Saturday, August 2, 2008

How to Decide What Books to Junk

Oh, I'm beaming. My advice has been solicited.

Thrift Store Mama asked, "Do you have any suggestions on how to decide which books to save and which to get rid of? "

This is a great question, and one I have actually been putting some thought into lately. Every time I'm in my basement I look at the bookshelves that line my wall and think that I really need to go through them.

But books are different than other clutter. They don't follow the same rules. They're not a one-time use type of item. They don't expire. You usually don't outgrow them. Even if you haven't ever used (i.e. read) the book, chances are good that at some point you will. And just because you haven't touched it in a year or you've forgotten about it does not mean it won't become valuable to you again at some point.

In my house, books fall into two categories: children's books and adult books. Let's start with children's books.

Children's books are the exception to the "you don't outgrow books" rule. There definitely will come a time when your child no longer wants to read My First Word Book. Of course there will be books with extreme sentimental value. Keep those.

But once a child has outgrown a book, it is still difficult for a packrat (i.e. me) to donate it. My thinking behind keeping children's books is that there are books I would like to keep to pass on to my kids someday, when they have kids. But there are questions you should ask yourself about these books you plan to save:

1. Is it in good shape? If it is not, chances aren't good that it will hold up for 20 or more years and then be useable by another generation.

2. Is it a classic? There are certain books—Goodnight Moon, Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Richard Scarry, or whatever book matters to you—that you'll want to keep. Some random book that your kids kinda liked? Probably not worth saving.

3. Is it really probable that you will use these books at some point in the future? Because if not, there are a lot of kids who are here now that could benefit from your used books.

I'm far less inclined to get rid of an adult book. Not only because I may want to re-read it, but because I remember going through my mom's bookshelves when I was a kid and finding cool reading material. I hope my children will do the same.

Here are the guidelines I follow:

1. If a book includes outdated information (atlases from the '80s, for instance), junk it.

2. If you didn't like a book, junk it.

3. If it's a mindless entertainment kind of read, you probably won't read it again, and you don't think it falls in the category of "cool reading material" for others to find later, junk it.

4. Books that you never read, that you don't intend to read, and are just sitting there forlornly on their shelves? Junk 'em.

5. I always give preference to hardcover books or trade paperbacks as opposed to mass markets. But that's purely aesthetic. The form of the book has little to do with its content.

My rule of thumb is that if you're not sure if you can part with it, keep it for a while. Maybe put it in a box in the garage and revisit that box a few weeks or months later. If you haven't missed it or you care less about it since it's been out of sight, get rid of it then. Chances are good that your decision will be easier the second time through.

Maybe it's my packrat tendencies, but I figure I can always give something away later, but it's harder to get it back.

What is your advice on how to decide which books to get rid of?


Anonymous said...

I am addicted to books, so I had to find a way to "justify" owning so many. Because I live in a rural area with lots of elderly neighbors I decided to set up my books as a lending library to neighbors and friends. It's working really well. No more guilt about owning so many. Fewer trips to town to the library for my elderly neighbors. Given the cost of fuel, we all stack so many errands into every trip that often we get tired before we get to the library. So this is win/win for lots of us.

Anonymous said...

Also, keep the books a neighbor might want to borrow.

Anonymous said...

I just went through our library and was shocked at the number of duplicates we had! They were the first to get put in the "donate" pile. We still have too many, but I pared down the series/authors I didn't love and at least now they all fit in our bookcases.

Grouping books by author (or interest) at least helps keep down the number of duplicates!

Anonymous said...

I really don't know why books are so hard to part with. Maybe it's because they represent a snapshot of your life, and re-reading them can bring back memories of other times. I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which is a special Olympic edition) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days:,, Enjoy!

Liz said...

I don't get rid of any books, that's my problem. I even keep duplicates! I'm sick, send antidote!

Thrift Store Mama said...

Stimey - Thanks for the answers. I'm glad for an approach to start thinking about this. Book - you said it PERFECTLY. Because even though I will never reread "Gone With the Wind" again, it represents a time in my life when I was young and enchanted with all things antebellum!

Elaine said...

I donated about 500 books to the local library book sale 3 years ago. It was a B.R.U.T.A.L. purge on my part - because I LOVE books. I used to work in a library.

Here's my rule: 1 or 2 favorite books per topic. OR Keep it if you know it's out of print and took a substantial amount of time to acquire it on the first go-round.

Magpie said...

if there's a duplicate, off with it's head.

of course, i've recently unearthed three versions of plato's republic, and multiple dupes of different volumes of william carlos williams stuff.

Threeundertwo said...

Another good rule; almost all textbooks are out of date by the time the class is over. No matter how expensive it was, it really needs to go unless you use it for a reference currently. My husband and I both got rid of a lot of pounds of books when we got brutal with the old textbooks.

I also think all those other books from college that are mercilessly highlighted and underlined need to go. I wont want to read those versions myself again, much less someone else. I think these have to go into the recycling.

My last holdouts are a bunch of books in a foreign language that cost a lot, but I'm sure I'll never read again. They just have to go.

Anonymous said...

When the books overflow the bookshelves, it's time for a purge.

See how nice and noncommittal that was? Your house could be filled with bookshelves, or there could be only one. Each of us has a different standard.

I think we each have slightly different rules for keeping and tossing too. But yours are a wonderful list.

We added another one when we purged books this weekend (over 100!). If it's one that you wouldn't necessarily want your kids to find, junk it.

We had a few old sci-fi that fell into that category ....

Kari said...

If you've outgrown books and are just ready for some new reading material, there are some great book swapping sites available. My two favorites are and You post the books you don't want anymore and get books that are new and interesting (although in various conditions of used - if you are particular about book condition you just have to contact the giver to make sure it's what you want.) We homeschool so we're always going through books or needing new ones so it's great for us. It helps us just keep books in rotation without spending too much for new books. It usually only costs a dollar or two to mail books. (even though it says "paperback" it's for any kind of book)

The sites are commercial free and cost nothing to use. You pay shipping to send books to others, but get books for free in exchange.

You can also easily sell books on