How to manage a too-large collection of foreign language books?
June 9, 2013 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Since I move a lot, I try not to keep too many books. I don't mind getting rid of the English ones. But with the foreign language ones, I get anxious about sunk costs, and how hard they would be to replace... how do I decide what to keep, and what to discard?

I have a reasonable number of English books and a somewhat unreasonable number of books in Japanese, and smaller numbers of Chinese and Spanish books. A ton of shelf space is given to dictionaries and other linguistic reference works that I really do use and that would be very expensive or impossible to buy in electronic editions; a ton of shelf space is given to novels I haven't read yet because of the time and attention it takes to read in a foreign language, but that I really do intend to read at some point in the future. (I do read these, but in the past I've bought them faster than I could read them, and I have a backlog built up.) And I am very reluctant to discard any of them, because usually they were expensive to buy in the first place, and they would be expensive to replace, just because of the shipping charges. Japanese publishers are starting to sell books on the Kindle, but they're very serious about locking purchases down to Japanese residents with Japanese credit cards, so it's hard to shift my collection that way.

So, for academics and language students and other highly mobile people with large book collections that are educationally/professionally important, how do you deal with making decisions about what to keep? Where do you find the balance between "Oh well, gotta buy another bookcase, but it's an investment in my education" and "I can't keep moving around all these books"? (For reference, I have one large bookshelf for English books, and one large bookshelf and one small one for other languages -- it's not a huge collection, but it's fairly big for someone who lives in a 1-bedroom apartment and moves every year or two.)

I've read a number of the previous book-weeding questions -- I've even commented in a couple of them! -- but for me, the difficulty of replacing them throws a huge wrench into the situation.
posted by Jeanne to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
Are you moving within the same area? I'm in a similar position and considering putting some in storage so that I don't have to keep dragging them with me every time I move.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:32 PM on June 9, 2013

Response by poster: I am (probably) staying in the same city, but since I don't have a car, the extra hassle of renting a storage unit and dragging boxes of books over there probably isn't worth it.
posted by Jeanne at 8:46 PM on June 9, 2013

Is there a university library or a foreign language department in your town to which you could donate the books, but still have access to them in the future if you eventually do want to read them? I donated a bunch of expensive books recently to a local library, and I've checked a couple of them out since then. It's great, because I can have them to read, but I don't need to store them.

I'd say, when deciding now what to keep, set a limit ahead of time, before sorting. Decide that you're going to save 40 books, or 2 regular sized cartons of books. Then, pick the books that you like best, up to the limit you've pre-set, and any that fall outside that limit have to go. You keep the best ones, but within a limit you've set.

And from now on, one in, one out. Any time you want to buy a new book, decide whether you like it better than your least favorite book that you already own, because you have to get rid of that one if you're going to bring the new one home.
posted by decathecting at 9:08 PM on June 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

a - What's the marginal cost of moving one extra box of books?
b - How many times per year do you intend to move?
c - How many years is it until you will actually get around to reading these books?
d - What's the marginal cost of replacing one box worth of the most discardable books, where 'most discardable' is some combination of cheapest and furthest away from the top of the to-read list?

for each marginal box, you should get rid of the books in it if (c*b*a) is less than d
posted by jacalata at 9:13 PM on June 9, 2013

I have a sizable collection of foreign-language books that would be difficult and expensive to replace. And by sizable, I mean 3-4 full-sized bookcases, so a good bit more than you. I have dutifully given books priority every time I've moved, and I have moved every 1-2 years up till now. The books are definitely higher on the list than my (relatively) cheap furniture, clothing, and other possessions. I don't have sentimental attachment to clothing. I can always buy more, because I'm not in the position of needing one specific, unique item. My furniture mostly comes from Ikea. On the west coast, I can buy the same item that I left on the east coast, for the same price.

I don't think you're experiencing the sunk cost fallacy with your books. I think you're experiencing the opposite. In SCF, you think that spending money on something makes it more valuable. Imagine you're buying, oh, baseball trading cards and you want a specific one. You buy ten packs, but you don't find the card you want. SCF would make you consider that card to be more valuable than it really is, because you've already spent ten packs' worth of money on it. But in reality, it's still worth exactly the same.

In your case, however, your books really are more valuable. After all, their value is their replacement value, not what you spent on them originally or what it says on the book jacket. This is why famous artworks appreciate in value over time. And if you want to be true to life, replacement value should also include the value of the time and effort you might spend trying to locate the replacement.

I ended up making a quick calculation and came to the conclusion that my books are worth more to me than looking for and shipping replacements from abroad. And, really, a bookshelf or two of books is, what, 5-6 one-foot-cubed boxes from U-Haul? I can fit that in the back seat of a Civic in a single haul. If you're moving anything like furniture or bedding or whatever, is adding your books into the mix really that much more work?

But maybe there are other factors in your situation, so I apologize if I've made any silly assumptions.
posted by Nomyte at 9:43 PM on June 9, 2013

One option is to look into book digitization services. I do not know what the state of the art is, but costs look reasonable.
posted by jalitt at 9:46 PM on June 9, 2013

I would keep the reference books for sure. For the novels, assess how many you will realistically get through in a year. Keep one to three years' worth and sell the rest. Put the proceeds from the sales into an envelope to be used to buy one or two novels when you get through the backlog. Sell the backlog novels as you read them, and so forth.
posted by payoto at 5:38 AM on June 10, 2013

Nomyte has saved me a lot of typing; I can just say "what Nomyte said." I've often regretted getting rid of books, never regretted keeping them. (I have 5,000+ books.)
posted by languagehat at 6:51 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

After your assessments of which books you're likely to use again in the future, remember that for moves within the United States, Media Mail is an option. (Not really useful for in-city moves, but very handy for any distance at which the books would be the difference between renting a truck and not.)
posted by asperity at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2013

After a somewhat painful move to my present location, I resolved to cut down on my book collection by debinding/scanning some of the less important ones. A self-feeding scanner is a few hundred bucks and is surprisingly capable. However I never seem to have time for scanning, so a service might make more sense if you go the digitization route.

For what it's worth, I've never had trouble buying Japanese ebooks with my US credit card. I haven't bought from, but honto, papyless, and Neowing/CDJapan are fine. That said, I have qualms about the DRM on some of these services, and the reader applications are often locked down; e.g. out of the three services mentioned, only the Neowing app lets you easily google or yahoo-dictionary a phrase, but even then getting to a J-E dictionary is an additional step.

And about having a pile of foreign-language books that one intends to read... I can identify with that. The more you have, the more frustrating it tends to be. If you don't have the heart to pare down your stash, at least keep the backlog from getting even bigger. In most cases, you can buy those books later. Make a list or something, just don't buy them.
posted by Standard Orange at 12:53 PM on June 10, 2013

Oh, God. Why did I ever sell the complete set of the "Scottish National Dictionary"?

Oh, right: because it's in full online.

I'm like you. I have lots of reference works, mostly dictionaries and language-related works. If it's in full online AT NO COST, I feel fine selling it. Otherwise, I keep it.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:26 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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