The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Readers have many opinions on how to cull your book collection — and also why you never should

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When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States earlier this year, forcing Americans to shelter in place, many suddenly realized just how cramped their homes were. It was now impossible to ignore the sheer amount of stuff we had, bursting from dressers and desk drawers, closets and bookcases.

Critic Michael Dirda’s book collection was particularly overwhelming, so he decided to use this period of isolation to do something about the personal library taking over his house. He has been chronicling his experience along the way, first describing his process of dismantling and sorting his collection (it involves a “Zippy Shell” storage unit); then explaining how he became a book hoarder in the first place; and, most recently, he broke down the difficult decisions he must make about, for example, the four copies he owns of “a slightly overwritten travel book.”

In turbulent times, culling my book collection gave me the illusion of control. Then the dilemmas began multiplying.

Readers had quite a few feelings about this most recent essay, chiming in with memories about culling their own personal libraries, advice on what books should stay and go and opinions on why you should never — under any circumstances — get rid of your books. Some got philosophical, others practical. “What is more important, the physical book or the words in it?” wondered The Continental Op. Responded Fred Gee: “Being able to find the door in a fire.”

Fair point. Here are some other thoughts:

Tips on how to cull a library

“It’s a dilemma all collectors of books face at one time or another,” writes commenter RBSchultz. “When I last moved, I gave away to the local library my vast collection of World War II and Vietnam War books so that others might enjoy them. After I moved, I decided that my collection of photography books was too heavy and large in volume. These went to my local Friends of the San Francisco Library where the sale proceeds supported the library. My vast collection of polar and mountaineering books will ultimately go to auction. There are many ways to declutter your library. you just have to choose what makes you feel gratified as to their ultimate destination.”

Sidneyf “is a ruthless culler and downsizer from way back, but if there are even slight differences between your books, they are not duplicates, as they are not the same. Each evokes different memories and appreciation from you; find a way to keep them all.”

“Our culling strategy included putting up a Little Free Library,” writes George of the Asphalt Jungle. “With overflowing bookshelves in every room, we are able to ensure it is always well-stocked. We have a lot of foot traffic on our street; some people even drive up to put in or take out books. The end result is that we have discovered new authors, intriguing nonfiction and funky cookbooks! I’m not sure the number of books in our house has actually declined, but who’s counting?”

“From my viewpoint, the value of the worn paperback with your initial impressions in the margins of a book you love is far more valuable than the first edition with the good dust jacket,” 11-03-2020 Vote weighs in.

hwoldke adds: “If you have multiple copies of the same title, the proper question isn’t which one to keep . . . but whether each of these volumes has something unique that is important to you. You may end up with four copies of ‘Moby Dick,’ but so what? You keep one because of its annotations, one because of its illustrations, one because of an insightful ntroduction, and one because it was the first ‘big person’ book you ever bought . . . But a word of caution: Be careful about getting rid of any book because you think you’ll never read it again. I say this, having gone through spots of culling several years ago, only to have gone out since and replaced a good deal of what I got rid of. My younger self was ignorant of what my older self has wanted to reread.”

All the books in my 300 boxes sparked joy. The lockdown made me rethink why I was keeping them.

Why you should keep all your books

“I have the curse (mental illness?) where if I open most any random book to most any random page, it will say something ‘profound’ to me. Hence I have trouble getting rid of books. But there are worse vices,” writes Yossarian of Newark.

“Keep them all,” suggests grrrltuesday. “This collection is too good to be destroyed. Create a trust for the local library or historical society. Something. Anything. People need this kind of obsessive encapsulation of literary goodness. Seriously.”

“In mid-March, I culled my books, taking boxes of them to the garage,” writes 1Dancer. “By late July, most of my dear friends in those boxes, have one by one, reappeared in my home as I read them again. . . I found joy in removing them and more joy in welcoming them back.

“You need to lie down till this passes,” recommends LadyManx. “It is a fallacy of the ‘Kondo World’ that we need to get rid of our books. Our leaders do not read. Look what that has gotten us. While it is fine to move so-so books along, books love us and whisper their thoughts to us, as we pass their covers. Can an ereader do that? Trying to find a favorite phrase or vignette in an ebook is a time-wasting fraud. My real books fall open to what I need. A book bought a long while ago will not call to me till years later and I’ll wonder how I knew to have it for just such a moment.

Finally, do you dare question Dr. Who? “You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! Best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” Never, in these currant times, have we needed this advice more.”

Why you should get rid of all your books

“Except for irreplaceable technical references, the Kindle has alleviated me of any such concerns,” writes Ainsley Lowbeer. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos own The Washington Post.)

“I was forced to discard 98% of my worldly goods fifteen years ago (the other 2% were of course my “most memorable” possessions),” writes Curtis C. Morgan. “I’ve never regretted it, in fact, I recommend it highly. It’s just. . .stuff.”

By day, I’ve been trying to cull my book collection. But at night, eBay beckons.

Other words of wisdom

“I fully agree with that quote, ‘There are people who collect books, and people who read books,’” writes Sarah Mother of Poodles. “I am the latter while my husband is the former. We have several thousand books, many of which are moldering away in boxes in the un-air-conditioned garage. The smallest bedroom has no furniture — just book shelves and piles of books. After 25 years of marriage, I realize that my husband will not change; he will never be happy with the ~500 books that I would be happy with. At this point, I am just planning on using them as his funeral pyre!”

When Jacques Caillault complained that the local library had no interest in a personal library, commenter gareilly offered some helpful alternatives:

“I don’t suppose you would be willing to ship your books here, to The Friends of the Temple Public Library, in Temple Texas. When our world isn’t falling apart, we have two sales a year of donated books. The money funds a book mobile (we are saving to buy a second one), kid and adult programs in the library and special needs, such as installing a “Free Little Library” at a local elementary school. If you aren’t willing to reward us with your stash, search online for a library group closer to home. Talk to them, not the main librarian, who probably has more on their plate than we know. A volunteer group would have the members to sort your stash. Once, we got thousands of books from a chess master who passed on. That donation, properly marketed brought our group thousands of dollars, but I am sure the head librarian would have turned it down if she’d seen the specialty chess books in the collection. Our group had the resources and time to make sure those books found good homes.”

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