Giving It Away or Keeping It on the Shelves

There are two basic options for what to do with a book once it’s finished: place it back on the bookshelf or pass it on to someone else.

“Kill your darlings,” a phrase made famous by Faulkner and the college literary classes that followed, is meant as a nod to the emotional process of editing. But those of us who have given away a novel that so deeply touched us know it can apply to a book collection as well.

The worst, of course, is when someone sees you reading a book they’re interested in.

“Is that the new James Patterson? I’ve been dying to read it!” a colleague asks, and you sense a creeping subtext of, “Can I borrow that when you’re done?”

Oh, the horror. Owning a really good book can feel like discovering a real estate agent specializing in rent-controlled apartments in New York: you want to share, brag, scream to the rooftops that you’ve found it, but giving out the guy’s number itself kind of ruins the whole thing. It’s your contact after all, and sure, sure, it’s public info and we’re in a free country, but can’t they just go about locating it themselves?

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“Why not just let them borrow the book?” you may ask. Because “borrowing” a book is the same as “borrowing” $10 for lunch, meaning, it is not borrowing. You’re essentially gambling. Take, for example, my copy of The Sun Also Rises. Experts are still debating, but we’re pretty sure it’s floating around the Dublin hostel my friend slept at in 2008.

Certainly, the debate changes when we factor in the whole Kindle/Nook development. A lot of my friends donated their books or gave them away when made the switch, and their relationship with the physical book itself hardly matters anymore. (Of course, my hesitation in giving books away doesn’t mean I don’t relish in the inverse, and I snatch up any and all free pieces of literature that come my way.)

But my feeling is that the books I’ve read that remain on my bookshelf serve as sacred artifacts and trophies. They paint a picture of who I am, they remind me of the journeys I’ve taken, and they’re a good conversation piece when I’m out of things to say on a horrible date.

At the same time, I have to concede. There are few greater joys I’ve felt than giving away a book I’ve loved so much to a person I believe is about to embark on the same adventure, turning the very same pages I held, keeping the memory alive through the lasting power of its words and not the ink of its printing.

What about you? Do you pass on your books or keep them on the shelves? How do you decide?

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • angylbayb

    If I really wasn’t moved by the book, I pass it on to someone who might enjoy it or donate it. If I read the book, liked it and thought of how much someone in particular would like the book I pass it on. If I loved it and honestly see myself rereading it, it goes on the shelf. If it’s part of a series, I try to keep them together in case I need to go back and reread a portion. Once the series is done, then I determine if it’s worth revisiting or passing on to another person. Classics and school reading books I pass along to other students, knowing that if I really want to read one again, I can find it.

    • Wow, you have such a smart way of doing it! I do much the same, with one addition. If I love the cover, I keep the book out for a while so I can admire it as a work of art….

      • Rachel Goldberg

        Ooh, I really like the idea of using favorite cover art books as coffee table books for admiring!

  • Teawench

    I pass all my books to a friend to read but she gives them back. If I don’t see myself rereading it, I offer it up to family members that might be interested. Any left get posted to Paperback Swap. I also send some to soldiers that are deployed overseas.

    I will, however, keep all my Jack the Ripper books. For a while I was that way about my vampire books but decided the ones I couldn’t finish need to go.

  • waggies

    If it’s book that I really love, I keep it on my shelf and buy another one to pass on to someone else to enjoy. It’s the best of both worlds!

  • Kathleen Jones

    I give books to family and friends. Sometimes I donate to a local library.

  • techeditor

    I read ARCs and best sellers a lot, and give many of them away. But I can’t give away a book I love. The books I give away are good books; I just didn’t love them.

    The perfect paragraph for how I feel: “But my feeling is that the books I’ve read that remain on my bookshelf serve as sacred artifacts and trophies. They paint a picture of who I am, they remind me of the journeys I’ve taken, and they’re a good conversation piece when I’m out of things to say on a horrible date.”

    I just donated a big box full of beautiful hard cover books that I didn’t love to the American Association of University Women for a used book sale in Romeo, Michigan. I don’t want them in my bookcase because they don’t paint the right picture of me.

  • ewhatley

    I pass my books to friends, according to their taste. If I don’t know anyone who would want the book I just finished, I take it to the “library” in our community’s clubhouse, where I know someone else can enjoy it. My “to be read” stack is never short enough to read anything for a second time.

  • gypsysmom

    I’m a BookCrosser which means I am always giving books away. There are a rare few that I keep but mostly because they were a gift to me and have sentimental value. I don’t usually read them again but I just like having them available.

  • Ashley Lamore

    I give it away to friends or family . Or donate to the library . Right now all the books I read I am giving to a co-worker to start her own library . That and get her addicted to books ??

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