Downsizing: Why Bookshelves Make Me Sad

Before I get into this post, I need to give you all a disclaimer. I love books. Love them. What follows may sound like the rantings of an illiterate, tome-burning novelphobe. I can promise you that is not the case. Not very long ago, my bookcase tenants numbered in the hundreds. Choosing which books to downsize was like a mother choosing which child to give up for adoption. Okay, poor analogy. But you get my drift.

There’s something special about books, as possessions go. Say what you will about shoes, shot glasses, and creepy-as-heck porcelain dolls, but books are the ultimate collectable. We form emotional bonds with them. They don’t feel like objects – they feel like relationships. It’s no wonder that they are nearly impossible to downsize.

With that being said, I now find books on a shelf to be one of the saddest things in the world. Since becoming a minimalist, books have evolved in my mind from decorative safety blankets to truly functional, purpose-filled tools. Within my new paradigm, books are to be read, and then they are to be shared. My books never did either when they were a part of a huge library.

Jack and I had to start the book-downsizing process with (say it with me) changing the way we think about books. We didn’t want to have a shelf full of “napping” books. We wanted our books to fulfill their purposes. Therefore, we made a decision to not hang onto books we weren’t currently reading. If the book was being read, it was fulfilling its purpose. If it wasn’t, it needed to fulfill its other purpose – being shared. Some were shared indiscriminately via Goodwill or the local library. The more special ones were given to specific friends.

With each book we considered sharing, we asked ourselves the following questions:

1. Did this book change my life? If so, do I believe it can change someone else’s?

  • If the answers to both these questions are yes, the book went in the “give to friends” pile.
  • If the first answer is yes, but the second answer was no, it went in the “donate” pile.
  • If both answers were no, it went in the “donate” pile.

2. Have I read this book more than twice?

  • If the answer is yes, it went in the “give to friends” pile.
  • If no, the “donate” pile.

3. Is this book available in digital form, or at my nearby library?

  • If yes, “donate” pile.
  • If no, refer to question one.

Currently, our library consists of 12 books. That number will get smaller before we move. While parting with books still feels sad, knowing that our books will be “living” rather than “hibernating” on our shelf makes me very, very happy.

Have you ever dealt with downsizing books? How did you handle it?

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34 thoughts on “Downsizing: Why Bookshelves Make Me Sad

  1. Not yet, no. Thankfully, we have an office/library/study with wall to wall built-in bookshelves so I can still keep them all. One day if and when a downsize comes, I’ll be every bit as sad as you! Sorry!!

  2. So happy to read that I am not the only one who gets sad about books!

    Yes! I did this a few weeks back. This time around it was pretty easy because most of the book were self help books. What are books that I read over and over and textbooks. As I look over to them there is only one that I can part with. I think I have about 20 left..

      • Yes I have that issue also.. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I love this book. I still have my copy from high school, it is worn an tattered. I have put it in a zip lock bag. Cannot find it on kindle, nook or ibooks. (but I have not looked in a while). Even if I did, I would not give up my copy.

  3. Books are my only “clutter”. And I have down-sized my collection, many times. When we moved from Maine to Colorado I got rid of a lot. But I still have a lot, and while I admire those who can do what you’re doing, I don’t know if I will. It did feel good to purge some of them, and we do use the library a ton… but I’m on the fence about books and minimalism, for myself anyway:)

    • It’s a difficult call to make. Without exception, every minimalist I’ve ever met struggled at one point or another with this.

      I just had to get to the point where I was asking myself “why?” Why did I need to have these books sitting on a shelf, collecting dust for months on end? Why did I need to have a physical tome when I could have it in e-book form and take it everywhere? When I was honest with myself, my reasons were silly (and I started to decide that “because they’re my books!” isn’t a real reason. :P)

      Everyone’s journey is different. We all have to go at our own pace. If you take your time, and ask yourself “why?” until you get a legitimate reason, I’m sure you’ll find a great equilibrium between books and minimalism.

    • The only way I was able to let go of some books was to remind myself that I was blessing other people’s lives by sharing with them and letting them have the chance to enjoy something I enjoyed. With a library in town, I know I can borrow what I need or get it through inter-library loan.

  4. About 6 weeks ago, I reduced my library from 4 boxes of books & 2 full bookshelves down to two wine sized boxes of books. So I’ve gone from hundreds of books down to maybe 40 books. But then my favourite series has 14 books in it… I feel so much better for having lightened my library & I’m sure I’ll lighten it further when I return home.

    More than anything I wanted to take up less space & move less things from home to home (especially as I’m not settled yet). And books were my biggest collection of ‘things’. Moving to ebooks is great for fiction but I’ve got a number of text books that I’m far more comfortable flicking through.

    Downsizing rocks!! I must write about my down sizing experience recently… It feels very dramatic to me, but in a wonderful freeing way!xx

  5. Your analogy about books being children is pretty spot on… maybe pets… we love them because they have personality, they have lives, adventures, emotions. Some of them are like very dear friends. I’ve struggled mightily with books. They are one of the hardest material thing for me to give up.

    My favorite ones, I keep because I know I will re-read them over and over. Watership Down, all the Lord of the Rings books, and several others. I have no trouble giving up the ones I know I will never read again, but I struggle with the ones I “think I will read again one day”, but never do! Kind of like all those kitchen appliances and that jar of sun dried tomatoes in olive oil…

    I was just telling my son it’s time for a book purge… yikes… :-O

    • I guess it all goes back to functionality. The books that we read all the time are the ones I have no problem keeping. But the ones that hold a lot of memories are hard to part with, even if I haven’t read them in a while. It’s quite a process, but best of luck! If you end up writing a post about it, I’d love to reblog it here!

  6. Wow, 12 books, really?! That’s amazing! I was just thinking of this today, the books issue. It is so interesting to see how different each of us “does” minimalism and simple living. As a homeschooling family, books are essential for us! I am also into sustainable living and homesteading so I have a ton of reference books on gardening, raising chickens, herbal remedies, etc. We also have a small library of field guides because we like to spend a lot of time outdoors studying nature. Not to mention cookbooks! As far as fiction goes, however, I only keep the “classics” around – The Hobbit, Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, etc. Besides the kitchen, this is one area that will probably never be downsized much until the kids are grown!

    • It sounds though as if all (or at least the vast majority) of your library gets regular use. That’s excellent! I think the hallmark of a minimalist is that everything they own is functional and often used. Your library sounds as if it fits that description to a T. πŸ™‚

  7. My husband and I were just discussing our books the other day. When we moved into our current house 5 years ago, he decided he didn’t like books on shelves and got rid of all of his. Mine stayed in boxes in the basement. Now, 5 years later, I have stacks of books under my bedside table hidden among dust bunnies and lost socks. I told my husband I’d like them back on shelves, but your post has made me rethink that. There are only one or two that I’d ever read again, so I think it’s time to share them!

  8. I’ll be the first to admit that my approach to life, decorating, art, and even food is anything but minimalist, but even so I am carrying much less baggage than I used to.

    A couple of years ago, we moved into a home just 1/3 the size of our previous one. It meant saying good by to many things, including many of our books…but not all of them. And we regret giving away many we did get rid of.

    What we learned from our move is that we need to be more careful both about what we accrue AND what we get rid of. We miss our absent books (and my sewing and knitting patterns) more than we thought we would. We did revisit them often when we had them, and now we can’t. Worse, many of the books and patterns we find we miss most have now proved to be irreplaceable.

    We know full well that you can’t keep everything (we now source fiction from the library) but, if we had to do it again, we’d find away to make room for those bookshelves, doing without other things instead.

    • So much of downsizing is weighing priorities. I’ve always allowed myself a “trial run” for this reason – putting things in boxes or cabinets for a month or so to be sure I won’t miss them. I’m so sorry you ended up without the books you needed! Was it you who mentioned before that this happened with kitchen tools too? So sad. 😦

  9. You know what’s really funny? You’re about to move in with bibliophiles! And while we have downsized our books significantly (like a whole shelf for TShirt&Twine! Hooray!) I still love me some some books. In some ways, I feel slightly ashamed. But it passes fairly quickly! πŸ™‚

  10. When I found myself in a wheelchair, I discovered I had wall to wall furniture, and this included five bookcases, stuffed and then some. I finally started asking myself, have I read this? Am I going to read it again? Why? I’ll still remember how it turns out. I managed to downsize to 2 1/2 bookcases, filled with books that I haven’t read yet. One bookcase is filled with just paperbacks – some my brother sent me because he thought I’d like them. I look at them and I see that most are by authors I’ve read before and liked. So it stays on the shelf. My biggest problem is the shelf full of photo albums. The books are falling apart. I just realized that I can scan them into my computer, put them on a disk, and lose the albums. But the paperbacks? I can’t decide on any of them. I need wheelchair room, so two of these bookcases have to go. The other is on the end of my desk, and thus will not be going anywhere. Hardcover books take up a lot of room. And I have to have every book of the series, on the shelf. I have a Kindle Fire and can borrow as many ebooks as I like. I can also borrow one book a month from Amazon for free. I just need more self-discipline, I think…

  11. My bookshelves are a sacred space and each book a portal to another world. I am very, very selective about which books get put on my shelves, and I’ve discovered I’m becoming choosier as the years go on. For me putting an author on my shelf is the highest honor I can give them (not that they know or care). I read and re-read my books in a continuous cycle adding new ones each time and occasionally taking away. I don’t like photographs and, oddly, I think books have taken their place in chronicling my life. It seems like each book series is attached to certain memories and periods in my life. I figure everyone is entitled to one obsession/addiction and books are mine. I keep it down-sized (in the sense I don’t keep books, with few exceptions, that I don’t read.), but of all my material possessions they mean the most to me. You’re right books are like relationships in some ways.

    P.S. I know I haven’t been participating in jumping off the ladder since it started (for the record I haven’t played any video games) and I apologize. Finals and I haven’t been getting along and I’ve had to put my energies there.

    • I completely understand your attachment to your books, and I’m equally glad that you keep it under control by not keeping books that don’t serve a purpose, either practically or emotionally.

      And don’t worry about the updates! I’d love to include you in the JOtL update posts, but don’t feel pressure to say something every single day. πŸ™‚ Best of luck with finals!

  12. Ah this is great. I’m working on downsizing my books so now every time I finish a book it goes to goodwill. There are a couple I will keep (“The Tao of Pooh”, my best friend’s self published book “You Have to Shift A Lot of Frogs”) and bringing the science books to my future classroom but other than that I will be reading, then sending away. Once I’ve finished all of the books on the shelf I want to go fully digital.

    Incidentally, since I started simplifying in February I have read WAY more than I had in years!

  13. This is probably the most challenging one for me. I came to the point where I could give up anything and wouldn’t be too sad if I lost anything I owned in a fire but I still want my books. Being challenged in this area and it’s good.

  14. This one scares me. My mother was a huge Danielle Steel fan when I was much too young to even read. She kept a few of her books around and in my twenties I finally decided to open one. The rest is history. I fall in love in her books, I laugh, I cry, I dream.

    Since then, ever Christmas and birthday I get her latest book, with a note from my mom, “Happy Birthday/Merry Christmas *year* Love, Mom XOXO” I have read most of them several times…often closing my eyes and picking a random book from the shelf when I need something to read.

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