anonymous person with binoculars looking through stacked books

Three games to help you declutter books

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.

If your people and pets were safe, and you had only five minutes to gather as many books as you could carry under both arms before your house imploded, which books would you be holding as you ran out of there?

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?

If you’re interested in learning more about any of the books I’ve mentioned, your library is a great place to start. Goodreads will give you more reader reviews. For donating options for books, refer back to my colleague Julie Bestry’s definitive article.

by Lucy Kelly


  1. What a fun approach to a difficult task. Interestingly, the first three books that came to mind were books I read as a child and young adult. I remember them and their characters so well. Each one left a major impression on me.
    All of a Kind Family series
    Diary of Anne Frank
    Marjorie Morningstar
    Happy All the Time.

    But I assure you, if I had to leave my home quickly, I would take my photo scrap books and as many as I could carry! 😊

    1. That’s a great point, Ronni, I’d want those too. Years ago, I made one small album with my absolute favorite photos of my kids and that’s in the firebox along with the vital documents, ready to grab in case of emergency. Diary of Anne Frank made a huge impression on me too, I’m curious to check out the others you mentioned, especially Happy All the Time – that title’s boldness makes me want to find out more.

  2. All three exercises would be hard for me. I don’t have a lot of books (about 50), I’m more of an e-reader. I love all the books I have, but I never re-read them, so it does make me wonder why I’m keeping them.

  3. Books. They are tough. I grew up in a house of books. When I cleared out my parent’s home, there were thousands of books. Everywhere they went they bought books. When we’d go on outings, we’d always end up in a bookstore. When I moved my mom into assisted living, almost four years ago, as you can imagine, I couldn’t send her with all those books. So I picked about ten- mostly art books for her to have.

    If I had to leave my house with just a few books because we have a lot too, I would grab a few art books, some of our favorite children’s books, and my journals. Although, I’d need several trips to save all the journals. Even knowing this, it’s still hard for me to let go of books. I do it anyway. A few times a year, I go around the house and fill up a bag of books to donate. And guess what? I don’t miss them. I don’t even remember which ones are gone. That says something.

    1. It’s so hard when books are a fixture of our lives growing up, isn’t it! They’re tied in with so many memories. Interesting that once they leave, you forget which ones are gone.

      I often find with clients that their anticipation of what it’s going to feel like to declutter something doesn’t match up with how it actually is for them. I’ve offered to take something they’re anxious about letting go (but want to) and bring it back at our next appointment if they tell me to. Here’s what I hear next time: “What did I give you? Oh, right. No, nevermind, don’t bother bringing that back, you can donate it.”

  4. Thank you so much for including the link to my book donation blog post! I tried to answer your three questions, but they are tough! Now that I have digital copies of all of my Jane Austen, the books I’ll never declutter are mostly the non-fiction (organizing) books my library doesn’t have, like Judith Kolberg’s books. Oh, wait, my well-loved copies of Corduroy, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and The Big Cleanup (my first organizing book, though it doesn’t quite teach the best lesson if you want to encourage purging). Game #2 was easier, as I purge books twice a year; the books I’m least likely to read again are marketing books! Game #3 got taken care of by the pandemic. I moved all the unread books in my house to one shelf next to my desk. I’m down to only two novels and a short stack of non-fiction (mostly Jane Austen biographies).

    1. Your post on donating books is so comprehensive, I share it whenever I can. Thanks for playing the decluttering books game. Marketing books are hard to reread for me too. I either got something from them or I didn’t but it’s hard to give up the possibility that I’ll find another gem if I ever do look at them again.

  5. I love that you made it a game. Guided games help people take action with direction. I rather have digital books. You see, I have severe dust mite allergies and books collect a lot of dust for me. So, I keep very little in my home. I prefer digital books and audible.

  6. This is definitely a category that is super hard for some people and easy for others. I think I love the first question the most because it allows us to focus on what matters most, what we love, what we treasure. I was thinking and one that popped to my mind was the Bible I started using in college. It is quite tattered, but so full of notes that it means a lot to me. I have other Bibles now, but they are more replaceable. It’s the personal stuff that I can’t recreate.

  7. Books are so hard to remove. I love the way you created games to help with the process. I also have a number of organizing books I will not part with and several books that, even though I will never (oh, I don’t know – maybe I will) read again. I love the feel of books, the look of books, and even the smell of books. The one book I will never, ever get rid of is Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. It’s the last book my mother and I read and talked about. She read it first and loaned it to me. Then we talked about it when she was in the hospital. I love that memory.

  8. This is the best article I’ve ever read about organizing or decluttering books. Compared to others, my collection is under control, but this method would definitely help me clear up space on my shelf for more books.

  9. You really hit a nerve with me here – books are the one thing I never push people too hard to get rid of, maybe because I never push myself too hard to get rid of mine! I dream of a house someday with a library with floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves. But I digress…one book I know I’d grab first is A Prayer For Owen Meany (Irving), and maybe Walking On Water (L’Engle). One I haven’t read (and have had for MORE than three years) is The World Is Flat…one of these days I’ll get there.

    1. See now I’m getting a whole bunch of book recommendations for myself, which means more books :-). I haven’t read Walking on Water yet but now I will. The World Is Flat was in my to-read pile for years too. I finally let it go because it’s in every thrift store around here if I should ever decide to try it again.

      I grew up in a house that was FULL of books. There were floor to ceiling bookshelves in every single room so I appreciate the idea of just keeping it to a well-appointed library.

  10. The one book that will stay as long as I have any room is The Four Agreements. Every time I reread it I pull out something new. I have about 15 organizing books that I love to turn to and open from time to time and I know I could get them online but I love being able to turn to the bookcase behind me, pull the one I am looking for and check out a section again for inspiration.

    1. I agree, reading is such a sensory experience for me too. The smell of the paper and the weight of the book in my hands add to the experience of reading. But only when the books’ contents themselves are valuable too :-).