Doing the Unthinkable: Decluttering Our Bookshelves

Book avalanche

Photo by: Janelle_Ward


Let’s talk about something we book lovers might have qualms about: culling our bookshelves.

When I was growing up, this idea never entered my mind. Why get rid of your books?! While other girls were dreaming about weddings and whatnot, I had visions of a dark, sophisticated study, replete with deep-brown leather couches and shelf after shelf filled with every book I had ever read. You can imagine what my room looked like when I was living at home. Avalanche zone.

It wasn’t until I prepared to move from Phoenix to San Francisco just a year and a half ago that I actually started taking stock of my bookshelf. Did I really need to keep Pet Sematary when I hadn’t liked it and never thought about it? Nope! That became my criteria. If I didn’t think about a book outside of the times I actually noticed it on my shelves, out it went. After a while, my jammed shelves began to show themselves. I had mountains of credit at the bookstore thanks to the enormous stacks I sold there, and I started to realize that I had been holding onto those books for a reason—and a pretty silly one, at that.

A person’s book collection speaks volumes. When we enter someone’s home for the first time we subconsciously make a b-line for their bookshelf while our host puts on the kettle. And we make funny little assessments in our heads about them based on their reading preferences. Ah, The Lovely Bones and the Life of PI:  literate, although not ambitiously so; pop-culturally savvy. The complete works of Dan Brown: um, well, let’s just hope they realise it’s not non-fiction.

— Sarah Wilson, Sunday Life: In Which I Declutter My Books

I’m sure you’ve heard people declare, “What’s on your bookshelves speaks volumes [hah!] about you.” I certainly had heard it and took it a bit too much to heart. I wanted, almost desperately, to appear intelligent, thoughtful, well read, and complex. So I hung onto my books. I gathered new ones. I took old ones off my friends’ hands. Etcetera. Certainly, schlepping nearly 300 tomes around might have made me look well read, but if I got honest with myself, I didn’t even like a lot of those books. I held onto them because they were classics, because I had read them in college, and because they were helping me construct an idea of myself—a version that I thought I ought to be.

Colorful and bright bookshelves

I realized that my bookshelves were telling lies about me.

I do love books, just not all the ones I had been dragging around with me. In addition to complicating a simple move to a new city, they also were weighing me down in my larger pursuit of personal growth. Letting go of the collected works of Shakespeare was liberating. I’d rather watch a production than read it! Selling Gravity’s Rainbow was like dumping a nasty pebble from my shoe. It’s a great work, but I don’t love it, so it has no space on my shelf. Allowing myself to get real about the way I feel about my books has been amazing. I hadn’t realized how forced and short-sighted my reading had become!

In Phoenix I had shelves of unread books that I felt I must read. Each time I finished one I felt like I had finished a mildly annoying task, like doing laundry or raking the leaves. Even as I’m writing this, I can’t believe that I just kept at it, chipping away at the never-ending parade of “must-reads” for academics and intellectuals. (Ugh.) I was blind to the fact that the joy had gone out of my reading. That it had become a task to check off my to-do list. Read Othello. Check. Read Finnegan’s Wake. Check. What a horrible way to approach something I love! Thank god that’s over with. I’m still in gleaning mode (I have hangups with some books I read in college) and while my dwindling book collection gives me mixed feelings from time to time, I know that it’s all for the best when I reach for a book that I simply cannot put down. Since I've decluttered my books, I've found a sense of intellectual freedom that's absolutely exhilerating. I'm venturing into topics new to me and feel like I have more mental space to explore. I highly encourage you to try decluttering—if only for the mental freedom!


Decluttering Your Bookshelves: Getting Started

Thinking you want to start culling your bookshelves? Here are a few questions to ask to help you along.

     ★ Have I read this? If no, do I really want to?
     ★ Do I think about this book in daily life?
     ★ Will I read this again?
     ★ Does anyone else in the house want to read it?
     ★ Is this something I want to pass on to my children/my nieces or nephews/etc.?

Try pulling your books off the shelves—all of them, or one shelf at a time. Handling each book makes it easier to decide whether it's worth keeping or not. As you decide, make a stack for books to get rid of and replace the keepers on the shelf, and be sure to flip through each of the books you want to give away! I can't tell you how many times I've found plane tickets, grocery receipts, or money (I know—what?) that I used as bookmarks. If you're one to write or stamp your name in books, consider removing or covering your name before getting rid of the book.

What to Do With Discarded Books

Sell them.

Check out the indie bookstores in your area. Chances are that you’ll find at least one that takes books for trade or cash. When I was in Phoenix, I favored Changing Hands Bookstore, and now that I’m in San Francisco, I like Dog Eared Books.

Donate them.

There are tons of worthy places to donate your books. Local libraries often take donations, but be sure to contact them before taking your books to ensure you bring what they can use. The American Library Association has quite a bit of information on donating books to libraries. Another organization to consider is BetterWorld Books,which focuses on addressing literacy issues. Books for Africa also addresses literacy issues, specifically those in Africa. Students who are eager to learn lack basic educational resources like books, and donating your books helps them learn and grow in ways that, without books, may have been impossible.

Give them away.

Give your books to friends you know will appreciate them, or post them as free on Craigslist. People are hungry for stories. I’m sure you won’t have a problem finding those books homes!


If you’re having a hard time letting go, remember that you can get some of your books as ebooks. Overall, I do prefer print books over ebooks, but traveling with ebooks is a much better experience! Another bonus is that many of the classics—from Alice in Wonderland to Sherlock Holmes—are free on iBooks, Kobo, and Classics, the app.

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