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

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