How to Let Go of Books
The category of belongings that I have had the most difficulty discarding is books. I know I'm not the only one, either--several of my own friends, as well as one of my favorite minimalist authors (Fumio Sasaki), also struggle, or have struggled to discard books. I have been on my minimalist journey since about 2017. It's now 2022 and I've still struggled (until now) to get rid of the huge shelves of books taking up a lot of space in my home. I'm going to share the realizations I've come to that have helped ease me into getting rid of a lot of books, leaving myself with a manageable stack of only my most beloved tomes and an e-reader. Get ready though, because I'm going to start off with a punch to every book lover's gut (including my own)...
Realization #1: Most Books are Useless
This is a realization that I struggled for too long to reach, but it's true. Most books are useless. I don't mean that the content is poorly written, or that there's nothing meaningful to gain from them. The allure of books is the knowledge, the perspective, the whole entire world of thoughts each one contains. We hoard stacks upon stacks of books because we want their knowledge. We want their wealth of information. BUT! When we don't read the books we have languishing in untidy stacks on the shelves, the books become useless. They are not being used as intended--to impart knowledge, to entertain, or to help us gain new perspectives--so they are useless.
Realization #2: Unread Books don't Make Us Smarter
Often the case is that if we're going to read a new book, we'll read it shortly after purchasing it. Too often, the case is that we buy new books, shelve them, and then buy more new books with more intriguing premises. We have rows of colorful tomes with enticing titles--their back covers or dust jackets tease our brains with promises that we'll come away more enlightened or more entertained after having read them. But what happens when someone you're trying to impress, or someone who's already close to you, asks what a book is about and you can't answer honestly? What happens when someone asks if you would recommend a book you've never read? Well, if you have hundreds of books you haven't even opened, or haven't read past the prologue or introduction, you're probably going to be embarrassed to answer the questions honestly. Unread books don't make us smarter... sometimes they do the opposite and make us seem foolish.
Realization #3: Rereading is Better for Gaining New Perspectives
I used to be a historian. Being a historian demanded that I constantly read more--more new books, more old books, more old journals, more new journals--eventually, I'd find a point where I was no longer gaining new information or perspectives from new material. When I'd have to read a new book for a class or research project, I'd jump to the references and invariably see no shortage of books and journals I'd already read. I came to the realization all those years ago that I had little, if anything, to gain from yet more books past a certain point. Unfortunately I did not put that realization to work until recently. Since I left history behind in favor of my IT career, I have discovered that there's generally more new perspective, and more information to gain, by simply rereading what I've already read. Humans are fallible and our brains aren't perfect at remembering every last word we read, so there is a ton of value to be had in rereading. It doesn't matter if the book is fiction or nonfiction. Rereading doesn't change the content, but it does help us remember and enjoy more of it.
Realization #4: Very Few Books Actually Spark Joy
I have read many thousands of books in my lifetime, and very few of them have actually sparked enough joy for the information to stay with me. There are few genres that I genuinely enjoy, yet over the years I've kept so many other genres on my shelves only to never crack into them in earnest. There are only a handful of books in each genre I like that I've actually been compelled to keep through every book purge cycle. Those are the books that spark true joy for me, and books that don't spark joy have greatly outnumbered them for far too long.
Realization #5: E-Readers are Thousands of Books in One
It took me many, many years to come around to e-readers--I mean gee, they've only been around for twenty-ish years! I tried reading on a 7" tablet about ten years ago and didn't like it but about a year ago, I finally bought a small e-reader to take advantage of an ebook bundle that would have taken up a lot of space [and money] in hardcover or paperback form (22 books initially, and then another bundle of about 30 came up shortly after that... yikes). Although there's something undeniably sensuous about turning each page in a print book, the e-reader helps ease the transition to ebooks with a paper-textured screen and adjustable light level that makes it look and feel like I'm reading a real print book. Plus if I don't like one of the ebooks that I've purchased, I can delete it without feeling the guilt of discarding a physical item.
Realization #6: I Can Always Replace or Borrow a Discarded Book
Booksellers and libraries exist for a reason. If ever I discard a book and decide I want it back, I can either borrow it from a library, or purchase another copy from a bookseller. The best part about going the library route is I can enjoy the book without making any long-term commitment to owning it. Libraries are also free (minus any late fees or card replacement fees), and some library systems even offer the checkout of ebooks for clutter-free reading. If I want to reread a book I've borrowed, I can always buy my own copy as an ebook or print book. My experience with discarded books so far, however, has been that I haven't had any desire to track them down again to finally read them.
All of these realizations have pushed me to be more honest with myself, and come to terms with why I've kept so many unread and joyless books in my personal library. I can still get new print books and ebooks, but I think I owe it to the books I don't enjoy or won't read to let them go on to new homes. I don't need crowded floor-to-ceiling bookshelves taking up space that I could use instead as a relaxing spot to disconnect from the rest of the world. As an aside, clutter can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, and books can quickly become clutter when they're left to keep stacking up, left unread.
Realizing that I can have thousands of books on a tiny device, and that most of my print books aren't serving a purpose has helped me to let go of hundreds of print books... and most importantly, to let go of them without any regrets. Freeing up the space that books have taken has also ironically given me more room to curl up with a good book! I hope that sharing my own realizations will help other book-loving minimalists tackle any print book clutter, and enjoy some breathing room in their personal libraries.
Oh and one more thing: in June 2017, I had nearly 500 print books in my personal library. At the start of May 2022, I had about 200. At the end of my time writing this post on May 10, I'm down to a grand total of 81 print books, each one of which brings me joy (or I've promised to read very soon if I haven't yet). That feels like a good number for me that allows for some comfortable growth... or further downsizing if I don't love the to-be-read books once I dig in. Marie Kondo gave the figure that she keeps around 30 books. Could I achieve that some day? Maybe, but unlikely. A few more than that is probably fine for me.