Can One Have Too Many Books?

I’m not, by nature, a new-agey person. Although I live in the hippy mecca of Asheville, NC, I usually feel I’m the most conservative person in any gathering. So, when my better half began reading and acting on a book about de-cluttering with Feng Shui, I rolled my eyes a little and went back to whatever I was doing—until she began reading choice paragraphs and insights to me and (Shock! Horror!) they all seemed very relevant to my life. De-cluttering it seems (with or without Feng Shui) can be a process of letting go of things that have been holding you back or distracting you from your current life. If you view life as a journey, a process of change, you realize that most of your stuff was acquired before you grew into who you are currently. So much of this stuff will inevitably no longer be relevant to the job you currently have, lifestyle you currently follow, or interests you currently pursue.

To give a more concrete example: my family has literally thousands of books in our house. Most are titles I read (or wanted to read) at one point or another. There are, for example, shelves of fantasy & science-fiction (also science fact) from when I read a lot of SF, was actively trying to write that kind of fiction, and had a day-job where I needed to review and write about SF all the time. These days, my writing ambitions and practice are proceeding down different paths and reading Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui helped me realize that most of these books are never going to be used again by me. The very fact of their being around, taking up shelf space, the unread quietly guilting me, and the overflowing shelves having to be tidied, dusted and dealt with from time to time all takes mental energy and focus that I could be using more profitably elsewhere. Off to Goodwill with them all…

I began organizing our books on the shelves by interest areas—previously I had no organizing factor. At work, everything was categorized and alphabetical by author, but at home chaos reigned. Indian fiction initially took up a lot of space, but I’m no longer as intensely hungry for fiction from India and Pakistan as when I had first graduated from college (nearly 15 years ago), traveled in SE Asia and those authors were new and exciting to me. So I culled a great deal of older, already read and digested books from this section.

Naturally, Irish literature takes up a large section, but contained much more history and nonfiction than I realized. I decided to drop much of the random fiction and “flavor-of-the-moment” books I’d accumulated over the years (usually spur-of-the-moment purchases on trips back to my homeland) in favor of the more-serious history and literature, which is what I’m really interested in now.

The process of categorization and assigning shelf space revealed my current big literary/cultural passion to be what I’ll broadly call “the twentieth century European experience” (covering everything from Bloomsbury, Irish independence, and two world wars, through the multi-national ex-patriot experience in Europe between the wars, to the current facts of life in the EU). These are the kind of books I can’t read without opening two or three others to check references, compare and contrast, etc., so they needed to be shelved together for easy access. This wasn’t how I necessarily viewed my reading habits, but once I could see the amount of shelf space occupied by these books I began to reframe how I think about my reading time and any end goals or purpose those hours may have. So an unexpected benefit of this de-cluttering has been a mental shift in how I think about my reading habits/preferences and fresh understanding of how I’ve been choosing to use my free time.

We keep learning and growing in real time, but sometimes our mental image of ourselves, the one-line bio we assign ourselves in our heads, can’t keep up with our rate of growth, our changing focus. Our self image remains frozen in time like an obsolete mission statement or a long-neglected MySpace page. This whole de-cluttering kick helped me understand where my interests now lie and where they might take me. As I’m a very visual learner, I needed to see the amount of shelf space categories and subject areas took up, to weigh the bulk of old interests against new. This was easy to do once I gathered the physical books together — I can’t imagine how I’d do anything similar with ebooks on an ereader. (I have about 30 ebooks on my phone, but I can barely remember what they are. They’re out of sight and completely out of mind.)

Overall, we’ve probably only got rid of 20% of our books so far, with maybe another 10% that could easily be culled once I have the time and energy again. I think we still have too many books, and that’s probably the greatest testament to the influence of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui; a couple of months ago I never would have thought one could have too many books.

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14 comments

  1. melissa’s avatar

    I don’t think you can ever have too many books. My personal library has well over 400 books. The key is really to build or buy some sturdy well made bookcases that you can integrate into the room so they don’t stick out as if they were an addition to the room.

    I keep the books (the ones I truly enjoyed) in order to pass down to my family. Besides, I like the room of a room lined with bookcases, with simply a chair and a lamp in the middle.

    1. Rich’s avatar

      Picture that wall of books in every room of the house. That’s basically what we were heading towards. I used the “collecting so I can pass along to kids” excuse for a while, but what are they going to care about my taste in books somewhere down the line? They’re developing their own taste, and most of my stuff will just be clutter to them.

    2. miette’s avatar

      This is a regular point of contention around these parts. I could happily drown in piles and piles of books, and find nothing more comforting than the idea that I’m always within arms reach of a hundred titles, no matter what corner of what room I find myself. Then there are those who have to share space with me….

      In the interest of compromise, I’ve started sorting through them a little and found a few titles that are just total 100% absolute garbage. But ONLY A FEW!

      Good luck…

    3. Janet’s avatar

      An avid book collector friend of mine, T., has been giving me a box of books a month for me to sell in the store. When I expressed surprise at his generosity and his willingness to part with these books (all of which were in impeccable shape, and some of which were very valuable), he told me about what changed his mind about book collecting. Years ago, the head of his department at UGA passed away, and T. was on the team of folks who cleaned out the elderly professor’s home. T. described books upon books upon books, filling every room and every shelf and even filling moldy boxes in the basement. Many of the books had clearly not been touched in years, and they no longer seemed to be loved objects. T. said that he doesn’t ever want to put someone else in the position of having to sift through his rooms full of books, so now he only keeps those that mean the most to him.

      So being wary of a huge book collection after cleaning out a dead friend’s house isn’t the same as culling a book collection in search of a clutter-free, feng shui’ed home, but your piece reminded me of how I probably have a lot of books around here that aren’t loved and won’t be read (or reread) any time soon. Perhaps it’s time to move them to my “for sale” shelves in the office.

      Lovely post, and nice picture!

    4. melissa’s avatar

      Janet

      I do agree that there are those books that you simply won’t read again or think of enough to pass on, and with those books, the best thing to do is sell them, to replace them with books you WILL enjoy.

      I tend to box up those books and drive down to the senior home for them to read.

    5. melissa’s avatar

      Yup you are right, children do end up with their own taste, as well they should. I do have the luxury of having a room dedicated as a library, but when the time comes that I can’t hold any more books, I will most likely get rid of the “not change my life or give me a new perspective” books.

    6. Madigan’s avatar

      Losing most of my book collection due to a flood recently, has been a real wake-up call. If I’d weeded my books to start with, well, I would have had room for them in my house and they wouldn’t have been in that storage facility where they were flooded, and then covered in mold.

      It’s been nice having a fresh start… but even after losing all those books, I realize that I still have too many! Weeding is a continual process. I’m getting there… slowly but surely, my goal is to get down to only ONE bookshelf, and no more!
      Once I’ve achieved that, it will be a strict, “one book in, another must go” policy.

    7. Michelle’s avatar

      I just went through something similar, inspired by my daughter’s school fair – they were having a second-hand book stall. I started going through my books (don’t have anywhere near your amount) and realizing I had so many books I was never going to read again. I felt good getting rid of them.
      I tell you what I find hardest – culling Abby’s books (other than Rainbow magic). I am attached to books of hers that she isn’t. So many memories (I still have some books from when I was a child!) I also have the “oh, she will want to read this one herself when she is older”. I can’t keep all of her books – and I am finding the fatter chapter books take up more room than picture books (although we still have plenty of them). There are books literally in piles around her room as we no- longer have space. What about you? How are you with the kid’s books?

      1. Rich’s avatar

        Sadly, I have boxes of kids books — both old ones I don’t want to part with for sentimental reasons, and chapter books they’re not quite old enough for yet — squirreled away in the attic. I really need to go through them and get rid of a bunch, but they’re not in the way, so I happily ignore them. maybe when the girls go back to school in the fall I’ll have some time to weed through those.

        Happily, we now have a new niece to pass board books on to now, so it’s easier to let go of some of the childhood favorites.

      2. melissa’s avatar

        I’m great with kids books. His playroom is set up with 5 bookcases and two are full. But I collect books that I think he will enjoy until he is about 10 in that room. After that the books go in my collection. I don’t see myself adding many more books for him as I will most certainly be getting rid of the baby and toddler books shortly.

      3. Lisha’s avatar

        Great post. Scott and I did this a few years ago, when we were going back and forth to Charleston….simplify is my motto. One thing I would suggest before you hand over any more books to Goodwill is find out how much amazon is asking for them. We went through our stack of books and plays. We really didn’t have much. We’ve been really good about weeding them out through the years. Scott wanted to be done with it and drop them off at goodwill. I on the other hand thought – hey if we can get $20 for these that would be a nice treat. I sent Scott to 2 used bookstores and he came home with $210! A very nice treat indeed. I’m sure you have gems in there that are worth more than you think.:)

      4. Jen Rennicks’s avatar

        My comment must begin with the disclaimer – I’m his other half, so the ongoing decluttering in our home began with the Feng Shui book I picked up at a used bookstore during spring cleaning time. When our last move required us to shift 150 boxes of books – that is not an exaggeration as we paid movers by the number of labeling stickers used – we began to question exactly what was on all of our shelves. Although Rich was the primary book clearer, I also participated since some of those 3,000+ books were my contributions to our large, ever-growing collection. I can honestly look back 2 months later and say that none of those 10+ boxes of books are missed in our house that still boasts at least a bookshelf in every room… yes even in the bathrooms. Passing along books hoarded over the years ‘in case that might be of interest’ or ‘because I might someday read it again’ opened shelf space for new friends – esp. since our daughters are now defining their own likes and dislikes in the written world. Not sure how much enthusiasm I will get on clearing kids’ rooms or The Shed, but I think book cleaning and organizing was a good start!

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