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The Habit That Was Taking Up Space In My Life & Wallet (& How I Finally Got Rid Of It)

I was always doomed to be a bibliophile. I am the daughter of two Professors who both have a wide range of literary interests. Not content to only study within their disciplines (medicine and English literature), they eagerly and — from my perspective — somewhat randomly decided to explore everything from German Commerce Raiders in World War II to tracking the possible location of the Holy Grail (decades before Dan Brown, I’m proud to say).

All of this literary exploration meant, quite simply, buying books — a LOT of books. As each book usually contained an academic bibliography, a single book tended to spawn a second generation of related book purchases. My parents couldn’t resist, particularly if a target book was found used or on sale. By the time I reached my teenage years, we had about 30 Ikea Billy bookcases placed strategically about the house, and they were beginning to become double-stacked. (My dad firmly declared the far wall of the basement as “off limits” to bookshelves, because he was fearful the house would slide downhill in that direction.)

While my parents were generally frugal with their spending and budgeted for food, clothing, and household expenses, books seemed to be beyond the budgetary boundaries. The familial excuse at spending the money was always “but it’s a BOOK!” Perhaps to encourage my own childhood reading habits (or to assuage their personal book-buying guilt), they would happily buy almost any book I wanted. Commuting to college allowed me to continue this trend and add a whole new range of textbooks to my personal “library.” In hindsight, I understand that my parents were living with upper-middle class finances. Their healthy combined income stream paired with a general frugality (in everything but books) allowed them to obsessively acquire books without going into debt or risking their retirement. Plus, all that time spent reading was time they weren’t spending money on other pursuits.

My personal biblio-bingeing ground to a halt in graduate school four states away from home. Suddenly I had no time to read anything other than chemistry textbooks, and with my rent, I had little money to buy books. Financially, this worked great, as you can’t buy anything when you’re so consumed with work that you regularly forget to eat. (My grocery bills dwindled, and yes, so did my health). My collection of books came with me to graduate school, and I had proudly set up my own row of Billys in my apartment living room. Then, five years later, Ph.D. in hand, I packed up the same books (now rather dusty) and returned to my home city. After living with my parents for a few months to save most of my earnings from my Assistant Professor teaching position, I was (barely) able to get into my own home and transplant my row of living room Billys. With more time and (what felt like) more money, I began to buy more books and continue the family legacy.

Then, “unexpected” homeowner expenses hit me in the face, which I should have expected when I bought a down-and-out Philadelphia row home built 100+ years ago with a distinctly slanted living room floor. I encountered broken pipes, a leaking roof, a leaking shower, crooked windows, and insanely high winter heating bills (I remember one month was $350). It was time to take a hard look at my plumbing, my insulation, and yes — my budget. I realized with a shock that my financial situation was wildly different from my parents, despite our shared academic interests. Despite my doctoral degree in chemistry, I had a single income equivalent to an assistant manager’s salary at Walmart (about $43,000).

After taxes, supplemental healthcare, retirement contribution (required to get the college’s match), mortgage, and insurance, I was taking home about $950/month…before utilities, gas, and food. I owned my car already, thank goodness, and I was able to divert an unexpected summer salary bonus to fix my leaking roof. Still, something had to change, and I wasn’t about to give up my dream job, my quirky dream house, or my love of books, unless I had no other financial choice. Enter minimalism with a dose of Marie Kondo. As I read Kondo and poked around YouTube, I felt like I was peering into an alternate universe, radically different from my own. While I doubt I will ever be a “true” minimalist, I did decide that I wanted my living room to be more open, more clean-able, and yes, to have fewer books.

After a time of reflection and analysis of my book horde, I realized that my books fall into distinct categories.

1. There are the “encouraging books”: books I love and re-read almost annually, books I read once and thought I might return to one day, children’s books I re-read periodically, and books that were so gorgeously printed that I enjoyed simply holding them. I also confess to having multiple editions of several favorite books: one for reading (paperback), perhaps a signed copy from a library or bookstore event, and one for fondling (usually hardcover). (Please don’t judge.)

2. There are the “discouraging books”: books I’d been gifted but didn’t plan on reading that I couldn’t seem to part with, books completing a once enjoyable series that I’d never finished nor planned to, and random “to be read” books that clearly weren’t going to fulfill their destinies.

3. There are the emotionally “neutral books”: textbooks, guides, and books dedicated to my area of expertise.

Over the past few years, I came to terms with the fact that my love of books and my love of reading are sometimes two different things. Some books I loved for their physical beauty and some for their content, though admittedly these could be two versions of the same text. Once I managed to supplement my base income with some additional teaching and summer work, I bought a Kindle from Amazon and found that I could borrow many of my favorite content books online from my public library. Often just confirming their availability digitally or reassuring myself as to the low cost of replacing a particular book in the future — should I need it — allowed me to happily transfer a stack of “encouraging books” off the shelf and into a box for donation.

The “discouraging books” were easier to deal with: I donated whole series I didn’t plan on reading again, ruthlessly broke up little collections, and decided my friends and family could deal with the fact if I didn’t read their gifted book (if they even remembered). This translated into a nice deduction on my taxes, despite the minimal donation value per book. I took a stack of the higher value books and traded them in at my favorite used book store for store credit. I took my textbooks into my college office, then when that room became overcrowded, I sold some online and donated a pile to my college library. (I’ve never been a fan of digital textbooks, so keeping a core collection in my office is a necessity.) My living room collection dwindled to three short bookcases, and I arranged the books so that I can enjoy looking at them and have easy access. My living room feels more spacious, I have less to clean, and I am certainly happier being faced with these lovely — and loved — books.

While I am proud of my living room clean out, particularly as it took me years to complete, I know it will revert to its previous state if I don’t control my spending. Here are the strategies that have worked well for me:

1. I create wish lists while browsing at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

I allow myself the luxury of cruising through Barnes and Noble or clicking through Amazon, but I don’t buy a thing. I make notes or snap photos of the books I want to read. Then I head to my library’s website and borrow them digitally. I don’t even mind if I am wait-listed for a book, as it will be a pleasant (and free) surprise when it becomes available. If a book isn’t available digitally, it usually means it is an older book. I may request a paper copy from the library, or just commit to buying it used online if it’s under $5 (shipping included). Once I read the book, I thank it for its service (Marie Kondo style), donate it, and record the donation for tax purposes. (This has actually worked; the cheapest used books are usually “ex-library” and I have little temptation to keep them permanently on my shelves.)

2. I view my living room library as a sacred space.

I know this may sound strange, but I’ve begun to treat my bookshelves as a place for only the most worthy of books. A book has to deserve a place on that shelf, by having content value and personal attachment.

3. I plan, in advance, on buying an expensive book when it comes into my target price range.

I have a very short list of “special edition” books that I hope to own in the future. I already love the content of these books, but I would enjoy owning a unique copy (such as a signed or leather-bound edition). I’ve budgeted a certain amount of money for each book so that when one becomes available on eBay or through a used book dealer, I can make the purchase quickly. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will likely never own certain desirable books; the cost is so high as to make their purchase impossible — and, I feel, unconscionable — with my lifestyle. I enjoy periodically visiting the New York Antiquarian Book Fair so I can admire these books and chat with their owners, rather like visiting a museum and talking with the curators.

*****

I imagine a future time when all literature will be available digitally. While that will certainly help with minimizing — or eradicating — the physical presence of books, I know that I will still have a small collection of “real” books. My beloved books speak to me on several levels. The stories of different characters inspire me, and I can often track my own growth and development in relation to my reading (and re-reading) over the years. Plus, a physical book is a comforting presence, appealing to four of the five senses. If you truly love and use your books, do not part with them completely…but don’t let yourself spend money you do not have. Own your books — do not let them own you.

Karen holds her Ph.D. in chemistry and is a liberal arts Professor in the greater Philadelphia area. When she isn’t teaching, you can find her reading, learning new hands-on skills, and figuring out creative ways to stretch her budget to afford international travel.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Emma B.

    I really appreciated this post, as I went through a similar purging process over the last year.

    A question for TFD readers: Any advice for getting my boyfriend to do the same? Our bookshelf has actually collapsed from the weight of his textbook collection. He has a PhD in microbiology and is finishing his MD; however, he still has ALL of his books from undergrad. Literally, every single book (even from required classes that he did not particularly enjoy). Some of these books are still in his brown paper bag covers. As you can imagine, the collection has grown exponentially from grad school and med school. I’m mostly frustrated about the fact that they take up so much space and he never references them (ever). When I suggested we donate them to a university or tutoring program, he said that he likes to be able to look at them and visualize all of his hard work.

    We’re likely going to need to downsize apartments when we move for his residency, and I’m not sure what to do. We rarely fight, but this is a sore subject. Any suggestions?

    • Holly Trantham

      Oh man, that’s tough. I understand wanting to keep some books around as mementos, but a collapsing bookshelf is a clear sign of too many! Maybe you can come up with a compromise, and see if he’d be willing to keep one or two from each semester, and donate the rest?

      • Emma B.

        I think I’ll have to ask these sorts of questions over a bottle of wine. Thanks for the conversation starters!

    • What about a photograph of the bookshelf? Like, a really decent one, framed and matted and then hung up, so that he can still visually see his work, but not have to keep the actual books? You could even style the bookshelf, take out anything unrelated and add in anything that is (diplomas, equipment, etc), just for the shoot so it feels special.

      • Emma B.

        That’s a really good idea! I’ll have to run it by him 🙂

  • Lauren

    My solution is to build my collection either from $1 used books which I then sell back as needed, or read from the library and then buy only those ones I need in my collection. I was surprised to see the library missing from this article!

  • Delia

    Lovely to read something so well written on this site for a change!

  • victoria

    I made a flowchart for books when we were downsizing to move.

    For fiction and narrative nonfiction: (1) is this a book I regularly reread? (2) is it one of the small number of books I want to make sure my kid has access to whenever/wherever? (3) is it unavailable through my (very well-stocked) local library system?

    Anything that’s a “no” on all three got sold to the used bookstore.

    For how-to type nonfiction: (1) is this a book I regularly read/use? (2) if I wanted to do the thing this book is about, would I use this book? Or would I search the internet?

    Anything with a “no” on both got sold.

    All in all we probably got rid of at least half the books in our house. And thanks to our local library I haven’t missed a thing.