When – not if – you declutter your books, taking charge of the process will make it easier.
Kindle readers can skip this post – although I see you, digital clutter – but for most of us, books are among our most cherished possessions and very difficult to declutter. We hate the idea of parting with even one of them but as time goes by and life happens, the herd will be thinned. Starting the process now is a gentle way to face that reality and declutter thoughtfully.
It’s like those questions that drive parents crazy on long car trips. You hear the beings you’ve cherished and nurtured to keep alive and thriving, debating whether they’d rather be burned or drowned. “Don’t you have anything more productive to think about?” you mutter (or think or scream, depending on what kind of family you’re in). Neither option is a good option! And the idea of living with just a few books? Preposterous.
Overdramatic example? How about this scenario – if you had to move into a studio apartment and there was only room for one small, inadequate bookshelf that doubled as a nightstand, which books would earn their place under your lamp and cold cream?
Circumstances change. People end up having to move from three bedroom houses to studio apartments. One day those stairs will be too much, or your partner will start lobbying to move you all to a tiny house or hit the road in an RV. Decisions will have to be made about which books come with you and which don’t. Head-in-the sand is one way to handle the future but thinking it through ahead of time avoids paying to move all ten volumes of The History of Whittling when you haven’t whittled in twenty years, while the true treasures get left behind.
READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize
Game no. 1: Pick three books you’ll never declutter
Or twenty or a hundred. But try it first with three. Roam the bookshelves and pull out (or take a picture of or make a list of) your three all-stars. Listen to your instinct, don’t overthink this. Excepting any religious texts, what are the top three books you’d keep? My top three:
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien. Bit of a cheat right out the gate since there are three books, but I have an edition with all three in one book, so I’m going with it. These stories are timeless. I won’t read them every year, but I will read them every few years. They’re staying.
- My Big Book of Whiskerton Tales by Judy Mari. Tall twenty minute tales for children who can’t sleep, these stories were loved by my daughter and have a gentle humor that makes reading them aloud twenty times a week possible for the dedicated parent. Unlike most children’s storybooks, these are out of print and I want to amuse my future grandchildren with them. Another keeper.
- Honestly, that’s it. Any other book I can order from the library or find online. Pro tip – keep a list of books you love so you can stroll down literary memory lane and revisit favorites if you’re stuck for something to read.
This game helps you realize what you might be able to let go – anything that didn’t make the cut for your all-stars list is fair game. If every book feels like a keeper, try this next idea.
Game no. 2: Pick three books you loved but probably won’t read again
We all have those books that mean so much more than the pictures or the words on the page. The battered copy of Goodnight Moon. Our mom’s go-to cookbook as a newlywed. Not her handwritten recipe cards, but the Fannie Farmer cookbook she relied on when she was first learning to cook. The entire set of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
But Goodnight Moon will never go out of print. Fannie Farmer’s cookbook can’t compete with online recipes. You loved Mma Ramotswe, but will you sit down and read them all again? The library will always carry anything Alexander McCall Smith writes, whether it’s about a detective agency in Botswana or anything else.
Here are my three picks for books I loved but probably won’t read again – what are yours?
- A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. Based on a BBC series by the same name, the pictures are wonderful, the stories fascinating, and once through is enough
- Anything by Thomas Wolfe. The lush, romantic descriptive passages which fill books like Look Homeward, Angel were captivating when I first read these books. Now? Who’s got the time for that? Not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, who I also wouldn’t keep
- Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. There’s a wry humor to this little book published in the 1850s that I greatly enjoyed when I first read it. Much as I enjoyed it then, I haven’t reread it.
If you’re worried you won’t remember which your favorites were, make a list. The books themselves can be donated.
Game no. 3: Pick three books you’ve been meaning to read for more than three years
Just three? There are so many. Here are three books I could declutter – what are yours?
- Think, A compelling introduction to philosophy by Simon Blackburn. Clearly not quite compelling enough, I’ve had this one for decades.
- The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. A collection of dark, depressing English poetry I was given as an 18-year-old. I’ve tried to read this over the years, but I always start to feel like I’m back in dreary suburban northern England when I do. It’s overcast and rainy, the sounds of Morrissey (a depressing 1980s Mancunian songbird) are echoing through my head. I start hunting for black turtlenecks and my blackest eyeliner. It’s a time capsule of a book that I don’t need to reopen.
- Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. “Extraordinary…redemptive” says the Daily Telegraph blurb but I’ve never found the right time to crack this no doubt worthy novel.
Each of those books is ripe for decluttering – which three of your books are you ready to admit you’ll never read?
by Lucy Kelly