Just the other day, I had a chat with a bookish friend about a subject all bookish people must at some point or other confront: Getting rid of books. 

The subject of acquiring books is always joyous – how do you build your library, where do you make your best finds, that sort of thing. And the subject of arranging books is equally fun, swapping notes with fellow readers about how they manage their limited space, all the strange places that have gradually become store-places for books. Acquiring, storing, reading, annotating … all fun topics. 

But getting rid of books? That might be every bit as essential a part of the reader’s life as any of those others, but it’s no great hoot to write about, or to think about, or especially to do. Every book you take on is brimming with potential, after all; every single new addition prompts you to hope it’ll become a permanent fixture, something you treasure and return to endlessly. Nobody likes to scan their bookshelves and be reminded of all those spur-of-the-moment buying impulses that turned out to be mistakes. 

But scan those bookshelves you nevertheless must! If we all didn’t semi-regularly patrol our shelves for potential discards, we’d be up to our eyeballs in books before the year was out.  

This is doubly and triply true for me. As a book reviewer, I get lots of books in the mail every week from publishers (far fewer now than in pre-COVID days, but it still adds up), and I’m also a regular visitor at my wonderful local second-hand bookshop, where I can seldom bring myself to resist the allure of cheap goodies. Put all those things together, and can see the beginnings of the problem. If I didn’t regularly dump books, I’d be buried in them. 

My bookish friend and I were comparing notes on the specific whys and wherefores of getting rid of books, and those strategies will be familiar to quite a few of you. Such conversations always remind me of certain rules I’ve always tried to follow.  

For instance, Rule #3: the fact that I received a book as a gift is not sufficient reason to keep it. The opposite feels natural: we attach an automatic sentimental significance to presents. But the simple truth is that although most of my friends know how central books are to my life, none of them could accurately pick out a book I actually want if they had a month of free tries. I’ve repeated my insistence – “Don’t get me a book!” – more times than I can count, but every so often a book will slip through even so.  

Or Rule #1: the fact that I liked a book is not sufficient reason to keep it. Despite being a reviewer (and sometimes tough to please), I read quite a few books every year that I end up liking. But that’s not good enough – my personal library isn’t a museum, after all! How many books have I read and liked and never even thought of revisiting? More than I could possibly count. Keeping them all would make about as much sense as shoveling snow from wonderful winters past into the freezer to hold onto them.  

Then there’s Rule #2: the fact that I reviewed a book is not sufficient reason to keep it. At first there’s a strong impulse along those lines, when you’re a reviewer, and I know some reviewers who, unbelievably, have kept a copy of every single book they’ve ever reviewed, even if they panned it, even if it bored them, even if they can’t imagine ever touching it again. This has always struck me as only a little short of madness, turning your profession into some kind of church altar.  

No, when you come right down to it, the only legitimate reason to keep a book is if it’s an entirely ACTIVE thing, something you return to often, something you think about often, something you go to and use on a regular basis. If it’s not a living, active thing in your library, it’s a relic, something that will only gather dust and silverfish over the years and maybe throw out your back the next time it comes to move house.  

It’s an unsentimental view, of course, and one I freely confess I haven’t ever managed to implement completely on my own personal library. There are still plenty of books that hang around for sentiment’s sake, and there are plenty of books that always protect themselves from the herd-culling by saying “You might need me someday!” I know perfectly well on one level that I won’t; I have the internet, after all – the whole of human knowledge, literally at my fingers day and night. But every time I go through the shelves looking to cut some fat, I fall for that same old promise. 

I’m due for another such book-culling, something to free up lots of space for the summer. But every time I go ranging around the shelves lately, I end up standing in place reading from some volume I’d forgotten I had.  

So, it’s an ongoing task. But I can dream, can’t I?