How do I know what to purge my library?

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Of the two of us, I’m much more of a packrat than Emily. At least, when it comes to books. I love books. I love the feel of them. I love the experience of reading. I love having conversations in the margins as I mark up and mess up almost every title I own.

Even so, I am constantly trying to clear out space on my bookshelves. I do this for two reasons:

  1. I would like to not have them constantly double-stacked.
  2. I love my wife, and the chaos drives her batty.

So every two or three months—although the request to purge feels like it’s coming almost as soon as I’ve completed the last one—I go to pull books off the shelves. And I hesitate. I start asking myself all kinds of questions: Do I really want to get rid of this one? What if I need this book over here? Yeah, I know this one was bunk, but maybe I can use it to illustrate a point in a book or blog sometime…

I’m looking for an excuse to not get rid of this book or that one. (Which is probably dumb, but that’s me.) Eventually, though, I overcome my hesitancy and create a pile of rarely smaller than 50 books. So how do I know which books are right to purge? Here are a few guidelines I use to determine what to get rid of:

If it’s one of the “one and done” reads, it leaves. There are books I’ve bought that I really should have taken out of the library instead, or I’m desperate for something to read in an airport (besides what I’ve got with me already), or I have because I needed it for a book review (but it didn’t connect with me). If a book falls into this category, it’s a safe bet it’s not staying in my house.

If it’s been here long enough to collect dust, but never been read, it leaves. Chances are, if I’ve not read a book within 18 months of receiving it, I’m not going to. So it can g0.

If I have to think too hard about how to use it later, it leaves. If I don’t have an application for a book later on—if it’s not one I’d joyfully share with a friend, or I can’t think of how it might inform something I’m writing in the future, it’s okay for it to go. (And besides, if I find I do need it again, I can borrow it from the library or from a friend. Or buy a copy if the need is great enough.)

If it’s something I fundamentally disagree with, it leaves. These are the books that are usually either outright heretical (of which there’ve been a few sent to me), or just plain silly (I once received a book that included a chapter on how dancing is, in fact, sinful. True story). I’ve sometimes kept a questionable book or two for research purposes, but ultimately I’ve found I’ve not needed them. (Those ones I don’t put in a giveaway box, though: I strip the covers and recycle them.)

That’s generally how I choose to get rid of a book. Is it hard to do? Yep. I really like books, and if I had my way, I’d line the longest wall in my living room with books. But even though the work of purging is hard, I can’t say I’ve really regretted getting rid of those books. And knowing that someone is getting more use out of the good books makes the effort of clearing them out worth it to me.


Photo by Gioia De Antoniis via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

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2 Replies to “How do I know what to purge my library?”

  1. […] what should go—at least when it comes to my books. My criteria for whether or not to keep a book (which I shared here) make good sense to me, and actually do help me make real—and often […]

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