I have been a lifelong lover of the written word.
My childhood summers were spent devouring books by the dozens from the local library. Most of my meager weekly allowance in high school went to my town’s Barnes & Noble, where I spent stolen Saturday afternoons curled up on a cushy armchair with a novel. And more times than I can count in my adult life, I’ve pulled myself away from an engrossing story only after realizing the morning sun was already peeking over the horizon.
What I’m trying to say is that by the time I started thinking about minimalism, every inch of my bookshelf was stacked double with paper tomes. Also, my fiancé, Lawrence, likes to read at least five books at a time, and his collection was several times the size of mine.
However, over the past couple of years, we’ve managed to substantially reduce the number of books we own (my shelf is now single-stacked!) while still keeping a healthy home library. Best of all, we were able to declutter our books without feeling any strain on our reading habits. Here’s how we did it.
Step 1: The Mindset Shift
For many years, it simply never occurred to me that I didn’t have to keep every book I ever owned forever. As an immigrant child of immigrants, my family didn’t start out with an inherited library. Every book we owned was one we ourselves acquired, through book giveaways, used book sales, and the occasional bookstore indulgence. Every book meant the reassurance of having a possession. Every book was a precious object. Even if I had never read it, even if my interest in the subject had waned in the years (or decades) since its acquisition, the book was still a valuable part of my collection.
The most important mental shift I had to make was from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. It seems obvious in hindsight, but the evolution of my circumstances was so gradual that I never really noticed the change. I no longer had a scarcity of books. I now had an abundance of books. I was no longer the little girl who had to scrimp and save for a month or wait for her mom to drive her to the library in order to access a new book. Instead of reading my books over and over again, I was acquiring new books faster than I could read them. I was surrounded by books; the world was full of more books than I could imagine; and without even leaving my home, I could click a few buttons on my computer, and someone would bring books to my door a few days later.
Not only could I afford to be picky about my books, but I had no other choice. The reality is that even if I read 50 new books every year (I don’t) and live to 100 (I probably won’t), I would only read 5000 books in my lifetime. And that’s assuming that I read 50 books between the day I was born and my first birthday, which I promise you did not happen. Regardless of whether I’m conscientious of it, every time I choose to read one book, I’m forgoing the chance to read another. Since that’s true no matter what, I might as well make the most of my opportunity to read by:
- not finishing books I don’t like just because I already started them
- not reading books I’m not interested in just because I already bought them
- not keeping books I don’t want just because I already own them
Believe me, as a book-loving perfectionist, I know it can be hard to let go of these guilts. But I can tell you that it’s pretty liberating when you do. Life is already full of so many obligations. Why create and enforce extra ones for ourselves that don’t serve any purpose?
Step 2: Know Your Alternatives
The prospecting of decluttering your books can be daunting. Let me assure you that when you cut back on the number of books you own, you will still be able to read all the books you want. In fact, you might find yourself more energized than ever to read your newly curated library. Here are some of my favorite tools that have helped me to read just as much as ever while owning fewer paper books.
My Kindle Paperwhite
I was a holdout on the ebook bandwagon, but now that my Kindle is approaching its first birthday, I can’t imagine going back. It’s been a godsend for traveling light. Since I can easily plow through a novel on a single long flight, a weeklong trip used to mean carrying at least two books and probably three. Now, extra reading material doesn’t translate into extra weight or bulk. It’s also great for my much-loved baths, where I can easily hold it and turn pages with only one hand.
I picked the Paperwhite because it was the cheapest Kindle model that came with a backlit screen. That screen means that I can read in the dark without bothering anyone around me or having to fish around for a light, a feature that’s been invaluable in bed and on buses. Plus, this adorable composition book cover makes me happy every time I see it.
The New York Public Library
Despite my frequent trips to the library during my younger years, I fell out of that habit once I moved out of my childhood home. Even after I moved to a city with a robust public library system, it still took me years before I finally started taking advantage of the incredible resources of the New York Public Library. Not only does the library house an extensive collection of books, but we also borrow CDs on a regular basis and even the occasional DVD! Best of all, I can access the NYPL’s ebooks collection digitally. I don’t even have to get out of bed to borrow an ebook and download it right away. This is my favorite way to fill my Kindle with reading material without spending a penny. Wherever you live, it’s worth looking into what’s available from your local public library.
Public Domain Books
We’re lucky to live in a time when many of the world’s classics are available to us instantaneously and free of charge. If you love reading but aren’t familiar with the vast amounts of material in the public domain, you’ll be amazed at how much you can find. My favorite sources for public domain books include Project Gutenberg, The Online Books Page (run by my alma mater!), Bartleby, Open Library, and LibriVox for audiobooks, but there are dozens more out there. Have a look around!
I hate to leave a fictional world behind once I fall in love with it, which may explain why I’m so fond of reading books in series. For those times when I want to linger beyond the end of a book or a series, reading fan fiction allows me to dwell longer in my favorite worlds and with my favorite characters. FicSave is my go-to tool for downloading stories from FanFiction.net to my Kindle. It’s free, open source, and intuitive; doesn’t require installing any software; and can convert stories to ePub, MOBI, or text formats. It’ll even email them directly to your Kindle.
Step 3: The Great Declutter
There are a thousand tips out there for how to declutter your life, from boxing up everything you haven’t touched in a year and seeing six months later if you missed any of it to asking Marie Kondo’s famous question, “Does this spark joy?” For me, I always expect that decluttering any area of my life will take several rounds as I hone my understanding of my own desires and as I progress in my preferences about how much or how little I want to own. In fact, even as I write this, I’m aware that I could easily make another pass at my bookshelves and free myself of some more books that I wasn’t ready to let go of last time. Here are some questions I like to ask as I go through my books:
- Do I definitely want to keep this book? Do I definitely NOT want to keep this book? Start with the obvious.
- Is this a book that I’ll only ever want to read once? Is it a book I’ll want to read again and again? One-time reads are good candidates for borrowing, whereas repeat reads are better choices for owning. I also have a stack of books that I own but intend to sell or donate once I read them, and I try to think of them as separate from my permanent library.
- How accessible is this book outside of my collection? If a book is in my library’s ebook collection, I can let go of it knowing that I can access it again at anytime. If it’s rare, expensive, out of print, not in my library’s collection, or popular enough that it always has a long wait list, then I’m more likely to hold onto it.
- Is this a book that only I will read, or will other members of my family also be interested in it? Owning a paper copy makes more sense if it’s shared.
- Is there something about this book that would make it difficult to experience digitally? Lawrence owns a giant world atlas that he loves, and it would definitely not be the same on a tablet.
- Would I buy this book again right now if I didn’t already own it? As I become more thoughtful about my purchases, I’m finding that, more and more, the answer to this question is no.
Once we had sorted through our entire book collection, we were left with an intimidatingly large pile of discards and no good idea of what to do with them. After some online research, I came across BookScouter, a free service that searches through dozens of online book buyers to see if any of them is willing to pay for your book. You can search by ISBN, but best of all, you can download an app on your phone and use your phone’s camera to search by scanning the books’ barcodes. Through BookScouter, we were able to sort our unwanted books by buyers. We successfully shipped off boxes of books to Powell’s, Sell Back Your Book, Bookbyte, Buyback Express, BookMonster, Textbooks.com, Amazon Marketplace, and TextbookRush, most of which we had never heard of before. All of these buyers covered the costs of shipping them our used books, so all we had to do was box our books up with the provided shipping labels and take them to the post office, UPS, or FedEx. We made almost $500 from our unwanted books and donated the ones that no one wanted to buy to the public library.
Step 4: Going Forward
Have we stopped buying books? Of course not, but for the first time since childhood, I might finally be reading more books than I buy. These days, when I’m interested in a new book, I run through this checklist before I buy a copy:
- Is it available for free in the public domain?
- Is it available in the library’s ebook collection?
- Is it available in the library’s physical book collection?
- Is it available for purchase as an ebook? If so, is there a reason that I would prefer it as a physical book?
By exploring all of these alternatives before buying books, I’ve managed to curtail my influx of paper books while having more reading material at my fingertips than ever. And when I do buy a new book, I know that it was a thought-out purchase with a reason behind it: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I knew that both Lawrence and I would read, and probably my sister too when she visited; or The Case of Beasts, whose three-dimensional props can’t be experienced digitally. And lest you think I just buy every Harry Potter book that comes out, I’ll have you know that I resisted purchasing the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I borrowed that one as an ebook from the library.