Decluttering: Books, Part I

I would like to introduce my friend Jennifer to you, a real life friend in fact! We’ve known each other almost 20 years now. Jennifer is on her own minimalist journey and is a brave woman to tackle this decluttering topic!

            It’s time to liberate your library!
            Decluttering books can be especially difficult because oft times our identities are bound to what we read — or what we plan to read someday.
We think our books are testament to our academic successes, proof of our knowledge, a narrative of our personalities and interests. We come to believe that if we let go of the books, we’ll let go of our sense of self.
            Or maybe, like me, you feel compelled to own certain books because you “should.” I always meant to read the classics, as all good English majors should, so I bought them and that was a far as it went.
            Well, not exactly. Then the collection went on a bookshelf, then into a box, and then into a storage unit at $80 a month. It’s easy to be book smart and clutter dumb.
It took me a long time and a lot of tears to know this truth:
You are not your books, and your books are merely paper and printed words.
So, repeat after me: Your college degree will not disappear if you the ditch the old textbooks. You won’t become less of a gear head without that stack of Detroit steel magazines. You will not be a better writer/mother/rock star because you own, but have never cracked, the complete works of Shakespeare/Dr. Spock/Keith Richard’s memoir.

Decluttering Books

  Not even a good book can transport you out of a cluttered life.

 Only you can do that — and here’s how.

What to keep

Remember these three Rs: Reference, reread, and rare.
Books you frequently reference, reread, or are rare are the only books that merit space on your bookshelf.
Reference materials are sources of information (databases, abstracts, journals, maps, etc.) that are used for answering inquiries. Such items are not normally lent by libraries, can be industry specific or uncommon, and may be used often enough to justify a copy at fingertip reach. Keep reference material only if you actually use it and cannot easily source an electronic version.
            Keep the books you reread — not “Oh, I’m going to reread it… someday…” — but have actually read through on multiple occasions and will read again. See also, Laura Ingalls Wilder series, J.R.R. Tolkien, et al.
            Keep books that are rare or irreplaceable, but think carefully about what rare or irreplaceable means to you. It may mean a signed first edition of “Tom Sawyer.” Or it may mean a Little Golden Book your child wrote his name in 30 years ago. If it brings you joy and cannot be attained elsewhere, then consider keeping it. But remember, you don’t need to keep the entire Little Golden Book collection to recall your son was once a preschooler with a penchant for vandalizing literature.

What to liberate

Work these steps to declutter your library:
            • Is this book in good condition?
If the book is dirty, moldy, water damaged, had damaged binding or pages, is missing covers or pages, or is warped, throw the book away or recycle it if you have facilities in your area. If you would not regift it in this condition, then do not donate it.
            • Can I borrow it from the library or find it on the Internet?
The U.S. has a robust library system, and an even more robust Google system. If it’s available electronically or at the local biblioteca, then donate it.
            • Is this book fulfilling its purpose?

Knowledge is power? Not if that knowledge remains trapped between two covers. You render your books valueless if you don’t allow them to be read. Set your literature free. Let it fulfill its destiny — to education, entertain, enlighten, empower — by making it available to other readers.

— Jennifer Ries is a journalist, editor, and occasional poet who has been working toward a life with less since 2007. She lives in south-central Montana with a cat, a coffee maker, and a slowly shrinking pile of books.

A note from Rachel again: Click here to read Part II. Leave a comment for Jennifer here and let her know how this has encouraged you!

About Rachel Jones

Hi there! I’m Rachel Jones, and I founded Nourishing Minimalism in 2012 at the beginning of my minimalist journey. If you're looking for encouragement in your journey, I created a FREE Facebook Group - feel free to join me there: Nourishing Minimalism Facebook Group and I share videos each week on YouTube


  1. Mary Ann on 10/12/2012 at 6:36 pm

    My mom has given me many books over the years and looks for them on my bookshelves when she visits(every couple of years). A few are favorites but there are some I’d get rid of if I knew she wasn’t going to ask about them…

    I do like the steps to go through and questions to ask when going through books. Very helpful!

  2. Joanna @ActualOrganics on 01/31/2013 at 2:24 am

    I love your three Rs. Very wise. I have, over the years, donated a lot of books that I did not read to our local library, that way it is a win-win for me; I can borrow it should I need to refer to it but others benefit by the book being in circulation.

  3. Anonymous on 06/14/2013 at 3:11 am

    For those like me that think of their books as “a narrative of our personalities and interests” or like little milestones marking my life, try some book cataloging software. Many have free trial versions that you can play with before buying. I like it because I can open it and see all my books, keeping all those life markers, but eliminating the some of the clutter.

  4. caron on 08/31/2013 at 3:47 pm

    I look for books my library does not carry at used book sales. After readng, I donate to our local used book store that is run by the town historicl society. Nobody seems to buy most of my books though and I can visit them quite often! My local library will take donations for book sales only, they will not put titles that they don’t have in circulation for all kinds of reasons. The local school library claims they have no room for more books, (they have to make room for computers) which is too bad as many of their books are in sorry shape.

  5. Nina on 08/22/2014 at 10:14 pm

    There is also a website you can go to where you can register your books, label/tag them, and then “release them into the wild.” This gives you an opportunity to hear about where they end up and who else gets a chance to enjoy them. I used to do this a lot. Have not logged on in a long time. I do tend to re-sell, donate, or pass on books other than a few of our favorite series. But this seriously is a fun alternative.

  6. Sage on 08/25/2014 at 12:50 am

    What a good post! Thank you for sharing this perspective and truth! I felt so connected to some of my books from college and felt exactly like you wrote, like I’d be losing a bit of my identity and education if I were to part with them. Recently, I decided (by way of encouragement from the 2014 in 2014 group) to get rid of them. So…I did. I made a list of the books I thought I might re-read one day or may want to reference and have gotten rid of a tote and now own just 11 books for myself. Now even that number seems high! My toddler has her books as well, but we’ve even edited her collecting. I’m happier because of it and our home is becoming more clutter-free week by week. 🙂

  7. Angela on 09/21/2015 at 11:28 am

    I have an issue with letting go of ‘pop-up’ books from my son’s childhood. To me they are works of art, and something that I would like to be able to share with my grandchildren in years to come when there may be a world full of digital books and may be hard to come by. So I plan on keeping those for some time to come yet. To me they’re irreplaceable. Much like vinyl records which are now again very popular for audiophiles (such as myself). I now regret moving a lot of my vinyl records on when CDs first hit the marketplace. I did keep a select few of my favourite artist and I have no regrets about that whatsoever.

  8. Rachel on 04/04/2017 at 9:44 am

    but what about all the books you think your daughter or son may want to read one day, if you have children. I always loved going through my parents bookshelves and making discoveries. it was always something to look forward to when i visited my grandparents too. I like to think that my children may find the same joy in doing this when older so find myself keeping some that they may enjoy or learn from or be inspired by. interested to hear what you think of that (sorry this post is all in capitals, not sure why..?)

  9. jake hoff on 07/03/2017 at 12:20 pm

    i have given away 99 percent of my books…and now download all my books on my kindle or kobo. Last week we had a bonfire and I disposed of all my nursing textbooks which were over 30 years old……all that information can be found on good sites on the internet. I have a total of 35 books left,out of a library of hundreds of books. Do people think that because they have a lot of books on their shelves, that it makes them look more intelligent? or well read? Now there is less to dust…I read these books, and usually don’t re read books, and so much less to get rid of when the day comes. My urge to purge has to do with the fact that my husband in the beginning stages of a serious illness… to get rid of the stuff now instead of being overwhelmed with stuff and a serious illness. Now if I could only get rid of the bookshelves which were custom made……I would sell them in a heart beat, but my husband has an attachment to them, because they were made by a good friend out of wood from his own forest….etc. So there are times when we have to leave well enough alone…….but the books are gone…..

    • Paula on 10/23/2017 at 2:06 am

      I am so sorry you have to deal with a serious illness; that is so very difficult, and I just said a prayer for you and him. I can see why you feel you should keep the bookshelves. They sound really nice; maybe you can enjoy keeping them by using much of the space for your sentimental treasures, attractive baskets of organized practical things, special photograph display, etc.

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