May 172009

As a fan of Getting Things Done and Study Hacks, I know the importance of having systems to cut down on time, energy, thought and procrastination. A few years ago, I went down to a big book sale and bought books by the pound ($10 for all books in a box!). Mostly these were books that seemed interesting or contained information I thought would be nice or cool to know. I probably bought 50 books or so. Problem is that in the last three years, I’ve gone through about 15 of them, some of which I read, some I decided I never would but most I decided I would “someday”. I’m starting to run out of space in my room so I decided to clear some of these out. But how do I decide which books stay and which go?

The following system is the way I did it, you can adapt the follow flowchart to your needs. This is for non-fiction books primarily.

0. Why do you want to keep books? Generally, I buy and keep books that I have read more than twice, think I may read them again, and need them as a reference for some project or major life area. For example, I am keeping How to Become a Straight-A Student, Power of Now, Personal Development for Smart People, and The 4-Hour Workweek. I have read them multiple times and consult them often. I don’t keep books that would be nice to have/know and I do not want to keep books that I want to read “someday”. Thus my tolerance is really high. I also keep a small selection of casual reading books (like comedy books) to be picked up and read whenever I’d like to, and some fiction books I really enjoyed, though I generally get these from the library every year or so when I can re-read them.

1. Set an arbitrary limit of books to keep. The key word is “arbitrary”, so it can be a thousand books if space allows it, however you must recognize that there is a cost to everything. A collection that large would require a database program. Keeping a book takes up space, mental energy and organizational energy. If you look at a shelf full of books, half haven’t been read and others have, you’re more likely to never look at it than process which to read next. I generally keep the books I consult a few times a month and have read more than twice, or feel like I will read them more than twice. Too large a collection, and it becomes unwieldy and I never look at it again. I set about twenty books as my limit, though I could have accomodated more.

2. Why did you pick those books and where will they go? I originally picked them because they were either relevant to some project I thought I would do (like building furniture) or be nice to know (such as how to light a pilot on your gas water heater). In terms of where the books would “go”, either they would either be kept as reference, skimmed, read completely (and possibly kept if good enough), or given away/donated/sold at a used book store. I only buy and keep the best books I’ve read, otherwise I can often get them from the library quickly enough. So, I end up buying perhaps two-three books a year but read between 50-100. The books I do buy tend to be very, very, very good and important to me in some way.

3. The first filter I applied was to ask, am I still interested in reading the book based on the title? If not, then it goes in the get-rid-of pile. If yes, then it goes into the next filter.

4. My second filter was to take the books I was still interested in the topics and search their title in amazon and WorldCat (which I just found out about–it imports reviews from different sites and can look up the book in the library closest to you). I checked the reviews to see what people were saying. Like I said, my tolerance for books to keep is really high so I was looking for mostly 5 stars and generally concrete actions inspired or done by the book (such as “it guided me through writing my first novel!”) vs just general praise (such as “great book!”). I’m looking for life changers.

5. Is the information in the books easily available online or is the book available at libraries easily? This test is important for papers in your reference folders, too. A number of books have been made obsolete by the Internet, such as the dictionary or thesaurus or most do-it-yourself books. Need to learn how to light a gas pilot on a water heater? I can google it a lot faster than I can go across the room to pick up the book, search the ToC or index and read it.

If the book isn’t something I’m going to reread again and again or want as a reference available absolutely immediately, then I check if the library has it and just borrow it from them when I need it. If I haven’t read the book, then the library’s due date is also an incentive to read the book, rather than let it go unread for three years like the books I bought. This way others get the benefit of these books that I are just sitting here doing nothing. So, getting the book from the library actually gets it read, saves time, is cheaper and saves space on my own shelf; why wouldn’t I do that?

5. Some books got good-to-great reviews on amazon and I go through them more thoroughly by reading their back, front, table of contents and a few pages randomly to see if this is still a book I want to read. If I’m still undecided about whether to read it or keep it, I checked my local library to see if they have it available. If they do, then I add that to my “to read” list and get rid of my copy. I can buy it again if it turns out to be really amazing after I’ve read it, though the reviews on amazon are a pretty accurate. If I’m undecided about whether to read a book, that’s not good enough. It’s got to be “i want to read this” or higher. When in doubt, throw it out.

6. The books that pass all these steps get put onto my reading queue and will be read as I get through my queue.

I’m generally looking for the best book in a given category that I will re-read numerous times or need as a quick reference, unless I’m seeking to become an absolute master in that category. For example, f I was seeking to become a master writer, I would read every book on writing out there, just in case one of the worse books has some useful ideas. On the other hand, if I’m looking for 80% of the results and want to only spend 20% of the time, I would just seek out the best five or six books in a category. Since I want to be a good writer but not the best, I would read On Writing Well by William Zissner (here’s a fantastic excerpt that changed the way I write) but not On Writing by Higgins (some guy).

Considering the time, money space and energy books, movies, cds, etc. require to store, I prefer to get rid of them and just use the web or public library system. If they become essential, I can buy them. Say I have ten extraneous books and I sell them for a dollar each. I save space, time and make a bit of money. Then let’s say I have to buy one again for 3 dollars a year later, I’m still 7 dollars ahead, and used that year’s worth of time, energy and space for other things. And these books weren’t yelling at me to read them every time I passed them, so I had an easy and relaxing home without open loops.

One final note, some books are difficult to get rid of because they have sentimental value, either because they were gifts or because you thought you would read them, like reading Shakespeare. In that case, they’re memrobelia or decoration, so don’t beat yourself up over not reading them. Or you just have to face that while you may sound fancy being able to say you’ve read all of Shakespeare, perhaps you’re just not going to do it. If they were gifts, you may want to consider when you’ll get rid of them, if you absolutely had to. Say a year after the gifting? Ten? You don’t have to commit to anything, but it’ll be helpful to think about it for the future.

I operate by the principle of “use it or lose it” sometimes. If the books I have left are not going to be read in the next three months, I will simply get rid of them.

Well, I hope this helps you declutter your book collection. Drop me a line to let me know how it went! 😀

  4 Responses to “How to De-clutter your Book Collection”

  1. Good post, RT and timely because I am moving and as a result I am in the process of getting rid of books. Would also be good to know about ways of getting rid of them Sometimes, I give them to friends, once I donated them to a local library.

  2. Try google searching “selling used books “.

    I got this great thread here:

    Used book stores, libraries, freecycle, book sales at schools or universities, thrift stores, etc. I’m taking my collection down to BMV, a small chain of big used book stores and trying ot offload some. The rest I’ll put up in a room at the University of Toronto where people can pickup free books.

  3. You make a lot of good points here, but I think you miss one. The marginal value of a book you haven’t read is greater than one you have. That unread book represents limitless potential: all sorts of things you don’t know or haven’t considered and can change your life to a greater degree than something you have already read. Thus, a large unread library can be a very good thing– it represents your future growth and your current admission that there is a lot more to know.

  4. Actually, I think that’s implicit in the steps, such as looking up amazon reviews. A certain book may indeed change your life and is unique in that it only changes your life, but that’s a worse bet than a book that has really affected others and it is already known to affect others. Another thing, that I didn’t mentoin is, that I also put aside books to either go through more thoroughly, basically memorize or just skim. This way if, in my skimming, I find many, many gems then I’ll just read hte book.

    Thanks for the comment and link.

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