Culling my bookshelves

CullingA few weeks back, my landlady put a big box of books out in front of our brownstone, with a sign inviting passersby to take a book or two. Ours is a busy street, and within a few hours, most of her books had disappeared—no doubt to good homes and eager readers. So I refilled the box myself.

Many people I know blanch at the thought of getting rid of books. “I could never part with a single one of them!” they say, but I feel a good culling every now and then focuses my bookshelves. I prize  the books by my very favorite writers. But the rest are fair game when it comes time to weed the shelves.

There are the books that weirdly have multiple copies: Do I really need three copies of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? (I kept losing copies in boxes.) No. And three copies of The Collected Stories of John Cheever? Yes—one is a first edition hardcover, another is a trade paperback that I can mark up with analysis, and the third is the rack-sized paperback that I’ve owned since the early eighties and which is falling apart. There are the books that drift into the house thanks to my job: Young adult novels of yesteryear—some I worked on, some I was given, some I just picked up to keep current with the field. If I’m not wholly in love with the book, it would do better in the hands of some younger reader. And there are the books I bought when I thought I was going to be someone else—fat nonfiction books that I never got around to reading, that I can’t even imagine wanting to read right now. And finally, books given to me by long absent friends that I never read and never will read. All of them go into the box.

The end result of the culling is that my bookshelves become a better representation of who I am and who I aim to be, with fewer shadows of past selves. And a lot of my neighbors get some truly excellent reading material for free!

  1. Whereas I love when people cull because then I get to take their books! Books! Books! Mwa ha ha ha. Like Eddie Izzard said about the ambition of Americans to get all the money in the world and stick it in their (our) ears and go “phhhbbtt!” — I have a similar desire with (many, but not all) books. But I don’t want them in my ears and I rarely blow raspberries any more, so possibly not that similar really. Still, I am drawn to a sign reading ‘Free Books’ like a bee to overripe strawberries.


  2. I purge my household of books at least once a year lest one gets fed after midnight resulting in a full blown epidemic. I like to donate them to my local library who uses the books for their annual book sale.


  3. One of my favorite things to do is to leave a book in a random place, like a restaurant waiting area or a bench. I always write a note on the last page telling the ‘finder’ that I hope they enjoyed the story and to shoot me an email. I’ve made some really cool friends that way. 🙂


  4. My husband’s inability to part with any book is the exact reason I bought him a Kindle for Christmas. Of course this solution has caused problems of its own, specifically my inability to part with his Kindle.


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