Personal Library Compression: Learning to Let Go of Books

book shelves book stack bookcase books

There’s been a bit of a row, a kerfuffle, a hullabaloo, a hurlyburly, a brouhaha recently over a woman named Marie Kondo and a meme spreading that’s raised the ire of a few book lovers. I’d never heard of Marie Kondo until this event. She’s a lifestyle writer who has a Netflix show about organizing and decluttering your home; of course I hadn’t crossed cultural paths with her. I only use Netflix to watch terrible anime Godzilla films and whatever old John Hughes movie just got drawn from the archives.

What’s the Kondo Crisis? I don’t want to rehash it, so here’s a brief explanation of how Marie Kondo’s book-tidying advice and a gag about book-hoarding clerics turned into the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. For my part, when I first saw the meme with a photo of Marie Kondo and the quote “Ideally, keep less than 30 books,” (without the lower half that constitutes the joke) I was skeptical about it. Meme skepticism is always healthy. And some of the anger directed at her misunderstood advice quickly turned ugly, so I was glad I took the time to find out the context of what was happening. 

Despite the unpleasantness of this minor crisis, it has done some good. It brought up one of the most difficult choices book lovers face: How do you decide which books you want to give away? Few of us who are reading fanatics will ever have the massive mansion space available to create a library with bottomless capacity—a sort of “bag of holding” for books. We can’t keep them all, forever. One commenter on the Marie Kondo affair brought up an interesting thought challenge: What if you could only keep thirty books? What books would you pick?

I don’t want to cope with the mental burden of selecting only thirty books for my reduced library. But I do want to confront the less taxing burden of how to curate my immense book collection and remove enough volumes each year to prevent my apartment from becoming unlivable. When book stacks migrate to the floor, it’s time to make tough decisions and learn how to make them less tough.

This one isn’t leaving, ever.

Forcing Myself to Let Go

I once believed I should keep every book I owned, no matter what. Even books I didn’t like and knew I’d never read again. The Book as an Ideal felt sacred, and letting go of one was like chopping off a bit of my being.

It sounds like overwrought inspirational poster messaging, but seriously, that’s what I thought. I looked at my bookshelf and pondered, with collegiate grandiosity, “Each of these books I’ve read is now a part of me. These books are representatives of who I am.”

“Really? Even that copy of Win, Lose or Die by John Gardner, which you thought was the worst James Bond novel you ever read when you were sixteen, prompting you to write your only completed piece of fanfic, a James Bond novella, as a response?”

“Well, yes, because as a Bond fan I …”

“No, as a Bond fan you toss that sucker out. Let some other young Bond fan get angry over it and fire their creative drive to write rotten Bond fanfic.”

That brief conversation with myself is the realization I eventually came to when I understood possessing all my books forever was impossible. I wasn’t severing an arm to give away a copy of a Star Wars novel I read to see if liked Star Wars novels (I don’t); I wasn’t fracturing my soul to let go of that assigned college book from a class I’d forgotten; it wouldn’t shatter my being to donate my old paperbacks of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy when I now owned a hardback collection. Those Earthsea books need to fly to library bookstores and then into the hands of young readers look for the next adventure after Harry Potter. 

Reaching the resolve that I could donate books I’d read (and ones I realized I never was going to read) still took adjustments and at least one large move between apartments before I accepted that part of loving books is knowing when you need to give some away.

Giving away is the part that made me at last comfortable about doing it. The books’ lifecycles weren’t ending with me; I was donating them to local libraries and charities. Around half the books I own were purchased used, usually because they were out-of-print or were wonderful discoveries in indie bookstores. A used book has the same value: the text is still the text, it never gets used up—unless you spill something on it. Someone else probably wants those books, and I want them to have the opportunity to have them. Even Brokenclaw or Never Dream of Dying or any of the other awful James Bond novels not by Ian Fleming.

Yeah, this I can leave behind.

The Art of Cataloging Made It Easier

I’ve never been able to create an effective organization of my books because of the small apartments I’ve lived in. The books have to break over various cabinets and differing shelf sizes, so it’s tricky to place all related books together or put them into an understandable order. I have to just keep a general hazy idea how I’ve grouped them. The exceptions are my collections of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Cornell Woolrich books, which have their own dedicated shelves. None of those will ever be given away.

This is why a computer cataloging system has been an immense help. I use LibraryThing, which is more geared toward basic book organization for personal purposes than Goodreads. My collection isn’t public and I don’t use LibraryThing’s social tools; it’s a site that simplifies book cataloging and indexing and provides other useful options, such as putting in notes for reading dates, where a book was acquired, and tags for quick searching. I started inputting my entire collection in 2006 when I signed up for the service, which took a few weeks. I’ve kept up with each new acquisition and entered my reading dates (I’ll always know the last time I read a book). And I’ve updated the books I’ve given away.

LibraryThing allows a user to create separate “libraries” as top level dividers. I created two virtual libraries for books I’ve given away: “Read But Unowned” (which also includes library books or anything I borrowed) and “Unread and Given Away.” I also make notes in the comments for each book of where it went and when it was given away: the library, a friend, a gift. This means I can check on what I’ve released from my collection, and it gives me the sense that somehow those books still are in my collection.

Ebooks helped as well. I only do around a third of my reading using my Kindle Fire or the Kindle app on my iPad. But it’s proved valuable for checking out newer books I may not wish to keep. I originally made the leap to ebooks to access out-of-print and obscure works, but it’s ended up bringing plenty of new books to my attention. If I love an ebook enough, I’ll spend the money for a physical copy.

It’s still January, and with the struggling of Personal Library Compression—hmm, I like that term, I’m going to make it the post title—at the forefront of my mind thanks to this bit of online unpleasantness, it’s time for me to compress my library a tad. I’ve got some Essential Spider-Man collections my nephews would simply love. And I still have some of those terrible John Gardner James Bond novels around that deserve liberation, at least from me. But I think I’ll keep Never Send Flowers. I have an odd affection for that one. May have to write about that more at some point.