Thinning Out The Books

The workers are coming later this week to begin repairs that need to be done in the bedrooms. In preparation for this, I must empty out the bookcases closest to the area where they’ll be working, so the furniture can be moved out of the way.

It’s a good opportunity for my periodic exercise in thinning out the books.

As a writer and avid reader, I find it difficult to part with books. It has been an effort to get to the point where I do thin out the books from time to time.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. My mother was forever telling me to get my nose out of that book and go outside and play.

When I was a youngster living in Lamar, a small town in southeastern Colorado, I would pedal my bicycle down to the old Carnegie library on Main Street (unfortunately torn down in the 1970s). I remember that old building with the creaky wooden floors and all those books, there for the taking. I’d come out with an armful of books, six or seven at a time, and stash them in my bike basket for the ride home. A couple of days later, I would have read all those books, and it was back on the bike to return them and check out another armful.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado. Unfortunately torn down for an ugly modern building.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado.

When we moved to Broomfield, Colorado, the library was an easy walk away. It’s the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Public Library. Mrs. Eisenhower grew up in the Denver area, and she and President Dwight Eisenhower were there in July 1963 to dedicate the building. I was there, too, along with a big crowd. I shook hands with Mamie and Ike!

As I got older, in my college days and after, I started buying books. I still have some of those musty old paperbacks. My interests widened and my disposable income increased. I bought still more books, many of them hardcover.

Once I became a published writer, I bought even more books, by people I knew or had met at conventions. The books were double- and triple-shelved and I solved the problem of more space by buying more bookcases. I got out of the habit of going to the library, and bought the book instead.

Then I ran out of places to put bookcases.

My home is small. I’ve reached an age where I want less stuff.

Several years ago I did a major culling of the bookshelves. At first I thought, I can’t do this. I slept on it for a night, thinking, I have to do something. There are books I want to keep for various reasons, including sentimental attachments to some of those musty paperbacks. Or the fact that I can’t or don’t wish to replace the paperback with a hardcover. There are books I want to keep for research, or my interest in the subject.

I devised a mantra that serves me well when it’s time to thin out the books. I’ve read this, I’m not going to read it again (yes, I do reread books), so it’s time to let go of this book and let someone else enjoy it. Saying that to myself as I go through the bookshelves helps me do the necessary pruning.

Over the years, the Friends of the Library have benefitted from my thinning out those bookshelves. I have reduced the number of bookcases, and it’s great to reclaim that space for other things I’m interested in, like sewing. I have gone back to the library. In fact, I check books out from several. If Alameda doesn’t have the book I seek, Oakland, Berkeley and the University of California usually do. Now that I have a Kindle, I buy digital versions.

Still, getting rid of books is hard. I was heartened to read a recent New York Times interview with Walter Mosley that touched on this subject. Here’s what the author of the Easy Rawlins series had to say in response to a question about his personal book collection:

“I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little to no profit almost all of my books. I have mentioned a few favorites earlier, but as a rule I don’t believe in keeping books. After I have read, reread and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I’m not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity.”

Thanks, Walter. I feel a whole lot better about thinning out the books.


6 Responses

  1. I hear you! After having a master carpenter cleverly build beautiful bookshelves into two different walls to deal with “overflow,” there’s precious little room in our house of 27 years. When I sold my literary papers to Michigan State University, they also carted off at least eight boxes of books: all my association copies and all my mystery research. But as a reviewer and author, I find that book creep is a perpetual problem, and the space I freed up by letting MSU cart those books off is gone.

  2. Books everywhere! Even my bed has a bookshelf–full, of course. I like your criterion for clearing out–I’ve read and reread this one, time to pass it on. Many go to the library to be sold. Others go to the swap shop at the recycling center, where, alas, I pick up even more books. I suspect I will be sorting books as I lie dying. Not a bad way to go, really.

  3. I have a book discard box in the office. As I read through the to-be-read bookshelf, or go through a shelf of books I’ve already read, I fill the box and take it to the Friends of the Library. I have made a significant dent, but still more to do. There is only so much space in my home and I really am at that urge-to-declutter stage.

  4. Our neighborhood market, Ma & Pa’s, has a lending library. We regularly drop off books we’ve enjoyed and want to share with the neighbors. Others go to a charity-run thrift store. But the shelves in this house are still packed. A nice thing about ebooks is they don’t collect dust.

  5. Like Janet, we started really thinning out last year when the house painter came to paint our downstairs, and we had the floor to celing shelves inside our front entryway painted. We stacked all those books on a long table in the living room, wiped them clean, one by one, and sorted. The “we” in these sentences means that I couldn’t donate all my choices, because many of them were some other family member’s favorites. And those shelves had our family photo albums, not just books. But I was on a roll. So I wiped all the books in our freestanding shelves and sorted them, too. There’s still one sack for a son to sort through, but there’s now room to add a book here or there. One whole bookshelf will probably soon move to another son’s house. And ours is no longer full of–let’s face it–really dirty books.

  6. Giving away or selling all his books may work for Walter Mosely, but I couldn’t do it. I simply never know when I might want to refer to a books for some reason, or respond to a college age grandchild who has a “literary’ question. If I hadn’t been a writer I’d have been a librarian, and librarians covet and love books (most of them). My myriad bookcases and books make me feel safe from this encroaching digital world. I let my offspring take bags of books when I recently moved, but I know where they live if I want one back. I relax, knowing they’re all in the family.

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