No Such Thing as Too Many Books?

(This entry was inspired by my librarian friend Jenn’s post here about the “sacredness” of books. Read it! The bottom line: Even libraries don’t keep everything.)

I work with a lot of very smart, educated people. I’ve discovered that many of these folks believe that books are exempt from the same scrutiny that one might apply to the rest of one’s belongings in determining if it should be kept or tossed. In other words–in their words–“Books can never be clutter.” The written word is an amazing, powerful thing, and books can be beautiful and give you much pleasure, but unless they are particularly stunning works of art that look great on display, they are of no use at all unless they’re being read. They are only potential. And the question is, how much of your space and life are you willing to devote to largely unused potential?

I think a lot of smart people like to keep books around because their library becomes a tangible demonstration of their knowledge and interests. Your books are you, a lot more than other possessions that might be cluttering your house, because most of them are there by conscious choice. I have one client who owns some books that she never intends to read, but she wants them on display because of the message they send to visitors about who she is. These particular books only take up a couple of shelves of a single bookcase, so it’s no big deal. But I want to point out that there are lots of other ways to convey to the world who you are that don’t require you to own stuff you don’t use. (Plus, eventually I worry that a guest will ask her what she thought of one of those books!)

I have another client who collects books on subjects that interest her. She gets rid of some occasionally, but there is a large imbalance between books-in and books-out. She has been systematically covering her walls with bookshelves. She actually does read many of them, and lends them out to friends. She’s fine with the idea that eventually she will be living in a library, and has chosen to take on the task of keeping track of them all, keeping them in good condition, paying for the shelving, and installing the shelving. She has also hired me on several occasions just to help her move the books around. Most of my clients aren’t able or willing to go to such lengths for their books. My only concern with this is that her home is finite in size, and that eventually she will either have to buy a larger house, or the books will start severely encroaching on the rest of her life. She figures she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. At any rate, the books are under control, and that’s what’s important from an organizing standpoint.

I think when possessions get out of hand, no matter what they are, they become clutter. Usually what I see among clients who believe that books can’t be clutter is that their collection is too large for the available storage space. The extra books sometimes wind up in stacks on the floor, which damages them (being stepped on, getting dusty/dirty, being squished under other books, and so on). Many of them may be inaccessible, in closets or boxes or bins. Sometimes they’re being kept in a garage or basement, where they’re gradually being ruined by humidity. The plan is generally to buy and install more bookcases or bookshelves, but it keeps getting put off, and it’s hard to accomplish that when the current shelves are so stuffed and there are lots of books socked away. In these situations, the people don’t even know what books are in their collection. And there may be precious things in there, like one’s original baby book with a lock of hair and adorable one-of-a-kind pictures, but they may be in a box with a 1995 almanac and an obsolete computer manual.

The only solution for most people is to reduce their book collection to a number that can be realistically handled, and that number will vary based on your space, time, energy, money, and how much you want to prioritize interacting with your books as opposed to other things you could be doing. Next time I’ll post a list of questions you can ask about your books to help you see where to start culling.

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