I can almost hear your hackles coming up as I mention this but here it goes: you probably have too many books. See! Even your face changed at the mere mention! I get it. It’s the spidey-sense that every bibliophile has when they feel their literary interests are being targeted. “What? That copy of Fifty Shades of Grey? My mother got it for me and I am too embarrassed to donate it.” Cough cough.
It takes all your energy not to twitch your face, giving away a facecrime before shouting out, “step away from my book collection, Big Brother!”
So, when someone tells you that you can pare down your book collection, it hits you in a way that sounds like a loved one saying, “You could probably lose some weight.” And when we line up at the book store with another dear friend of family member, a stack of novels almost slipping out of grasp, and they sarcastically say, “You can’t have too many books, right?” it wounds just the same.
Why I Need Books
But I’m like you. I live and breathe with the smell of new books. Too often, once I’ve fallen asleep, my husband will have to remove a book from under my face and turn out my light for me. Like my child with her favorite blankie, I can’t fall asleep without it!
So it might surprise you to know that in my house I have…drumroll…P’CHING…twenty-two books.
It might further confound you that of those twenty-two books, seven are cookbooks, two are books I tear the pages out to use in artwork, four are books I got from The Minimalists at an event I went to, one is a book of Chris Hogan’s titled, Everyday Millionaires which I bought to inspire us to live on much less than we make and to think forward towards retirement.
So, if you are keeping count, that’s fourteen. The other eight? Four are writing exercise books and journal prompt books that I use infrequently (once a month) when the mood strikes and four are Spanish exercise books I’ve slowly working through in reaching one of my goals this year.
It might also seem pertinent, in defense of my seemingly spartan stance on books, that I am also a language arts teacher and I have two undergraduate degrees — one in creative writing from EWU (go Eagles!) and the other in English education from NDSU (go Bison!). I also have a Master’s degree in English from NDSU.
In other words, I’m a big reader.
My Literary Lightbulb Moment
My bookshelves weren’t always so bare. I went to Barnes and Noble enough times that I could have been paid to work there. I did not have enough shelf space at home to house all my novels, eighty percent of which I had read and another twenty percent I was saving for my future self. If you don’t know about the allure of a fantasy self and how damaging it can be for your current self, take a look at this article. I’ve written a little about this myself in “Put Your Impulses in Your Childhood, You Best Life is a Focused One.”
Aside from my favorite novel, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and rereading the novels I teach in my class, I rarely pick up a novel to page through again. There’s too much out there I haven’t read yet to spend my time re-reading what I have.
How I Keep Books in My Life But Off of My Shelves
Every month, I go to the library with my kids to pick up books for them. I have my own list of 3-4 books that I get to tide me over until the next trip. Going to the library fairly frequently also keeps us active in free library events and services. For instance, our library has lots of kids and adult activities and through my membership, I have free access to Rosetta Stone software online.
When I don’t get books from the library, I’m borrowing them from relatives. My mother and mother-in-law each has a large book collection that I borrow from several times a year. My mom prefers mysteries and my mother-in-law prefers fantasy so I’m pretty well off in having access to books. As for nonfiction, my dad and his girlfriend have a pretty sweet collection.
When the school year is in session, I use my Audible account to listen to novels on the way to and from work. When my one book is done for the month, I listen to podcasts or music.
Why Even People Who Are Inspired to Be Minimalists Have a Hard Time Letting Go
Right now, as I’m writing this, I’m part of a Facebook group designed by famed minimalist Joshua Becker. Recently, a member presented the group with a photo of about 20 kids books and asked how many books is enough. She got responses like, “There are some studies talking about having 500 books in the home as being very positive. I saw another article that said a minimum of 80 books and gains were seen up to 350 books. There is research on this.” and “I would say more books. Books, books, books,” and “We have hundreds of books in the house, and this is something that is NOT going away. There is a correlation between access to books in childhood and level of education in adulthood.”
Only one person posted an article supporting their thesis that reading many books is linked to success. It was an article about the 11 daily habits of billionaires, and one of the items mentioned that reading was important. Also mentioned was that billionaires lived below their means and the meditated and exercised daily. If I bought 3-4 books every month, that would be around fifty dollar a month. That isn’t unreasonable but since I don’t often re-read, it seems a wasted amount for what I could get from the library for free.
We have this weird idea that buying books makes us smarter, replacing the known fact that reading makes us smarter. We do not learn through osmosis.
How You Can Minimize Your Book Collection
The same magic rule of three applies here. One stack to keep, one stack to donate, but instead of one pile for tossing we are going to have one labeled “ambition” as in books that you swore you would read or use to become better at something or be a better person.
The Keep Pile
What do you re-read?
The Donate Pile
What are you generally done with? This includes novels but also textbooks that might be outdated and which you may be able to sell on Amazon. Trust me, there are many many college students who could use textbooks that are only a few years old. However, that C++ textbook from 1999? You’ll probably have to recycle that.
Secondly, do you have any bibliophile friends that could use some recommendations? Get a stack together to present to your friends.
The Ambition Pile
My personal ambition pile was pretty high (figuratively and literally). Higher than my keep pile. I culled so much that I effectively gave up a separate life filled with neglected goals. After a sixl months, I did pick up one or two of those books again. The rest I donated to someone with more time than I was willing to give up.
All of your Ambition Pile books should go on a separate shelf. Give that shelf an expiration date. You determine the timeline but at the end if you haven’t cracked open the book on hand lettering, it’s time to move it to a donate box.
We tend to use our bookshelves like bumper stickers. As in “Hey everybody! I’m literate and we might share values!” However, unless it’s something that is picked up often and read like a bible, it probably has little place in your current life. Why live seated next to the guilt of an unachieved dream?