The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

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45 thoughts on “The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

  1. Respectfully, not joking around, build an addition and create a library in it. As a less costly (at least for awhile) alternative, if there’s a climate-controlled storage facility nearby, buy or build shelves and create your library there.

  2. The idea is to fill the library (slowly) with the books you would otherwise sell or give away. They’ll still be at hand, but not immediately at hand and taking up the space allotted for books that are more important to you.

    Ask yourself, if this were important to your wife would you make it happen? If the answer is yes, then make it happen for yourself.

    • Thanks, Harvey. I always try to do what makes my wife happy…and she was very happy when we built an addition to our house (that was immediately filled with books). I wish I had the space to do a library like Sir Walter Scott’s at Abbotsford, which my wife and I visited some years ago…and feel in love with!

  3. Jim, I’m doing the same thing, slowly but steadily. I think that your method as described is just fine, given that it’s deliberate and thoughtful. You have a reason for each book you keep and a reason for each book you let go.

    I have two suggestions: 1) make a decision about at least one book per day. 2) Under no circumstances let that encyclopedia set or that Great Books of the Western World set go. With the former, you can look at that set when things go bottoms up and think of your grandfather going door to door during a very, very tough time for salesmen. As for the latter, you can pick up any volume, read it, and stay sane while people are around you are not.

    Good luck with your task. I know you’ll do well.

  4. We did this ten years ago when we moved to uncharted territory. Like you, I kept favorite authors, autographed books, books that had meaning for me. Books I thought I’d read again should I ever be bedridden. One of the first things we bought when we found our house (much smaller than the one we moved from), was bookshelves. Every now and then, I have a contest on my blog or newsletter where I take one of the boxes that has accumulated due to shopping on line for everything now, and offer a “mystery box” to my readers. I fill it with books–some mine, many that came home with me from conferences.
    I think I got better at culling after judging the Edgars. I had over 300 books (I was in the “small” category of original paperback/ebooks, but for whatever reason, most publishers were terrified to send electronic files. To AUTHORS. Who understand piracy.) At any rate, I donated to libraries, senior centers, assisted living centers, and again, used them as giveaways. I don’t know what it said about the quality of books that year, but most were very easy to give away.
    Now, the majority of my book purchases are digital.
    We won’t talk about my academic Hubster and all the books and papers he felt he had to keep.

    • That’s a great idea for a contest, Terry. I have a feeling “Hubster” and I are kindred spirits. I love to peruse old “academic” texts, on virtually any subject. I used to do that at my local branch of the L.A. Library. Alas, it’s closed to the wonderful practice of personal browsing.

      I do get daily updates from Gutenberg.org, the project that is digitizing public domain works going back as far as the 1600s. There’s always some esoteric subject to dip into.

  5. First of all, what an enormous honor it is to have made the cut. Thanks for that–and for the mention. That’s some great company!

    We’re building a new home in West Virginia (Wild and Wonderful!) and I’m starting down the same barrel. By way of perspective, I still have all of my college textbooks. Those I can let go of. Mostly.

    The most daunting for me are the cases of foreign translations of my own books. They’re hard to send to the recycler, but I’ll certainly never read them! I guess I need to keep a couple of display copies of each and toss the rest.

    The one that’s sure to make the cut is my autographed TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

    • I have a lot of my college books too, John. And law school as well. I put in too much sweat equity to get rid of them. I hadn’t even considered the foreign translation issue…but you remind me that I have stacks of these as well.

      How cool to have an autographed MOCKINGBIRD. The most valuable such book I own is Clarence Darrow’s autobiography, personally autographed to my dad when he was around twelve or so (my grandfather had taken him to a lecture and book signing in Hollywood).

  6. Two years ago, my husband and I spent many hours culling our home library before we sold our house to buy a loft.

    Like you, I had a sentimental collection within my collection: 19th century instructional books, which I began buying as a teenager. In graduate school, I won the university book-collecting contest with those books. My two rambunctious sons were in elementary school at the time and the contest sponsors wanted them included in the PR photo. Somehow, the photographer managed to get them to sit still and pretend they were reading one of the books.

    My youngest son is now a book collector, so I packed up the instructional books with copies of the newspaper PR photo and congratulatory letters from the contest sponsor and university president, and sent them to him.

  7. Sorry, I’m not the person to ask. My spare room is filled with books because I can’t part with them. Though I did give away a ton of books before we bought this house 8+ years ago.

    A reader reached out to me a few weeks ago. She’s cleaning out her house to move to smaller place now that the kids are grown. “I was wondering if you’d like to buy back some of your books,” she said. “After all, they are your books.” She left me speechless.

  8. Good morning, Jim

    This will a fun discussion to watch unfold today, since all of us will be facing the same problem some time or other. I know I’ll check in repeatedly today to see all the creative answers to your predicament.

    There are a lot of great ideas already mentioned. I’ll add two “creative” off the wall ideas:
    #1. “Never let any good crisis go to waste.” Monetize it. Take each book that you are cleaning out, write a brief note inside as to why you are not keeping it, with a clue to where the offense might lie, and sign it. Then sell it (Ebay, Etsy, Goodreads, ad in Writer’s Digest?) An autographed teachable moment by JSB.
    #2. Vacation on the cheap. Do the above, then, rather than selling the books, give them to friends all over the States (or world) who would accept the “gift” in exchange for agreeing to provide room and board when you and your wife are traveling. If you do that, I have a quiet enchanted forest in rural Ohio that is available.
    And logically, #3. A combination of #1 and #2.

    I know, crazy. But aren’t writers supposed to be creative. That fine line between genius and insanity.

    • Steve, if I had a hat on I would doff it to you. Very creative. You have me thinking outside the box, for sure. You reminded me that I have many paperbacks I read in the early years of learning the craft, filled with marginal notes to myself on what I saw the author doing. Can’t get rid of those.

      Now, if I can snag a house in the Bahamas (or rural Ohio) for two thrillers and a literary, that’d be something!

      • For a couple of instructional books, I have some property in the Turks. Of course, you’d have to bring sleeping bags for you and Mrs. B since there’s no house. But you’d get to lounge on a beautiful beach with a great view of the Atlantic Ocean. Talk it over with the Mrs.

  9. I just did the same thing when we decided to downsize. Do you know how much it costs to ship books! The Allied Van Lines estimate sent us into extreme weeding. I did keep my craft books also—hence, you survived the cut, along with my Shakespeare collection, Dugoni collection, and nonfiction reference books on guns, spies, illicit arms dealers, and communist plots.

    • Whew! Glad I made it…and yeah, the cost of moving books gives me the willies, too. When I had an offsite office once upon a time, I had to quickly move to another location, and the stress of the forced weeding of books and papers almost did me in. Another reason I’m starting early!

      • We boxed our up and sent them to our daughter, media mail. I think we did much better than paying Bekins by the pound.

  10. My father and his mother were book lovers, as well as writers, so I came by my love of both naturally. I had thousands of books, and read many of them over and over, settling in and visiting with old friends. Some of my most cherished were ones that had belonged to my father and grandmother. Granny’s Compendium of Cookery and Reliable Recipes is a wonderful source of information for historical information, and my dad’s Westerns hold a special place in my heart.

    For some odd reason I can’t figure out, my children are not book lovers. They are not savers, not collectors, preferring a less cluttered life. So, when we decided to move from our huge house of thirty years to live close to our children and grandchildren, it was time. My books were not going to be passed down. But they could be passed on.

    I started by setting aside the special ones, then filled boxes for our local library. On an unexpected trip to the Veterans hospital with my father-in-law, there was a rack with a few books, topped with a sign: If you’re in the middle of reading a book when you leave, feel free to take it, but please bring back two. I asked if I could bring more than two, they said they’d be delighted, so I brought them several hundred, and they were able to fill all the racks in all the waiting rooms in the hospital. Little Free Libraries were recipients, and the books disappeared, so someone was enjoying them. When we settled into our current much, much smaller home (my husband didn’t comprehend the idea of a whole room just for books) I realized I’d just touched the surface, so libraries in this city received more. I sold a bunch at Half Price Books, and donated to several places.

    What I discovered was that, after the initial agony (okay, exaggeration), the whole process was freeing. I never imagined my books as a burden, but I definitely felt that burden lifting. The ones left will likely be tossed by my children after I’m gone. Unless I can create book lovers among my grandchildren. . .

    • Good suggestions there, Becky. We’ve donated books to Salvation Army and a prison ministry in the past. I do hope your grandchildren catch the book bug. I love reading to my grandboys. They always respond to a story, whether read out of a book or made up on the spot.

  11. Good ideas all around…but I’m not there yet. Just can’t do it.

    Sometimes, when I get a wild hair, I enter one of our rooms and stare at the groaning shelves for a bit, pick up a few, leaf through, then quietly replace it and go chop vegetables for dinner.

    There’s something soothing about the clack of a sharp knife on a cutting board.

  12. Living in a small 1 bedroom apartment, I feel your pain. Fiction isn’t so much a problem–due to changing eyesight I only buy e-books now. My only fiction physical book collections are the Zane Grey novels with the red/off white hard cover binding, & my Star Trek paperback novels from the heydays of the 70’s/80’s (since nobody is writing any good original series Star Trek now that problem resolved itself).

    Non-fiction is a much bigger problem. There’s the shelf of writer’s reference of course (which I now only buy in e-book). I have a ton of history-related non-fiction that I’m not about to part with. I’ve got many reference books relating to the 19th century American West, collect specific histories of my beloved state of Arizona plus the Journals of Arizona History from the Arizona Historical Society. Most of the best histories written on various topics were written in the 1950’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, and a large majority of those were never converted to e-book format, so having physical copies is the only choice.

    So my choice is to keep the fiction boxed up and shoved in the closet, & keep my non-fiction out. I don’t have enough space to display them all, which is irksome because it takes longer to pull out resources when you need them. But I’m very judicious about adding new purchases to the collection. Okay, well the exception was the book sale they had at the Arizona Historical Society branch in Tucson a couple years ago where I added 18 more books to my pile. LOL!!!!! To quote one of the Veggie Tales songs “How could (s)he resist such an offer….”

    • Tracking right with you, BK. I have to stop myself from going to the library for their book sales (easier now that it’s all closed up). I used to haunt used bookstores looking for vintage paperbacks. Are my haunting days over? Hmm…if any used bookstores survive, we’ll see.

  13. Hi, Jim

    I have the same problem–thousands of print books on shelves throughout our little house. My wife and I are both book lovers. It was easier weeding books at the library, but even that was a challenge.

    One thing we did for some time here at Casa Smith was use a system devised by my wife for books that we were considering weeding–using a colored slightly adhesive dots to place on the spines, yellow me, blue for her, for books we wanted to read in the next year. That system has now fallen by the wayside. Instead, we just consider whether we are really going to read it again or not. Reference books are harder to let go, they are so precious these days.

  14. Moving to another city has always called for giving away books. I always have a sense of loss and regret. Why’d I donate those author-signed books to the library used book sale? (Deeper question: Why did Mom throw out my Brooklyn Dodgers 1947 era baseball cards?)
    Of course, the answer is in our sense of mortality. Mom knew that her college bound son needed to put childish things aside. Just as I know that aside from textbooks, over the years I have re-read only 12 books. Those I easily part with.
    So, as we contemplate eternity, share the joy and give away books you love,

    • Oh, those baseball cards! My mom did the same thing. At the time we all thought these things were just throwaways with a bubble gum smell. But I had Koufax, Drysdale, Maury Wills, Willie Mays…ack!

      Thanks for the thoughts, Doc.

  15. I lived through the Great Book Cull and remained sane. Nothing is sadder than a book lover becoming allergic to old books and book dust. I had to be brutal.

    All those books from my many years as an English major. If they were in public domain or I didn’t care for them emotionally in the first place, into the library book sale they went. As a specialist in the 19th century, I pretty well cleared out my hard cover and trade paperback shelves.

    The more current fiction that could be bought as ebooks if I ever wanted to see it again into the library book sale piles.

    All those nonfiction books I collected for a book I would write eventually about the States during WWII, the novel in Victorian England, etc., etc. I knew deep in my heart that eventually would never come so those were given to the nonfiction librarian to keep or give to the library sale. The book on the tunnels underneath London was the hardest because TUNNELS UNDER LONDON! With maps! How cool is that! The same fate for all the first editions of North Carolina writers and books on NC, but the North Carolina Room librarian got those.

    The paperbacks were both harder and easier. They were also the most toxic so I had to be brutal. The books that remained went into plastic, air-tight bins. After a hurricane destroyed the library in one of the state’s coastal towns and my library asked for popular books to stock the shelves of a large mobile home, I sighed and realized that all but a few of those books would make others far happier during miserable times than they made me in plastic bins. Off they went.

    What remained. A really good and huge dictionary suitable for research and flattening things, books I refer to often in my writing blog, a few research resources I still look at, books of extreme sentimential value like the novel dedicated to me and signed by the author who died several years, and the cookbooks my mom and I used for many family meals. The cook books are coming apart so I’m slowly making copies of the favorite recipes to share with the siblings and their kids.

    So, moral of the story. If I can do this, you can, too.

    • That’s good to know, Marilynn. One thing I have to remember is if I ever did want to read again a book I gave away, I can almost always find it in the L.A. Library system…ebooks and print books. Even in the lockdown I can order books from any branch and then make an appointment to pick it up at my local branch…if I’m wearing a mask, of course. Ack!

  16. It’s tough. Right now I am purging almost everything I own as I am relocating to another country. This includes books. I’ve gotten rid of probably 90% of my books so far. The hardest to let go of are the personally signed books and cookbooks that I can’t replace on eBooks. Maybe I’ll keep a couple of the cookbooks, or try transcribing my favorite recipes if I can find the time. But all the signed books will have to go. I need to pack my life into 6 suitcases or less.

    I think once you make the mental break it’s freeing. You’ll start to look at things, and all the money you’ve spent on stuff, differently, too.

  17. Books have always been important to us, so when we downsized, we had to make hard decisions about what books we’d keep. It may sound silly, but we went with books that we had relationships with. Our current collection includes textbooks from college along with books on running, writing, flying, philosophy, and religion. And there are a few others that are special for one reason or another.

    We decided not to keep The Great Books of the Western World. (I sense the gnashing of teeth all the way over here to Memphis.) Although the content is sublime, and I did manage to read a few of the books, the medium was not to my liking. I thought the paper was flimsy and I was too intimidated to ever jot any notes on those pages. I decided to go literary ala carte from now on.

    Thank goodness for libraries, digital check-out, and the public domain!

  18. Sorry, Jim. No melancholy bibliophile culling advice from this packrat. I have a hard enough time recycling the daily newspaper in case there was something in there I might want again. The other day I was rooting around in a cardboard box and found a razor-thin glossy paperback titled “The First Ten Steps (To Take AFTER You Publish Your New eBook) by M.R. Mathias. It was terribly produced in 2011, and I was going to chuck it but had second thoughts even though the thing is as outdated as a zoot suit and as wrong as a political poll. Nope, it stayed with all the rest of the stuff I’ll never let go of.

    Having said this, if I ever get cash-strapped maybe I’ll sell some of Sue Coletta’s books back to her 🙂

  19. One thing I do: if I see a paper book I own on sale for 99c or free on Kindle, I buy the Kindle version. Then I can give the paper version away without feeling like I’ve lost a best friend. Not that I read those replacement ebooks (too many new books to read) …

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