Why and How I Gave Up My Books

This morning my technology class was discussing libraries and the hot topic (in publishing, anyway) of ebook lending, specifically in relation to the HarperCollins fiasco. Our professor asked the class if anyone used libraries a lot. When I raised my hand, I was put on the spot, and got to tell the story of how I made it a goal to get rid of most of my books, and strengthened my already staunch support of libraries in the process.

When I was in high school and college, I equated the size of one’s personal library to the amount of knowledge they had. Teachers and professors were extremely knowledgeable and wise, and their offices were often lined with books. Jocks at my high school on the other hand, often didn’t bring a backpack to school, their lives were so free of books—and my conversations with some of them suggested a distinct lack of knowledge. At some point while navigating high school, I decided to keep all books I had ever bought in case I ever needed to refer to them again. (“The medicinal use of nettle tea? A Midwife’s Tale talks about that! Let me grab it and look it up!”) The only book I valued so little to part ways with it before about 2007 was Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. Books had an almost mystical value, and getting rid of them was like throwing away knowledge.

After many years of acquisition, in about 2007 I had a dismal epiphany: I would never be able to move anywhere–I had too many books! Graduate school? Forget about it! Getting out of The Ghettohaus [the name of my grand estate], with its abysmally poor insulation, collapsing roof, sinking back end, lack of a foundation, mouse problems, etc.? It would be impossible to move, simply because of the sheer amount of books I owned! A friend suggested I toy with the idea of trying to sell some books to Powell’s (above), and soon I set along a new path.

Meanwhile, a love of libraries was being cultivated in my heart. As I worked as a researcher for several years, I was accessing library materials constantly. My usage ranged from checking out library books to find the exact translation of a quote, browsing titles to search for reference photos, to accessing online databases like the Oxford English Dictionary from off-site. Eventually I started checking out CDs to expand my musical horizons, and DVDs to get up to speed on the world’s cinematic classics. Later yet, when I was interested in a book but did not know if I wanted to buy it, I would put it on hold at the library in order to preview before purchasing, to ensure my limited dollars would be spent most effectively.

As I wanted at least the option of moving at some point, I decided to stop acquiring more books by instead checking them out of the library. Once I had my next step defined in my head (graduate school in Vancouver BC), serious efforts were made to sell boxes of books to Powell’s (with remainders being donated to Ledding Library for their annual book sale). Soon I discovered and started pondering minimalism literature, and expanded the downsizing to the rest of my belongings as well.

It was really tough giving up books in the beginning, as physical books are more valuable than just the information contained therein. They’re beautiful to look at and touch. Perhaps your copy is signed by the author or was given to you by a dead relative. The frayed edges of a paperback may jog special memories. Becoming Minimalist covered the sentimental issues of giving up books last August, and Rowdy Kittens covered purging of sentimental items (not just books) recently as well.

I did it in baby steps. Slowly.  It seems the more I’ve purged, the easier it has gotten. But I haven’t given up all my books yet. To date, I have sold or donated about 75% of what I once had, and hope to continue the trend when I return to Portland. The less stuff I have, the less there is to pack if I need to move, the less there is to clean, the less there is to worry about. One of my favorite things about getting books out of the library is that they’re often more beautiful than the copy I would have purchased for myself—I don’t have to store the thing and ruin it with dust, yet I can access it almost anytime I want!

As for the ebook lending fiasco, HarperCollins has nothing to fear from me. I don’t buy ebooks, I don’t borrow ebooks–the only time I have acquired an ebook at all was when it was the only available option, and free. But I do give both money and used books (to be sold for revenue) to my local library, and will continue to do so for years to come. Power to the libraries!



Filed under books

11 responses to “Why and How I Gave Up My Books

  1. Linnet

    Hi Heather,

    Really enjoyed reading this and hearing your comments in class. My partner and I were just discussing this issue the other day: he was so excited to get his books out of storage this fall, but when they finally arrived, he ended up getting rid of about half of them. He realized that earlier in his academic career, when he was less confident, he felt that he needed to bolster himself with all those books (and all the learnin’ they represented), but now, he just keeps a practical reference library.

    I have never been a collector, and my military upbringing has made purging almost second nature to me, but I have another reason why I don’t buy and keep books. If a book comes into my life, and it matters, its contents stay with me–they influence how I see things. It’s not the object that I need to hold on to: it’s the ideas. I am also fortunate enough to have had access to exceptional academic libraries for most of my adult life, so if I ever need to remind myself *why* a book was so great, I can usually access it for free.

    The only books that I do keep are poetry books, and that’s because the words (not just the ideas) are important. A poem’s exact phrasing is often the key to its impact, and I am lousy at learning things by rote. I also own a few art books because it’s the only way I can see those images.

  2. I went to college in the late 70s, so oh yes, I kept all of the books from my major, in case I needed to refer to them for anything in the future (or so I thought at the time). Later I’d also find myself buying reference books, cookbooks, all kinds of books. I loved, and still love the bookstore. But – nowadays I don’t own paper copies of things like the big Mayo Clinic book I bought around 1990, nor do I own a paper cat health handbook like I used to. The internet has taken the place of any of those quick reference books I used to go to with my “what is…” questions. I love books, but I try to be careful with money, plus of course there’s only so much room.

    For fiction, I haunt the library. I read so much fiction it would be ridiculous if I bought the books. I love snaring the latest book from an author I enjoy, and then when I’ve read it, I return it and get something I haven’t read. I really don’t understand why more people don’t use their libraries!

  3. I’m the same as you. I only hold onto dictionaries, the odd reference work, cook books and fiction books that are really, really special to me. The rest are passed on to friends, family or charity shops. This is partly an environmental thing, partly because of the storage, but also because I think that books need to be allowed to get out there in the world. Your average paperback will have a happier life being passed around and read than mouldering on my bookshelf in a damp flat.

  4. Interesting post — as we are currently culling our books, but not making great progress! I’m a journalist with many interests (from art to design to history to architecture) and I want books in my home for reference, re-reading and visual inspiration. My sweetie is a photographer and devout Buddhist, so his library reflects his passions as well.

    But I love, and use, public libraries! I’m the author of two non-fiction books, (the new one out April 14,) and I am thrilled when I see copies of my book in libraries and know it’s thereby finding all sorts of new readers.

    Check out a site called worldcat.org — it will show you where a specific book is located, worldwide, starting at the library nearest you. I was amazed to see my little first book is held by libraries as far away from me (in NY) as New Zealand and Hong Kong.

  5. I’d be curious to know how many books you owned before you started purging.

    I own thousands of books, but that did not prevent me from moving a few years ago — and into a smaller house! (Though I must confess, we have books in every room of the house except the bathroom.)

    I did weed out some that I no longer care about, but most of them came with me. My husband and I always considered building a library to be like planting an olive tree. It’s something that we cultivate not only for ourselves, but for our family. (It helps that all of our kids are readers.)

    My thoughts on whether one can have too many books:

    • I never did an official count, but I’d say there were certainly over 1000, possibly 1500 or more. Another consideration was the dust factor: in a dusty house with a big furry dog, ideally I’d be individually dusting my books at least twice a year. Not only did this not happen, meaning the dust ultimately got in the cracks and stained the edges, but my built-in bookshelves were near a southern window, meaning the covers got years of sunlight damage as well. Again, they’re not all gone, but it’s a lot better with a lighter load!

  6. Hey, accessed your site via “Urban Adventure League”. This post describes almost exactly my addiction to collecting books in high school and college and then purging over the past few years.

    In college I had a dream of books filling a large library in my future house. This dream faded when I actually got a house and spent hours packing and hauling those darn books. Once unpacked, I found I wanted to use the space for other things.

    On top of this, I witnessed my parents spending huge effort to purge stuff from my grandparent’s house as they downsized to a condo. How could I pass on such a burden to my kids down the road?

    It is hard process to go through. I don’t want to think of how many countless hours were spent acquiring and purging books, many of which were never read. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Prairie, I don’t think we’re alone by any means. Also, your name makes me think you’re Canadian, possibly from Saskatchewan or Manitoba—is that right? The reason I ask, and also relating to what you say, is that I literally just got in from schlepping a truck full of my stuff to move home from Vancouver BC, where I was attending school this year. Several times this morning as we were trying to figure out spatial configurations for my remaining bookshelves, I thought, “ugh! I *still* have too much stuff! Need to get rid of more!” Ultimately I did leave one bookshelf there I’ve had since I was in kindergarden, but if I weren’t putting it all into storage tomorrow before leaving for Montana, I’d totally start selling even more of it off. Nothing like moving to realize the ridiculousness of what you keep.

  7. Pauline

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have so many books and conclude that I need to let them go. Thanks to your idea, I will donate some to the college library.

  8. Miranda can’t borrow books from libraries any more, because of all the fines she’s run up. 🙂 Luckily there are lots of book swaps and second hand book shops in our area. 🙂

  9. Catholic Bibliophagist

    The new comment triggered my return to this post. It strikes me that one problem with depending on libraries for books after you’ve given your own away is that libraries often don’t have the sort of books I want to read. Especially in recent years, some of the local public libraries are culling books that don’t circulate as frequently as best sellers. Unlike the original poster, I don’t have access to academic libraries. Ebooks are starting to make older and out of print fiction a bit easier to find. But I don’t enjoy them as much as “real” books, and I find my mental retention of them is not as good.

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