Do you have a collection of books on your shelves, or on your nightstand or even sitting stacked in odd places? What would you do if you had to let go of a majority of them? I came across this issue recently in my process of downsizing my home. Books are inanimate objects, and on the surface, should be easy to declutter. My dad even noted recently that it’s so easy to get any book you want online. Heck, he could even get his college text book (from 60+ years ago) in digital format. So the need for that hard cover book, or that portable paperback, has started to become irrelevant. However, learning to let go of my collection of books, has been an adventure – a challenge with emotional baggage to overcome.
Books are hard to pack, as I recently discovered. I like having them out where I can see them. Where my eye can land on one and remember something I learned. Books represent having the time to read them and to digest them. To be able to go back and not just re-read them, but re-read a favorite passage. Re-reading them at different parts of my life and discovering different meanings. Or different parts pop out at when looking through for a paragraph I loved. Sometimes it’s finding a deeper meaning in a character.
Reading books as a kid was my escape from an at-times chaotic environment, or the awkwardness of growing up. I developed relationships with certain characters. Nancy Drew (a popular mystery series) wasn’t really a teen, she was an 8-year-old like me, but with driving privileges. I’m sure if Harry Potter was around when I was young, I would have become part of that world too. Enveloped in books, I could leave the drama around me. As an adult, I have many favorite authors and book series that offered a similar escape. How can you let go of friends like these?
Self Help or “Shelf Help”?
I collected self-help books when I started down that path after my divorce. These books weren’t escapes, but ways to discover me. I bought them to help make me think and look at myself in new ways. Or not. Many of these books were often half attempted– the promise of a shiny new me waiting if only I completed the chapters the way the author set them out. Inevitably, I would get stuck at one paragraph knowing that the solution on the page wasn’t digging deep enough to help, spurring me on to find the ‘real’ answers elsewhere.
Over the decades, the number of books on intuition’s magic or spirituality I owned increased exponentially. Each one important for the phase I was in, as I searched for my definition of a higher power, searched for my definition of God as I came to know this unseen entity. The lure that there are ghosts, or archangels, or spirits, or other beings, who know the Universe magically better than I do, and hold the secrets – fascinates me. I read so many as part of my search. Spiritual books guided me to understand my own definition of Faith.
But these books on my shelves…They hold a special space as a reminder of my journey. They hold a kind of safety by being there if I ever need reminders (which often I do). How does one let go of such pillars of guidance and strength?
Packing them all away leaves a visual emptiness. Putting them in a box feels like they will stop being a part of my life. Stashed in some dark bin in some dark closet. Out of sight, out of mind.
Downsizing has brought me to a harsh reality that I cannot no longer hold onto all these friends. Some are easier to let go than others for different reasons. Others, like my dad says, are available online or even in audio format and I can fetch instantly whenever and wherever I want. Some I enjoyed, but haven’t wanted to re-read. Many I collected are from my work days at different companies – cookbooks, oversized photo books and some non-classic kid books. These were titles that no longer served me, and I understood it was time for them to leave.
A book AHA moment
One realization helped me let go of other dear friends. Even though I donated my hundred-plus collection of the Nancy Drew Mystery series to the library when I was in middle school, all these years later I still have my favorite Nancy Drew characteristics as a part of who I am. I can accept letting go of beloved books, knowing they are still a part of me.
Packing books is hard. Moving boxes get heavy fast. They take up a lot of room. They also collect dust when they sit around untouched for years. Many books are made in way that the pages yellow and get brittle. From the boxes stored in the attic and in the basement, from the shelves in my living room, in my bedroom and in my kitchen – there were hundreds to sort through. Here’s the sorting process I went through:
I went through them all. Enjoyed the memories. Decided which ones were clean enough to donate or give away. For the last several years, I’ve used the internet when searching for recipes. I hadn’t felt the need to use a cookbook, despite the dozens on hand. My dietary needs have changed, and many of the cookbooks offered recipes for dishes I could no longer eat. Off they went.
I used to work at Scholastic, so I had tons of kids books. Many books in my collection were my favorites as a child (including two that were illustrated by my mother’s cousin). I went through the classics with the question “would I want my future grandchildren to read these”? The special books went into one box and marked in large letters so they won’t be thrown out.
Formerly stashed away, I found our collection of Harry Potter books. I searched online and discovered they could be worth some money. These are in a box for a future “let go” session. Then again, maybe those books will help fund my future grandchildren’s education.
Going through novels I’ve enjoyed was harder. Many I let go with the knowledge of my digital access. I had to be ruthless with many of these, let go of the hoped for time to read them. These are the ones whose stories and voices have become part of my own personal fabric. Calling on the Marie Kondo method, these were the ones I used the gratitude style of decluttering – thanking them for being in my life.
My favorite inspirational books are in the biggest bin. These are not just the self-help books, but ones about travel and adventure. I am still attached to many of them. I still refer to many of them. My desire to read or re-read some of them is still strong.
So, I carefully packed these in a mouse-proof and water-resistant bin. They have to be stored for a while and moved around to different storage spaces. I also know that in time, I will have to go through these again and let go of more of them. This is another strategy I’m employing. Being gentle with myself. Being okay with not getting rid of everything, right now.
Stages of Action
While letting go of books can be an emotional process, there are steps you can take to make it easier as well as feel good about it.
Gift books to friends
Give books to friends, or as I like to call it, re-homing. I find a title I like, and think of a friend who may enjoy it. First I would ask them – as I do not ever want to force books on others- if they would like it. I feel like I strike gold when they say yes! My friend Aileen exchanges books with neighbors through their “Little Free Library” which is a bird-house like structure where people place books to share.
Give away for free
A friend helped me have a “free-sale” where we put out items on the front yard for free. One ad posted in Craigslist brought enough people by that most of the items were gone by the end of the day. I was able to see a family carefully choose children’s books they wanted. A woman’s eyes sparked when she picked up cookbooks.
Why not give books to your local library, or even a homeless shelter? Libraries are always short-funded and in need of books. What they don’t use, they have a spot set up to sell, so it’s a fundraiser. I donated to several different libraries, feeling like I was spreading the wealth. One time I noticed a homeless shelter had a small library of children’s books. I asked first, and brought them a small collection (they don’t have the space for much). Thrift stores also sell used books, so find one that’s connected to a cause.
Amazon has a buy back program for textbooks (and maybe other titles), as well as selling used books. If you’re fortunate to be near one, try a local used-book store (and help a small business stay in business!) For my Harry Potter books, I checked out bookscouter.com where you can plug in the ISBN code and see what people will pay for them. Some of my Harry Potter books are worth some cool cash!
I was watching the DIY channel recently, and they had a quick segment on repurposing old books into a safe. In the past I’ve cut up an old hard-cover to hide my passport and other important items when I didn’t have access to a locked spot. Pinterest has tons of art projects that you can create using old books.
Enjoy the process
Packing books can be thought of as hard. Or you can see it as an adventure. Take your time, if you can. I had a shortened time-frame due to the sale of my house, so a lot of emotions came up quickly. Through the process, I learned a lot about myself, as well as understanding why people have a hard time letting go of inanimate objects.
My lessons helped me teach my mom to be gentle with herself too, while she goes through the process of culling her books. We blew the dust off of the ones stored on a corner bookshelf. I could see her going through her book-friends as I had. We had a good time as she told me the stories with each book (she designed some, others were travel mementos, some were on her list to some-day read). The results were a small pile to bring to the library.
While she started to despair she didn’t clear out as much as she thought she “should”, I reminded her to be gentle with this journey. Just looking at the books and accepting where they belong in in her life is a start. Maybe she’ll turn a ‘some-day’ book into a ‘reading-tonight’ book. Perhaps the next time she goes through these books, more will be easier for her to let go. She has time before she actually will have to pack up the books. In the meantime, we created a loving memory sharing stories about our books.
Are you inspired to go on the adventure of culling your book collection? What are your feelings about your books, your collections? Have you packed and unpacked them many times? Would you create art with your old books? Let me know in the comments below!