An article recently appeared in the Chicago Tribune titled Where to begin downsizing when you have thousands of books? The unnamed writer isn't the only one with this problem, although the quantity of books may make her case a bit more extreme than most. She was thinking of moving, but the amount of stuff she had made that idea seem daunting. The worst offender in her household was the books. The clutter in her house, she said, was the books.
She writes, “Books! Books are everywhere. Neatly slotted onto bookcases and bookshelves — and then piled horizontally on top. Stacked on dining room chairs, kitchen table, bedside tables and de facto bedside table (the floor). Stacks of books stacked on top of stacks of books.”
The problem is twofold. Sentimentality makes it hard to part with the books. Figuring out what to do with them makes it worse. “Where do they go? Who wants them?”, she writes. The problem with the first of the two questions she poses is that the answer to the second is “no one.” She considers booksellers, libraries, Goodwill, and used book stores, but finds none to be practical. Maybe, she realizes, “I don't want to donate books at all.” Her conclusion is, “Perhaps a better option is not to cull, but to tidy: Dust the shelves, find room for the piles, organize them in some logical fashion. If we brought order to the book chaos, they would no longer be clutter.”
This is the ultimate cop out. She has ignored the obvious, what you do with everything else that has worn out its usefulness and no one else wants. We gladly toss away old electronics and other useless merchandise, but somehow, we can't bring ourselves to do the same with books. The reality is that most books have little to no value. Unlike real estate, they keep making more, but no one wants to be responsible for disposing of the old. Sure, if you can find someone to take it, great, but few people want to turn your clutter into their own.
That is not to say I don't sympathize with her plight. Two years ago, we moved. The kids were now grown. I buy fewer things than I did when I was young. I used to like electronic gadgets but I am incapable of figuring how to use the ones they make today. It was time to downsize. Still, we faced her dilemma, what to do with it all? We found a solution. We bought a house that was one-third larger than the one we sold. So much for downsizing. We boxed up and took the junk, which still barely fits in the new house. Somehow it multiplied in the moving van.
So the bookshelves are up and they are filled with dreck. Oh some are good books, but mostly unimportant editions that can be replaced for 99 cents on AbeBooks. A few are old and would be reasonably valuable if they weren't in deplorable condition. There is a nice set of Civil War books my grandfather bought new over a century ago. They have been well cared for ever since. That one is sentimental and valuable. Unfortunately, most are things that were of interest years ago, or were needed as students in another epoch. Many have sentimental value, but none other, and they fulfill no one's sentiments besides our own. They are of no more interest to our children than the gold-plated plates and tea sets we inherited from my parents that have sat in boxes ever since.
And then there are the even more sentimental “works on paper,” documents, ephemera, original artwork, and such from our children's grade school years. Not even they want anything to do with this stuff, and yet we can't part with it.
So, we return to the writer of that article who owns thousands of books. No, she doesn't own thousands of books. They own her. Chances are, most of us experience this predicament to some degree. I am no person to give advice, since I have not had the courage to heal myself. What I can say is if your books have no monetary value, and no sentimental value to anyone other than yourself, someone will have to dispose of them eventually. If not you, then someone else will be faced with the task, and it will likely come at a difficult time for them. You can save a lot of heartbreak.
Perhaps this will help a little with this unpleasant task. You are hereby absolved of any guilt if you toss out those books. It's all right. It is time to make room for the new. Periodically, fires rage through our forests. Beautiful trees are replaced by barren ground. It is sad, and yet, ecologists will tell you it is also necessary. Those forests choked out new growth. There was no room for the young. It's time.