Decluttering my books

Books 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. Milk goes off. Someone’s hidden my Allen keys.

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 need three German-English-Deutsch dictionaries. I do, I do. Oh bliss!


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.

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, 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, so I stopped doing it. I liked the idea of people finding books on buses, in cafes, in cinema foyers.

Are 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?


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Filed under Books

10 Responses to Decluttering my books

  1. Eileen

    Oh Caroline,
    I’m moving too and I could hardly read this blog without getting panicky. I took hundreds of books to the charity shop and the manager sent a letter to say they have raised £134. So some people are buying them and that’s great news. I still have hundreds. And I will keep them and I have a kindle too.

  2. Anne

    I recently went to lend out one of my collection of Virago books and discovered they had gone brown and a bit smelly so……I thought “They must go!”. Then I changed this to “Those that I am unlikely to read again must go!”. Guess how many I chucked out? None of them, not one. I just couldn’t part company with any of them as I realised I had many hours of re-reading ahead of me, smelly as they are. It’s not a bad smell actually!

  3. Marianne

    Although I am not moving I have the urge to (guess what) declutter, so I have been taking bags of books to the local Oxfam book shop or passing them on to people I think might like them. My main criterion for getting rid of a book is the feeling that I may never read it again. Once I had thought of that it seemed silly to keep them as a sort of history of what I once read, although I have kept those that have meant the most to me. In the future, I plan to either read books on Kindle or borrow them from the library.

  4. Caroline

    Thanks Eileen, Anne and Marianne for these comments. It seems hard and hard work to get rid of books. Oxfam is certainly doing well out of the decluttering. I get a lot of books from Oxfam. Perhaps we should cut out the middle people. No, I dont mean it. Like you I am happy when other people benefit and the books get another go around.
    I do understand how difficult it is, Anne, to let go of well loved books. I think you have the perfect solution – dont get rid of them. And their brownness and slight smell is part of their charm.
    There seems to be some support for Kindle here. I need convincing.

    • Anne

      The joy of the Kindle is to lie in bed late at night- and you know where I live Caro- some miles from a bookshop- and to go on the Kindle store and think ” Oh I want to read that!”. You just press “Buy” and two seconds later you’re reading it- rather marvellous I have to admit. But the actual physical feel of the book is missing- it is the immediacy that is the bonus. I will never give up books but the Kindle has its place too.

      • Caroline

        Hi Anne, I think you have put your finger on one of the things that worries me about owning a Kindle. I’d always be buying stuff. My To Be Read pile is tall enough! I can quite see the attraction. I’m not actually against the idea, just I have never wanted one enough to actually buy it. Perhaps when I move?

  5. Dear Caroline, I am new to your blog and am enjoying nosing about very much. Don’t we all have the same problem with keeping books from rampaging out of control? I’m coming round to the idea of keeping them in boxes actually, then you do have that lovely surprise of rediscovering them… Best wishes for your move, I hope it all goes well and that you enjoy settling into your new home.

    • Caroline

      Hi Helen, welcome to the blog and I am so pleased you are enjoying nosing around! In my case, some of books have been in boxes for twenty eight years. And you’re right – it’s great fun rediscovering some of them. Moon Tiger is one – I’m posting something about that tomorrow. Thanks for your good wishes about the move. At the moment it is all far too stressful. But I lay in my hammock this afternoon thinking about where I will put my books in my new house. Still a few weeks away …
      I hope you will visit this blog again.

  6. Christine_A

    Hi Caroline – have you read I murdered my library by Linda Grant (only available on Kindle naturally!) – it’s a good read tho’ I think I’m at the other end of the spectrum in that I generally read and then give to the charity shop but I was very relieved (re: your previous post) to see I still had my 1972 copy of Travels with a Donkey.

    • Caroline

      Hi Christine,
      thanks for connecting these two posts! I haven’t read Linda Grant’s book, partly because I don’t have a Kindle.I remember that she wrote about the topic in the Guardian very soon after I had posted about decluttering my self.
      Glad you still have Travels with my Donkey. Some books should stay on one’s shelves, whatever.

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