Don't Let Your Bookshelf Define You

Gaze upon these technical books and tremble at the depth of my knowledge! Look upon this classic literature and know that I am cultured! Peer at these non-fiction books and submit to my worldliness!

When you're a book-lover, it can be difficult to avoid being consumed by your collection. The books we've read become a part of us - they have filled us with knowledge and experiences, and enriched our lives. Every book we read leaves something of itself behind. A bookshelf is a trophy case, a shrine dedicated to the knowledge we have consumed. We proudly display our trophies of past conquests, praying that our guests will comment on our display, glowing with pride every time our gaze falls upon the stacks.

Fear me! Slayer of Words! Eater of Fantasy! Conqueror of Truth! The Devouring One!

It kind of gets to your head.


Sometimes, we proudly display trophies that haven't even been earned. How many of us have supposedly wonderful classic books that we've never cracked open? Pop-sci books that we've never read beyond the first chapter? Textbooks we never used in school? When we let books become a trophy, we open ourselves up to (perceived) judgement. Our bookshelves are never clever enough, or worldly enough, or philosophical enough. We stuff our shelves with things we will never read because we can't bear face the fact that we really do just have trashy taste.

Books are a problem. It's very easy to get emotionally attached to books - either individual books (I'll never let go of my copy of Watership Down) or just the concept of having books. People get very angry and defensive when someone dares suggest that people pare down their book collection. I read Apartment Therapy, which has a community that seems to be particularly susceptible to this attachment. Publishing the words "own too many" combined with the word "books" is like touching a flame to a bomb fuse. They rally around a cry of, "You'll pry my books from my cold, dead hands, you bookless heathens!"

How many books can we really love? You know that saying where you can only ever manage one hundred social connections? Or that thing where you can only hold seven simultaneous thoughts at once? There has to be an upper limit the the number of books that a person can devote their love to. There's a finite number of books in a collection that we will re-read. There's a finite number of books that have a special meaning. Everything else just takes up space that could be filled with things we love and use.

It's okay to let go of the references you never reference. It's alright to donate the classics you'll never read. We book-lovers can learn to look at our collections as made up of individual items, rather than as a single object that defines us and owns us. I've done it. It was hard. I was ruthless. But my book shelf now represents my tastes far more than it ever did before the culling.

Gaze upon my sci-fi collection and know that it is loved! Look upon my board games and know that they are played! Peer into my mouse cage and know that I love these living things!

Fear me! Slayer of terrible bestselling fiction! Destroyer of crusty classic lit! Eliminator of outdated textbooks! The Organized One!

6 things about

Don't Let Your Bookshelf Define You
  1. Yep, I've killed off book after book and, in fact, category after category of books. The ones that I'm not going to read this year or next, that I know I can buy again in the future. The ones where I love the author but I really only need one or two of their books, not all of them. The ones that I have just for information, and I realize that I have the same information in four different books, so I keep the one that's the most fun to read.

    All of which has the important - IMO - disclaimer that even though I'm getting rid of the book, I'm _not_ committing to that book being out of my life forever. I'm not saying that I will never again be a person that has a use for that book. I'm not saying that whatever made me feel good about myself, that that book testified to, is no longer true or will never be true again. It's OK to get rid of a book and then decide, later, that I'd like a copy again. It just isn't earning its bookshelf space right now.

    I think that it's that false sense that getting rid of a book is a permanent decision that leads to a lot of book hoarding.

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    1. That's a good way to look at it. To date I haven't re-bought any books that I've donated, though I HAVE replaced a few books that I've lost!

      I think a lot of hording in general is related to the feeling that getting rid of something is permanent. "What if I need this and don't have it?" can be a powerful motivator to keep something that you're not using right now.

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  2. I think books mark important milestones in my life. I might get rid of some, but the ones I am emotionally invested in are the ones I probably will keep for life. For eg:-my books on Vedanta-an ancient Indian philosophy - are too me, an important witness to my spiritual evolution and even though I may not read them constantly, they serve to remind me of where I used to be.

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    1. I don't think you have to read a book in the future for it to be valuable - when it comes down to it, books are individual objects, too! I have lots of random little trinkets that are worthless except for their meaning to me.

      I'm just advocating that people look at their books as individual items and evaluate their merit based on that, rather than keep every book that crosses their path just because it's a book!

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  3. I've noticed a lot of posts around about bookshelves lately. I travel and have left my books scattered along my path. Its a good thing for people to have them and collect them I think. You may not re-read your books, I certainly don't, but it's nice to have them there for references and to pass along to someone who might be interested in them. Using them just as decoration, though, seems a little pointless.

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    1. I've definitely noticed that minimalism has been inspiring people a lot lately - it's gotten rather trendy! One of the first (and hardest) minimalist lessons seems to be about books. I think a lot of people are taught to hold onto books just because they're books, and books are special. I know I was!

      I don't know how I feel about books as decoration, to be honest! On the one hand, they're objects like anything else - like any statue, art print, or vase. They can be meaningful to the owner, or they can have been purchased solely for their decorative merits. On the other hand, every time I look at a magazine spread and see a stack of "vintage" color-coordinated books angled just so on the coffee table, I have to think, "Have they ever opened those?"

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