Your Bookshelf Needs Cleaning Out -- Here's How To Do It

If it’s true that a book lover’s collection can never really be considered “complete,” then I’m (at the very least) approaching my quota.

If it’s true that a book lover’s collection can never really be considered “complete,” then I’m (at the very least) approaching my quota.

I am enormously sentimental about my books. Right now, there are two dresser shelves filled with titles from my childhood: the first book I ever remember reading on my own (Charlotte’s Web), the fully-illustrated Peter Pan with its spine held together by Scotch tape, and copies of every children’s classic written by Roald Dahl (my personal favorite: The Twits).

The Roald Dahl books were courtesy of my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Hanna, the one who read to the entire class after recess while perched on her sitting stool at the front of the classroom with the lights off and the windows open. Looking at the books again takes me back to those moments of quiet attention, with most of the students resting our heads on the desks in front of us as she read aloud for twenty minutes every day in a low, steady voice -– a fixed point of calm in an otherwise hectic school day.

Then there are the well-worn novels that carried me through junior high and high school, the shelves of feminist theory, the collected short stories from college, as well as an ample assortment of poetry chapbooks, memoirs and anthologies. From my perspective, the problem was never the books; I could always find places for the ones worth holding onto.

But over the course of two decades, I amassed a collection that started to take over more than just the bookshelves -- I needed room on my dresser, the floors, and pretty much any free space that wasn't already occupied by furniture.

I love all of my books and the thought of parting with any of them seemed sacrilegious. I also resisted buying an e-reader because I love the smell and texture of printed books. But after receiving a Nook Tablet as a Christmas gift, I knew I was out of excuses and needed to start making some hard decisions about what I could keep -- and what had to go.

Fortunately, one of my oldest and dearest friends decided to offer her services in organizing and shortly after the holidays, Jillian came over on a Sunday afternoon to help me go through all of my books and figure out a plan of attack.

She recommended that we start by pulling all of the books from the shelves and into piles on the center of my floor. Then, one at a time, she’d hold a book up and ask, “Yes, no, or maybe?”

The “yes” books went back onto the shelf. We carried the “no” books across the room for donating. The “maybe” books were moved onto my bed for final sorting.

Maybe the task seemed like unnecessary drudgery at first, but it helped that we shared a bottle of wine and -- as the hours rolled by -- my decisions came more and more easily. I learned to say “yes” and “no” without regret. The “maybe” books dwindled. By the end of the afternoon, there were no more books on my floor or on the tops of my dressers -- all of the books could now (reasonably, easily, comfortably) fit onto my various shelves.

This project helped me to both reclaim my living space and to better appreciate the books that I still own. Here were some of the approaches that were useful to me in sorting out the shelves:

What to Keep

First editions of special titles:

While wandering around a (now-closed) used bookstore near my first job out of college, I found a first edition of "Borderlands/La Frontera" by Gloria Anzaldúa. I would sooner part with my paycheck than this book. I don’t see it as a collector’s item that I can put on eBay -- it’s the history and significance of this book’s existence in the world, which is probably how a lot of people feel about first editions of their favorite titles.

Autographed and personalized books:

Again, I’m not referring to books that were signed and sold from a third-party. I’m talking about the books that were signed at readings and festivals by a community of writers that I respect and admire. These are all books that represent personal exchanges and experiences that have influenced me as a writer, so they are absolutely worth holding onto.

Books that I’m likely to reread:

In this category, I count anything that I’ve felt compelled to return to for the purpose of personal pleasure, education, or a reference to critical theory. I also included any books that could be used as future research material for articles or essays.

What to Donate

Aspirational reading:

These are the books that I bought with every intention of reading them in their entirety. These are the books that I start without finishing because either the book doesn’t grab me or another book gets to me first. If I’m not likely to return to it in the near future, it’s time for that book to go.

Books I liked, but didn’t love:

While it’s true that my tastes and opinions have evolved and will continue to change over time, the books that I really and truly love are the ones I feel most strongly about keeping. At some point, I might come across a book that I decided to donate, pick it up and fall for it. I might even kick myself for not giving it a chance sooner. But for the moment, I’m sticking with the books that inspired stronger feelings than, “It was okay.”

By the time we put away all of the keepers, I had more than a dozen piles of “donate” and two boxes that were ready to be taken to the local used bookstores for trade-in credit. I don’t think I’ll ever take the devout minimalist route on book-buying, but now I have the space to really enjoy what I have -- and I’m fully confident that every title is worth the read.

What state are your bookshelves in? Have you switched over to an e-reader? Let me know in the comments!