I clearly distinguish between books that serve to look things up, to refer to regularly (= the reference library) and books we read for entertainment (= the interest library). This article only looks at the interest library, and it pays to learn how to decide which category a book belongs to. Unless you are writing a doctorate thesis on the subject, romance novels tend to be purely interest library material for most people. Personal development books may look like reference books at first glance, but the fact of the matter is that once you have read those books they tend to be superseded by other, similar books you read later, which makes them ‘disposable’ and therefore part of the interest library.
As you can see, there is a murky area that tends to be quite different for everyone and hugely depends on your own requirements. Furthermore, books don’t stick to one category throughout their life cycle: over time, they can move from ‘interest’ to ‘reference’ and vice versa. My advice is generally to be careful what you sort into the reference library as we tend to overestimate the future usefulness of books in that category.
Now that this is clear, let’s return to the matter at hand: how to curate your interest library. Letting go of books often seems sacrilegious because they tend to come across as something you only ever acquire and add to, but never let go of. Selecting a book for letting go feels a little like burning a book and that is generally considered the ultimate no-no. My thoughts on this subject are simple. Books are what they are: cardboard and paper with content, nothing more and nothing less. There is no sense in making them more than that, except in very specific cases.
Books come in many shapes and sizes, but the real reason for keeping or letting go of books is a very sentimental one, so let’s take a look at a series of questions that may help you make the right decisions.
Question 1: have you read this book?
For a book you have not read yet, ask yourself how long you have had it and be brutally honest about the likelihood that you’ll ever read it. Some books hang around forever and never get read. My rule of thumb is simple: any book I have not been moved to read for more than 6 months has to leave – it’s very unlikely I’ll ever read it, especially if I have read later arrivals already.
Books that you have read fall into a number of sub-categories with particular reasoning. Ask yourself the following questions:
Question 2a: is this one of your all-time favourites?
This is easy: by all means, keep it and cherish it! Keep in mind: you can only have so many of those, some favourites are more important than others. Let’s find out which ones REALLY tickle your fancy might give you an indication that some of these aren’t really that important after all.
Question 2b: have you read this book more than once? Will you read it again soon?
If this is the case, you may want to think back to when you last read it and assess how likely it is that you’ll read it again anytime soon. If you cannot imagine yourself reading it again soon, maybe it’s time to let go?
Question 2c: have you been left indifferent by the book, or maybe you have not even finished reading it?
A classic candidate for disposal. It didn’t quite work for you the first time around, why would you ever read it again?
Question 3: is this a book that you only keep for external reasons?
These are books that have been given as gifts, that you have inherited or that are here for reasons beyond your own control. While it might seem difficult to cross this particular bridge, letting go of those books will seriously upgrade your life. Why would you hang on to something that does not add to your life, that was bought out of an error of judgement, reminds you of something bad or doesn’t mean anything to you personally? Get rid of those, as soon as you can!
So far we have looked at reasons to let go of books. Once this phase is taken care of, there is another step to your decision process: looking at the remainder of the books and deciding which ones you WANT to keep after all. Ask yourself these two questions:
Question 4a: is this a book that brings up fond memories?
Question 4b: does this book make you want to read it again?
If neither of those two questions brings up a resounding “YES!”, maybe it’s time reconsider if you want to keep it after all…
A word of caution: if you proceed with this system of elimination, you may find that you are discarding a lot of books. You may actually start questioning the validity of your choices or you may become afraid that your bookshelf will turn out very empty: your decision process is being affected by that sense of letting go of too much at once. This is normal: you have gotten used to having all those books around for a while. Keep going, though, you are on the right path: the books you select to keep are the ones that hold special meaning to you.
All the others have been singled out for a reason you have considered sufficient when you made the decision. Keep going and make decisions purely on the basis of the above questions until you have looked at ALL your books.
Leave the deselected books in the room, maybe place them against a wall somewhere and sleep over your decisions at least one night. Then take a good look at the bookshelves and their inhabitants. These are the books you love. Now revisit the ones sitting on the floor. You may find that most of them bring up much less of an emotional response than your favourites. That doesn’t mean these books are useless, but it is a good indication that you don’t really want them any longer: you may give them to charities, libraries, offer them to friends (if they want them, of course), sell them or exchange them for other books.
Look at your bookshelf once more: it now has a lot of space for new books that may turn out future favourites and beloved long time companions.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.