Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from James Ball, a former newspaper reporter who thought his story might help others.
A 32-gallon plastic storage container holds approximately 50 paperback books, or 25 hardbacks. If you stack them the right way, you can cram in an extra five paperbacks.
I know this from experience as a book hoarder.
Over the years, I’ve housed dozens of these boxes in my garage. I’ve also stuffed them into closets and tucked them away in guest bedrooms telling myself that “someday” I’d get around to reading the books that had looked so irresistible at the bookstore. But I was lying to myself.
For me, collecting books was no longer a hobby. It had become a labor that was encroaching into my physical space and taking up way too much mental space. Worst of all, I was paralyzed by too many choices, meaning I never read anything anymore.
Something had to give.
A decade ago, my maternal grandmother – the woman who taught me to love books – suddenly died. After the funeral, we set out to clean out her condo.
My grandmother wasn’t a hoarder by anyone’s definition of the word. There were no endless, messy piles of stuff in her house. In fact, she proudly kept her house very tidy and organized, but as we dug into her closets and dressers, it was clear she collected a lot of things. Christmas decorations with price tags still affixed to them, unopened orders from home shopping networks, and – much like myself – a massive collection of printed materials including books.
In her final years, my grandmother led a fairly lonely existence. She had family nearby, and I suspect occasional dinners with them probably blunted the edges of her solitude, but these short visits weren’t enough to fill every single hour. She likely experienced more lonely, existential moments than joyous ones in her final years. Buying things had filled a certain void in her life.
Why, then, in the fullness of life, did I need so many things, I asked myself? I had everything that already mattered. As I hauled the last box of her possessions to a donation center, I vowed that when my time was up, I’d leave my wife and children with memories and experiences, not the chore of cleaning up after me.
When I turned 40, I kicked off a long period of introspection and reflection. I took stock of my life and everything in it. As I read about the minimalist movement, I was drawn to its simplicity and its inherent promise that, with less stuff you actually become a richer person in all aspects of your life.
I read everything written by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. I became a follower of Joshua Becker and Leo Babauta’s blogs and hung onto every word written by Courtney Carver and Francine Jay.
I nodded my head as they spoke of decluttering and removing the inessential. But while I agreed in principle, it was clear I had a problem.
Still, these were my books. My Norton Anthology of American Literature Vol. 1 might not be worth more than a penny on Amazon, but I had toted this very book to my freshman English 102 class at the University of Georgia in the fall of 1991, poring over short stories by Thoreau and Melville. Surely, that had personal value. And hadn’t I always dreamed of someday opening a used bookstore with an ancient three-legged cat roaming its dusty stacks? When that day came, I would have enough books to seed the business. Note: this is exactly how we lie to ourselves.
I had enjoyed almost none of them because I had lost sight of the purpose of owning a book – to extract an experience or bit of knowledge from it and pass it along. By acting this way, I was not only being selfish, but I was doing a massive disservice to myself and others. These books no longer represented joy. They represented unrealized potential and I knew it was time for most of them to go.
I realized that if you’re hanging onto something for no other reason than sentimentality or the thought that, “someday, I’ll need this,” you’re not realizing your fullest self. You’re living inauthentically.
It’s only when we strip away the possessions weighing us down that we can see clearly who we are and what we want to be. Tossing things for the sake of tossing them is a fruitless exercise, but I’d reached the point where my avalanche of books had made me stop loving something I’d once found great joy in. It was the right solution for me.
Getting rid of my excess books wasn’t easy, and it took time. I found myself stalling on purpose.
So I did what any reasonable OCD sufferer would do: I set a firm number for the maximum number of books I’d own. I began paring my collection down from well over 1,000 to 100 of the most essential books – a small number of which I would display for their aesthetic value, but a majority of which I would read and pass along until I owned very few of them then focus on reading solely on my Kindle.
The guy who runs the Boys and Girls Club of America donation trailer has gotten to know me well.
“More books?” he always asks when I drop off another storage container.
“Some good ones today,” I always tell him.
I’m not there yet. As of late July 2015, I’m down to a dwindling selection of 200 books. It’s an improvement that’s yielded an unexpected benefit. With the clutter gone, I’ve had a strong urge to read more. I read voraciously, at least two books a week now.
Suddenly, someday is now. I’d wanted to read Stephen King’s Cujo for nearly 30 years. With the extraneous removed from my life, I finally sat down and read it. Verdict? Decent, but I should have read it a long time ago when it was more my style. This is the danger of holding onto something for too long: it can spoil.
Newly energized in my reading, the only limit is my time, not my desire to collect more books only to squirrel them away in a box.
Another book that survived the cut is Thoreau’s Walden, which I’m currently re-reading. It’s the perfect palate cleanser in my journey to a place where, with each passing year, I accumulate less and less stuff. Maybe my grandkids will thank me someday.
James Ball is a former newspaper editor who lives in Northern Nevada with his wife and two sons. He wants to write as a way to help others—not just for work.