Catch & Release: How To Not Feel Overwhelmed By Your Books
I’ve always loved reading. By extension, I’ve always loved books. But owning a ton of books can really weigh you down. Here’s how I’ve tried to solve the problem.
There are lots of memes going around about having too many books, the dreaded “to be read” pile, buying new books when you already own more books than you can probably read in your lifetime. I mentioned my way of dealing with this problem on Twitter on some friends were curious, so I’m writing it down here. To be sure, if you just love books and want to fill your house with bookshelves and you’re totally happy with that, that’s cool.
But if your book collection sometimes feels overwhelming, you struggle to organize your books, or the sense of having so many books bums you out more than it makes you happy, then maybe my solution will work for you. Some of this is a bit similar to Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy — I’ve never read her work but of course it’s seeped into our cultural consciousness pretty thoroughly, so I’m not sure to what extent I’ve adapted her ideas or came up things on my own.
The process is simple. Go through every book in your house and sort them by category. The categories are not what the book is about or fiction versus nonfiction. You’re going to sort them based on how you feel about them. Here are the categories I use:
Books That Are Part of You. These are books you love and that you will read over and over for the rest of your life. They might be rare books or have the author’s signature, or have some other cherished memory attached to them (a gift from a loved one, or a book you’ve had since childhood). This might also include books you want to keep because they’re part of a collection, like everything by George R.R. Martin. These books are going to stay with you.
Specific Reference Books You Need to Have. This is pretty obvious: game books, academic stuff, etc. But also, think carefully about whether or not you’ll ever actually look up information in this book, or if you’ll probably just find what you need to know on the internet. Writers have a tendency to buy random books (“A guidebook to the flora native to the southwestern U.S.! Perfect for that novel set in New Mexico I’ll almost certainly never get around to writing!”). Keep the really necessary stuff only.
Books That Are Great but You Don’t Need to Keep. I love William Gibson’s Neuromancer but I’m probably never going to read it again (and if I change my mind, I can always pick up another copy). You’re going to get rid of these books. The only choice to make is if the book goes right into the used book store pile, or if you want to lend it to friends. I like to keep a couple of books I really love around specifically to lend out, with the understanding that I might not get them back. It’s just fun to share books! But most of the books in this category should get traded in at the used book store.
Books That You’re Not Sure Why You Own. If you haven’t gone through your books in a while, you’ll find some of these. A novel by an author you dislike. Textbooks from college. A book about ducks because when you were 12 you liked ducks and that one aunt has been buying you duck-related gifts every year ever since even though you’re 36 now. Into the used book store pile (which should really be some nice canvas bags or possibly a few milk crates).
Books You Have Because You’re Going to Read Them Someday. This is where things get difficult. These are the books that weigh you down. Look at each one. Ask yourself, “I am I genuinely excited about reading this book right this minute?” Or does the book’s presence just remind you that you haven’t read it yet? Do you feel obligated to keep it and read because…because why exactly? Have you picked it up to read four times over the years, but just couldn’t get into it? Don’t fall into the sunk-cost fallacy. Sure, you spent $12 on the book seven years ago and you’ve kept it all this time so it seems wasteful to get rid of it now. But keeping it is just investing more into it — more time trying to organize your books, more mental drag thinking about how you really should read it, literal space in your home. And if you’re not really that excited about reading it any more, you’ll be wasting a lot of your time if you ever finally do force yourself to read it. Time you could spend reading the books you’re really fired up about. When you look at a book you own, the emotion you feel should never be guilt. Put these books into the used book store bag. They aren’t one-of-a-kind, you can always buy another copy some day.
The Awesome Books I Want to Read Right This Minute. Try and limit your “to be read” pile to five books or so. They should all be books you will literally start reading tonight because you’re so excited by them. I guess “spark joy” is the term of art.
Now, take all your books to the used book store (even the smallest cities have at least one, I’ve found). Up to you if you want cash or credit — I kind of like turning 20 books I don’t want into two I’m really psyched to read. Guilt-free book shopping! But cash is nice too. The used book store won’t take all of your books. Ask the store owner if they know a good place to donate the rest. Amvets is good, and a lot of charities take used books either to sell or to provide to homeless shelters or women’s shelters. As a last resort, you can recycle them.
I know a lot of book lovers are thinking, “But I’m really excited about all of them!” I get it. I have some things I keep around irrationally — RPGs I’ll never play, a guidebook to poisons, weird sci-fi art books I haven’t touched in 10 years. I could cut down even more. Be honest with yourself and how much reading time you have. Culling your book collection will make you happier. Trust me.