Category Archives: downsizing book collections

downsizing book collections: in a nut shell

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read every post about downsizing your book collection, here is the information in a nutshell. 

1) Determine the reasons for your book collection: ego…décor…work-related…laziness…reference…sentiment…impressing other people…making a statement…keeping a literary scoreboard…entertainment….information? If your collection has become unmanageable, it might be time to realign priorities.

2) Avoid buying on impulse, and read before shelving. The same applies to gifts of books, read before shelving.

3) Break-up by-author collections and only keep the work you really love.

4) Examine your reading “habits” and stop doing what doesn’t work. Don’t feel compelled to finish a book you’re not enjoying. It’s a waste of time and life is short.

5) Establish criteria for keeping or discarding books. Determine what makes a volume valuable enough to haul, warehouse, and keep dusted? 

6) Continue to refine and define the initial criteria

7) Decide if a book is being read or used (reference) regularly…annually…every five years…every ten years?

8) Decide what to do with discarded books: sell, share, trade, or donate.

9) Consider an e-reader to replace some or all of your books.  

10) Consider when sorting non-fiction: is the information still interesting, is it duplicated in another volume, is it out dated, is it reliable or sensational, is it readily available on the internet, do you think you should be interested or are you truly interested?

11) Decide if you’re keeping a book as a way of honoring the person who gave it to you even though you don’t especially like the book? Is there a better way to honor the person?

In summary:  Keep the best of a subject, keep what’s most comprehensive, keep what you’re truly interested in, keep what you really love, and discard the rest.


downsizing book collections: the bottom line

Over the past five or six years I have discarded probably 45 boxes of books, mostly fiction. I have found that I downsize in waves or rounds as tastes evolve, spaces change, priorities shift, and I move more and more towards an uncluttered, streamlined look. Each time I downsize, the criteria are refined and more precisely defined.

It is finally coming down to this…non-fiction booksI read myself to sleep every night; have done so since I was ten. Each evening when it’s time to think about sleep there’s a slight feeling of dread that is probably common for most insomniacs. Will I actually sleep or will I toss and turn, tired but unable to fall asleep. Then I consider the book I’m currently reading. Do I look forward to climbing into bed and returning to the book? If there’s a sense of anticipation, of pleasure, of knowing that even if I can’t sleep I will enjoy time spent with the book, then it’s definitely a keeper. The bottom line, the ultimate guideline—the definitive criterion–keep what you love–not what’s mildly entertaining, somewhat engaging, or slightly amusing.   

downsizing book collections 10: tackling non-fiction

The truth is I never really did establish a firm, simple criterion for discarding non-fiction as I had done with fiction. What began to emerge as I sorted through the non-fiction were more like flexible parameters and fluid guidelines.

 – I had books on subjects that weren’t as interesting as they had once been, like the books on WWII I had collected when I was younger. I was still interested but not as avid as I had once been. I kept the books that were of most interest, and discarded the rest…from 40 volumes down to 10.

-I had books that duplicated information found in other volumes; I kept the books that were the most comprehensive and discarded the rest.

-I had books that were outdated…like the country-crafts, wood-working book of really cute country projects. The trouble was country interiors had moved away from the cutesy-look with bunnies and bears and embraced a more-streamlined contemporary look. The designs had become obsolete. And what were the chances that I would actually buy the wood-working equipment and set up a wood-working space? Discard! Or the set of 1912 encyclopedias that were entertaining as a novelty but offered little relevant information except to illuminate a bygone point of view. Discard!

-I re-assessed books based on the credibility of the author or publisher. There are authors or publishers who tend to be exploitive or sensational and their historical accuracy questionable; voyeurs, tabloids, and scandal sheets! While the work is sometimes interesting (sensational) I decided it was generally unreliable. Discard!

-I probably had 15 volumes of literature anthologies that included novellas, poetry, plays, and short stories. The trouble was I hardly ever used the books, and didn’t remember what story/poem/play was in which volume. With so many classics available on-line, I decided I needed the space more than the volumes. Discard!

-I had books that were vaguely interesting, books I thought I should find interesting but had never gotten around to actually reading. Everyone is interested in astronomy, right? I could never get past the first few pages and would set them aside thinking I would read them at a later time. That time just never seemed to come. Life’s too short and space too limited. Discard!

-I had books that had been given me by family and friends and I kept them only as a way of honoring the person. I didn’t love the book; sometimes I didn’t even really like the book. Does it dishonor someone to pass the book along? Are there better ways to honor someone than keeping a book you don’t love and don’t have space for?

Consider when sorting non-fiction:
Is it still interesting?
Is the information duplicated in another volume?
Is it relevant or has it become out dated?
Is it reliable and accurate or is it sensational?
Has it sat on the shelf for longer than 6 months because you keep postponing reading it?
Is it something you’re truly interested in or something you think you should be interested in?
Is it information that is readily available on the internet?
Do you keep a volume(s) only because someone gave it as a gift?


 Keep the best of a subject, keep what’s most comprehensive, keep what you’re truly interested in, and discard the rest. 

Downsizing books: the other side of the coin

I have written so many posts about getting rid of books and books flippeddownsizing book collections I must include at least one that defends having a collection at all. Wouldn’t it just be better to get rid of all the books, free up space and make moving easier?

I have taken a verbal pouncing, more than once, from friends whose philosophy is read and discard. They don’t understand why I keep books. Here’s why:


Beyond feeling that favorite books are old friends and I enjoy their company, I also know that sometimes I miss something in the first heidireading; especially if it’s a “can’t wait to see what happens” kind of book (like the last few volumes of the Harry Potter series). Occasionally, I will devour a book so quickly I miss the subtle nuances, the delicate seasonings, the small details of an intricate plot.


I also recognize that despite their material appearance, books are essentially fluid. Consider the character of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. I read the book for the first time at age 16 in a stay-up-all-night-to–finish-the-book sitting. I loved the story but really disliked Scarlet. (Life was black and white and oh, so simple at 16.) scarlet o'haraSince then I have read the book every few years and it fascinates me how much Scarlet changes over the years. Huh? Not one word of the book is different; Scarlet is exactly the same as originally written, but my perception of her shifts with each reading. What a book offers at age 16 is not the same as what the same book offers at age 30. Not to advocate keeping a book that you might enjoy twenty years from now, but if you enjoyed it at 16, at 26, at 36…at 46…then it’s a safe bet it’s a keeper. I look forward to meeting Scarlet again just to see how much she’s changed since the last time I saw her.

Another reason I keep books is because they make my apartment/house/space feel like home. huckleberry finnFor me, nothing makes a space feel warmer or homier than books, especially well-worn volumes that are old friends. My books are the first things that get packed (with a stack set aside to tide me over during the move) and one of the first things to get unpacked after the move. It isn’t home until the books are on the shelves.


Books in the home also make a personal statement of what I like and what I’m interested in. And while they don’t prove I’m an intellectual or a literary giant, at least it shows that there’s a good chance I’m literate.sherlock holmes


Books are only inanimate objects until you open the covers; then they come wonderfully alive with people and places, travel, adventure, romance, comedy, tragedy, despair, hope, color, sound, taste… There is no experience that cannot be found between the covers of a book. 

I have a re-occurring fantasy that after the lights are out and the house is quiet and everyone sleeps, the characters in my books tiptoe, sneak, skulk, sidle, slither, scramble, clamber, or slide from the pages for a grand and glorious after-hours party. I imagine marie antoinetteHuckleberry Finn waltzing with Elizabeth Bennett while Hercule Poirot does the Charleston and Ebenezer Scrooge bogeys down to hip-hop. Marie Antoinette plays chess with Jean Harlow, Abe Lincoln dribbles a basketball, and Richard the Lion-Heart swings a baseball bat.frankensteindraculaEdward Cullen shares a pint with Dracula while Frankenstein plays whist with James Bond. Sherlock Holmes discusses philosophy with Stephanie Plum, Michael Valentine Smith sips tea with Katniss Everdean, and Shere Khan gives Heidi a ride on his back while Mowgli and the Artful Dodger visit Tara for an afternoon barbecue. These fantastical imaginings are as endless as the characters and stories they come from.


It’s hard to get bored and difficult to feel lonely when adventure and companionship are so near to hand. 

There are days when reality sucks! And escape is only a  page away.


Now, ask me again why I keep books.

downsizing book collections 9: non-fiction

So far I have written (at length) about downsizing fiction, but what about non-fiction? I have postponed writing about it for two reasons; one, because when I started downsizing I started with fiction and second, because I found discarding non-fiction even non-fiction booksharder than discarding fiction.

My non-fiction volumes tend to be more expensive and I’m more reluctant to discard a pricey history book than a cheap paperback. And the simple criterion I established for keeping or discarding books did not work for non-fiction. Most non-fiction books are not like novels that you read cover to cover, love/hate, keep or discard. Many of my non-fiction volumes are history books, books I read infrequently and use mostly for reference. Or craft books with projects that I would like to try…someday…as time and money allow. I have a few non-fiction titles like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm that I read frequently and cover to cover but the rest are mostly used for reference, like the 3-inch thick, massive volume on the history of art. It’s a great resource even if it takes enough shelf space for 3 smaller volumes. And reading it cover to cover would probably cure my insomnia, perhaps I should shelve it in the medicine cabinet.

the first step to downsizing non-fiction,  folks, is to take a deep breath and gird your loins!

downsizing book collections: 8

The next step was to go through the fiction…again. Of the books that I had read how many did I like well enough to read again? Or read more than once every five years?

 Animal Farm, 1984, and Brave New World were must-haves in the 60’s and 70’s and I was shocked when I realized that I hadn’t actually read them in over thirty years. For thirty years they have sat on my shelves collecting dust, looking impressive, taking up space, and filling boxes on moving day. Perhaps it was time to set them free and send them back into the world to be enjoyed by someone else.  

I also realized as I sorted through the fiction for the second time that during the initial purge some books had unconsciously received an “automatic” designation (like Animal Farm, 1984, and Brave New World). I didn’t really think about each volume, they just automatically went into the save pile.

Continue to refine and define the criteria, including re-thinking all those books that have an “automatic” designation. My initial criterion was simple: would I read it again, but after the initial purge, I still had too many books. It wasn’t enough that I would read a book again, the question became how often would I read it. If I only read a book every 5 years (or every 30 years) perhaps it would be better to discard it and in five years, when I am ready to read it again, visit the local library.

downsizing book collections: 7

One option, when space is an issue, is to completely discard the physical book collection and buy an e-reader. This option doesn’t work for everyone though. First, replacing all existing volumes can get pricey even though many titles are free or minimally priced. But more importantly, e-readers don’t work for people like me, people who are technologically-challenged (I have issues with my vacuum), people who have a low tolerance for gadgetry, electronics, and technology. The physical sensations of reading a book cannot be replaced by hard metal and cold plastic. I love the feel of old pages, the texture of old covers, the slightly musty fragrance of old volumes. Curling up in bed with a good e-reader is just not the same. As I turn the pages of an old volume I think about all the other folks who have read it before me; it’s a bond of shared experience and shared enjoyment with nameless, faceless individuals that I’ll never meet; a link with humanity that lets me know I’m not alone in my appreciation. I also enjoy the homey feel books can give to a room. Books are a form of self-expression, a manifestation of what I like, what I’m interested in, and what I have passion for. A bookcase is one of the easiest ways to express yourself in your home.

Consider an e-reader to replace some or all of your books. If you’ve never tried one, many local libraries offer e-readers that can be checked-out. Try it on for size. They work well for many people and certainly solve the space issue.