I’ll be honest with you – before I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – I’d never even considered the possibility of culling my book collection. After all, this was a testament to all my favourite titles that had shaped me over the years into the person I am today.
Of everything I owned, why on earth would I declutter my beloved bookshelves?!
Well, if you’re finding your precious storage space is getting eaten up by paperback books you have no room for in your home, then they may be weighing you down mentally as much as physically.
So, fellow bookworms – buckle up – because this is going to be a tough one! If you found it hard enough to curate your overflowing wardrobe or kitchen cupboards, then I won’t lie. This requires a whole new level of decluttering muscle.
Whilst it is undoubtedly hard to get rid of books, consciously assessing your bookshelves can be a healthy step towards creating an intentional environment. And, having recently parted with a good proportion of my own book collection – whether you say goodbye to 10 or 100 books – I can safely say from my own experience that it feels good to let go.
Why Is It So Hard to Get Rid of Books?
I tend to put books in the same category as sentimental items because they are so much more than just physical objects. They’re portals into new worlds – they make you laugh, they make you cry – in short, you become thoroughly emotionally invested in a good book. You literally come out the other side a different person than you went in.
Plus, I credit many non-fiction books with radically altering my habitual ways of thinking – opening me up to entirely new possibilities and even changing the trajectory of my life. The wisdom found in the pages of your favourite books can be profound, inspiring, and shape you in ways you never expected.
Books become inextricably woven into the fabric of your identity. You pick up a book off your bookshelf and you are standing in the bookshop you bought it in. You can pinpoint the precise chapter in your life – the boyfriend or girlfriend you were with at the time, even the room you read it in. It’s like a little time machine; a portal as strong as smell or music.
Holding onto a book is like bottling an emotion, an ‘aha!’ epiphany, or a special moment of time in your life. You feel like you lose a small part of yourself when you say goodbye to a treasured book. Don’t let anyone tell you any different – it’s the most natural thing in the world to find this hard.
Things to Remember When Letting Books Go
Of course, as with any physical object you cling to, the book is just a reminder of the past experience of actively reading the book. Whatever knowledge or new understandings that book imparted to you, rest assured that it always lives within you. You don’t need to carry it around forever to keep it alive.
You may not realise it, but subconsciously there is some other stuff going on under the surface when you cling to physical books – procrastination, guilt, even a projection of your idealised self. To help let go of these feelings, remember the below when undertaking the decluttering process:
Unread books can weigh heavy & even put you off starting
If you have a large collection of books you had the best intentions of reading but simply never got around to, this can quite quickly snowball into a mountain of mental resistance. You simply can’t face the climb.
You’re likely feeling guilty about the lack of judgement and sunk investment by your past self, so you cling to these books, all the while telling yourself that you’ll get around to them ‘someday’. This is a quick path to procrastination and stops you from starting on the books you’d actually like to read today. This lack of action can easily seep into other areas of your life, too.
Just because it’s a classic, doesn’t mean you have to read it
Ah, I am especially guilty of this one – how many books have I carried with me for a decade since my college days because they’re books I think I should read? Meaty tomes like Bleak House, Ulysses or The Canterbury Tales.
Dickens, Joyce, Chaucer – I’m sorry, I tried. Really. No doubt the literary police are on their way to my house this second to explain in detail exactly how much I’m missing out on. I don’t deny that I probably am!
I think we all struggle with these feelings – pressure we internalise from a literary community before punishing ourselves for eternity. Classics are classics for a reason, but let’s all make a pact to stop heaping unrealistic expectations on our shoulders.
If your stuff is having a consistent conversation with you, then your largely unread highbrow book collection is probably telling you on a daily basis that you’re not worthy. It’s high time to change the dialogue!
If you haven’t revisited it in the last year, you probably won’t miss it
Once you’ve finished a book (and enjoyed it), you probably like the thought of being able to return to it whenever you might need to.
The thing is, I think most of us cling to this ‘in case’ mentality without ever having stopped to consider how many times this has actually happened. Honestly, even with your favourite books – how often is it that you’ve been struck by the need to find a certain passage or fact-check something you previously read? Not often, I’d hazard a guess.
If you’re anything like me, then when the rare urge does strike you to recall something important from a book – you couldn’t for the life of you find it anyway! In Tiago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain, he suggests writing notes about everything you read (the ‘Notes’ app on your phone will work just fine). This is a much better way to hold onto unique insights you had whilst reading.
Like the clothes in your wardrobe – if you haven’t revisited it in the last few years, the chances are you won’t in the future.
Your book collection doesn’t define you, so stop caring what other people think
Newsflash: your book collection doesn’t define you.
Yes, it can give people insights into the types of things you enjoy. However, if you find yourself over-relying on the external validation your book collection gives you when guests come over to your home, then this probably isn’t healthy.
I know that in the past, I have been guilty of worrying ‘What does my book collection say about me?’
Am I interesting enough? Well-read enough? Does this make me seem intelligent?
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take pride in books that reflect your values and that you care about, but this should be an intrinsic feeling that doesn’t rely on the opinions of other people.
Let go of the books you think ‘look good’ – the idealised version of yourself you’re presenting to the world – and be vulnerable showcasing your authentic self.
It’s reversible: it’s easy enough to repurchase a book you wish you’d kept
Finally, when getting rid of books, it should be a consoling thought that if all your fears come true and you really do wake up in the middle of the night wishing you still had The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1, then… you can always rebuy it.
Jeff Bezos makes the crucial distinction between reversible and irreversible decisions – basically, you don’t need to take as much time deliberating the former vs the latter. However, the way we treat our book collections, you’d think it was virtually impossible to undo even our most ruthless decluttering decisions (I promise, it’s not!).
Unless it’s a rare first edition or a sentimental hand-me-down, then you can rest a little easier in the knowledge that you can always get your hands back on a book again within 24 hours (thanks Amazon Prime). Phew!
6 Steps to Declutter Your Beloved Book Collection
Now you’re hopefully feeling a little less daunted about the prospect of decluttering your books – maybe even the tiniest bit excited about the positive effects it could have on your life – let’s get to the nitty-gritty of how to do the damn thing.
So take a deep breath, gather your book collection in one easily accessible place, and let’s begin!
Note: If your space looks like a bomb’s gone off at this point, then don’t panic – everything looks worse before it gets better.
1. Decide how you want to display your new book collection
Visualisation is everything! Before you do anything else, it’s a good idea to think about what you want your ideal book collection to look like at the end of the process. You might not have it exactly all worked out yet, but have a general think about:
Where in your home do you want your books to be displayed?
Should they be organised by theme, colour, or alphabetically?
What do you want your book collection to say about you?
If you can get excited about the vision and enter into the emotional state of your cozy minimalist home post-declutter, you’ll have a much stronger sense of purpose when it comes to the rest of the process that follows.
2. Intuitively pick out the books you love first
Like Marie Kondo, I prefer to start with the stuff which sparks joy. These are the no-brainers – the books you simply couldn’t be without, the ones that really mean something to you.
For instance, when it came to my own bookshelf, I instinctively reached for:
My Harry Potter collection
My dad’s early edition of The Mersey Sound poetry anthology
Don’t overthink this part too much, but if you’re at all unsure, don’t include the book – you can ask yourself some more probing questions later on to decide whether it’s one you want to keep or not.
3. Identify the books you can get rid of straight away
As with the books you know you want to keep, there should be some books that stand out on the other end of the spectrum as the easier choices when it comes to decluttering. These might be a mixture of:
Books you don’t remember acquiring or have no interest in reading
Books that were given to you that you don’t intend on reading
Obsolete or old textbooks/reference books
Books that simply aren’t relevant to your life now
Start a discard pile and pop any books that fall into these categories into this section.
4. Questions to ask yourself about the leftover books
Now comes the decidedly more difficult bit – the leftover books in the middle that aren’t a strong ‘yes’ or a definitive ‘no’.
This probably includes books you enjoyed and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with. For whatever reason, they just don’t have as strong a pull as the books in your ‘love’ list. This doesn’t mean you should immediately discard them, but I would advise asking yourself some more probing questions to discern whether you want to keep them in your collection or not.
Firstly, start with some simple self-reflective questions:
Have I actually read it?
Did I enjoy it?
Would I reread it?
If I didn’t own it, would I buy this book if I saw it in a bookshop today?
If you answered ‘no’ to any of the above, then it’s likely safe to go ahead and discard. If yes, ask yourself the next set of questions:
Is it a beautiful object?
Does it have sentimental value? i.e. Would it be difficult to replace?
Do I love this book?
Has this book challenged my worldview or changed me?
Did you answer ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions? If so, then go ahead and keep the book. With tough calls, try putting the book into storage and set a reminder in 6 months to review. If you haven’t considered the book once during that time, then it’s probably the right thing to let it go.
5. Gift, donate or sell unwanted books
Next, don’t make the same mistake I did and let your discard pile hang around for months whilst you decide how best to shift it! You’ll want to capitalise on this momentum and decide on the best course of action swiftly.
There’s definitely a right way to dispose of books – and that’s thinking about their next life rather than putting them straight in the bin. Your castoffs may turn out to be someone else’s treasure! When getting rid of a book, it’s a nice thought that it may go on to be enjoyed or impart wisdom to another person. It’s also the more sustainable option.
Consider gifting any books that may be gratefully received to friends and family (although only if they genuinely want them). Alternatively, you could contact a local library, secondhand bookshop or charity shop to donate your old books.
If you have a lot of titles that add up to a substantial sum, you could also consider selling bundles of similar books on Facebook Marketplace, or else use a one-stop handy service like We Buy Books. It’s so simple – just scan the barcodes, package up your books in a cardboard box and seal it up, then book your home collection and pop a label on. Plus, you’ll make some extra cash in the process!
6. Consider going digital with your book collection
I get it – I used to be one of those people who said they’d always prefer the feel of turning real pages and ‘the smell of a real book’ – but just pause to consider whether this is true, or whether the difficulty is adapting to change.
I know that now, I wouldn’t be without my Kindle Paperwhite. It’s quite literally been a game-changer when it comes to my reading habits!
Much the same as using a digital platform like Spotify to store your music collection, there are many benefits to moving your book collection to an e-reader. Not only does it save space and mean that you can grow your book list to your heart’s content, but it also allows you to quickly see which titles you’ve finished, which are still to be read, and where you’re up to with books you’ve got on the go.
Plus, you can highlight passages that resonate with you and easily pull them up later, or else make notes where a particular thought struck you. E-books are considerably cheaper and more eco-friendly than physical copies, too.
Maybe you could consider selling a book you currently own in hard copy and use this money to purchase the electronic version. This way, you don’t miss out on any of your favourites but free yourself of physical clutter you may not have the space for in your home.
Intentional Bookshelves: Is It Just Stuff or Does it Serve a Purpose in Your Life?
As with all of your worldly possessions, if you’re not careful, they can end up becoming more of a drain on your energy and emotions than a positive force. So make sure that the stuff you’re choosing to keep in your life is for good reason, and not just stuff you’ve mindlessly accumulated over the years without ever questioning it.
For book lovers, this one will always make for a tough decluttering session. But, if you generally find that you struggle to make decisions, then it’s a good exercise to go through. This is because, in reality, the stakes are relatively low. Unless it’s an incredibly sentimental edition of a book, you can always repurchase if you’re convinced you’ve made the wrong decision. So don’t sweat the small stuff too much!
This kind of work is like developing a muscle. Practice makes perfect and before long, you’ll be making bolder and more confident decisions in every aspect of your life.
If you’re looking for recommendations for your new Kindle collection, then check out these books to manifest your dream life. And don’t forget to start a reading habit with your intentional morning routine. You’ve got this!