5 Steps to Purge Your Bookshelf

For anyone who places value on books, an occasional purge can bring on a mild existential crisis with flashes of anxiety, guilt and regret.

Years ago my husband traded in his collection of Kant and Kierkegaard for a down-payment on a station wagon only to realize later that they were a much better ride.

Yet, even for the most sentimental book lover an act of purge is a practical necessity—we must, after all, at some point clear space for more books.

My moment of book purge liberation came when I was getting ready to donate my modest collection of Sylvia Plath biographies to a local library. (I figured no matter how many Plath biographies I go through, the ending would always be the same.)

Anyway, as I leafed wistfully through one of them I discovered a long lost portrait of my mother, sketched by an old friend, a portrait we all loved and presumed lost. I took it as a sign and a calling. Joseph Brodsky once said that books are meant to be read then given away, not hoarded, and here was the proof right in front of me.

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Since then, I’ve devised a five point system for the periodic purging that always leaves me feeling refreshed and my bookshelves more spare and attractive:

1. Think of Your Bookshelves as Your Closet. Home organization gurus say that if you haven’t worn an article of clothing in more than two consecutive seasons chances are you never will. Channel or Prada equivalents aside, it’s fair to presume that a book you bought at the Strand years ago but haven’t yet opened will remain so. Same goes for a book your best friend gave you as a gift back in your twenties. Let someone else discover them.

2. Topical Nonfiction Has an Expiration Date. Who wouldn’t succumb to the hype surrounding a bestselling expose, a juicy political scandal, or a shamelessly revealing memoir? But these are all transient pleasures. Adieu, all my books on the 2008 Presidential Election and the Clintons.

3. Go Ahead and Judge a Book by Its Cover. Let’s face it, paperbacks are printed on inferior paper that yellows over time, the binding inevitably loosens, and after a while they smell a little musty. If you’ve read it several times already and it is falling apart, let it go. So long, my beloved copy of Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave.

4. Allow Greatness to Slip Through Your Fingers. We are all in possession of great novels we’ve tried to read, again, and again, never making it past page XXX. I am on my third decade and first chapter of The Golden Bowl by Henry James. I’ll just go ahead and wait for a future high tech device that will deliver the story into my brain via osmosis.

5. Give Away the Books You Love. I end every book purge by selecting books that are truly dear to me and passing them on to a reader who needs them even more. This year it was a collection of Irvin Yalom’s fiction and nonfiction about psychoanalysis, therapy, and philosophy which once helped me out of a rut. My dear friend and I are both pretending that the Yaloms on her shelf are on loan but they are hers to keep and pass on.

[Photo Credit: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock.com]

RIFers! How do you purge your books? Tell us in the comments!

About Julia Serebrinsky

Julia Serebrinsky

Julia Serebrinsky is a book editor, ghostwriter, and a mother of feisty twin 10 year old boys.

  • Betty Ann Beam


  • Denise64

    I have an old army trunk in my room that’s filled to the top with books! It’s a great hiding place! I pass some on to my friends but I then go to garage sales and buy more! It’s a never ending circle! Lol I love it!

    • Never-ending circle is right, Denise! I have thousands of books stored in my garage. I think it’s time to take Julia’s advice and purge. Wish me luck!

      • dawnmomofreed

        why dont you bag them up and send some to people who want free books?????????

      • Grace

        Many prisons, cancer centers, assisted living centers would appreciate some of your books.

  • Dan

    Good articel, Thanks!

  • Janelle

    another great way is to donate or trade at a local Little Free Library near by. check out Littlefreelibrary.org they have a map where you can find nearby libraries. 🙂

  • dawnmomofreed

    sorry i cant do it, I want all the books the author writes, ‘i want to line them all up and I always sigh when i look, however, I have this crazy dream of owning a used book store of having a giant library full of beautiful books in my next home!

  • techeditor

    If I love a book, I DO NOT GET RID OF IT.
    I shelve my books alphabetically by author name and allot shelves for each letter. When I’m running out of space on a certain shelf, I find books on that shelf that I liked the least to donate to the library for their used book sale.
    I prefer hardcover books for the reasons you cite, so when I need to purge, paperbacks go first.

  • Margie

    My daughter and I have a book place we go to that you drop books off and you take as many as you want. It always helps me purge when I know they are going to someone who otherwise might not have the opportunity to read the book.

  • I’ve just recently started to do this due to diminishing shelf space. I favor paperback, though, for space saving reasons. Great post! 🙂

  • Barbara81

    I built a house with a library! When I need room on the shelves for new books, I get rid of the paperbacks first.

  • peacesun

    If I have a friend that needs a book to help with their situation or passions, it’s theirs with no qualms and no returns necessary.

  • mtoyengstrom

    Great article, Julia! It’s always a struggle to release a book back into the world. I agree with Techeditor and Betty Ann–Please consider taking your purged darlings and dropping them off at your local library! Cheers!

  • Bonnie Johnson

    I have a series by Francine Rivers that I bought one year. I vowed to read it by the fireplace in the winter while we were having a snow storm and guess what…we have had very mild winters and I have not yet tackled it. BUT, I won’t purge it ever and especially if I have not read it. Also, I have strict rules too about purging and those favorite authors of mind are assigned library cards for people to check out. I always know where they are but if they don’t come back to me I always figure the borrower or the one the borrower lent it too needs it more than me. That makes it hard when they are in series so I do send a post card reminding them that it is due back on my shelf!!

  • Jennipurr

    A great way to purge books is to do a free book listing on “Freecycle” This is a group that functions in all states as well as other countries. You can go to Freecycle.com and find the listing to register for your area…They give away all sorts of things…FREE…also, you can list something that you want. Many of the giveaways in my area are new or gently used. When I list books I have the pickup in front of my garage, so noone comes into my house.This has worked VERY well for me.

  • Cynthia

    Join BookCrossing.com. Register your books and use the Book Crossing ID (bcid) number to hopefully track where they go next. It can be anonymous and is free. Give your books wings to travel. FreeCycle and Little Free Libraries are great places to give away books. Also childrens books are a perfect Halloween treat.

  • Kae

    I can’t give them away. I feel I need to keep the books because I invest time, energy and money in them

  • Melissa Iorio

    ‘This’ is a fantastic article although I admit the title gave me anxiety and difficult memories that started five years ago then onto just two years ago when due to circumstances unimaginable and left me near death I also lost over 400 books that took me 16 years to build for the home “library” I’ve always wished for. My girls and I lost everything, I’m still battling severe health issues from those circumstances and I’ve just spent the two years since all was lost trying to rebuild my “library”. Still wondering when the tears stop and the memory fades, but now I do the best a single mom can on a once a month income check to rebuild. So, I’m bookmarking this article to return to when I feel I’m ready to let go. When I’m ready to purge my books they’ll without question go to my local homeless shelter where they have a specific floor and secure room for abused women and their children. As a homeschool mom I also have many many books and workbooks both non-standard and public school issued books which most were in a storage unit and saved so those will go to the shelter for the kids who will greatly from them. One of the saddest and most heart wrenching times in my life and being at the shelter for assistance after we lost everything, I knew immediately what I needed and wanted to do with those books. I’m 99% homebound due to the five year illness from a gas leak and the symptoms that may never get better, highly OCD and agoraphobic so getting to the storage unit will be as soon as I can, but I couldn’t think of a better place to donate to. Especially since the casinos in my area, whom I worked for years ago, wish to tear down the shelter and get the homeless out of the city because to them “it’s an eyesore and bad for business”!? Apologies for going a bit off topic, but this topic is one profoundly difficult one on so many levels. Please excuse all typos as I’m in bed not well trying to type and I also feel like the awkward “new kid” in class since I just discovered your site this past week. Wonderful site, love the interaction and the posts are awesome!! Best to all and thank you. <3

    • Madeleine Poe

      Sending prayers for strength and recovery your way. May God’s bountiful grace bless you and your children.

      • Melissa I.

        Hello Madeleine, I’m so sorry I’m just now seeing your reply. Thank you so much for taking your time to send your prayers. Your entire message is Beautiful, Hopeful and so full of care. Something in very short supply in my world. Thank you for sending something so needed my way. A total stranger to you, yet you cared enough to do so. Gratitude, Prayers, and All things good being sent your way as well. My Heart is warmed over from that more than I could express. Warmest of thoughts to you. ~Melissa~ P.S. I forgot. I’m “guest” because of internet/email issues, but most is fixed now. ~*Have a Beautiful Day*~

  • RaceMom

    I joined PaperbackSwap.com and mailed away all my books for credits to use for future books. Perfect way to purge and focus on getting through my TBR – nothing new comes in until something leaves!

  • Madeleine Poe

    I find book hoarding a hard habit to break – not that I’m trying very hard to give it up. However, we have a wonderful used book store called McKay’s. They give you store credit for your used books, CDs, DVDs, video games with no expiration date. So no pressure to hurry up and buy. Their selection is truly impressive and, of course, changes practically by the hour. When I finally convince myself of the need to purge, that’s where I go. However, with the increased popularity and availability of audio- and ebooks, I am now using tons of virtual space in addition to physical. I’m not too stressed over it all; my bad habits could be a lot worse. (c;

  • This is SUCH a difficult thing for me…..Books have such intense meaning for me–sometimes more than what is between the pages. But the one thing that has helped–my ereaders. I have promised my husband to go through many (not ALL) of my books and purge. Of the books I’m still interested in, I’ll keep a list/wishlist to be added to my ereaders when the price is right (note: if you bought a book from Amazon you might be able to get it for a discount on your kindle!). I figure even IF I fill up my Kindle, it takes up less space on a bookshelf than one book 😉 Of course there are books I just won’t ever part with–my collection of copies of Gone with the Wind….my favorite childhood books that were given to me as gifts….And I’m planning on selling many of my books (which I keep in good condition!) back to Amazon for credit for ebooks 😉 It’s win-win. I think LOL.

  • Dorie Schultz

    Best thing that happened to me is volunteering for a community used book store. All run by volunteers, donations go a jail literacy program, an adult learning center for those in need, and some other great programs. We keep the newer books in the store, 2010 and up but 3 times a year have a “giant” sale of books we have been saving and there are hundreds. We sell every paper cover book for $1.00 and all hardcovers for $2.00 and then we have a bag sale at the end.

    This worthy endeavor has made me go through my bookshelves and really purge. I have always shared with my 4 daughters but still kept tons. I know they will be read and often we get our books donated back to us! It’s a great feeling.

  • Rachna

    I make it a point to invite friends when they come over to bring books they love,and help themselves to books on the middle two shelves of my shelves!

  • bookcrossing.com is a great site (someone below posted about it). you register your books, leave them in public places, and then you can see how they “travel.” one of mine ended up in canada. i usually keep the “quality lit” that i annotate… if it’s just mass market fiction, i usually can easily part with it.

  • some people at my gym leave books in the locker room…by the next day or so the books are usually gone….

  • Rusty Fender

    Just don’t take them to Half Price Books. They’ll give you pennies then resell them for half the cover price – IF they take them at all. Massive rip off. I buy my stuff at the Library Resale shop, Goodwill and Savers and everybody wins.

  • Heidi Turner Larson

    Your local VA hospital or Ronald McDonald house would be very grateful for any donated books. Family members often need something to read or just look at while they visit or wait with their loved ones.

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