Parting with books is hard. Here are the questions I asked myself to pare down.

By Oset Babür
Updated June 19, 2017
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Woman buried in books
Credit: Florian Küttler/Getty Images

I have a bone to pick with everyone who’s ever encouraged me to acquire a capsule wardrobe to save space in my tiny Cambridge apartment. I’ve weeded through stacks of “boyfriend fit” cardigans (is this retail-speak for misshapen?), and I’ve eliminated one-time-wear dresses made of pilling synthetic material. From amidst empty hangers and donation bags, I’m here to report that doing this hasn't gotten to the root of my greatest organizational problem: the stacks of books that I hoard in corners of my room once my bookshelves are packed to capacity.

Previously, I hadn't considered trimming down my collection because getting rid of books seemed like a sinful last-resort of space saving. Surely I could go without another pair of jeans before I had to touch my Roald Dahl books, I thought. But as an impending move recently approached, I sat cross-legged before my shelves, armed with paper, a pen, and trash bags to attempt the unthinkable.

I’m a visual thinker. Putting my thoughts on paper gives me the illusion of being more in control of a decision, which is why I knew that if I was to have any success getting rid of some beloved titles, I needed to document my process of elimination. The first round of questioning was gentle. I asked myself: Have I ever read this book? If not, can I commit to reading it before I buy any other books? If something sits on my shelf unread, it’s because I either impulsively picked it up, promised myself that I would read something by the author, or liked the cover. These all went. Then there was a small number of half-read, abandoned titles. Though I felt like I was admitting book defeat, in this first round, I tossed a few: a doorstop by David Foster Wallace and some Nick Hornby titles I no longer found endearing.

Once my shelves had some room to breathe, I could move on to the real weed whacking. I have a tendency to buy up an author’s entire body of work once I’ve read one book I really loved—a practice that results in additional piles of books that just weren't as addicting as the first. I own almost every George Orwell book written, and I also own a bunch of titles by Chuck Palahniuk. The former is a collection I’ll hang onto for life, as I’ve taken the time to mark up the pages with quotes and questions. The latter should have just been borrowed from the library or from a friend or maybe just skipped altogether, depending on how critical I want to be (yeah, yeah, Fight Club was really edgy when I was in high school). Of these offenders, I hung onto the initial books by Palahniuk, Vonnegut, and F. Scott Fitzgerald that had promoted my spending sprees, then set aside the rest for my to-donate pile before I could change my mind.

Every bibliophile has an Achilles heel, and as I made my way through my collection, it became increasingly obvious that mine is hardcovers. While I honestly couldn't bring myself to throw out any of these, I did vow to set a hard cap on buying more. The one exception is my Book of the Month subscription, which sends a newly released hardcover to my doorstep every month––it’s a great way for me to stay on top of books people are talking about (recent favorites include Doree Shafrir's Startup and Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators).

After this minor concession, I reached the step that I had knowingly saved for last, probably because I secretly hoped that I’d run out of steam before I got there. I’m talking about books with sentimental and nostalgic value. I held onto a terrible short story collection I picked up at a bookstore in Oxford while I was studying abroad, a signed copy of a new release by Orhan Pamuk that I hadn't been able to make my way through, and a friend’s copy of A Clockwork Orange that I had borrowed so many years ago, returning it no longer seemed necessary. Of these, I got rid of everything else, other than just 10 titles, including my copy of The Opposite of Loneliness, which I’d picked up in a moment of soul-searching days after graduating from college, and Norman Collins’ London Belongs To Me, which I’d blown through during my semester abroad. Ten might sound like a lot, but I’m one of those people who hangs onto yellowing birthday cards. Ten was a real achievement.

The last step of the elimination process was finding good homes for my newly displaced books. Some went to a donation bin near my local elementary school and a few were sold to used book dealers for about half the price of a cold-pressed juice. Some went to friends. The real silver lining in the end though, is that three or four years from now, when I’ve once again accumulated tiny hills of books that no longer fit into my shelves, I'll know that I have the strength to buckle down and wheedle away the excess, one cover at a time.