To Toss or Shelve: What Books to Give Away and Which To Keep?

For those of you who seem to be nearing an age where you are ready to dispose of some of the accumulation of your youth, I ask you, “What do you do about all of your books?”

New books are like precious baby kittens to many of us. We get a new book and we cuddle it. Sometimes it lies prominently next to our most comfortable chair. Some books get the prize positioning of being our bedside companions. Either way, we read the book, shelve it and move on the next book that purrs loudly to us.

I recently went to a used bookstore with my 24-year-old daughter. Everything old was new to her. We came home with armfuls of books that I had read years ago. Her enthusiasm made me realize that some books have staying power. It made me rethink how I would recycle the massive volumes of books we’ve accumulated over the years.

Here is a sampling of the books she nabbed: The Time/Life cookbooks from the 1970′s. These books where the first of their kind, as they introduced my parent’s generation to the world of international cooking. The Whole Earth Catalog (I had a tattered copy that I gave to the local library when she was just a tot) was the evolutionary mega-manual that taught a whole generation how to tread lightly on the planet. The Foxfire Books were one of the first series of DIY books (Boy Scout manuals withstanding) with an environmental backbone, and step-by-step instructions for creating everything from tying knots to building outdoor furniture. Lastly, she chose the 1960′s classic, Be Here Now. This is the book that inspired so many to seekers on their spiritual journeys.

Throughout our dusty shopping adventure, I couldn’t contain myself from mumbling, “Oh, I had that book. It is a classic.” And, she would say, “So, mom should I buy it or can I have it?” Well, some of those books I’ve kept, and others went to library sales or the Goodwill store years ago.

How do you know whether or not to donate a book away? In a recent New York Times interview, one of my favorite authors, Francine Prose talks about the way she edits her book collection:

Two years ago, I re-organized my library, and gave away 20 cartons of books, culled according to the following general principles:
1. Unless you are an Egyptologist, you only need one, at most two, enormous coffee table books on the Art of the Pharaohs.
2. If a country, like Czechoslovakia, no longer exists, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to take the travel guide along with you when you go.
3. If the reproductions in an art book are so fuzzy and blurred that you can’t tell the work of the Impressionists from that of the Pointillists, or even from the Surrealists, get rid of it.
4. Ask yourself the following hard question and answer honestly: If I live to be 100, will I read this book again?

When asked whether Prose regretted giving away any of the books, her answer was, “Of all the books I gave away, the only loss I regret (or have even noticed) is the Book of Knowledge, the 25 volumes took up an entire shelf and I had to lose it for the same reason I gave away all those other books: to make room for more books.”

Do you need to purge your collection of books to make room for more? Or, maybe you have a kid who covets your oldies, but goodies. Either way, what books can you live without? Which are keepers? How and why do you dispose of books?

206 comments

Jo S.
Jo S.about a year ago

I have such a hard time letting go of my books!
Thanks Ronnie.

Sonia Minwer Barakat Requ

When I know I won't read a book again,I give it to my local library.Great article,Thanks for sharing

Fi T.
Fi T.1 years ago

No books are useless

Sandra Polacco
Sandra Polacco1 years ago

I am not sure if I could handle all of those books. I too find it hard to give up books. I had saved my daughters books (junvenile) and now my grandson is enjoying them. He also has a love for books, so they are also growing. I use to donate them to my library but they are no longer accepting donations? Good luck.

Deborah P.
Deborah Pratt1 years ago

How many is too many?
We have somewhere between two and four thousand books. I've probably read less than half. There is a stack of over forty books by the end of the kitchen table that I am in the process of reading.
And I LOVE old books. I've just bought The Young Woman's Companion, printed 1829, a horribly battered copy missing the last cover, to try to understand Sense & Sensibility better.
So how can I get rid of any of these old friends?

LMj Sunshine

Thank you

LMj Sunshine

Thank you

Lauren Weinstock
Lauren Weinstock3 years ago

The best reasons for giving away some of your books; you have too many and if you take them to a library/libraries many other people can enjoy them.

Yulan Lawson
Yulan Lawson3 years ago

Thanks for the help.

Ro H.
Ro H.3 years ago

I can't let them go