We’ve all heard it: the book worm whose house was filled wall-to-wall with beloved books. We see the pictures on social media of gorgeous library-like homes and reading nooks, causing jealousy and the desire to buy a home just like that, or to remodel our meager abodes. You’ve pictured yourself spinning around in a massive library, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. You know you have.
But I’m here to argue that keeping every book you’ve ever bought doesn’t make you a better fan of literature than the next reader. I’m here to argue that for the good of those around you, you should get rid of most of your physical books.
I know, right? It’s my belief that we’ve been fed a narrative (haha) that collecting books and surrounding ourselves with as many of them as we can cram into our homes is awesome. Aren’t you really building a safe, cozy (a word I’ve always loathed) space to “curl up with a good book” (a cliche I wish would disappear — who curls??) and feel happy?
Here are some things I’ve learned about keeping books:
#1 They’re filthy.
According to a chemical engineer, there are several reasons the paper in your physical books breaks down. Some are pretty basic: if you aren’t dusting incessantly, your books are breaking down. If you keep food near your bookshelves, the paper can break down. Open windows, poor ventilation, and obvious problems like a leaky roof all affect your books. Now, if you’re like me and suffering from ridiculous allergies right now because the trees are trying to get it on, then you know that having items in your house that collect dust and even mold spores is bad for your health.
Then there’s bug infestations. Did you know some bugs love books? I had a friend who got carpet beetles in her apartment, and the only way to get the bugs out of her hundreds of books was to put each book in it’s own ziplock bag in the freezer for four days.
#2 They’re a bitch to move.
If you were a book lover from way back like me, you probably moved into your first apartment with a ton of books, which traveled in more boxes that any other possession. If you went to college to get a degree (and then another and another) like me, you’ve kept all your old textbooks because, I mean, what if you need them again?? As if your professors will magically choose the same books to teach in the years ahead! And if they do, they’re not likely the same editions (publishers make sure of that). And if they use the same books and the same editions, why are you taking that class twice? My husband and I both kept all the textbooks from our major courses…and neither of us has ever read them since. There are too many new books and too much updated information.
And what’s one of the most common themes of college living? College moving! Whether it’s into or out of the dorms, just down the street to a new apartment complex, back in with mom and dad, or into your very first grown-up-person house, college students tend to move every year. So when you call up your buddies and ask them to help you move in exchange for a case of Bud Light, be kind and tell them you’ve got about 20 boxes jam-packed full of books and that you live on the second floor. They’ll smell the slave labor immediately. I used to delight in coming up with new organizing systems for my books every time we moved, shelving them by color or author or publisher, but I always ended up utter ill from handing so much dust. I mean, I’m flipping the dust into my own nose holes every time I open a book before shelving it (I’m too cautious to be a book smeller, like most of you).
#3 Your home “library” doesn’t look like the ones on the internet.
Books can make a home beautiful and welcoming; this I admit. And of course when we get a free moment we scrutinize our friends’ shelves and judge them mercilessly by the amount of crap vs. classics (meaning what we think sucks vs. what makes us happy). But does your library really have the beauty that you see in pictures? Are your selves not haphazardly packed, books on top of the furniture, shelves bending helplessly in the middle under the weight?
#4 You pay taxes in a bad economy.
You know that weird building with all the computers in it? It’s called the library (yes, it has books, too). If you pay taxes in the United States (and even if you don’t) the library is free for you to use. Many have unlimited borrowing agreements, so long as you don’t mess up and bring back the newest Babysitter’s Club book that you accidentally dumped a bottle of water on (sorry, Ms. Fran, but it was 1993!), there’s nothing stopping you! If things are tight financially at your house, consider checking out books from the library, which helps their stats and convinces politicians that libraries are actually being used. Think of the things you could do with all the extra cash, too. I know that when I magically appear in a book store (for I do not willing choose to go, it just happens — I swear!) I always drop at least $100. But what about highlighting amazing passages in the text? What if you really, really love that book?? Well, now you can confidently buy the book after reading the library copy. If you love it so much, highlight in it during your second reading.
#5 When you keep your books to yourself, you’re missing a community-building opportunity.
Have you heard of Little Free Library? They’re popping up all over the United States and are a great presence in communities. Leave a book, take a book. Awesome! For kids in the neighborhood who can’t get a ride to the library during those long summer days, they can walk to the nearest book box and see what’s new.
If you have the money to buy books frequently, you’re privileged. Not everyone can even get to the library during business hours. The Little Free Library boxes are located in the center of communities, meaning people can walk to them. I put in physical copies that authors/publishers send me when I’m done with them. I feel like I’m giving a gift to someone else because the writer’s hard work gifted that book to me. Every time I drop off new books, I see which of the old books I’ve put in there are now gone, and I feel a rush of excitement and silent connection, knowing someone nearby is reading a book I’ve enjoyed. I’ve also learned that some people are a bit nervous about books. When I went to drop off some books to the Little Free Library one time, a man was there. I waved, and he ran away. I called him back, encouraging him to look at the books I brought with me. We made a small connection as I told him a bit about each one.
I’ve also recently discovered book parties! Throw a party, invite tons of friends, and request that everyone bring 2-3 books they no longer want. Everyone puts their books on a table, and however many books a person brings is how many they can take home. These events have proven successful when a person who picks up a book finds the former owner and they start talking books. I mean, isn’t that why you blog? To talk about books? Much better than “So, what do you do for a living?” or “What’s your major?” Ugh.
Getting rid of books is hard, but here’s how I do it:
I ask myself three questions:
- “Am I going to use this book in the future when I teach a lit class?”
- “Am I going to read it again?”
- “Can I get it at the library?”
Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ll read a book again, but I know it came from a small press and thus won’t be at the library, so I keep it. Why not, I paid for it. If it’s at the library but I’m going to teach from it (I need my own copies when I teach), then I keep it. Otherwise, if a book is at the library and I’m not going to teach from it and I’m not sure (doubts are okay) I’ll read it again, I get rid of that book. I want to share my book’s life with another. They also make excellent gifts at family gatherings where you have a White Elephant gift.
So, as a person with three literature/creative writing degrees who is a composition/literature professor, I say let some books go. A house load of dusty books doesn’t make you the bigger book worm. It doesn’t mean you love books more, or even read more than those of use who are willing to buy (or rent) electronic copies, use libraries, and donate our surplus reading materials.