1 December 2020 Susannah

Discarding books

Culling books

A common task during the months of being stuck at home because of Covid has been sorting and culling books. I have attempted this very difficult job recently, dusting my books and trying to weed some out so as to create room for recent purchases. It is NOT easy! I am never going to follow the advice of Marie Kondo, who thinks 30 books is plenty in a house (she is clearly not a reader!), but I did feel the time had come to be a little more ruthless (don’t worry – I didn’t throw them in the bin).

So … what ‘rules’ should be followed when culling books? These days so many classics are available for free on Project Gutenberg, or a good library, but I teach the classics and refer to my much-loved copies often, so they all had to stay. Crime novels and thrillers are usually easy to ditch, as are popular novels that I know I will never teach or read again, but after that it gets so tricky.

Marie Kondo insists you should get rid of books you know you will never read again, but how do I know that in 15 years’ time I might not be hit with a strong urge to reread Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth or Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line? And what about books given to you by friends, which you enjoyed but not enough for a second reading? Do you share the pleasure by passing them on, or will your friend be upset to find her gift in a second-hand bookshop or a Little Free Library? George Bernard Shaw, browsing in a used bookstore, was annoyed to find a presentation copy of one of his own works, inscribed “with compliments” to a friend. He bought the copy, wrote “with renewed compliments” on the title page, and posted the book back to that friend. One can be pretty sure that from that moment on, the book was kept! And does one keep a book simply because the signature of someone you loved is inscribed in it, even if you know you’ll never read it (my husband insists such books should be kept)? There are just so many dilemmas when culling books and I find the whole process emotionally exhausting.

But it’s not over yet! You put the discarded books into a pile. If you don’t get rid of them quickly, some books make their way from the pile back onto the shelf, as you re-think your decisions. Getting rid of used books is not easy – charity shops are groaning under discarded paperbacks, my Little Free Library is fully stocked (with a reserve bag of books waiting), and most charities do not seem to want more books.

And if we think the problem is tough when culling our personal libraries, think of institutional ones. Recently the National Library of New Zealand announced it was taking 600,000 books out of its collection, all of them ‘foreign’ books. The library needed the space to store books about New Zealand, its history, peoples, etc and didn’t have room to house English classics or books about the holocaust. Critics have attacked their cull as “cultural vandalism”, arguing that the definition of NZ and what makes up its stories and history has been too narrowly defined.

The books seem to be finding a variety of homes, including in prison libraries and charity shops, but I feel so sad that my home country’s National Library is ditching a lovely 1912 copy of Sense and Sensibility. A library simply cannot be a proper library if it lacks the novels of Jane Austen.

Have you been culling books during Covid? Do you have rules for keeping books on the shelves? Do you share my agonies over getting rid of books to make room for more? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Discarcing books, By brewbooks – https://www.flickr.com/photos/brewbooks/6132547533/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26747671

Comments (25)

  1. Erna Arnesen

    I found that I could sell groups of books by a single author, on eBay. They are not valuable enough (in terms of resale value) to sell individually on eBay or Amazon, but as a group, someone will often buy a group of books, paperback ro hardcover, fiction or nonfiction. They are often on the other side of the collector spectrum from me. ( used to buy these collections myself!

    It isn’t a huge moneymaker but it helps me part with many books i don’t think I will read again. And of course, if I want to read a book again after 15 years, as my husband keeps telling me, you just go online and buy it again. The percentage of books you repurchase will be very low.

    That gave me enough courage to sell or donate well over 1000 books not too long ago. I was also motivated when I developed a serious illness and I decided I better get some of my books to other homes.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks, Erna, that is helpful and practical information. As you say, you can always buy again if you find you really need a book you once discarded.
      I do hope you are now fully recovered from your illness. Best wishes for a merry Christmas.

  2. Pamela Allen

    We have 2 street libraries in my suburb and I donated many many books to both during Covid. I didn’t really have a list of criteria for culling them, more a gut instinct I guess. But it gave me great pleasure, each time I walked past the street libraries, to see that the books I donated had been borrowed.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      They are such great things. I have my own street library outside my house and books come and go with wonderful frequency. So nice that you are giving to your local ones.

  3. Louise

    I did it once and still regret it. I think of some of those books and get cross with myself for letting them go. At the time I thought I would never be interested in reading them – stupid girl !! I miss my copy of the hardback Sara Dane and many hardback copies of the classics. So when a new book comes home it has found it’s forever home.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also once owned ‘Sara Dane’ and various other Catherine Gaskin’s, and they went and I’d love to have them back now.
      Thanks so much for ordering my new series, Louise. I do so appreciate your support and hope you will enjoy the virtual journey.

  4. Brian Doyle

    I never ever part with a hardback and not too many paperbacks either, I have to know their on hand even if boxed and stored and really one must leave a few jobs for ones benefactors

  5. Eva Fay

    Thanks for your newsletters and these are useful comments on this forever problem.

  6. Miland Joshi

    I get rid of books all the time, but the Covid lockdown has actually stopped it temporarily because the local Oxfam bookshops which would take them is closed. An old friend wants to give some books away, but they’re in his office, and guess why he can’t access them!
    Covid apart, I sympathise with the problems others have written about, e.g.lack of space, the feeling that you might want to read a book in the future (the reason I *don’t* get rid of my crime novels). But I guess we have to “prune the tree” sometimes, especially if we think that we won’t have time for this or that item. Yet things can change. I have got rid of books and re-acquired them sometimes. On one occasion I gave one away *before* reading it, thinking ‘if I pass on tomorrow, I won’t be able to give it away’. Maybe I should have trusted in Providence more, but at least I had the satisfaction of the propagation of knowledge (I think it was a biography of Dag Hammarskjold – a fat book, but I’ve got smaller ones by him). No easy answers!

  7. Heather Grant

    We recently moved from Sydney to Port Macquarie and I did start to “try” and cull my books. My husband told me “Don’t. When we get to Port Macquarie you can donate them to the Community Library”. So far they haven’t been given any…the books are still with me and shall stay with me. Oh, I did donate some cooking magazines which I know I shall never, ever use. Our tastes in what we now eat have changed…dramatically!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have found cook books amongst the easiest things to get rid of. If they have not been used for 5 years, out they go, unless they were given to me by my mother. But other books are so hard.

      • Heather Grant

        Oh, I entirely agree with you about cook books given to you by your Mother. I still have mine – including the Edmonds Cookery Book and the Country Women’s Institute Cookery book. In fact, a few years ago I bought an updated version of the Edmonds book but still retained the old one…purely for sentimental reasons.

        The FM Station Fine Music have a book, CD, DVD and sheet music sale about 4 times per year. They will come and collect the items at no cost. I have got rid of DVDs and CDs and novels I know I will never, ever read again. Their website is http://www.finemusiconline.com.au.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          My Edmonds Cookbook is getting very ancient, but I do love it and use it often.
          Thanks for letting me know about the book / cd sale – that is useful to know.

          • Heather Grant

            From the Edmonds Cookery book I make the Bacon and Egg Pie, Ginger Crunch (love it), ANZAC Biscuits and quite a few other recipes which escape me at the moment. A much loved and still used cook book nation-wide in NZ…so I was informed.

  8. Anne Williams

    Hi Susannah,
    I’ve recently bought a book after watching a Zoom talk from the Mitchell Library by Kate Forsyth. Searching for Charlotte.
    Australia’s first children’s author and Kate’s 5 x great grandmother. A great read and your Jane Austin along with the Brontes
    are mentioned, it’s a great read, I’ve not quite finished yet.
    Covid found me donating my culled books to a retirement village who were in lockdown and with no libraries open and being an age group
    that didn’t always have access to the internet. They were so grateful and the friend who lives there has now created an area along a wall,
    so as people pass they can borrow, she has even placed the books in groupings. She now wants coffee table books for those who cannot
    stand to decide on a book but can browse through an open one.
    Anne W.

  9. Malvina Yock

    Isn’t it the saddest and hardest job to cull books? But yes, it has to be done when you run out of room. I also use the ‘I’ll never read it again’ rule to part with some. I’ve also discovered that many classics are free on Kindle, so you can ensure they still remain in your library, albeit as a e-book. Some paper book purists find this an outrage, but I actually find holding a Kindle is easier on my hands than a heavy book. No easy answers. The school where my son teaches has a busy little free library outside the gates, and there is also one around the block from me. Both get regularly filled by my books, and my friends also pass them around. I have discovered charity shops don’t want ‘old’ books, especially if the pages are discoloured. They advised me to recycle them, yes in the recycle bins. It seemed terrible to throw them out like that… I try not to discard books that have a personal inscription.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have also been advised to put books in the recycle and I just can’t do it. It is all such a hard process. I have been filling Little Free Libraries too.

  10. Jane axelrod

    I have made several passes on culling my bookshelves to make rom for other purchases. Usually the out of date travel guides get tossed as i can’t imagine they woukd be any use to anyone. Then subjects that no longer hold my interest. Otherwise, it is very difficult to eliminate anything else! I don’t keep popular fiction(unless i think i will read it again and there are a few if those, but not many) .paperbacks usually go after a first reading because they don’t last physically as rhe pages yellow and get brittle. I have some books that belonged to my parents for nostalgic reasons as i remember looking at them as a child. And then there are my books from when i was a child which reside in my bedroom and those never ever get culled! Likewise books from my family.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s not easy, is it. I am the same with precious books from my childhood! And I agree about cheap paperbacks – those are not too hard to get rid of.

  11. We have an organization called Books for International Goodwill. Books are sent overseas to schools and libraries that do not have much access for books. Or people and schools cannot afford books. I have donated two of my Jane Austen books to it. This organization has sales five times a year to help pay for the cost of sending them overseas.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Many thanks for that – I will be in touch and deliver some books.

  12. Dennis Long

    I started my COVID culling with the very lowest hanging fruit, books that I had received from friends in bulk when they were emptying the deceased estates of their family. Being an English teacher made me an easy mark. No furniture but I can take all of the books.

    After that it was just all too hard.

    And then my boyfriend saw I a gift he had given me in the giveaway box. This is still a bone of contention.

    It could be worse. Richard Glover has written about seeing one of his old books for sale in a second hand shop. Curious about the price, he opened it to find that he personally inscribed the copy to his own mother. She needed the space.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Ouch to both those stories. Yes, one has to be really careful. Also, if you give away a book a friend has given, that friend can sometimes sk if he or she can borrow it. Highly embarrassing if you have got rid of it!

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