Decluttering my books

I moved house two years ago. Preparations for the move, my first in 29 years, led me to write this post about decluttering my books. Here are some updates: I had lots of shelving installed in my new house; the house has no cellar; I bought a car and acquired a cat; I now belong to two reading groups and buy more books as a result; I bought and reviewed A Passage to India in the older women in fiction series; my criteria for chucking out books has narrowed; I still do not own a Kindle. I am considering releasing books into the wild again.

Here’s the original post (slightly edited)

Moving house with books

217 vanBooks and declutter; I am not sure whether those two words can belong in the same sentence. But I am hearing other people combine them because I am moving. Moving house that is. Moving house means moving everything inside the house that isn’t nailed to the floor: my furniture, my clothes, the lamps, the food in my fridge and my books. As soon as I told them I was moving, kind friends began asking how I am getting on with decluttering and something they call ‘sorting out my books’. I consider my response: I’m not – getting on with it, that is; books aren’t clutter; my books don’t need sorting. In that pause my friends think I am considering the size of this task. Sometimes they add – ‘books are so dusty’ or ‘aren’t books heavy’. Both statements are true but obvious, like saying milk goes off or someone’s hidden my Allen keys.

Precious about books?

Now I am not being precious about books. I write in them, their corners get manked because I carry them in my rucksack, I stick post-it notes and those lovely plastic coloured page markers in them, give them away, and even throw them away sometimes. I just assume I’m going to have books around me, like mugs, spiders and socks with holes in the toes.

My Inner Critic pops up to remind me that I have not solved the problem of where I am going to keep my books in my new house. I anticipate hours of moving books around, organising shelves, changing my mind, sitting and reading a rediscovered volume, or searching for the companion to (say) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: ie Housekeeping and wondering if I can buy the recently released paperback version of her essays When I was a child I read books yet. Or wondering why I have three German-English-Deutsch dictionaries. I do, I do. Oh bliss!

Into the cellar

Back to disposing of books. In preparation for my move I have been forced to look in my cellar, where I find that there are boxes of books (and it has to be admitted other things, such as a roof rack, paint tins, suitcases of different sizes, cat basket, empty jam jars, a box of tile spacers and other potentially useful stuff). I have neither cat nor car, by the way. The thing about the boxes of books (but not those other things) is that they have been there since I moved in 29 years ago. I try to apply a general principle that if I have not looked at them in 29 years I am unlikely to want to look at them in the next 29, so I can move them out and on. But of course this breaks down as soon as I come across War and Peace in two volumes, or Julian Barnes’ early works, or The Tin Drum. Rather than a decluttering fest I have a delightful and time-consuming reunion with many of my books.


Keeping book buying under control

In the past I have tried throwing out a book every time I buy a new one. I have cut down hugely on book buying in the last few years by the simple expedient of using several libraries. But I do still buy books. For example, this week I had to get EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I went to the shelf where I keep his novels and I was rather horrified to find it was not there. I wanted to check the name of the older woman who hears the sound in the Malabar Caves – it’s Mrs Moore. Not having a copy made me want to read it. And I seem to have given myself another problem: what should I throw out to make way for this new book?

Here are some of my criteria for ejection. I usually need at least six of these to apply before I dispose of a book:

  • I’m unlikely to read it again.
  • It was not especially remarkable in the first place.
  • It’s a duplicate because I forgot I already had a copy.
  • It’s on a topic I am unlikely to read about in the future (eg most of my university history books).
  • It was given to me by someone I hate.
  • No-one wants this book because it’s an out of date text book.


And what do I do with them if the decision is OUT? Usually I take them to the local charity shop. Sometimes I give them away. Occasionally I put a book that no one will ever want in the recycling bag.

For a couple of years I passed on books through something called BookCrossing. You register the book on the website and if the person who finds it reports its location you can track its journey. One book I left in Gordon Square ended up in New York. Who knows where it has gone now. But not enough people reported finding them to hold my interest (21 books caught out of 143 released), so I stopped doing it. I still like the idea of people finding books on buses, in cafes, in cinema foyers.

217 Bookcr logoAre you one of those people who can’t throw any books away? Or do you have a system for keeping your collection under control? Go on, say it, you have a Kindle. But a Kindle would not help me in the onerous task of moving house, would it?

Related posts

I agree with this article. I do not intend to move for another 30 years and never intend to ‘declutter’ my books again. Decluttering is the enemy of human kind by Emma Brockes in the Guardian, critical of the moral judgements the decluttering movement hands out.

Here’s another reader’s approach: How to weed your bookshelves by Jessica Pryde on BookRiot blog in November 2015

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

10 Responses to Decluttering my books

  1. I do try to declutter, but books are low on the decluttering priority. Higher are clothes, knick-knacks, papers (you know printouts, old brochures, touristy things etc), ornaments and fridge magnets, and so on. I’m going to read that article about decluttering and the moral judgements as it sounds up my alley THOUGH to be honest, I do need to declutter more because the clutter can become depressing.

    I am thinking about the next phase/next move which will be downsizing. I will need to reduce the books then – and I might then start using the kindle more – yes, I have one, but this year I guess I read 4 or 5 books on it. I much prefer print. BUT space will become an issue one day so I’m preparing myself, slowly, in my mind, not practically.

    • Caroline

      Ah reluctance, and showing by thinking about it and not doing it! Perhaps you dont need to declutter at all, or at least not your books!
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Eileen

    Ah, the memories of the big move – you may remember I moved on the same day as you two years ago. I had taken hundreds of books to the local charity shop and they wrote to me ages afterwards saying how much my books raised. So other people benefitted from them. I was pleased. I have bought lots more books in the last two years and have loads more on my Kindle and now on my iPad. Some of the latter are talking books that are very comforting when I am about to go to sleep. I love books in my hands but Kindle and iPad are so very, very useful especially when travelling. I haven’t thrown out any books since I moved but I have chucked out lots of other things. My main difficulty is recycling newspapers – we get loads and I always need to fillet them to make sure there is no tasty piece that I might need for my writing. Then they mount up and then it becomes a real effort to look through them.

    • Caroline

      I know what you mean about newspapers, and in my case you can add magazines from the organisations to which I belong. These I have to go through periodically (haha) or they take over.
      Fond memories of the tensions in moving, now it’s all over.


  3. It’s an impossible task. How can you throw out a friend? I look at my shelves and know I need to part with some. I love owning books. I thought I’d delve back in, re-read favourite passages, but in reality they sit on my shelves. I have added audiobooks and ebooks to my collection. I read the ebooks on my iPad or computer. I don’t have or need a Kindle, the Kindle app works fine on other devices, even a phone! If you replaced your paper books with ebooks and audiobooks, moving would definitely be easier. I love always having a book at hand (my iPad accompanies me everywhere) if I have some spare reading time. I used to think I could never move away from paper books – the smell, the texture, the experience: they were my first love after all. But I feel a change is coming.

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah, I loved you twitter response to this post: no no no no no. Like you I dont really warm to throwing out books.
      What is this change though? Come back and tell us.

  4. I have a hard time getting rid of books but when I have to, I head to our Friends of the Library. They have book sales twice a year. But now you have me interested in Book Crossing and I think I’ll try that and see what happens. Thanks for sharing an interesting post.

    • Caroline

      I’d love to hear of any adventures your books get up to on BookCrossing. I love the idea of sending them out into the world, and you may or may not find out what happens to them. And I love the idea of finding books travelling on buses, trains, sitting around in cafes, on park benches, even in loitering in book shops. I’ve left them in all those places, plus a few others. It always felt rather furtive, but full of possibilities.
      Thanks for the comment. Come by again soon.

  5. I find it very hard to let go of things, especially books. The good ones hold so many fond memories. Your post reminded me of Linda Grant’s essay on tackling her collection of books before moving. Have you read it? There’s a link here if it’s of interest.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this and the link Jacqui. I read it soon after I published the first version of this post. I remember thinking how hard everyone – all bookllivers – finds it to dispose of books. I’m not mopving again so I’m not going to dispose of any I feel any reluctance to get rid of.
      Thanks for the comment

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