraryThing which allowed me to catalogue the exact editions and to tag all kinds of categories).

I have strong moral aversions to throwing away books unless they're truly abysmal.

I used to think that too, but I trained myself to recognise that it was pure sentimentality. Huge numbers of 20th century books are so acidic they're already crumbling away: they'll be useless in a few years' time anyway, so throwing them out now is quite reasonable. Older science books which are factually out of date are pretty well useless to anyone, unless they're actually recognised classics of science writing, or in the specific context of a historical collection. A lot of my discarded books went straight to the local recycling centre because I knew no second hand dealer would want them.
posted by Azara at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2012

If you end up buying books because you don't realise you've already got a copy, if the boxes of books are an eyesore, if you can't actually find books that you thought you had, then you're certainly in hoarding territory.

I will agree with this too - I have catalogued everything, and my books are organized on the shelves and I can put my hands on any given one in seconds. I used Goodreads, which worked fine and also works via edition.

One other thing that occurred to me - I do not own books I haven't read, with very few exceptions. (I swear I will eventually pick up The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, really.) If I hang on to something without reading it for more than two culling cycles (and it's not a reference book) then off it goes.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:37 PM on December 9, 2012

It's hard. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to live in a house that was completely filled with books.

As a grown-up, I find myself regularly purging my book collection to fit within the space I have. Sometimes it's a bit painful, but I've gotten more comfortable with it. My guidelines are:

- Have I read it?
- If not, why not? Am I going to read it in the next 6 months? If not, perhaps I should release it into the world where it can be read by someone who will appreciate it.
- If so, did I enjoy it? Do I want to read it again? Is it easy to find another copy? If so, perhaps it's best to send it on its way.
- If this book were to disappear, would I notice it was gone?
- Books I am getting rid of go to a friend if I can find a taker, are re-sold if they have value, and otherwise are given to the thrift store or library.

It helps to remind myself that books are meant to be READ and used, and if I am not reading and using them I may be depriving someone else of a book they would find interesting, entertaining, or even life-changing.

Another thing to consider is the price of keeping all the books. Whether that's the sacrifice of space, the difficulty of dusting, the guilt and angst of looking at that mountain that has turned into something I *should* read instead of something that I *want* to read...

I'm trying to keep only the books that bring me high value plus a few that I intend to read shortly. It's not easy and I'm not quite there yet, but I'm trying.
posted by bunderful at 1:50 PM on December 9, 2012

I struggle with/exult in thousands too. The only thing I have ever read that has made culling less painful was something posted on here, and I hope its poster forgives me for not remembering enough to be able to link to it; it was the idea that one is merely storing the book [or whatever whatnot] in another place -- in parting with it, you are storing it on eBay or or Craigslist or wherever, where you may retrieve it at any point in the future for whatever its storage fee happens to be. This has helped me quite a lot, focusing on the idea that I can always buy it back.

But I wouldn't go too far down that road. I grew up with a lot of books in the house, and before I moved out I had looked in ALL of them, and read the majority, many of them repeatedly over the years. I was a regular library patron but there is no way I would have checked out most of my parents' titles, and the ones read repeatedly at different points in childhood/adolescence would've been one-offs and not...woven into my growing up in the strange way that the oft-accessed titles were. With that in mind I would consider the Archibald Grimke-type titles to be of potentially significant value for lazy parenting (here are resources; hopefully you'll find your way to them); if you feel your offspring would likely read a particular title whether or not you own it, and your own copy isn't particularly nice, that's a good potential toss. Margalo Epps' point about availability is spot on.

What do you do with your books, what might you do with them in the future? I liked poetry twenty years ago, then paid little attention to it, but now have post-prandial poetry readings with my daughter and really enjoy that, and am very happy I didn't abandon the poetry books, particularly the more aesthetically pleasing volumes. Right now I have been off fiction for years, but the idea of retiring and returning to what I read at 17 excites me, so the fiction I know I enjoy stays. Once I am pretty clear that a particular title is going to stay for good, I mentally catalogue it as something potentially 'upgradable,' and when I see it in hardback or a nice edition I replace it with that; this can mean a bit more space is taken up but... I don't know; on Ask MetaFilter this might be a bit like asking regulars at the bar how you might stop drinking. Merely asking this question means there probably isn't a way for you to do this painlessly.

One thing I do not mind culling is books of dodgy quality even when they are a good "fit" -- I don't need to have sub-par sociology-of-X just because I have a lot of sociology-of-X and how nice to have another title there, etc. Bad writing will never magically transform to good writing on your shelf.

Good luck!
posted by kmennie at 1:52 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have 5,000+ books and have no intention of getting rid of any substantial number of them until I get old enough that I am facing the prospect of assisted living. The last time I got rid of a lot of books because of a move, I bitterly regretted it. This does not mean that I keep everything—in fact, I have made a deal with my wife that I will let one go for every one I acquire, and just to my left I've got a stack to be taken to Troubadour Books (if you're in the Northampton/Hadley/Amherst area, go to this wonderful bookstore, folks!)—but the vast majority of my books are ones that I either love, am planning to read, or consult every once in a while. And "every once in a while" may be once every decade, but when I want that particular book, I want it, dammit, and no, everything isn't on the internet, especially not the stuff I'm interested in. As for libraries, I love them but they can less and less be depended on to have what you want, if what you want is anything other than a current bestseller. In short, don't let yourself be bullied (even gently and with love) into giving up books you will regret not having. An uncluttered house is not the be-all and end-all.

> If I hang on to something without reading it for more than two culling cycles (and it's not a reference book) then off it goes.

That's fine for those who can operate this way. I can't.
posted by languagehat at 1:52 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

We both had/have a lot of books - getting married to a book person as a book person can become overwhelming.

We keep books that are significant to us.
We keep books that are not easily replaceable.
We keep books that we will re-read.

We got rid of everything else. We haven't missed them. I'm looking at another round - we have some books in the house that we've not touched in years and someone else should get to read by other people.

We donate the books to the library, and what we don't take there we take to Goodwill.

We read a lot. Our kindles keep us from becoming hoarders. I highly recommend it. Good luck.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just purged 75% of my massive book collection and IT FEELS GREAT. It was not easy to face but once I started, it became very liberating. Now only the best books are left--easy to display and easy to find as well.

I just started wandering about my book collection thinking about what I could really bear to let go of and hierarchy clearly emerged for me:

1st to go: known duplicates! When I organized my collection by alphabet, many duplicates emerged and I just kept whichever was the nice looking copy. This sounds like it would be a challenge for you but worth trying to organize things in some way as you purge.

2nd in line: Non-fiction in certain categories
-How-to books (now there are even videos of how to do x, y and z online). Let's just face it, I'm never going to make that hook rug!
-Cookbooks! Keep the ones you use and out with the ones that just don't click for you. You know which ones I'm talking about. Again, many recipes on-line! I use on-line recipes more and more now. I love the fact that you can read the comments of others.
-Outdated or no longer useful to me. Yes, I did the master cleanse years ago but I'm not doing it again so out goes the book! This book on greening my house from the early 2000's? Lots of new technology since then and tons more information on-line. Old books on software, computer guides, etc--OUT! 1999 GRE test prep? Why did I still have it?
-Just not going to read it again and it isn't even a nice copy. Those Chomsky books? Love him but not going to read them again and the cheap paperback covers are curling up. Jon Krakauer--ripped through all of his books but don't have any desire to read his book about Mormons again and it is the quality of book you buy in an airport terminal. Really be honest with yourself about this one and you'll really purge a lot more than you think. What use is it to you if it since in the back of a storage space and you can't even get to it anyway? You could spend the same money you spend on storage and use it to purchase nice editions of what you truly end up missing later.

3rd to go: Fiction
-Not in good condition--for whatever reason, unless it is truly rare/valuable, let it go and reward yourself later with a better edition of what you find you want back. I got rid of some cruddy old printing of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and when I got myself a Kindle, realized all could be had within a moment's notice for free or cheap from Amazon.
-Won't read it again--be honest with yourself and you'll truly be rewarded here. If there's a book you truly want a future child to read or have access to, curate a small and cherished collection that your child will be able to explore and love instead of being overwhelmed. My boss keeps one bookcase in his house where he keep books for his daughter. All are nice editions of beloved books and it looks like a little treasure chest instead of a mess.

4th: Art books, special edition books, valuable books
-I gave myself the most leeway here because I love art books and comics. If something is no longer of interest to me, I either give it to someone who is very happy to receive it or sell it. If you have large quantities of rare/valuable books then I'm sure you could find a used book seller (you probably know a few!) to make a house call once you've sorted things into categories.

For me, it took a few passes to get through but it was well worth it!

I let friends come and help themselves to my give-away pile, then I donated the remainder to a books for prisoners program and the library.

Good luck my friend! Go easy on yourself and be brave! You'll be rewarded with a cleaner house, a clearer mind (less clutter is great!) and possibly a happier co-habitant.
posted by dottiechang at 2:47 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've slowly been cutting back on my book collection and donating my books to various places. I'm trying to shift to a position of "why should I keep this" rather than "why should I give this away", but that's easier said than done.

I did get rid of a whole bunch of reference books because I realized I always use the internet instead, and now that I have a smartphone I can even refer to the internet if my home internet connection is down due to a phone pole down or a power outage, or books that I still use paper versions of even with the Internet. I did decide to keep hold of reference books that would help me rebuild civilization or might be particularly important if something happened such that internet and cell service was down for a while. (first aid manuals, for instance.)

Getting rid of mainstream books that I have read and that *I* am unlikely to read again - right now, the likelihood that I would want a book that I've given away and be unable to find a copy (either new/used paper hardcopy or electronic edition) pretty much approaches nil. There are some books I like to reread like old friends, but that's a small number. I'm due to generate another pile of books to give away. Some I give to Goodwill, some I give to folks stationed overseas via books for soldiers, and some I just give to other people. I keep looking for useful places to give them around here.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:05 PM on December 9, 2012

If you have so many books that you are keeping them in storage, then you aren't making use of most of them. Why not donate the extras to an organization in your state that mails books to prisoners? That will free up space on your end, and allow possibly hundreds of prisoners to read something besides *the bible*.

This is a problem with an awesomely under-recognized solution, so please memail me if you are interested in making a real difference in your area and need help finding an organization near you.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:23 PM on December 9, 2012

You know my feelings on the subject already - Housing Works or something like Two Books Enter, One Book Leaves.
posted by 168 at 3:39 PM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: I just did this! Between my partner and I, we have something like fifteen years of working in publishing and all the books that brings, plus the many, many books we'd collected before that point.

So here's what you do. Pick a shelf, and start there. Anything that's a mass market paperback, you can probably get rid of. They don't age well, and, well, mass market means that unless it's old (like, pre-1950?), you can easily pick this up again.

Then go through again. If this book is something that's now in the public domain, toss it, unless it's an exceptionally fine volume. Leatherbound Charles Dickens stays; cheap copy of Peter Pan from the 70s does not.

Go through again and pull out any book that you've not read. Look at it and consider honestly: am I going to read this in the next month or two? If the answer is no, it goes. (Exceptions, obviously, for especially fancy volumes or things with sentimental value.)

If you're anything like me, this has reduced your book collection by at least half, probably more like three quarters.

Go through the rest of the books. Ask yourself, honestly, if this is something you need, or if it's something that the internet will suffice for. Do you need a medical textbook from the Eighties, or a hundred and forty-three cookbooks, or can you use Web MD, a more recent medical book, and cooking blogs? If you find yourself thinking yes, but... the book goes. This is also where you toss out things that you read but didn't love, and things that you pretend to have read but haven't. Be ruthless.

This is what you keep: your desert island books, books with deep sentimental value, books that are old and interesting enough that they've half book and half art object. Keep, too, a handful of books from your childhood, and books that you reread regularly. Keep your TBR pile, but no more than you can honestly get through in the next few months. (For me, this meant that I allowed myself one book a week, and I was allowed to pick books for the next six months. So I got 24 freebies.) If you're into a specialized field of study, keep books for that--but not all of them. Keep the ones that you'd recommend to others as especially outstanding, and keep the ones that you know will be impossible to find.

Congratulations! You've just greatly reduced the number of books on your shelves. Now you have to get rid of them.

You don't mention a location, but these are things to consider: Is there a Half Price Books near you, or within driving distance? Rent a truck if you have to. They'll give you cash for them, even! Call your local shelters--one of the women's shelters in my area only takes new books, but the other welcomes any books. If you're religiously affiliated, ask your church if they'd like to sell them at an upcoming rummage sale. Ask your library if they have a book exchange shelf--my library has a special shelf, and you can leave books there, and take anything that grabs your fancy. If you have books appropriate for children, ask your local schools if they'd be interested. Some charity stores will happily take books, and sometimes even will come pick them up. Finally, if you have a decent thrift store in your area, they almost certainly accept donated books--you won't get anything for them, but they'll be put on the shelves and will bring joy to other people.

Good on you for deciding to do this. In the last three months, we sold or gave away about 2500 books, and we made hundreds of dollars in the process, selling them to HPB. I expected to be devastated. I cried when I drove the first carload of them to the store.

You know what, though? I feel free. I had two entire rooms of my house that were nothing but books. Books on shelves, books in boxes, books in piles on the floor because we were out of shelving... Two rooms. And I was really, really attached to that. The books made me feel safe, in some ways. They were comforting. And then they were gone, and I was shocked to realize that I still felt safe, and that more comforting than having the books was having the knowledge that they weren't there anymore, and that they were out in the world, being delightful for other people.

After the great purge, we moved to a house half the size of our previous house. We have three bookshelves, now, all of them waist-high, and I have a handful of cookbooks in my china cabinet. It feels amazing.
posted by MeghanC at 3:53 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Okay, so all of the book lovers/collectors have chimed in with their comments and anecdotes. That is a very important perspective to consider.

The other half of the equation is starting a normal life with a spouse and being on a limited budget.

From a practical perspective, 5000+ books can be approximated as being 4000-5000+ lbs worth of material. Assume you and your fiancee also have normal amounts of regular possessions, that would be each person bringing between 2000 lbs (assuming studio apartment) up to 3000-3500 lbs (assuming normal 1 br apartment) into the new living environment.

Assuming all the low-ball estimates (4000 lbs of books plus 2x2000 lbs = 8000lbs), you would already be over the limit for what the military would allow for the relocation of a married early career enlisted people. Assuming the upper ranges (=12000+ lbs), you would already be over the limit for what they would allow mid-career enlisted people with a full household of dependents.

That's a lot of weight, and you have not even started a family (as you intend). Further, if you will be spending the first part of your marriage in apartments, there are structural limits to what non-ground floor units can hold without damaging the subfloor. No landlord would rent a 1br or 2br apartment to you and your spouse if they knew you had 4000-5000 lbs of books.

I would encourage you to get your book collection down to 1000 lbs to avoid some of these problems. The other people have given you some great ideas of how to do this.
posted by 99percentfake at 4:12 PM on December 9, 2012

Lots and lots of great advice and comments in here! I do a book-purge once a year, at the end of the spring semester, and while it was a serious battle (and yielded relatively low volumes of discards the first two years I did it), it is now a very routine process for me, and my collection has remained manageable and fairly stable size-wise for years now (though individual volumes have made their way in and out). Your idea of a "manageable" collection size will depend on your own and your partner's criteria, as will the frequency with which you have to rinse and repeat the process. Once a year works great for me.

Here's the thought process I go through when I'm justifying what books to keep (and for me, this is how I have to conceptualize. If I ask myself to think about reasons to get rid of books, I know myself well enough to know that I won't come up with anything I find I, personally, need to justify the keeping rather than the purging). My questions are pretty simple, and I force myself to be quite ruthless about answering them. When I'm sorting, I take the time to do a quick internet search for each book to see if it is available either in digital format or through the library. It's a little more time consuming, but being secure in the knowledge that I can (or can't) easily replace a book that I discard by mistake really helps me assess the relative "stakes" of the choices I'm making and generally takes the pressure off many of my decisions.

1) For books that are available in digital formats, or available through the library:
Does this book as an object offer me something that a digital or a borrowed edition would not? Is it exceptionally aesthetically pleasing, or does it contain personal touches (annotations, emendations, dedications, etc.) that are of sentimental value to me? If the answer to this question is "no", I get rid of the book and add the title to a (LONG) list I have of books to buy in e-book format or borrow from the library. If I end up actually purchasing or borrowing the book in the next few months, great. If not, then I clearly didn't need it on my shelf in the first place. (My "To Borrow/Buy" list gets purged periodically as well, based on how long items have been on the list)

2) For books that are not readily available in digital formats or through the library (which, for my collection, has been remarkably few):
Can I name a specific instance in the last year where I have been happy to have this exact book on hand? If the answer is no, I toss the book into a "Donations" bin and wait. Before beginning my purge the next year, I donate all the discards from the previous year. In the interim, if I find I really need a book enough to be bothered to dig through the donations bin to find it, then it earns its place back on the shelf and goes through the cycle again.

I end up left with a collection made up of books that are either physically beautiful (to me), sentimentally significant (I can trace my intellectual progress by reading the many re-iterations of notes in my most beloved and most re-read volumes), and/or useful (to me) and difficult to find.
My method is not the most efficient, nor is it the least time-consuming, especially the first time through....but it works for me, and has really helped me ease off my attachment to books as artifacts.
I will never be a big fan of e-books, and generally choose to borrow from the library rather than obtain digitally, but for me the ritual of checking to see whether a book is easily available in other formats really helps me let go of my personal copy.

Good luck!
posted by Dorinda at 5:19 PM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: I'm a librarian and a lot of my ideas about book ownership have been influenced by librarianship.

For instance: I've come to value access over ownership. So, when I consider whether to get rid of a book, I consider two questions initially - #1 will I ever want to read/look in this book [again] and #2 how easy will it be to gain access to this book (or the necessary information I would want from the book)? You can check Amazon, WorldCat, and eBay to get an idea of how hard it would be to replace a book, though obviously some books will become more difficult to find over time. This helped me with a lot of books I felt like I *should* own. Like Wuthering Heights. I've read Wuthering Heights, I might one day want to look up a line from Wuthering Heights, but ultimately I don't really like Wuthering Heights and I don't need to have it on my shelf because it will always be in print and it will always be available electronically.*

Secondly, I think about whether, even if I were to want the information in those books, if those books would be where I would turn for it. Like, if I decided I wanted to learn Russian, would this be the book I would choose to learn Russian from? Or would I take a class, and buy a nice new book with exercises and things? Would I read that Grimke biography or just look him up in Wikipedia (realistically - not in an ideal world)?

Thirdly, and not to get too mystical about it, I think that when I keep books on my shelves unread, I am preventing them from achieving their purpose. I think about Ranganathan's first and third rules of library science: 1) Books are for use and 3) Every book its reader. If a book has been sitting in a box in my basement for any length of time, chances are I am not its reader. And it's not getting used.

Fourth, it is OK to just straight up throw away books that are in bad condition (unusable - because books are for use).** Unless you take extraordinary measures, books are objects with a finite lifespan. Sure, you've got your Bay Pslam Books and your Dead Sea Scrolls, but those are freakish exceptions. You wouldn't feel bad about getting rid of your sofa if it was in terrible condition, and you don't need to feel bad about getting rid of books either. ("But books are different!" Well, they are and they aren't.)

Fifth: storing books in a half-assed way (and unless a storage unit is climate controlled, it's extremely half-assed) shortens their lives. By a lot. So don't double-shelve books - it's bad for them (air can't circulate) and it's too hard to find the books you want (so they're effectively lost - think about when something gets mis-shelved in a library and no one can find it; even though it's still in the building, it's unusable).

Philosophically, for me it all comes down to: books are for use. And practically it's about knowing that most books are replaceable. Like, while I was writing this I started thinking about one of the very few books I've regretted getting rid of, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. And you know what? I can buy a new copy for $11.72 plus $3.99 shipping.

*OK, barring the fall of civilization, but seriously if civilization falls I will be even less interested in reading Wuthering Heights than I am now.

**I actually believe that it is OK to straight-up throw away books that are in good physical condition but unlikely to be used: Reader's Digest Condensed Books, old encyclopedias, that vanity-published memoir of the CEO of your former workplace... But start with the ones in bad condition.
posted by mskyle at 6:08 PM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I would just like to point out that where people are saying "throw away" many books are actually recyclable. I'm certainly more OK with that than I am with landfilling them, and in fact assume previous posters are indeed recycling.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:56 PM on December 9, 2012

What helped me get out of my "but my books are a serious foundation of my identity and who I am as a person" phase was an international move and a series of moves thereafter.

If I didn't want to pay more than it was probably worth to ship it (so sentimental things and things that would be hard to find again), I could get rid of it. Likewise, if it wasn't worth carrying up a staircase or two in a big, heavy box, I could get rid of it.

I'm down to a couple shelves, especially since I've gotten my Kindle. The only reason I buy paper books anymore is I live by a Half-Priced Books and a lot of the nonfiction I read isn't Kindle-d yet anyway.

Now, this does mean there are books I've bought 3-4 times, but honestly, paying $8 to pick up a new copy of something every 5 years or so is a small price to pay for not having a bunch of crap to move or carry.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:39 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Having been a librarian has given me a fairly pragmatic approach to treating books as objects.

That said, we probably have considerably more books than you do, even after a rigorous post-marriage cull and 10+ years of a flatline accessions policy (if a book comes into the collection, a book goes out, no exceptions) so I might not be a good advisor, but I will tell you how this process went for me.

Seconding the "get rid of reference books and textbooks 1980 - 2010" as a general principle. Stuff way older might be useful (I use my 1933 encyclopedia a lot) but 30 years seems a safe bet.

I got rid of 90% of romance novels, 80% of science fiction and fantasy, and 75% of mystery.

I also got rid of all the philosophy I didn't understand but had hoped to (Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Baudrillard) and kept only the stuff I loved and felt I understood. This tied in, for me, with my closet-culling---as I got rid of the aspirational clothes I'd bought (sparkly dresses for someone who was outgoing and went to nightclubs), I got rid of lots of the aspirational books as well (if I ever do have the time and mental energy to study philosophy seriously, I'll buy the books anew).

Self-help books were culled ruthlessly. Probably more than 90% of them went.

Books about politics age terribly. I think I culled 90% of those.

Cookbooks also culled ruthlessly. There were so many cookbooks I had been keeping because I made one or two recipes from them---scanned those recipes, donated the cookbooks, put recipes in binder with the ones I made up (because husband is a Luddite who likes to cook from paper).

I had the advantage (though it didn't seem like it at the time) of my dad having donated all my childhood books when he moved. I would encourage you to set a goal number--50? 100?--of your childhood books you want to save as a core collection, and let the rest go.

What I need to do, and haven't done yet, is to get rid of my 18th and 19th century novels that are just reprints of contemporary editions with no critical apparatus, because I can get those all as free ebooks easily. I don't need a Dover reprint of Great Expectations.

Let me suggest using LibraryThing's CueCat interface to quickly catalog the things new enough to have barcodes. It really helps me manage my collection.

Something I have learned from the therapists and organizers on the tv show Hoarders (seriously) is that people, including me, often hang on to physical items as a safety net for memories. This is often a counterproductive strategy.

In any case, all best of luck to you with this hard work. My guess is that you will feel like you've accomplished something pretty great once you're finished.

(My own dream would be to get down to about a thousand books, and I plan another big cull when my health permits.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:31 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once upon a time, I reached a place where I decided my possessions were owning me more than I owned my possessions. I think the moment came when I was shopping for a fifth floor-to-ceiling bookcase to shelve some books, and suddenly realized I had more books stacked in piles than would fit in a single additional bookcase.

I struggled for a while with how to let go of my books. I had read every single one of them, and owning them had really meant something important to me for quite some time. Reducing my library was not an easy task. Ultimately, here's what worked for me:

I made a list of every single book that I owned. This was huge for me. Having some sort of record was critical; it meant I could let go of a book without forgetting what it had meant to me. So, a big spreadsheet was created with every single book listed. Next, I decided that any book that could be found at a respectable library was a book that I didn't need to personally have on hand. That was a huge percentage of my collection, right there. I was left with a few books that had intense sentimental value, a few quirky, rare books that I didn't think I'd be able to find again, a few rare technical books and textbooks that had career and educational value, and some graphic novels that libraries didn't (used to) carry.

Everything else went to my local library, and what they wouldn't take went to Goodwill.

And I haven't once regretted it. It was a truly liberating change.
posted by browse at 8:46 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

At age 25, I had a collection of more than 5,000 books. Like you, I had had them in multiple locations over the years, and that was the first time they will all in one space. Between age 25 - 30, I sold, donated, gave away, recycled 4,900 of them. I now live with a maxium of 100 books. I have regretted this change exactly twice in the past 20 years. Once when I had to wait 3 weeks for an interlibrary loan of a book I had previously owned and I wanted to use a quotation from it in an article I was writing. And, once when a friend stated that he wanted to read a specific book, and I could not walk over to a shelf and simply give it to him. There is no reason to be caring for a library at home. That's why there are libraries.
posted by hworth at 10:00 AM on December 10, 2012

Response by poster: Update:

Brought all the books to the house, and have been culling them into boxes along the following lines:

1) Hobby books that I plan to take up someday but have not done in years and are unlikely to have time for in the near to mid future.
2) Anything in bad condition goes (including torn covers or water damage), and if I really liked the book and still want to own it, it gets added to my Amazon Wishlist. Fiance has promised to buy me any of these books for Kindle anytime I really get the longing to read them.
3) Romance novels that aren't particularly well-written or antique
4) Science fiction or fantasy mass market paperbacks that have more than ten invented words on the back blurb and I cannot remember specifically liking. (Ie, "In the Grobnag times, Kessor Claire must learn to Thwackata the Kurbs in order to bring about the Shawana. But Cenkor Bob stands in her way. His desire for the Tahoota knows no bounds.." This suggestion actually came from my fiance, and has been astonishingly useful in reducing.)
5) Children's books that contain no substance or nice illustrations.

I have also been using the sorting method mentioned above as well, in terms of thinking of shelves as homes: children's books go in the kid's room, reference, technical, history, mythology, classics, all go in the office, antiquarian books go in the fancy glass-enclosed bookcase in the living room, and radical politics, sex, fantasy, science fiction, and comics go upstairs in our bedroom. It has been very, very helpful.

We now have eight boxes of books that we are getting rid of, and are inviting friends to go through them and take what they want at our housewarming party. After that, I'm still not sure what I'll do with them, but at least they're sorted and neatly in boxes.
posted by corb at 7:29 AM on January 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Awesome job!

Your first priority should be Getting Rid Of Them, as in taking a ton of them to St. Vinnie's (I get a TON of great books at St. Vinnie's and Goodwill!) or Half Price Books (obviously you shouldn't take the bad-condition ones to HPB, but I believe they're still required to make you an offer, even 50 cents, on each book). BetterWorld Books is also good.

But there will always be books for which you would like to find Homes outside of your own Home. If this isn't the world's most tedious idea, I would suggest making a list of the books you have left, including their author, title and (this is kind of important) ISBNs. There are some sorts of ways you can use your iPhone as a barcode reader to automate this process, but it's not super smooth.

My point is that there are lots of people who would love to take those books off your hands if they know you're out there. I personally have a hankering for a ridiculous romance niche and have a specific list of books I have been looking for, even though some of them tend not to be among the world's classics.

So even if you're just sharing that list among friends (local or non-local), or if you consider joining something like Paperback Swap, it can be a huge help.
posted by Madamina at 8:52 AM on January 10, 2013

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