Breaking The Sentimental Attachment To Books

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Robyn Devine of She Makes Hats.

It is unmistakably comforting to curl up in a thick chair with a tattered copy of a book you love, listening to the rain while you let yourself get carried away by the words on the page. I know – I used to hoard books. Don’t let the title “minimalist” scare you off – I have a love of books that dates back to my years toddling around with Dr. Seuss, a love that was handed down from my mother.

Until just a few years ago, books were stacked everywhere in my home. My two huge book cases were double-stacked with volumes ranging from children’s fiction to college text books, and piles had formed next to couches and the bed, not to mention on any available surface. I could not imagine my life without these friends surrounding me – the very thought of letting go of just one was enough to send me hurling at my shelves, attempting to wrap my arms around every book I owned in protection.

Today, I am the proud owner of approximately 20 books – six of which are craft books. To move from one extreme to the other took some serious work, and was not an overnight process. It started with the realization that I was not so much attached to the stories and words themselves, but the physical books sitting on the shelves. Once I had that realization, I began to let go of some of my books, and moved slowly towards a more minimalist reading collection.

The best way for any book-collector to tackle their bookshelves is by looking at one book at a time. When we look at the whole expanse of our book collection, it can be hard to imagine ever letting a single book go, but in reality there are volumes hiding on those shelves that we truly don’t need or want. Taking time to pull a book down off the shelf and truly look at it as an individual item will help you decide for that book alone if staying on your shelves is the best option.

Here are a few suggestions to help even the biggest bibliophile relieve your sagging shelves of stress:

1. Write It Down. Sometimes, it’s the way a book made us feel, our connection to the story or a character that keeps us from letting go of the book itself. Take some time to write down those feelings, those connections. Maybe you’ll keep these notes on your computer or in a notebook, or maybe you’ll begin a blog for them. Once you get those emotions and thoughts out, it can be easier to pass the book on to someone else who you think would love the story as much as you did.

Tiny Action: Grab a notebook and start writing down your thoughts about each book as you take it off your shelves. If you can’t think of anything to say, you probably won’t miss the book if it weren’t there anymore.

2. Divide. Get ruthless with your “yet to read” pile. My rule of thumb is simple: If it hasn’t been read in six months, it probably won’t ever be read. I went so far as to test this theory myself as I found books on my shelves I hadn’t yet read, but couldn’t yet bear to let go. I dedicated a shelf to “need to read” books, and noted the date. Any books that started out on that shelf on that date but were still there six months later I purged – I had discovered I truly had no desire to read them!

Tiny Action: Let go of any book you haven’t read yet that has been on your shelves for more than six months. Afraid you’ll want to read it someday? Make a note of it in your notebook – title, author, ISBN number even – so you can find it at the library if you truly want to read it later.

3. One of the best ways to make use of your book collection is to share it with others! As you look at books, anytime you find yourself thinking “So and so would LOVE this book!” write that name down on a sticky note, stick it on the front cover, and set the book aside. After you’ve got 20 or so books in a pile, begin handing them out – drive to friends’ houses and drop them off, or put them in the mail (book rate shipping is SUPER cheap).

Tiny Action: Pick five books off your shelves that you’d love to share with someone else, and then send them off to their new homes. Today.

4. Set aside one shelf of your book case as your “desert island” shelf. Most book lovers have books they know they will never let go of, no matter what. I call these “desert island” books – they are the books I’d want with me if I were stranded on a desert island, that I could read over and over again for the rest of my life. As you come across these books in your collection, add them to your shelf. Not only is it comforting to see those books being saved as you pare down others, you now have a physical boundary – you can have no more “desert island” books than will fit in this one space, so you are forced to think analytically about your collection.

Tiny Action: Clear off one shelf to keep as your “desert island” shelf. It can only hold one row of books – no double stacks or piles!

5. Organize your non-fiction books by topic. I found when I began to organize my non-fiction books by topic, I had overlaps in some subjects. For me, the largest overlaps came in religious studies (my major in college). As I saw where I’d doubled up on topic, it was easier to let go of a few books.

Tiny Action: Organize your books by topic and author. Begin to pare down where you see overlaps.

6. Look for multiple copies, and get rid of them. You may laugh, thinking you would NEVER buy a multiple of a book, but trust me when I say I’ve found multiple copies of books on the shelves of almost every sentimental bibliophile I’ve met. Once you have more than a shelf or two of books (not a book CASE or two, a SHELF or two!), the chances of your remembering what books you own dwindles. Even if you love the book, there is never a need to own more than one copy of it!

Tiny Action: Every time you notice a multiple of a book, immediately give one copy away.

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While going through this process, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Take breaks. When I first began paring down my books, I would get dizzy after 15 minutes!
  • Take five minutes to step away anytime you begin to feel overwhelmed – this is a new experience for your body, and it takes some getting used to!
  • Stay hydrated. I found I would get drained and tired as I went through my books – keeping a glass of water next to me helped keep me alert and focused.
  • Set a timer. Sort through your books for no more than 30 minutes the first go-round or you will find yourself getting frustrated and overwhelmed.
  • Honor your emotions. Your sentimental attachment to your books is not something to feel ashamed of or sad about. Acknowledging your emotions as you sort through your books can be the first step in helping you move past that attachment and towards a more minimalist reading habit.
  • And above all, remember this: you did not acquire those books overnight, so you will not release your attachment to them quickly either. By spending a few minutes a week and by letting go of a few books at a time, you will find your feelings shifting towards the stories and the moment rather than the books themselves.

***

Robyn Devine blogs at She Makes Hats. I also enjoy following her on Twitter.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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Comments

  1. Peter says

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and many of the responses to it.
    The time for new year’s resolutions is coming up, and every year I pick one thing to give up for that year. One time, I gave up buying new shoes, in other years I’ve been vegetarian, or have given up alcohol, and once I made the decision not to buy anything that was made in China. I manage to stick to these somewhat random “fasts” religiously, but the fact that they’re time-bound helps. This year, I’m thinking of reducing my books, and like other replies, I’m freaked out by the idea of it alone. I’m also very attached to them, as for as long as I remember I’ve been wanting to have a library and I’m finally close with a full wall of books. Like Jolo, I guess I’m more attached to the physical volumes than to the words and stories in them, and a purge might be healthy at this point. I’m going to think it over for week, but the advice you gave on how to do it sounds very helpful. For those of you living around Baltimore, MD, here’s another one: The Book Thing of Baltimore, whose mission it is to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them, and where you can drop off as many books as you like, or – for the still-book-addicts among you, pick up as many as you like FOR FREE!. http://www.bookthing.org/

  2. Phil says

    Great article! I was interested that you didn’t mention the Kindle, as I found this one of the quickest ways to empty a bookcase. Most of the books I used to own were easily and cheaply available as ebooks, and it seemed easier to get rid of others just knowing I could buy a replacement in a matter of minutes (which I have only seldom done). Some people don’t get on with ebooks so well, but I found it put into contrast whether I liked the story/information in a book, or just liked the book on the shelf.

  3. says

    I’m preparing for a move, the first one in almost 16 years! I’m taking a long, hard look at each & every item before packing it, really determining it’s worth and place in my new home. I’m doing pretty well paring down..til I get to my precious bookshelves. It seems almost a sin to call books “clutter,” but in all honesty, they are! I’ve decided to donate all but one shelf full, the rest will be sold or donated. To avoid more tomes coming into my house, I’m making liberal use of the library. Paperbackswap is another great way to trade books with other readers; once I’m finished with a novel it goes right back up on the site for swapping.

    Thank you for a timely article!

  4. Vanessa says

    Just found your website, and so far I love it! The topic of book hoarding is close to my heart….with our family of 5, we have 6, 6-foot-tall shelving units that are overflowing with books! Plus, you’ll find stacks of books on nearly every flat surface of the house. Not to give the impression of a house that can’t be navigated, I do organize them LOL! But whenever I’ve gone through them and sent boxes off to the library book store, more seem to make their way in. Well, you’ve given me the inspiration to try, try again, and see if this time I can make them disappear for good! Thanks for what you’re doing, keep it up!

  5. Randy says

    I have donated over 1000 books and have less than 100 remaining. I had some treasured history books that were originally published in the 1800’s. I couldn’t bring myself to donate them to a faceless charity so I found a young history student at the local college and gave them to him. He was delighted and grateful. I felt great and don’t miss the books at all. I am converting to digital….never thought I would say that….and now, when I finish reading a book, I write down the name, the author, and the date in a notebook. The more I give away, the more I want to give away!

  6. Teddy says

    Oh man, I’ve been dreading the day you made this post. :) I’m a writer and I have a Literature degree so this one’s a tough topic for me. I consider myself to be pretty minimalist in every area except for this one. I guess I’ve never considered books to be “stuff” like everything else I own. You made some really great suggestions, though. I think organizing the overlapping ones is a great one for me! I too have tons of books about various religions, as well as tons of health and wellness-type books. Thankfully I’ve recently fallen in love with my local library so that’s kept my book-buying at bay! I’ll definitely go through these steps and see how I can minimize my collection!

  7. Natalie says

    I’ve collected quite a wealth of books since my university years. Books that I love. Every one of them read at least twice. I used to display them proudly in every room, shelves and shelves of books. Someone could pick out any random book and I would rattle off what it’s about, why and where I purchased it, how it made me feel. I used to love going into little underground bookstores, with that musty attic smell, search rows upon rows of books until I found some old gem to take home and love. One time I lost one of my precious books (this will be my “desert island” book), and I scoured most of the province to find another copy (I cried when I found another copy, and then several years later, I found the old copy as well.) Now I’m a working mom (translation: no time), and moved into a very small house. I guess you could say we’re working towards a minimalist lifestyle. I purged so much stuff before this move, including my expensive wardrobe. But in no way could I part with my beloved books. Hubby couldn’t understand it, and it drove him crazy to move a million tote bins of books. There is no room in my little home for my books, so they are living in a large shed in the backyard (very well protected, all of them in waterproof containers with lined bottoms). It breaks my heart that they are in there, with no one to enjoy them anymore. I found this article, and I think I can do it. I’m going to go into the shed tonight to pick one tote bin….

  8. Conny says

    Thank you for the article. We just moved into another town and I noticed how MANY books we have. I wanted to get rid of some before we moved but our used book store closed and I don’t want to put them in the garbage. My problem is, most of my books are in German. Anyone has any idea what to do with them?
    Thanks!

  9. says

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and
    was curious what all is required to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost
    a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% sure.

    Any suggestions or advice would be greatly
    appreciated. Kudos

  10. says

    Hi Joshua!
    I just stumbled onto your FB posts through a friend a few months ago. I liked some of the posts she shared and found that some of the quotes and messages spoke to me. I’m a huge book hoard. I know I have a problem but I absolutely love books. I know I need to get rid of a lot of them. I have the pile of books I just have to keep even though I’ve read them. I like to “own” my books as I always say. Then, I have all the books I still need to read that I know I will never get to in my lifetime.
    I have been following you and just purchased and read your book “Simplify”. I read some of your book to my husband and we are both on board to start going through everything and begin the journey to a simpler lifestyle. I have a question, in your book you mention that when your neighbor told you that their child was a minimalist and you began reading and researching minimalist lifestyles, what sources did you use. I heard on Minnesota Public Radio today a Joshua and a Ryan (didn’t get their last names) talking about minimalism and they were promoting a book called “Everything That Remains”. At first I thought it was you but then looked up the book and it’s a different Joshua. Just wondering if these two are your inspiration or friends. Anyway, thank you for sharing your story and what works for your family. I am so excited to see real changes iny home and life.
    Thanks, Sandy

    • joshua becker says

      Joshua and Ryan kindly list me as one of their inspirations in their book. The people I turned to include Leo Babauta, Dave Bruno, Colin Wright, and Tammy Strobel.

  11. says

    Oh, and would love to know the book that Natalie lost then found? Must have been a very good book! I’m always looking for good suggestions. Thanks

  12. Crystal Dawn says

    The only way I ever seem to be able to let a book go is when I can think of a specific person who would love the story as much as I do… I put it in my car trunk so I remember to give it to them. Feels much better to give them as gifts.

  13. Alice says

    Oh, please. 20 books? So not happening. I could buy a thousand more with what I’d spend on library fines. Trained in “slow reading.” Lol.

    Signed,
    Philosophy Major

  14. Ted Villalon says

    Great motivation is derived from this and other similar posts. I had 50 boxes of books in a store room, costing me some good money in rent to keep them. In three weeks, I have culled this collection down to 26 boxes, with lots of trips to a local second hand bookstore. I intend to be rid of the store room by the end of the month.

  15. Jeff says

    Great article. I was one of those people: your typical New Yorker whose idea of a good time was to spend hours in the Strand or one of our many other great bookstores and go home with a bag-full of books every time. My epiphany came when I decided to do an inventory of my library. I picked up one of my books and remembered when I had bought it: 20 years earlier. I was ashamed. If I hadn’t read it in 20 years, I wasn’t going to read it. I was also abashed when I realized how many duplicates I had. It was obvious that my collection was out of control. Also, with the advent of Google Books and Internet Archive, many “rare” items have been digitized and made accessible. Interlibrary loan services have also made most books easily available. There’s just no excuse anymore to have thousands of books in one’s house. Over the past year, I’ve culled my library of over half its size. It’s still hard to get rid of a book, but it feels great every time I do it.

  16. says

    Books were my last hurdle to completeing my minimalist journey so to speak. I wrote down all the titles and looked up the important ones on Kindle. The ABSOLUTELY have to have books I purchased digitally and are now safe and sound on my device and the cloud.

    The others, if I feel inclined to read them I will simply buy them as I need them digitally.

    Took me a month of humming and hawing and declaring blasphemy at the thought of getting rid of my books but eventually I made the leap.

    Donated them ALL to the local library. I have 0 dead tree books. Except for my high school year books which I am going to take to the local office max to get scanned and then those will be recycled.

  17. Nancy says

    Oh, this was one of the toughest things ever but I moved around so much for a few years that I had to eliminate most of my books. Luckily with my Kindle, I can still keep every book I want – but it takes up virtually no space. My next step was magazines! Oh, I used to fill up the trash bin and trip over them in the house. the NextIssue app is worth every penny because all the magazines I want to read are there – in my little virtual cloud or wherever they nest. No more piles and I can save every issue if I want to!

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