Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Culling my book collection: a Sisyphean task

library Culling my book collection: a Sisyphean task Years ago an editor acquaintance of mine moved from the USA to Singapore. An overseas move is daunting for a number of reasons, but for bookish types one of the toughest aspects is having to commit to culling a book collection thats been years in the making.'My acquaintance confessed at the time that in order to get through this library-winnowing ordeal he had been throwing himself into Buddhism, which encourages adherents to de-emphasise worldly possessions.

Because, honestly, without spiritual enlightenment, how'are you supposed to face down the torture that is a book-tossing assignation?

It might sound naff to people who arent bookish sorts, but those of you who are book lovers will know that Im not being at all facetious here. Book lovers'have spent lifetimes not only putting together meaningful, hugely personal book collections, but also building years worth of stories and experiences around each and every book in that collection. Every book represents a moment in our lives, and giving them up is like torching a beloved photo album.

Im experiencing this first-hand at the moment, and Im a little sweaty-palmed as I type this.'You see, my husband and I are considering a possible move overseas next year, and though were mobile enough, my book collection isnt.

I am the Imelda Marcos of books: I have thousands. Books in every colour, design, and style. Books for every occasion. (Oddly enough, other than my tango shoes, my shoe collection is rather lacking.) The Amazon rainforest has been reincarnated, in book form, in our flat. There are probably as many pages in my shelves as there are bank notes in Warren Buffetts bank account. Post financial crisis, of course. Even on a bad day thats a whole lotta bank notes, after all.

The move is something that weve been contemplating for a while now, so I have had time to acclimatise to the idea of dividing up my books and hurling them in the direction of the four winds. But though Ive dipped my toe into this book-disposal business off and on, testing the waters to see whether I can bear the terrible frigidity that is a life without my beloved stories, I remain that would-be swimmer at the edge of the shore: the one shriekingly retreating every time a wave rolls in.

All I can say is that I wish I had an inner Buddhist to channel. I do have an outer Buddhistmy husband, who is indeed a practising Buddhist in the Theravada traditionbut in true Buddhist fashion, hes told me that this battle is mine to fight.

Unfortunately, when it comes to book-culling stoushes I am apparently a pacifist.

Ive tried so many ways to engage myself in this bookish skirmish, but this whole business is rather like playing chess with yourself. Perhaps its because Ive set my goals too high, believing myself a Kasparov of critical book-turfing analysis, when really Connect Four is probably more up my alley.

My initial efforts were, by my own admission, half-hearted. Not even that, really. They were a quarter-hearted at most, or perhaps just a smidgen of a ventricle, a sliver of an aorta. I paid lip service to my goal, giving away a book here, passing one along there, sure, but something wasnt working. My book collection was not diminishing at all. In fact, the ratio of books donated to books received was not one that was at all mathematically sound.

Somehow, despite embarking on my supposed book-culling effort, I had run entirely out of bookshelf space, and desk space, and table space. My book stacks were collapsing in the middle of the night. One of my bookshelves had a notable bend in its top shelf, courtesy of the obese bookish pile taking bets on that final, back-breaking straw. I was like one of those dieters growing ever more plump despite apparently following a weight-loss plan to the letter. Rather than a post-dinner box of doughnuts, I was secretly sneaking in boxes of books.

But then I began volunteering at the Footpath Library, and seeing all of those pre-loved books being passed on to loving, appreciative readers gave me hope. So too did the recent opening of the Little Library in Melbourne Central, a not-for-profit venture that involves the giving-and-taking of books from users personal libraries. As did hearing that a teacher-librarian friend had a limited library budget.

Knowing that my books were going to be sent off on a new readerly adventure buoyed me: instead of that on-the-edge swimmer, I was floating about in the shallows. So I set myself a rather ambitious goal:'to donate or give away a) every book on my shelves that Ive read and b) the books that Im realistically never going to read. Thus far Ive managed to pass along several hundred books.

Unfortunately, although Im attempting to get into the gregarious, magnanimous mind-set that all of this requires, Im not quite as charitable as Id like to believe. Each time I put an armload of books into the donate pile I find myself reconsidering and second-guessing. Each time, at least a couple of those books find their way back on my shelves, or in the to-read stack by the bed. A stack that is now toppling.

Its a difficult undertaking, because all of those books in my bookshelves are there for a reason. Theyre all a little bit of me. The ones that Ive read are a memory; the ones that I havent are a possibility. Ive had to play games with myself, set myself mini challenges in order to get further ahead with this task: I must donate five ugly books, or all of my classics, which I can, anyway, find online. Ive also had to allow myself some indulgences. Unlike my editor friend, I will not be giving away my signed books (and certainly not the signed Charles de Lint book I took off my editor friends hands), or my slipcased collectors editions. Or the very first book that my husband ever bought me. Or the hollowed-out book with which he proposed.

I have, however, been taking a leaf out of my friends spiritual book, in a way at least. Ever so slowly, and not entirely fruitfully (I have two new books smiling up at me at this very moment) Ive been trying to shift my reading identity away from being a book'collector'and towards being solely a'reader.'Hopefully by thinking of books less as artefacts, by eschewing that idea that my reading memories are attached to the physical book itself, I can clear out my shelves in preparation for the move.

But who am I kidding, really? I know as well as you do that this is a case of extended double-think. That even if I do completely clear out my bookshelves in time for the move, it will only be a matter of time before I have a brand new book collection testing the structural integrity of my shelves.

Perhaps I should stop attempting to channel my inner Buddhist and start channelling international freight companies instead.

Your turn:'Have you ever tried to cull your book collection? Do you have any successes (or exquisite failures) youd like to share?


This post was syndicated on BlogHer, 8 Jan 2013



  1. Oh, this was a painful article to write: Culling my book collection: a Sisyphean task.

  2. Michelle /

    I did a majour book cull which i must say I have regretted to an extent since said cull but there are days now when that regret is a stiletto in my heart.
    At the tender age of 19 I moved cross country literally one side to the other. Myself and two others packed up the car and left so anything that didnt fit in the car didnt go. And we needed petrol money so the books, being mine, were deemed the most disposable (by all but me).
    Those shelves were filled with my childhood memories and all of my childhood loves. The Secret Garden, The Famous Five, Narnia all of the books that I could right now be passing down to my own children.

    The only way I could bring myself to cope with the horror was to look at it as a fresh start with virginal new shelves ready to become the basis of a brand new collection and a new set of memories.

    • Stephanie /

      Oh, thats heart-breaking, Michelle! All of my childhood books disappeared somewhere along the way when my parents divorced, so I dont have any of mine, either. Its a loss I feel quite keenly even now, and I know what you mean about not being able to pass those copies along to your children.

  3. I never luck the idea of culling but its bound to happen, currently I just buy more bookshelves.

    • Stephanie /

      You subscribe to the elastic waistband theory of book culling, clearly. :)

  4. kitblu /

    Oh my! I can relate to all of you. Wednesday night I decided I had to tackle the 3 6 bookcases in my library and the 4 footer in my office. What, you may ask, was deselected? An out of date book of etiquette and a big book of crossword puzzles that are too easy for me. Pathetic.
    My next plan is to put books together by topic as I know I have several of some such as: books about cats, gardening, food remedies, photography, cleaning, and more. Then I will limit myself to a couple of each.
    Then there are cookbooks, books on quilting, sewing, origami, beading and other types of crafting. Much of these can be found on the internet so I SHOULD be able to part with some.
    Novels I havent read will be eliminated as I read them or decide I wont read them.
    What do you think? Am I talking a 20 year project here?

    • Stephanie /

      Oh dear, that all sounds very familiar! I was doing exactly that until I started to get tough on myself. My goal at the moment is all of the books Ive read (save signed or especially meaningful editions), and books that although I may want to read at some point, I probably wont. And theres always the library if so!

  5. This was lovely to read. Yes, there are a lot of us who have been tortured by the dreaded book cull. One of my friends said she kept only the books that absolutely floored her. That was eye-opening for me because up until that point, I kept everything, even the books I hated (I know, strange). So, my initial cull were books I hated then I got rid of those that I was pretty sure that I would never read. Ive never had to do such a severe cull though. Ive regretted a few decisions but thats okay.
    On another note, I hope that if you leave the country that we can follow you on this blog. Ive only just discovered the wonderful you :)
    P.S. I can imagine that there was a ring in that hollowed-out book?!

    • Stephanie /

      I have to say that it was with a sense of delight that I got rid of Vernon God Little on the weekend. Success!

      Im trying to do what your friend is doing as well: Im culling everything Ive read except the ones that I passionately love, or that are signed and so on. And yes, if I do jaunt off elsewhere, Ill certainly still be reading and bloggingeven if its from the middle of a jungle and I need to hand-crank my wifi!

      (And indeed, there was a ring in the book. The storys over here. :) )

  6. For the morning crew: were talking about culling our book collections over here. Do share your tips and stories!

  7. While a voracious reader, I merely have one bookshelf that is shorter than I, standing 4 feet tall. I have my collections, and a few childhood reads, but mostly I feel guilty that some of these wonderful books will not be read by others unless I pass them on. Not the stories but the actual book itself, poor dear. But then Ive moved an ungodly number of times and this is my mental coping used in order to cull my book shelves

    • Stephanie /

      If I had my childhood books still Id be in terrible trouble, but most of those vanished when my parents separated (although I think that my grandma might have some of my precocious Blyton collection).

      It sounds like youve largely made the transition from collector to reader (also seen in your library borrowing habit), which means youre doing better at this than I am! Being able to see passing on books as passing on stories is a great way of looking at it. I suppose that it similarly also involves a sharing of the enjoyment obtained in reading a particular book, as well: it can only be hoped that the next reader experiences a similar reading journey throughout the reading process.

      • That is my hope. Most of my childhood books have been lost over the years but the four or five that I have Ive only now started sharing with nieces. I read A Rats Tale for several hours on a recent two day driving trip. It was a hit and I left it with my sister to finish. Though I intend on getting it back later. :)

        • Stephanie /

          Im so glad to hear that your nieces loved the book (and that you survived the road tripIve been meaning to email you about that to see how you got on!) :)

  8. They're all a little bit of me. Yes, they are, and by passing them on to others, you are sharing a part of you, the good part.

    Also, I like to give books feelings when I cull, as in: They WANT to be read, and if I am not going to read/reread them in the next 2-5 years, I should pass them on so they have that chance of finding their forever home where they will be reread regularly.

    My first culling was hard, but I felt really good afterwards. The next was easier. I kept finding outlets for these books libraries (especially in rural areas), shelters, non-profit book stores,, etc. Now, I do a yearly culling. Its good for the books and good for me.

    • Stephanie /

      I love the idea of a forever home. How very true! My very favourite books I tend to pass on to close friends who I know will cherish them and take the time to read them.

      I think part of whats difficult is that Ive changed so much since having bought many of these books, and while some of the books are no longer to my taste, some part of me wants to hang on to them out of nostalgia and obligation to that self I used to be.

      Finding somewhere trusted to donate to really does seem to help, and its certainly made my culling efforts easier. (Youll be proud to know that I just placed ten books by the door ready to be sent out.)

  9. I have cheated I am afraid and placed my answer and thoughts here at

    • Stephanie /

      What a great post, Julie. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and for reassuring me that someone else is presently going through the same thing!

      Shipping over some of my books is definitely on the agenda, but will depend on shipping costs and availability of space within the crate. Im presently culling around the periphery of my book collection, and will probably make those more difficult judgements at crunch time. If I can take my books with me, then I certainly will!

  10. I have been in one place now for over 12 years and theres been a huge increase in the number of books in the house since the last move, especially since the start of this little book blogging hobby of mine. I really need to cull, too, but just cant commit to it. Its hard to just donate books in bulk somewhere, because you dont know whether they will find their readers or just end up being eventually discarded.

    • Stephanie /

      I know what you mean, Laurie. Weve been here about four years, and I think its very tempting to start fortifying your collection when you know youre going to be in one place for a while. I completely agree about the well-spring of books that results from book blogging: we have so many arriving here each week that it quite undermines my efforts.

      I had the sane qualms about donating in bulk, but I get a lot of value out of these organisations personally, so by donating I feel like Im giving back a little. I dont think I could just offload my beloved books to just anyone, though!

  11. The stuff of nightmares Stephanie. I still mourn the loss of the bulk of my childhood collection after an interstate move as a teenager (including the entire Sweet Valley High series and dozens of Dolly fiction.
    As a result it took me four years to get up the courage to donate 6 boxes of second hand Mills & Boons a few months ago even though I knew I would never read them again.
    Thankfully the only way we will move again is if we win Lotto, in which case I will be able to afford the costs of moving my book collection with me so culling isnt ever going to be strictly necessary though I may have to get rid of a few stray pieces of furniture to find room for more bookshelves.

    • Stephanie /

      I lost all of my Sweet Valley books to my parents divorce, Im afraid, along with all of my Enid Blyton and various other childrens books. I have a feeling that they might be at my grandmas farm, but Ill hav to confirm.

      I have a friend whos a massive MB fan, so I tend to pass those along to herits much easier when you know that the books are going to a good home!

      Nomadism is probably on the cards for us in the near future, so all I can say is thank goodness for e-readers! With luck, though, well at least have a home base to work from!

  12. I completely understand what you are going through-Im about to move, and so have been cataloguing my books. Of the 1500 books on my groaning shelves 1400 have found a home in the new place. Admittedly, for some of the less frequently read, that home is currently the floor as the built in shelves are already full. But I must admit it was an adventure to find out what I had, and will probably save me several library trips.

    Although I cant seem to let go of my beautiful books, hopefully you will be more successful!

  13. Stephanie /

    Interesting that the lesser books get relegated to the floor, Gina! It is a bit of an adventure to go through your shelves and see what you do have tucked away in thereso often books are invisible when theyre on the shelves.

    I am planning to keep the more beautiful of my books, but will do my very best to pass on the rest! (Or, come worst case scenario, stow them away in my suitcase.)

  14. I dont envy you Stephanie! Im actually pondering what to do with my books too, ive started to put some aside for the local secondhand bookstore because i dont have any space left in my home office! All ive managed to part with is some old chic lit titles that i probably wouldnt read again. I cant imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to an entire book collection!

    Stephanie & Shelleyrae, i too lost my Sweet Valley collection only it was at a family garage sale. But i wasnt as devastated as when i gave up my baby-sitters club collection! I wish id kept them all!

    • Stephanie /

      Its certainly a challenge, Lauren, although Im heartened at least by the charity aspect. Looking back over my collection has really got me thinking about how much Ive changed as a reader, and what kind of book collection Id end up with if I were to start anew at this point (stay tuned for a post about that!)

      I spent years collecting my SVH books! My sister and I would go up to the second-hand bookshop at the end of our street, dump armloads of five cent pieces on the counter, and buy whatever we could with the amount! I never collected BSC books, but fortunately my local library had a pretty comprehensive collection. :)

  15. Mary DeBorde /

    Your beautifully articulated post mirrors my current situation on SO many levels (seriously): not only are we soon moving into a much smaller new home currently under construction, but weve become minimalists and the ONE thing it is so hard to do is to cull my book collection!

    I am trying to learn *detachment* from objects, but also coming from a Buddhist mind set that if I do not learn the lesson now, Ill simply be faced with the same situation over & over until I get it right. (thank you, Karma!) lol

    I have to tell you this, though, to help you understand what lays down the road should you NOT be able to separate yourself emotionally from this attachment: I have a much older friend (close to 70 yrs old) who has amassed the largest collection of books I have ever seen. We are talking *hoarders* here lol! Every single room in her home is inundated I would guess she has at least ten thousand books. At least.

    But they are decaying around her as we speak (Im such a freak that I keep mine in ziploc baggies *sigh*). Its really sad that all these books she has spent a lifetime devoted to, will eventually be fit only for a dumpster.

    So, from one budding minimalist to another, I wish you the best. Try to keep ONLY what you love, the rest is detritus ;D

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your lovely words, Mary! It is strange, isnt it, how were compelled to collect books and nothing else. I think it has something to do with books being the equivalent of a photo album for a reader. One thing that does help to some degree is the rise of ebooks and book cataloguing software/websites: its possible to recreate a book collection far more easily now than it used to be.

      Your story about the book collector friend has indeed given me heart. Id much prefer to think about my books being read and loved by other people than simply crumbling away to nothing!

  16. I culled my books very slowly between 2009-2011 from about 1000 to forever books and about 80 or so TBR books. I wasnt moving but I had all these books that Id bought five years ago or been given ten years ago or were tied to old study courses where Id thought someday Ill get around to reading more about X and never had. It felt like I was carrying a lot of book shaped ballast rather than a varied selection of books! Culling helped me realise how much I have changed as a reader and start building a new collection of books that I actively read from and add to. Much healthier. :)

    • Stephanie /

      Oh yes, I still have all of my old uni textbooks, which I suspect Im holding on to just because they were so fiendishly expensive. I know exactly what you mean about having changed as a reader, and how our libraries reflect our development as individuals. I did a post on exactly that topic yesterday! Great minds. :)