How to Prune a Library

For years, I’ve subscribed to a pretty Spartan philosophy about buying books.  A few weeks ago, as part of a larger effort to declutter, I decided to apply these rules to my existing library retrospectively.

Thus, I showed up to work one morning with a few cardboard boxes filled with about 150 books, which I gave away to my students.  (God bless the little bookworms where I work; every last book was gone by the end of the day.)

I only buy a book if it meets one of these conditions: if it’s so long that I won’t read it in the time the public library lends (Bleak House, Noble House, Game of Thrones), if I’m going to annotate it heavily (Walden, The Art of War, The Portable Thomas Jefferson), or if I’m going to read and reread parts of it so often that it would only make sense to keep a copy around (Complete Works of Poe, The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dubliners).

When pruning my library, I kept titles that met the second or third requirements.

In general, other than these policies, I can’t think of a good reason why I should actually pay for a book and store it permanently.  Yes, they make a great decoration, but I’m not interested in books for show, and they collect dust like crazy.  Ditto on fancy, expensive editions.

Of course, there are exceptions for sentimental reasons: a book I bought to occupy time while my wife and new baby were sleeping in the hospital, a book I bought near a bed and breakfast on my honeymoon, an anthology from a college class that I keep because I really liked the class and because it’s just so economical to have it handy. I also keep those books that I might want to read again, but which are rare or out of print.  Why make myself try to hunt them down again later?

I’ve found that my love for the content of a book is not affected by whether or not I have a copy on a shelf at home.  If I really want to get to a book, I can find it at the library.  In fact, I know this because I’ve given a lot of my old books to libraries, too.  Why crowd my limited shelf space?  Let the library handle my storage.



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