How to Purge Your Books When Every Book Sparks Joy

I know that for a lot of people, purging your books sounds like sacrilege. It's just too hard! Books represent so much -- knowledge, love, comfort, pleasant hours spent with your favorite characters. I get it, I do - but I was also able to get past it. You can, too - yes, you, bookworm! You, too, can continue to enjoy reading, while still having a relatively uncluttered, allergen-free home.

I grew up around books. When friends would come over, they'd marvel at the floor-to-ceiling shelves lining every wall of the dining room. It seemed normal to me because most of the other rooms of the house -- the bedrooms, my parents' office -- were the same way. I always had a lot of books in my room, too: picture books when I was a little kid, then chapter books (I was and am obsessed with the Baby-sitters Club). By the time I was 25, living in New York City, I'd accumulated something like 500 books. I'd moved my book collection dozens of times and thousands of miles.

I still loved these books. But something had changed. I think it was the digital revolution, mainly. I'd gotten used to my e-reader and even preferred it, especially for reading on the subway or when traveling. Plus, I'd started getting books out of the library digitally. The availability of books "on the cloud" and in the library moved me from a scarcity mindset (I MUST HAVE PLENTY OF BOOK WHAT IF I NEED SOMETHING TO READ) to an abundance mindset (there are more books available at any given time than I can possibly ever read, so why am I hanging onto ones I've already read?)

So when a friend requested donations for a school book drive, I jumped on the opportunity. I removed every book from my shelves and only put back those that I was planning to read again, or that I could not easily replace digitally. I donated the rest. In one fell swoop, I got rid of about 90% of my collection.

These days, I own five (5) physical books: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, volumes 1-4, and my own book, Don't Ask. Full disclosure: I also own nearly 300 books on my e-reader, but I think if I had to (if space were at a premium or if I had to pay a fee for maintaining my collection), I could get it down to a cool 50-75 books.

I still love books. They spark joy. Nothing makes me happier than having a queue of books in my (physical or digital) "to read" pile. But mostly, nowadays, they are library books. I no longer feel I need to keep them in order to love them.

Are Your Books Functional or Decorative?

I always assumed that any book I liked, I'd naturally reread over and over. But as I combed through my collection, I realized that I'd only read most of my books once. Even books I really liked, like Daniel Deronda. I'd never even opened the very nice hardback copy I currently owned, which was a replacement for the paperback copy I'd gotten caramel in. (Long story. No, short story. I'd been carrying around a copy of Daniel Deronda and some unwrapped caramels.) The pages that were stuck together were ones I'd already read, and I didn't get around to replacing it until after I'd finished it… by which time I didn't really need it anymore. I just thought that I Ought To Own any book I loved. I guess, truth be told, I also wanted people to see it on my shelf and think, "What a cool person. She loved the same book I love." Or whatever.

There are two reasons to own a book:

1. Functional: you plan to read or consult it in the near future.
2. Decorative: it makes you feel good to look at it on your shelf, and/or you want others to see it on your shelf.

In my massive book purge, I got rid of all the decorative books, keeping only the functional ones. I never realized until then just how many of my books were purely decorative.

Read, Reference, or Donate

As I sorted my books, I found myself basically filing them in one of three places:

  • My nightstand. This was my "To Read Very Soon" pile. Any book that I picked up and realized I wanted to read it right away, as soon as possible. (This was rare.)
  • My desk. These were reference books that I was actively using for a current project. For example, a book of historical costumes that I was using for some 19th century drawings I was doing at the time.
  • My "general library" bookshelf. This was every other book.

Here's what I eventually realized. Instead of sorting into "general library," I should have been sorting directly into a donation book. If you're not currently using it or actively planning to reread it, you don't need to own it.

Here are some examples of reactions you might have as you sort your books, and where to file them.

"This is one of the very next books I plan to read." => To Read shelf

"I've never read this." => Donate! If you don't want to read it now, you never will.

"I consult this a lot for a current project." => Reference shelf

"I used to consult this a lot for a previous project." => Probably donate, unless there's a strong possibility that a similar project is going to come up in the next year or so. If this is a textbook for a class you took, definitely donate.

"I want to read this again, but not yet." => Look, if you think you will probably read it again in the next year, then hang onto it (but maybe put a post-it on it, with the date you think you will read it again by - might be amusing in the future.) But, probably donate.

"I love this book." => Donate. If you haven't already had one of the other reactions, just donate.

This was the hardest part for me, recognizing that there's a difference between "I love it" and "I'm going to read it again." But there is a difference, and you don't need to hang onto a book you're not reading.

If Marie Kondo-style animism is helpful to you, you might imagine that the book wants to be read, and you're make it sad by keeping it on the shelf and never reading it.

If you're the kind of person who always wants to make a record of your experiences, recognize that your bookshelf is a pretty clunky way to keep a record of which books you've read/loved. Put the list on paper or online.

Any other reaction => Donate! Essentially, if your reaction references the past or the (distant) future, you should just donate that book. The only books that "want" to be in your collection are those that you are using right now.

These methods may seem ruthless. But I promise that you can still love books even if you don't own a massive collection. And there are so many benefits to living a (physical) book-free life: less pressure to buy (borrowing is just as good), less to move, you can even live in a smaller space since you won't have to cram in bookshelves. Keep your eye on these benefits, find a school or library running a book donation drive, and do your own donate purge today. You can reward yourself with a giant pile of library books!


  1. Nooooooo I can't do it.

    I also don't want to. This post gives me anxiety.

    1. Hahaha. If you don't want to you don't have to!


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