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On Discarding Books

How Not to Be a Library

Today we gave away over 300 books from our dusty shelves. Many bags, crammed full of books, all in excellent shape, an alarming number unread and unopened.

It started with a holiday season when our kids were away most of the time, coupled with a desire to reduce dust and sneezing, amplified by a dread of our kids someday discovering that our vast collections were both voluminous and virginal.

The latter dread, which is not uncommon for retired folks, is a byproduct of having lived in the same house for 32 years. Without regular purges of stuff, every closet, shelf, or cabinet would be stuffed. That’s why they call it stuff. 

The last book purge took place a few years ago, when we discarded funky old open shelving and invested in glass-doored book cabinets from, you know, the huge Swedish place. But the cabinets didn’t close tight, the dust seeped in, and the number of books doubled. 

So this week, it was time to purge. Drag them all out, dust them off, wipe down the shelve, then triage the books into keepers, getriddas, and a few specific giveaways. Stuff the getriddas into 10-cent supermarket bags. Eighteen bags in all, averaging 15-20 books in each.

It’s not easy. I was an early reader, devouring books from age three, and always an acquirer. If I loved a book, I had to own it, even if I never looked at it again. Part of that was growing up the son of an author, with a healthy appreciation for people who buybooks and want to own them.

Yes, I know all about public libraries, and I have great respect for them. But I hardly ever use them myself. I feel that as long as I have the money, I want to buy books. I can always give them away when I get too many. Occasionally I buy used books, but usually only for authors of best sellers. Remember that authors receive no profit from used book sales (and usually only 10-15% of new sales). The vast majority of published books yield meager returns for the authors.

One more thing — a feeling that has grown stronger over the past few years —I don’t have to be a library anymore. I don’t have to keep books about subjects I’m vaguely interested in, on the off-chance that I might someday need the books for research for a book or article or story.

But how to decide? Here are criteria we used in our purge.

Keep a book if you can honestly say:

  • It makes me feel good!
  • I want to read it again and might actually do so.
  • I want my spouse (friend, relative, etc.) to read it.
  • I’ve never read it, but I’m sure I will.
  • I feel this book is part of my legacy, my personal history. 
  • This book is in my head or has somehow affected my understanding of the world.
  • If I needed this info, I would definitely think to look here.
  • I won’t be embarrassed by my children finding it after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Discard a book if you have to admit:

  • I’ve never read it and I never will.
  • I’ve always thought I would read this. But it hasn’t happened yet in X number of years (set your own limit).
  • I’ve read it and never want to read it (or see it) again.
  • It’s about a place I’ve visited, but I didn’t even read it when I went there. And I probably won’t go back.
  • It offers information that I can access much more easily on the Internet.
  • It’s an art book about an artist whose art I can’t stand.
  • It’s an early volume of a book series I have read and loved, but will never revisit (do I really need to keep the first ten volumes of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency)?
  • I don’t want people to know that I’m secretly a nature hater, a Republican, or, God forbid, a Dodger fan.

We donated our books to the Albany Library, where they gratefully stashed them in a basement room. Several times a year, the volunteer Friends of the Library will drag them out for a huge book sale. Most items sell for 50 cents or a buck, proceeds benefiting the Library. 

If we really miss any of our books, we can buy them back at much cheaper prices than we paid originally. Such a deal!

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