A Book Lover’s Guide to Downsizing Your Book Collection

My book collection has outgrown our apartment.

Clarification: when I say “our,” I mean myself, my husband, and my books. This is their home too: A Farewell to Arms, On the Road, Mrs. Dalloway, and a hundred other beloved residents.

(Husband is The Beloved, don’t get me wrong. And right behind him, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Robinson, and Dostoyevsky.)

So our current situation is crowded. Right now my books are:

Everywhere. They’re on the bedside table, sofa table, living room table, desk, and floor, not to mention the IKEA bookshelf that is over capacity, bowing under the weight of them. (And on that note, I know it’s insane, but I refuse to sell my Complete Works of Shakespeare even though it weighs 30 pounds and King Lear isn’t exactly bedtime reading. We spent too many long nights together in college. Plus, no one would buy it from me because the binding is broken and I scribbled notes like WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? and HUH?)

Growing. I have a deeply-held belief that you can never have too many books. For this reason, I have been visiting used bookstores and $1 library sales, which has gotten me into my current predicament. (When am I going to read The Devil Wears Prada? I don’t know, but it was $1.)

Not organized. Despite frequent rearranging, the books keep getting borrowed, pulled out, put back in the wrong place, and now they are mixed up and do not represent categorization by genre, author, or any apparent system. (Case in point: my Ann Voskamp devotional was next to Erma Bombeck and Stephen Covey. Um?)

Today, I blew a gasket and decided things needed to change.

Books in a bookstore

So many books, so little time.

If you are a mid-20s book lover, this may be your story, too. A nice little one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs just doesn’t allow for the kind of book storage we drool over and pin to the “Dream Home” pinboards.

Of course, if you’re financially able, the best option is to upgrade to a home with tall bookshelves (preferably a library or office), bay windows, and lots of sunlight, for happy book storage and enjoyment.

But if you’re young and stuck in apartments for a few years, unfortunately (like me) you’ll probably have to go through the painful process of taking inventory, making some tough decisions, and giving a couple stacks the boot. That is, if you want to have a happy roommate or spouse.

Otherwise, certainly the stack-and-ignore method is viable… as long as no one minds maneuvering around your stalagmite book piles for a few years until you can find a larger space.

That being said, I thought I’d share my recommended steps for downsizing your book collection.

How to Downsize When You Have Too Many Books

  1. Gather all the books in a central location. 

    Books in a pile on the floor

    Expert tip: Get out the duster while you’re at it.

From the four corners of your apartment gather every living book, two by two, take ’em off the shelves. Dump them in a central spot.

If you’re husband asks what you’re doing, assure him gently, Just doing a little reorganizing. You just keep playing your video game, honey.

2.a. Sort and organize your books.

Satisfy your inner type A and form the following neat piles:

  • Classics (The Scarlet Letter. Huckleberry Finn. You know, the oldies but goodies.)
  • Non-classics/modern literature (You know… The Hunger Games, or the latest and greatest from The New York Times Bestseller list. If you’re a reader with good taste, this pile will eventually turn into a classic pile if you give it long enough.)
  • Books from your college syllabi (i.e. Books you’ll never read again but it makes you look smart to have them.)
  • Theology, devotionals, spiritual literature (But if you have any Chicken Soup books, hurry, throw them out! Throw them out!)
  • Memoirs (Speaking of which, which dear friend borrowed You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know? If you’re reading this, your time is up!!!)
  • The inevitable what-is-this-who-gave-this-to-me (This may become your giveaway pile.)

If you get the urge to stop and read, don’t resist. Reacquaint yourself with old friends. But if you’re anything like me, the less you read, the more likely you are to actually downsize.

Otherwise, resist the temptation to justify. You will find yourself saying But I might actually read this. Listen openly to this voice and then question it, look at your calendar, and think about all the books you are still secretly planning to buy even though you know you shouldn’t.

JUST FOR KICKS: If you find a collection of your college poetry in the middle of the poetry section, read some lines (silently!) from your younger self. Laugh at the cheesy ones. Pat yourself on the back if any of it still makes sense.

2. b. While you’re at it, sort and organize your feelings.

It’s natural at this stage to feel guilt for the books you own but haven’t read, shame for the books you read and can’t remember, and hurt for the books you love that have been strangers for quite some time.

Let yourself feel. Cry if you must.

If your husband hears you sniffling and yells, What’s wrong, holler back Call me Ishmael! and let him wonder what the heck you mean by that. After a moment, follow it up with After all, tomorrow is another day. This will make you feel better.

3. Evaluate which books you will keep and which books you will give away. 

One by one, you’ve gotta dig deep and evaluate what’s a keeper. This is the sad part. Except if you don’t feel that way about a book, congratulations! You’ve found yourself a tosser.

This process can be physically tiring and emotionally draining. You might need a snack, thus..

4. Get a snack.

I recommend a cup of coffee too.

5. Find spots for all the books you are keeping.

Clean and neat sofa table, book-less

Struck by indecision. Which books should be featured here?

Hopefully by this point you’ve downsized significantly. If you have, this shouldn’t be too hard, unless you really didn’t get rid of any and you’re just shuffling books around and around.

But you may ask: space is limited anyways, so how do I decide what goes where? What constitutes a “coffee table book?” Should I only put books with pretty bindings in the living room? Should I relegate textbooks to the bedroom and put books I reference somewhere more accessible?

If it’s been two hours or more by this point, it’s probably time for dinner and honestly, you just want to read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, cause you forgot you had it and you’re dying to dig in.

6. Hurry and take your toss pile to Goodwill.

Just get it over with before you recant your decisions.

7. Curl up and read a forgotten friend or a new find. 

You know you want to.

If you wait until you have time, you’ll be waiting forever. For a book lover, life’s too short to leave books on the shelves.

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5 thoughts on “A Book Lover’s Guide to Downsizing Your Book Collection

  1. This is so good Brooke. I love books. I understand wanting to keep some books, feeling guilty because you are not reading all of them and cannot remember the ones you did. This was perfect. Thanks for sharing.

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