What I’m Learning From Thinning Out My Books

by James Wallace Harris, 9/22/22

I want a new stereo system for my bedroom. A higher fidelity one than what I described in “To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?” That was written back in July, well before I had my hernia surgery on August 29th. I used researching stereo equipment to avoid thinking about surgery before my operation and to ignore my physical discomforts afterward. I have a long history of using unpleasant experiences as justifications for buying myself new toys.

Two things have stopped me from ordering my new stereo equipment. First, my release instructions warned me not to pick up anything over five pounds while I recovered. Second, I have no room to set up new equipment. Making room will involve getting rid of stuff and rearranging furniture, all weighing over five pounds. So while lying around with pillows on my lap to protect my swollen private parts from cats, I’ve been mentally analyzing the best way to free up the most wall space while requiring the least weight lifting.

After much grinding of my mental gears, I’ve concluded the easiest solution is to get rid of two bookcases worth of books. My bedroom has four bookcases of books. For twenty years before I quit working I stashed away books for my retirement years. Well, I squirreled away too many. Way too many. And in the decade since I’ve had all my time free, I’ve learned that most of the approximately 500 books I’ve read over the last ten years were bought after I retired.

I’ve been trying to thin out my collection for decades. But whenever I try to pull volumes to give to the Friends of the Library I start reading and think, “Oh man, I’ll read this someday. This one is too good to give up.” I just can’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice because every book I hold sparks joy.

It’s either give up books or forget about that new stereo. Ouch! I’ve spent four hours this morning going through half a bookcase. With much agonizing, I’ve found 23 books to discard. That’s about one shelf of books. I need to clear off eleven more shelves.

This is so painful. But what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger – right? What I’m learning is each book is a little world of knowledge that I wanted to incorporate into my soul. And to decide not to read a book means deciding that’s an area of knowledge I’ll remain ignorant of.

By the way, did I tell you that all these books are nonfiction? I’m not ready to thin out my science fiction collection. That’s revealing too.

Some of the books I’m discarding I’ve decided would be better on audio anyway. I’m opening each book up and reading from it randomly. I realize that some books, particularly certain kinds of history books, I’d rather listen to than reading. I can get rid of those (unless I’d want to keep them for reference). Examples are Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

However, I’ve discovered another type of book I can part with, but the reason why disturbs and depresses me. I’m finding some books I thought I could read when I was younger are probably too difficult for my older mind or would require a level of concentration that I no longer possess. A good example is Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Her intellectual analyses are ones I’m no longer capable of handling, and maybe never was.

The final type represents an acceptance of resignation. I’m just not going to live long enough to get around to some books. These are the books I feel would be the last in line. I’d love to read Complete Collected Essays by V. S. Pritchett or Harlan Ellison’s Watching because I admire their commentary on pop culture’s past. But I have to decide what’s really worth learning in my fading years of life.

Another funny kind of realization is I’m torn between preserving my precious reading time for what’s relevant to the existential needs of my remaining years and books that offer the purest delightful fun. Two examples of what I’m keeping are Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes and Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles.

I know without a doubt I could give away all the books in all four bookcases and not really miss them. My eyes now prefer reading ebooks and I have over a thousand of them waiting to be read. I also have over a thousand audiobooks hidden away in the cloud. And I have six bookcases of physical books in my computer room. Yet, I just hate to part with physical books. I’ve thought about putting bookcases in other rooms of the house, but that would be unfair to Susan. She’s already bitching about how many books she’ll have to get rid of if I die before her.

With every book I hold to decide its fate, I mentally go through a gauntlet of emotions and thoughts. I should make a daily meditation of routinely going through my library. With each book, just reading a few paragraphs here and there inspires several ideas for blog essays.


25 thoughts on “What I’m Learning From Thinning Out My Books”

          1. They were really great. Napoleon Murphy Brock’s energy was still through the roof. They had a great session guitarist as well. Basically the music was the same as with Zappa, only his vocals were lacking.

            I like nearly everythign Zappa did, but that period around the end of the sixties, beginning the 70ies was great. Hot Rats is an obvious favorite. Fillmore East as well. And as for jazz/big band, the Grand Wazoo too.

  1. Many thanks for this overview, Jim! This is a painful task for any lover of books and reading. How much of your SFF are you keeping, and by which writers, from which periods, etc.?

      1. I couldn’t even estimate how many books I have, and I shudder at the thought of actually trying to count them. Many books are books I feel I should keep (history, politics, etc.), but the books really close to my heart are fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, using the latter term in a broad sense to encompass both literary and genre SF. Even I were to get rid of the “obligatory” books, as it were, at some point I would have to part with at least some of the SFF.

    1. On Thursday, I happened to be in the area of Pulpfiction Books (one of the best bookstores in Vancouver, with an excellent SFF section). I bought five books–two by Heinlein, one each by Joe Haldeman and Gordon R. Dickson, and a lengthy anthology of stories from Astounding/Analog. I guess I’m going in the wrong direction.

        1. Time Storm by Dickson (1977); Dealing in Futures (1985), a collection by Joe Haldeman; Magic and Waldo, Incorporated by Heinlein (1940, 1942, 1950); Requiem, a collection of hitherto unpublished works by Heinlein together with tributes to him on his passing (1992); and Analog: The Best of Science Fiction. (The latter is a curious book in that it has no indication of either the date of publication or the name of the editor, although I found out from poking around on the net that it was first published in 1983 or so, and reprinted in 1994.)

      1. Oh wow! I’ve been reading the whole of Mildred D. Taylor, and I bought them. Also a variety of non-fiction. I just love books too much!

        We the books you bought new reads or re-reads?

        1. If you mean, have I read any of those books–possibly a few of the stories in the anthology, and a few of the stories or essays in the Heinlein tribute collection, but I haven’t read any of this material otherwise.

  2. Hi Jim:

    As a fellow biblioholic I have the same problem getting rid of books for many of the same reasons you describe. However, I have realized that some books are really worth the read and many are just crap with a title that attracted me but the contents are lame.

    I have noticed that I am much more ruthless when I am tired, hungry, angry, and depressed. Then getting rid of the books is much easier than when I am rested, energic, generous, enthusiastic.

    So I recommend waiting if you want to purge your book shelves until you’re in a bad mood. It will make it much easier to toss the one’s that might come close but don’t quite meet Kondo’s joy test.

    David Markham

    1. Many thanks for sharing your experiences, David and Jim and everyone! The problem for me is that I sometimes get rid of books when I’m out of sorts, and later I think back on books I wish I had kept. Of course, given the number of books I have, maybe I shouldn’t worry that I’m getting rid of too many.

  3. “I just can’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice because every book I hold sparks joy.” I can totally relate to that. And it isn’t just books, much of what I have and hold on to sparks joy, but books are definitely the hardest to think about moving on to someone, or somewhere, else.

    My mom tells the story of how, when I was a kid, no matter what someone would give me for a gift…books, clothes, etc., I would take them to bed with me and sleep with them that first night, or first few nights. Something about receiving a physical object from someone has always held such meaning for me, and that just grew as I became an adult. I will buy a new book and I’ll come home and sit it out somewhere where I can see it, touch it, pick it up and hold it, even if I have no intention of diving right in to reading it and it eventually winds up on a shelf unread.

    Over the past year, as Mary has done a lot of decluttering and culling of her own things, we’ve both moved some books out of the house to donation sites or Half Price Books for someone else to presumably find and generate joy for themselves. It isn’t easy. Even books that I pick up and know that I know that I know I just don’t currently have a desire to read and probably won’t get to (especially as I am a bid re-reader), cause me to feel bad when I put them in a box to move on out of the house.

    I hope you can continue to do the culling you need to get space for your stereo. That is, at the very least, a worthwhile reason to make some space.

    1. I was able to clear the wall for the stereo by just getting rid of the books in one bookcase. I was able to keep the other case by putting books along the top of all my bookcases. Cheating, I guess, but it’s bought me some time.

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