Gearing up and paring down

The summer marches on and here we are in August. This is usually the part of the summer when I am aware of the impending fall semester, but there’s still enough time to get some projects done thanks to long days and no grading. This year, I’ve decided that the room I use as my office at home needs sprucing up to infuse some new energy into my work, and so I’m redecorating and painting (one wall of Glidden Rich Raisin, three walls of Glidden Clay Bisque). Because I will have to uproot many of my books from their normal resting place, I’ve decided that this is the perfect time to re-organize my collection of books.

Kicked out of their temporary housing, waiting for more permanent relocation.

This will be no small undertaking. The last time I counted, I had over 800 books. I’m sure I have more by now. For the past two years, I’ve been ferrying excess donations to a local public library from a friend’s house to a “Free Books” cart at the school library where I work. Students snatch them up fast. No matter how hard I try to resist, I can’t stop myself from looking through the new batch before bringing them to school. I always keep some for myself, so I’ve definitely picked up many more books than I would have if I had been only been purchasing them. My guess is that I’ve passed the 1,000 mark.

This increased rate of book acquisition has wreaked havoc on my previous organization as I have searched for creative ways to store my newest volumes. I did break down and buy a new bookcase, but I still have books on the coffee table, on end tables, on windowsills,  and on the dresser. When I realized that I had two stacks forming on the office floor, I knew that was the last straw.

One of the neater, more consistently organized bookcases for biographies, academic reference, and some fiction.

Despite the way it sounds, I am not a hoarder. I don’t like clutter, I live fairly simply, and I like to travel light. I was different when I was younger, but moving 15 times in 18 years has pretty much burned any tendencies I may have developed towards collecting material possessions. Apparently I have made an exception for books. But as much as I love them, I feel like they’re starting to close in on me.  It’s time to get ruthless.

But what goes and what stays? There are a few easy answers. While moving the contents of my office bookcases to another room so I could prepare for painting, I began to suspect that I had duplicates of a number of titles. If this is the case, then it’s a no-brainer: get rid of the extra copy.

I also found books that I’d forgotten I had. At first I was excited, thinking that it was like getting a new book, full of promise and potential. Then, flipping through the pages, I would start to remember why I had put that book all the way in the back of a shelf in the corner of a room. I’m not really sure what I was thinking would change, but I must have thought that I would eventually be interested in the topic of the book.

I am still not interested. Away it goes.

Zelda guards the books that will stay: "These are not the books you are looking for."

There are other clear-cut cases. My favorite books stay, no question. There are also a lot of books that get a lot of use for teaching, and they obviously need to stay put. Reference books are also non-negotiable, especially my linguistics section (which is far more impressive than my local Borders ever had). The bulk of the books that will remain on my shelves are ones that I haven’t read yet. I may keep some, I may send some away, but not until I’ve read them.

After this, it becomes more complicated. There are some books that I liked, but do I like them enough to re-read them, or even parts of them? Will I ever find them useful for teaching? If it’s a non-fiction book, am I really interested enough in this topic to get through the entire book? Is there enough of a sentimental attachment that I should keep a book even if it’s not useful or re-readable? Not being a particularly sentimental person, I imagine this last question will often be answered with a “Nope!” The other questions will require much thought.

In the past, whenever I have tried to get rid of some of my inventory, I’ve managed to find anywhere between a whopping five to ten books that I was willing to part with. Impressive, no? My goal this week is to get rid of more. It almost feels sacrilegious to write that. I love books. They have kept me entertained and informed, and they have even kept me company during lonely times. Some of them have been with me for more than half my life. But I never want to feel like the books have taken over.

As long as I stick to clear criteria and refuse to engage in the fantasy that I will have all the time in the world to read everything, or educate myself in every possible subject I take a fancy to, then I should be okay. In moments of weakness, I’ll watch a few minutes of “Hoarders” which invariably makes me get up and throw at least one thing away. There may be a few rough patches, but doesn’t every mama need to let her babies leave the nest at some point?

How do you decide what books to keep, and how do you organize the ones that stay?

19 thoughts on “Gearing up and paring down

  1. In theory,reference books,anything in one’s field,poetry and sentimental value ones stay, everything else gets sold or donated.
    In practice, every book an every subject is piled up everywhere – coffee table books: Encyclopedia of Insects; Backpacking Pennsylvania; Furniture projects; Home Brewing; Istanbul; Bech at Bay;The Archivist ‘s Story;Josef Hoffman;The Ukrainian Americans;What Great paintings Say;Monday Begins on Saturday – this is what I can see from the chair :-)

    • That’s quite a collection! (Is the Istanbul book a guidebook or the Orhan Pamuk memoir?) Perhaps the Furniture Projects and the Home Brewing might end up in injury if read concurrently ;)

      I have books on tons of different subjects because I actually am interested in a lot of things, but they end up gathering dust because I never get around to them. I feel, for example, that I should understand economics better, so I have a few books that I have never even cracked open. I’m still vaguely interested, but I just have to decide how much.

      • You are totally right, a lot of them represent “I am interested in the topic and maybe I will get to read about it…” :-)

        We had a chance to visit Istanbul for 2 weeks this summer, so I have several books here. The most interesting is Strolling through Istanbul:Classical guide to the City by Hilary Sumner-Boyd & John Freely. Pamuk is a keeper, although he is on to-read list for me. By the way, I was very surprised to find out that “pamuk” means “cotton”.

        It pains to say that but our family is a book hoarder :-)

      • Whenever I hear ‘pamuk’, it reminds me of one of the things that made me decide to go to Turkey for my first overseas teaching assignment: Pamukkale, or ‘cotton castle’.
        Ironically, in three years, I never went there! Though to be fair, I think it was closed for cleaning and renovating facilities for much of the time I was there.

  2. When I taught, it always seemed that after the 4th of July the rest of the summer just whizzed by. Even though I’m no longer gearing up for new school years, that date still marks the beginning of the end of summer vacation for me! I hope you find some fun in the time you have left!
    I painted my bedroom two summers ago and my husband and I did a huge book purging. Of course, some of the books were only purged as far as my daughters’ bookshelves! Any reference books are always keepers, but as far as other books go, if it wasn’t something that knew I loved enough to read again I let it go. My husband took several boxes of fiction to his work for anyone who wanted them. I attempted to take some of the other books to our local Goodwill and they said they didn’t accept books! (That’s sad!)
    The furry guardian of your library is just too cute! :)

    • I think it’ll be a fairly mellow month, which will be nice. I’m going to start planning my courses now so they’re completely done by the end of the month. My best friend is getting married on Labor Day and I’m the Best Woman. Then I come home on Monday and teach on Tuesday, so I have to have all my ducks in a row!

      I can’t believe Goodwill didn’t accept the books! I know the local library gets inundated, which is why they started letting my friend take the overflow. She sends some to Better World Books and I get a load once a month to bring to the college. I’d say I get at least 4-6 books each month, and it used to be more before I was stricter with what I allowed myself to keep. I also started keeping books that I probably would never buy or check out but are good for quick fluffy reading – like Agatha Christie or Maeve Binchy. Once I read those, I have no interest in keeping them, so I know those will eventually go away. Now I just have to actually read them! ;)

      Zelda knows just how cute she is, too :)

  3. You are just like my husband, who has carted his beloved book collection through 5 overseas moves so far. He has books in boxes that haven’t even been unpacked since the last move. He’s keeping them for the study/library he hopes to have someday. As long as he’s happy.

    My space-hogging collection is primarily comprised of sporting equipment – snowboards, weights and other exercise gear, boating, wakeboarding, cycling, etc. I struggle because I go in spurts of utilizing these things, depending on what life is handing me at any given time, and it’s just so darned expensive to replace. So, unlike other stuff which I’m pretty ruthless about, I must simply find the space to store it.

    Good luck with your project!

    • I fantasize almost every day about having a study/library where I can put floor-to-ceiling bookcases! Maybe one day if someone could work out a diagram and I work the power tools…

      Other than books, I really don’t collect anything. Well, maybe I’ve got plenty of cameras (seven, to date) but they don’t take up too much space. And my boyfriend would tell you that I have too many shoes, but what do guys know about what is ‘too many’ shoes? Is it even possible to have ‘too many’ shoes?? ;)

      I’m impressed with the sporting equipment! I have weights and a bike, but all that other stuff scares me because I’m too uncoordinated to be able to use any of it without injury to either my body or my pride :)

      • Lest I have misrepresented myself, owning the sporting kit in no way means I’m good at using it. I have shockingly poor coordination too and only manage a semblance of skill through perseverance.

        You give me the space dimensions… I will come to the rescue with my trusty geometry and design something worthy of your power tools! I even know (now) how to make the stairs have equal risers!

  4. Don’t! I had a thorough, and I thought thoughtful de-clutter of books some years ago. 12 years ago actually. I still regret it, and have even been known to go into second hand shops to try to get copies of books I let go……..

    • If it makes you feel any better, I think I might possibly do better than 10-12 books, but realistically, I know I’ll still keep plenty of books on the “you never know!” basis :) I’m planning on keeping those books in a different category, which is the same thing I do when I clean out my closets. There’s always a section of “Haven’t worn in a long time but might want to” clothes and I make it a point to check it on a regular basis. If I’ve started wearing some of the clothes again, I keep them. If I still haven’t worn something in that section for several months, then it goes. I think I’ll do the same with the books.

      Clearly the correct approach is to get more space and not get rid of any books ;) If only it were that easy!

    • If this is the worst disease I have to contend with, then I’ll take it gladly! :) I definitely would say that ‘falling in love’ is a good description of what I do with good books. Even if I don’t reread them, I love catching glimpses of them on the shelf and smiling as I remember how good I felt when I was reading that particular book.

  5. At the moment, my policy is that only books of which I’ve erroneously bought two copies can be given away. This is probably one of the reasons why my collection of books is presently invading my whole (small) bedroom. I’m afraid I may have taken after my father, who has collected a few thousands of books in less than forty years. My mother forced the whole family to find a larger house to move in a few years ago, telling us it was either the books going or her. We now have a large spare room which serves for library purposes. Under a genetic heritage perspective, I am doomed to book clutter (and bookshopaholism) for my whole life.

    • If I have it in my genes, it came from further back than my parents. I’m really the only one in the family with the illness. The only issue is space, as you say, but I’m used to small spaces (in one apartment in Istanbul, I had to enter my kitchen sideways!) so I just have to be more diligent about keeping them organized so they don’t grow into an entity of their own! :) I’d say there are worse things for us to be doomed to.

      Very clever of your mother, though ;)

    • I’m excited too. I’ve got ‘before’ pictures and will definitely post them with the ‘after’ pictures. It’s a beautiful color, but it’s a small room so that’s why I’m only doing one wall in it.

      Good luck with your own reorganizing!

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