Rethinking Books (I) – Book Love Good or Bad?


As a writer, my whole job is centred around books. To make a good writer,we have to be a good reader too. Which comes very easily for most of us. We love words, so we read, and then we write, and read some more.

But today I had an epiphany, thanks to an online news article. Today, I began to rethink my love of books, and see them as – dare I suggest it – clutter! It’s a love that can go bad, just like any relationship, and one which is better off managed.

Read the post first – Book end: Contest reveals the secrets of demolishing cluttering, by Michael De Groote, Deseret News National Edition.

In summary, Michael and work colleague Ryan Morgenegg ran a contest between themselves to bring in one book each day to declutter their book spaces at home. In the months of running the contest they both learnt a lot about the nature of their book lives, and the psychology sitting behind books.

The article also evidences tales from other book addicts which I’ll summarise below in bullets that struck me personally:-

  1. Ellen Jovin is quoted as saying “Books, for me, are a connection to the whole life of the mind.” She was consequently carting around 60 boxes of books on every move, but forced to rethink this when moving into a smaller apartment where “It was like a graveyard of books. Each one like a little tombstone showing what I have done in the past.”
  2. Alison Kero, a professional organizer, suggests books can be symbolic of larger issues in life, exampling the fact that many people buy books to improve themselves in some aspect of their life. And if that improvement fails? Then the book is kept as a symbol of that unfinished project, because nobody wants to admit they failed. They put the book and change on the backburner – unfinished. Books can be projects. Kero admits to forcing herself to finish a book she didn’t like because she saw the books in that way.
  3. Susan Tunises’ concept of BABLE – books acquired beyond life expectancy is also discussed in the article. Eventually many of us acquire more books than can be read during our lifetimes. Kero suggests we be honest with ourselves and calculate how many books we can read in a year. How much reading time do we really have?
  4. Steve Savage is quoted on respect for the book at time of purchase – “We should respect the book and what it can be.” Savage says when people buy books, they should consider how the book is going to eventually leave their possession as well. Its entire lifecycle through your world, as such.

Many of the approaches above have been circling around in my own thinking for some years now. I have a passion for books – shared, I know, with many writers. On Pinterest, we share all sorts of drool-worthy images of stacked home libraries showing collections of books and shelving installations the modest person could never possess due to lack of space, money or time.

I moved across the world 12,000 miles (at great cost) and back again with 75+ large boxes of books, putting Ellen Jovin (above) to shame.  While living in the U.K. I had no opportunity to pare down or recycle my growing collection of books – there simply weren’t any second-hand book shops to take them to, nor did charities collect them. And it seemed too sacrilegious for me to toss a few into the paper recycling bin – I would picture those once-loved containers of tales being torn apart and made into egg cartons.

And when it came to giving them away, I found an odd thing. Two examples –

  • As a newly pregnant woman I’d purchased some of the best parenting and child development advice books on the market at the time, read them once, then – as you do – applied what I needed to my life with my new baby, and moved on. Shortly after, a couple next door became pregnant, and had a daughter also. I offered them my collection of books, only read once. They refused.Most of the books were still current, and available in the local bookstores. They didn’t offer the information, but going out and buying basically the same books for themselves, new and fresh,was something they wanted to do, to invest financially in their “project”, to make it real for themselves. 
  • On our bookshelves at home is a collection of 10-20 technical manuals on my partner and my own (previous) career – technical software testing manuals. The books are well-known, expensive, and difficult to find. They still remain relevant to the industry (sadly, no huge changes have been developed on software testing methods over the years). As a test manager I took my resource library of these guides into my work for everyone to borrow and share. Some of those books would briefly be borrowed as a reference but then they would appear back on the shelf. And the same person would suddenly have their own copy of the same book on their desk.
    • These books are practical guides to some of the methodology and process behind a job specification, but most of those skills can only be learned on-the-job and with experience. Once read and the knowledge applied, the manuals become doorstops. Yet every young tester with a bit of ambition wanted those same books, not shared through my free-use library, but as a copy under their sole possession. The books became a status and project symbol – ‘look what I might know that you don’t’. Owning their own copy of the book was a rite of passage and proof in front of their manager (me) that they were taking their career progression seriously by investing personally in it.

Here in Australia book give-aways (of ‘normal books’, not those above) is much easier. There exist actual second-hand book shops, and large charity bins on the local streets do take books. Oh, but the book fairs – run by another large charity – are the devil’s incarnate for book-whores. As a family, we might clean out 20 or so of our older unwanted books from the bookshelves, take them down to gift them for future fairs, then spend another hour browsing around the musty tables in the hall, and comeback with another twenty.

Secondhand fairs are much required, as new books found in bookstores over here, are extortionately expensive. There are not the 3 for 2 discounts that we found in supermarkets in the U.K. Despite that, we still spend hours in local and major bookstores, selecting our next reads. The price adds value and impact to our book purchase choices, and drives Australia as a nation to seek out cheaper options or formats to access their reading habits when possible.

We also, of course, have a local library we support on a monthly basis. More books. And of course, dare I suggest the advent of digital books has truly been my own undoing. Nowadays my To-Read pile is mega-BABLE. If I was an immortal, I’d still not have the time to read everything on that mountainous pile. But at least with digital books, I don’t have a problem with shelf-space.

Changes in Thinking

Over the last year or so, I have already begun putting into practice some rethinking of my book-as-possession habits. The family runs an unofficial book-in/book-out policy. Slowly, those 75+ boxes of old books are being sent out to another life, even the ones that remind me of my own childhood or the illustrated fairytale anthologies I kept because I read them to my baby daughter (she has no further interest in them, but ah, my memories are kept close everytime I see them).

We’re slowly getting down to keeping only the classics that we think our teenage daughter might need for either schoolwork, or technique books for hobbies and study. (Slow being the operative word).

As stated above,the prohibitive cost of new purchases in bookstores means we are really thinking about which books we want to buy (and in what format)–and keep purchases for special occasions or irregular shopping trips into the city. We have wishlists for new books forming. I am also painfully aware that I have to operate with a lifetime plan for any book coming into the house – what’s going to happen to it once read. Can I store it? Will it be reread or of use in the future? How will it be moved on?

Last year through the Goodreads Reading challenge, I set a goal of reading 50 books, and achieved it. It was double my 2012 target, but a real challenge for some months. This year I will set a reading target of 30, with the sub-level target of making most of them fiction – a decidedly harder target for me. Setting a reasonable reading target for the year is another good strategy for book-decluttering. Although I may not be setting writing resolutions (in public) this year, having a readolution makes better sense.

Last year I also began a practice – and failed at maintaining it fully – of keeping a book log. And for memorable books, an entire collection of book notes and quotes. This year I’m going to simplify the process, and just keep a list of books read, author, date and a quick rating.

Over the Christmas break we redesigned our daughter’s bedroom with a new study desk, shelving and decor. We also redesigned and decluttered our own master bedroom. Both rooms are much more spacious. The next step – an intention to declutter our entrance hallway which contains the three large bookshelves displaying all our books. I want them gone, and to see the walls. This means releasing many more old books I’ll never read again, to the wilds. It’s a longer term goal, but a good one. And those bookshelves hold other life-clutter too – little ornaments, smurf collections and the like. Decluttering bookshelves works across the board, not just for books.

Lastly, there’s the pattern forming to let go of reading a book just because it’s a project – to read to the end, just because I should. Last year I learned to let go of books I found difficult to “get into”. I tend to give it a good go – several chapters or up to 50-100 pages, but if the book doesn’t grip me, there are plenty out there on my to-read pile, crying out for attention.

So, here are my basic book-reading plans:

Book Love Goals (or Readolutions) for 2014:

    1. Adopt an official book in/book out policy for physical purchases/new acquisitions of books.
    2. Archive digital books and keep the in-device books to a minimum.
    3. Maintain wishlists for new books – share and use these for special occasion gifts.
    4. Have a lifeplan for books coming into our possession – how they will be moved on once read.
    5. Set responsible and reasonable reading targets for the year, knowing how much reading time is available.
    6. Let-go-of and stop reading books found difficult to “get into” or which don’t resonate. There are plenty of others.
    7. Keep simple book logs of books read.
    8. Have a decluttering household plan to release books held and make space (which makes them sound like the wild creature that they should be).

What’s your relationship with books like? Healthy or not, have you set any resolutions or goals for books and reading this year?

Credit: the graphic used is often-used Bookshelves by author and graphic artist Colin Thompson. It’s from his book ‘How to Live Forever’. Colin recently visited my daughter’s school to talk about his children’s books last year – my only regret is they wouldn’t let parents in to see him. So instead, I bought his book design as a gelaskin for my iPhone.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Books (I) – Book Love Good or Bad?

  1. I was rather resistant when I first started to read your post, but I am gradually, grudgingly, coming to see that you do have a point. One in one out seems tough but looking around my bookshelves and the piles on my bedroom floor makes me see I haven’t kept to my own rule of only keeping something that I know I will want to re-read. Might organise a book swap in my classes and see what happens…and oh, I want to do a book log too. Hmm, given me a lot to think about…

    1. It’s interesting isn’t it? As writers we have several perhaps competing impressions of books – books are work, books are knowledge, books are possible competitors or complements to our writing…

      As readers we inherit a lot of the psychological weight that non-writing bibliophiles have for books – we put so much more onus on books than, say, the contents of our wardrobes – which I enjoy recycling out to charity bins etc because it means there’s more space for a few new items. But books? Those are so hard to let go of.

  2. Some interesting thoughts. Thanks for making me think about all the reasons I make for my over-flowing shelves. I weigh each book before I discard it. I’m especially fond of some old novels that I will never read again, but I keep them because they belonged to an ancestor, so seem like heirlooms. Healthy or unhealthy? Depends on your perspective. Is your graphic meant to remind you of what you’re not aspiring to?

    incidentally, I’m not sure why you couldn’t find any places in the UK to take your unwanted books. I’ve spent far too many hours browsing charity bookshelves, second-hand book shops, book fairs, fetes, car-boot sales and on-line outlets for once-loved books. Were you in a hermit hole somewhere?

    1. Cathum, I did browse charity bookshelves and car boot sales, and supported my local school fete every year. But in the entire Cambridgeshire area there were no second-hand book shops that I could find (I’m hoping that someone living there currently can come on here just to prove me wrong, honestly) and my inquiries on donating books to some of the market town charity shops were met with kind rejections – their shelves were full. Perhaps in a few months? No, sorry, still full. (A matter of timing?).

      Incidentally, my daughter attended her local public primary school in a small village. The first year of the school fete they asked for books, brick-brack, tombola items etc for all the stalls, and we sent through quite a few books at the time. There was the usual table of books to be bought, and we bought some from there to take home (avoiding our own donations). But the next and following years the parent requests came home for those fetes asking for all the usual donations except for books – there was a written request to notdonate books, as they didn’t have the storage space available and there were still many left-over from the last year.

      Books are such a personal experience – so many don’t get bought up until the right person comes along -kind of like rescue animals, or husbands maybe? (Attempt at humour, please laugh)

      Car boot sales got the same result – nobody who held book tables wanted our books when we offered them. We could have taken our 100+ books and setup our own table after paying the 50-80 pounds for a spot, but the chances of making back that money just to give away the books was prohibitive. We even rang up several dealers who advertised in local papers to have our offer refused. Our village library – we were fortunate to still have one run by volunteers, as locally many had closed down – also did not want our donations.

      Occasionally we had a little success and could offer a few books here and there, but the objective of giving away second hand books was difficult. Second hand furniture shops didn’t really exist locally either – there were a few that dealt in knick-knacks and antiques but if you had a good sofa going for free, it was difficult to recycle it – many ended up carted to the local recycling centre. Charities did pick up, but only for very specific furniture, and were over-run with sofas etc. Locally, if you passed an area where a sofa was incongruously sitting in bush or wasteland you’d recognise it as a fly-tip site.

      But here, in urban Sydney at least, passing sofas, and other furniture sitting outside on verges is an everyday occurance – councils have regular household pickups – you book them in, and stick out all your furniture and household rubbish too big for the normal weekly bin pickups, and they come to pick them up from off your front verge. But before their early morning arrival you will often find men with trailers coming around, to rifle through and find all the good reusable stuff – which are presumably sold off ebay etc, or go into second hand shops. Charities don’t pick up like they did in the U.K. however. But there are huge bins available in most public car parks to take your clothes, books, toys etc, for charity donations.

      Sydney also has actual second hand book stores, and locally some of these combine with coffee shops or restaurants.(We won’t talk about stores for new books – like anywhere, many have closed down, but there are still good independent and large chains available).

      However, it’s all relevant where-ever you are to shelf space available. If human kind has been buying books for decades, and as they are individually bought off bookstore shelves, new books go onto those shelves, then there just isn’t the room to take all those books onto second hand tables, stores, or car boots.

      Socially we are becoming a more transient population. I’ve moved house, cities and countries to follow work, and carted boxes of books around with me. Having a fantastic library room filled with well-kept classics has always been a dream, but honestly – it would pin me down to living in the same house forever.

      It’s great that many of us do collect hundreds of books. But personally, if I want some more, I need to make space for them, and think about where those older ones may go.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond, and remind me of all the car boot sale tables I’d frequented over the years (and a few boots too!).

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