Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Getting rid of books

My minimalist journey began with books. I read an article which referred to Karen Kingston’s idea that books are ‘collections of old ideas'. At the time this was so distant from my own views on my prized book collection that I was shocked and dismissed the idea as absurd. Somehow though, I couldn't quite get it out of my mind. I read Kingston's book "Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui" in one sitting and while not all of it appealed to me, gradually I began to question why we had so many books. 

I come from a family of big readers and big book hoarders, as does my husband. Every time we moved house more and more of our boxes were full of books. When we visited our parents, we came away with more books from our childhood. We accumulated hundreds of books while at University- some were required reading but the majority came from the magical second-hand bookshops in Edinburgh, favourite haunts of ours during our student days. At Christmas and birthdays we gave each other books, we asked relatives for books. When we started our family, piles of children’s books began to accumulate too, as presents and bought from charity shops. We were also then given the 'legacy' books, those that had been kept by previous generations for us to have. Still only in our mid-twenties we already had hundreds and hundreds of books in our home and more in boxes still to collect. 

Something had to change or we were never going to be able to live the life we want to. Our books, while stimulating and much loved, also had the potential to hold us back and weigh us down and we did not want that to happen. 

So we started to get rid of them- shelf by shelf, box by box. Each time we slimmed them down the out pile went straight in the car for the next charity shop run. We sifted through the keep piles at least two or three times over the few months before we left the UK, each time managing to get rid of more. My husband's grandparents had very kindly agreed to let us store some belongings in their attic and both they and my mother-in-law assured us that there was no need to get rid of books. They were aghast that we were even considering it. To have huge piles of books getting damp in an attic for us to deal with in the future? No thanks. I'd much rather give them to charity, let the charity earn some money and release them for future readers.

It was an emotional process and some we did choose to keep- our very favourites, some of my husband's beautiful photography books and a few that we loved and could not be replaced. The legacy ones? Unless we truly loved them ourselves and not because we felt we should- out they went. It felt great.

Now that we're thousands of miles away, I don't miss them at all; I just want to get rid of more! Still, I feel proud at how far we've come and no longer feel I have to be surrounded by all the books I've ever read. We don't need hundreds of books on our shelves to prove that we are intelligent or well read. 

Somehow we still managed to bring lots of books with us to China but they were all children’s ones. Our sons are 3 and 1 and the Kindle doesn’t really cater for them yet! The baby board books will go no further though; we’ll find a good home for them here and lighten our load even more. Next time we live in the UK we’ll be making much better use of our library cards and as for now I’m really enjoying my Kindle and my ‘collection of new ideas’!

How do you deal with books in your home?


  1. I'm at an earlier stage of development. My ambition is to have a big library. I carry around Auden's words in my head:

    'Three grateful memories: a home full of books, a childhood spent in country provinces, a tutor in whom one could confide.'

    On the other hand, travelling light does sound attractive.

  2. That's a great quote, and we do still adore books so it's a bit of a dilemma! Your library is wonderful so maybe in the future we'll just need to spend lazy days reading your books instead :)

  3. As a librarian I have my heart in both camps. One must manage a collection properly, getting rid of what's no longer needed or loved. At home, we have had regular weeding sessions to get rid of stuff and been amazed at how many bin liners we've taken to the charity shop. On the other hand, I will always regret getting rid of my collection of film magazines from my teenage years. It's a fine line to tread, but if you know you'll be able to access well known and published titles from libraries or online then, other than for sentimental reasons, why clog up your living space?

  4. Your absolutely right, it's about finding that balance. Shelves full of rubbish novels you haven't read or didn't rate are a waste of space but a bookcase full of carefully chosen, inspiring and loved books is a beautiful thing. Sharing books with friends is fantastic too, that's what I miss with the Kindle.

    1. Also, your home is inspirational, we talk about it all the time :)

  5. It is so difficult, isn't it, Ailsa? Trying to find that balance which is so essential to good mental health... My problem is that I can't remember anything! I need my books for reference - to remind myself of treasured thoughts, and, often, essential facts. I don't know what I would do without my books - with them, I am, as the saying goes, standing on the shoulders of giants.

  6. Hello, there! I've just discovered your blog through Miss Minimalist, and I'm eager to learn about your reasons for moving and the experiences your family is having.

    I can relate well to your family's love/hate relationship with book ownership. As a child, I didn't discover the joys of the library until I had already spent several years amassing book collections from frequent school book fairs. By then, the instinct to collect -- or, more honestly, to hoard -- books was too strong for me to overcome for many years.

    Only after moving in and out of dorm rooms for six years in a row (college and then grad school) did I realize how difficult it is to maintain a book collection. Not only was moving a painful chore (time-wise and physically, with such heavy boxes), but shelf space was at a premium in each tiny room I lived in. At that point, I'd been digitizing my school notes for easier storage and reference, when I realized that digital books might also become an easier way to reference the information I sought from the books I lugged around with me.

    Now, over a year after completing grad school, I am gradually thinning out the possessions I have kept at my childhood home since birth (hence the connection to Miss Minimalist's blog). This process includes a massive thinning of my book collection. There are still several tomes that I am not yet willing to part with, but most of them I can let go with the knowledge that I can rent from the library or buy digitally if I really want to own them later. For books I still want to keep that are falling apart with age or merely out of print, I have begun to take them apart at the binding and feed them through a digital scanner that converts them into scan-able PDFs. The scanning process is not perfect yet, and part of me cringes at the thought of destroying the books, but I remind myself that I am only destroying the PHYSICAL copy of those books, not the content of the books themselves. And as the current owner of these books, it is my entirely choice how to use them. By digitizing books in this manner, I am at least ensuring that they will not be copied to my computer and then illegally sold (as so many people do with their CDs and DVDs). Someday, I want to learn how to make ebook files out of these PDFs so that I can read these books on any mobile device. I guess that means that I'm turning reading into a new hobby/skill set!