How to Curate the Ultimate Home Library

Making a space that reflects your taste, choosing books that excite, and other tips from an expert minimalist.

Home library

I confess, if I had my fantasy, my home library might look like the scene from the Citadel in Game of Thrones: vast, with scrolling shelves and tiers of ladders. Many of the books would reference dragons.

Technically, though, I’m a minimalist. For all the possessions I buy or choose to keep, I use a process called “mindful curation” as laid out in my own book, A Life Less Throwaway. This ensures I’m only buying things that are going to nurture me in the long-term, leaving me with a clearer house and mercifully immune to trends and impulse-buying. But how can this philosophy be applied to building a home library?

The space

Even a small corner of the house with a modest shelf and a comfy chair can be a library—a place of relaxation, escape, and reflection. Its size should be in proportion with your space and how many books you think you and your family will genuinely turn back to multiple times.

If you want the shelves to last the test of time, find some made with solid wood and traditional carpentry techniques (flat-pack will end up wobbly). With both shelves and seating, choose styles that will endure and that you’ll continue to love in 20 to 30 years’ time. I’ve got my eye on a classic library wing chair that you can lounge in for hours.

If you lend to people regularly, I’d also recommend including a logbook and putting your name in any book that leaves the house. Also, give pals a deadline for bringing it back. Telling them you need it for something is a good tactic.

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The books

The aim of mindful curation, whatever you’re buying, is to end up with a collection that serves you beautifully, perfectly reflects you taste, and will be in your life for the long-term.

Think about the big picture: what do you want your book collection to do for you? It has the power to do a lot, which is rather exciting—from teaching you how to build your own house to transporting you to a world of space-pirates.

Culling books

With this end-goal in mind, don’t hold on to books because you think you should, or because someone gave them to you and you’d feel guilty if you gave them away. Holding on to books you’re not fussed about creates a “so many books, nothing to read” feeling that many of us might also be familiar with from our wardrobes. Having only books that excite and delight us, on the other hand, is a nurturing feeling.

Ask yourself

  • Will I or anyone else in this house read this again?
  • Would I highly recommend and lend this book to anyone?
  • Is it a beautiful book that I get pleasure from seeing on the shelf?

If the answer is no to all three questions, I’d recommend letting that book go and leaving space for something better.

How to find and make the most of your books

Ads and top-10 lists can be very persuasive, but there could be books out there much more suited to you that don’t have a big-table display in the bookstore. Below, I suggest a slightly different strategy for choosing each type of book.

Fiction

Look at your current collection. Which books were transformative? Which would you save if all the books in the world were burning? Try to identify what it is about those books that created your attachment to them. Finally, find the most knowledgeable person you know about books (they’re probably at your local library or independent bookshop) and ask them to find you something that will give you a similar experience. (Online tools like Read It Forward can also do the trick!)

Structure these on the shelf alphabetically, by genre or by the mood they create in you—whichever is most helpful.

Biographies

Choose biographies that will inspire you to positive action rather than inspire jealousy or self-criticism. If you haven’t gotten into biographies yet, I highly recommend finding people who have done the kinds of things you dreamed of doing as a kid or dream of doing now, and people whose values you admire. As you read, write down your thoughts. What can you learn from these people, both their triumphs and mistakes?

Comic books and magazines

The difference between hoarding and collecting is knowing where things are, so if you have the space for a comic book and magazine collection, put them all in folders and label them.

With magazines, it might be that you kept them for a particular article, recipe, or image. If that’s the case, neatly cut these out and put them into a binder, then the rest of the magazine can be recycled.

Coffee table and art books

Only buy these if you have a deep appreciation for what’s inside, otherwise, it’s a monstrous lot of paper and ink. If you have a lot of these books, split your collection into 12 and assign a month of the year to them. Take your little stack for the current month and put them out by your reading chair or on the coffee table, where they can be picked up on a whim and enjoyed as they were intended.

Reference and self-help

You often get what you pay for when it comes to reference. Two books can have very similar titles, but the content can be of differing quality. If possible, buy these books from a physical store so you can have a flick through; if not, find as many reviews as possible. If the book’s super expensive, borrow from a library—and if you then find it indispensable, save up for your own copy. 

Cookbooks

So many cookbooks languish on shelves with only one recipe tried. When you get a cookbook, go through it and type up all the recipe names you want to try on a master list, along with the corresponding page number. It might be extra helpful to split this list into categories, such as size of meal or types of meat used. Then, when planning your meals for the week, you have a handy menu of options to try.

Audio and eBooks

Keeping a library in the cloud is often just as good a method for getting the information you want. The only downside is losing their physicality—which is important for some—and the ability to lend. If neither of these is important to you, then eBook away; the trees will thank you! I use a mixture of both.

Maintenance

It might not be the Buckingham Palace Library you’re looking after, but if you want it to survive, keep books away from damp, heat, and direct sun. Dust regularly, and once a year, take them down and wipe each with a cloth. This has the added benefit of reminding you what books you have.

Finally, enthuse the next generation by introducing them to your library, lending them favorite books, and sharing your knowledge. They’ll be the ones keeping your books alive in the future, by reading them.


Featured Image: Getty Images; Author Photo: Marc Bates

Up until 2016, TARA BUTTON was working in advertising, but she became uncomfortable in a job that pushed people to buy things they didn’t necessarily want or need. On her 30th birthday, her sister gave her a Le Creuset cooking pot. Every time she used this pot, she thought, “If only all my possessions were like this, I’d never have to replace anything.” The idea stalked her for months, until finally (despite having close to zero technical ability) she gave in and started building a basic website. In January 2016, a journalist found BuyMeOnce on Twitter and pitched a story to The Telegraph. Over the next few days, the article went viral, and Tara’s world (and inbox) exploded. She quit her job and committed to spreading the BuyMeOnce message globally. Since then she's come to oversee a team of eight, all passionate about the BuyMeOnce mission; the team even includes her old boss.

About TARA BUTTON

tara button

Up until 2016, TARA BUTTON was working in advertising, but she became uncomfortable in a job that pushed people to buy things they didn’t necessarily want or need. On her 30th birthday, her sister gave her a Le Creuset cooking pot. Every time she used this pot, she thought, “If only all my possessions were like this, I’d never have to replace anything.” The idea stalked her for months, until finally (despite having close to zero technical ability) she gave in and started building a basic website. In January 2016, a journalist found BuyMeOnce on Twitter and pitched a story to The Telegraph. Over the next few days, the article went viral, and Tara’s world (and inbox) exploded. She quit her job and committed to spreading the BuyMeOnce message globally. Since then she’s come to oversee a team of eight, all passionate about the BuyMeOnce mission; the team even includes her old boss.

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