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The Guilt and Grief of Discarding Your Books - And How to Avoid It

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

Alternatives to getting rid of your old friends


Five years ago, my contractor husband and I decided to downsize from our 4400 square foot home to a much smaller home. The “Big House” had been the realization of a dream, a solar home on the country acreage that he had owned for more than forty years. We built that house with our own blood, brawn, and brains. The only contracting we hired out was the drywall — which as a petite, 5-foot tall woman I simply couldn’t lift — and the outside brickwork because we weren’t qualified as masons. My husband’s brother was an electrician and a plumber who did the work with our assistance, but we did EVERYTHING else.

It took us eleven months, working seven days a week, sometimes fourteen hours a day. We were younger and stronger then, filled with energy and belief in what our combined talents could do. Our house was a labor of love, designed for our personal tastes and needs, including a huge, 10 x 24-foot wall and corner wraparound of solid cherry bookcases for my incessant book collecting.

We were proud of the “Big House” masterpiece we had created with our own hands. But age, time, and circumstances change, and it wasn’t practical to keep the big house for just the two of us. We decided to sell it and live in the “Little House” we had built on the same property for his mother, a house without miles of bookcases.

I’m practical. Pragmatic. Realistic. I understood that there was no way I could move hundreds and hundreds of books into a quarter of the square footage. If If I kept them, we wouldn’t have room for chairs, or a table, or even a bed.

Can you fit 723 books into a tiny house?

The answer is “no.”

I made the decision to get rid of everything except my precious, most-beloved, most-referred to books. I packed up dozens of boxes and crates of books I had read in every genre, shoving each volume in quickly so I didn’t have to look at its face or think of its worth. I deliberately betrayed them, feeling like a mother giving her children away for adoption.

My most prized-collection was a body of work about the American West. It had been a topic for my research-writing students, and it’s a subject that fascinates and inspires me. Over the course of my teaching career, I had won an endowment, and most of the financial prize that went with the award I poured into books on this topic: books depicting the role of women in the west, the immigrant groups that arrived, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Homestead Act, the treatment of Native Americans, the photography of the west, the Gold Rush, the fur-trapping, mining, boarding house, prostitution industries. The list goes on and on.

But there was nowhere to keep my magnificent troupe of western word-wonders. Nowhere for those gorgeous tomes of scholarship to survive. Pragmatic as ever, I decided I’d box them up and donate them to the library at the community college where I had taught for years and where I’d won that endowment. I figured that giving back the proceeds of my award was the right thing to do, and I hoped that other people would enjoy those books as much as I had.

I have no idea if any students, instructors, or members of the public ever checked out any of my American West collection, but I have missed them. Fervently and frequently. I’ve felt guilt and grief over giving them away. I’ve experienced regret, physically longing to pull them off the shelf, look up a snippet of research, linger over a picture, or savor the sentiment of a scholar.

Advice from a forlorn, repentant, book-betrayer

Don’t do it! Don’t give away your lovelies unless you can handle feelings of betrayal, stupidity, and loss.

I’m a traitor, and feelings of betrayal bombard me. What did I expect when I thoughtlessly eliminated books that served me so faithfully for years?

I may be educated, but I’m not so smart. Stupidity results from the rush to “Marie-Kondo” the academic accumulation of a lifetime, to give away thousands of dollars invested in my book collection, funds I’d deliberately set aside on a small salary for pursuing my passion. I broke one of the cardinal rules in Marie-Kondoing: If it “sparks joy,” keep it. I did not. You should.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve wanted to go back to a book and reference something I’d highlighted or find a passage that I had loved. A physical sense of loss hits assails me every time.

“Oh, wait. It’s not here anymore. I don’t have it. I gave it away.”

Can you fit 723 books into a tiny house?

The answer is, “well, maybe. If you try hard enough.”

If I could go back and do it over, I’d keep my books

I’d determine my criteria for “keepers:”

  • Is this book one I’ll remember a year from now?

  • Are there passages I value for their meaning, their information, their relevance to my life, or their beauty? (This equates to the amount of highlighting I’ve done and notes I’ve jotted in the margins.)

  • Is this book one that I’ll use for reference work in my niche fields or passion pursuits?

  • Is this book a valuable one? Is it signed, rare, expensive, or out-of-print?

  • Is this book a part of a collection that encompasses a whole topic?

If the book is not a keeper because it doesn’t meet one of these criteria, I thank it for its service and the pleasure it provided and carefully put it aside to be passed along to someone else who will enjoy it.

I’d figure out a way to incorporate those books into my tiny home

Now, five years after our move, I look around and see ways I could have kept my books. I’ve learned the value of space-spotting and using every available inch to hold my new and burgeoning, “fresh-start” book collection.

  • I’ve got two pretty stacks of books displayed from the ground up in the space underneath my television table.

  • Inexpensive box cubicles stack proudly in my office, each staunchly displaying books and notebooks, and I’ve just noticed two areas where I can squeeze in another cubby or two. (If I screw them to the wall, it doesn’t matter how tall I stack them, does it?)

  • Hum. I think there’s an upper shelf in the coat closet that might have room for books. (Could I divide them and different places for each topic?)

  • I’ve got room above a door in an alcove where we can put a shelf.

  • I could take away my nightstand and build one from books. If I need to reference one, I simply have to shuffle the stacks.

  • Is there an empty drawer in my dresser? Could I condense my underwear and sock drawer to stash small volumes in the drawer I’m emptying?

  • And that space on top of the kitchen cabinets...a continuous row of books there? I could select them by color….or size….or topic….or…

  • Two walls in the bedroom could be commandeered. Who needs a picture when I could have books? As soon as we can figure out how to do more bookshelves on a budget, there’s room there, too.

  • If worse comes to worst, I could store books in bins under the bed until I can build more bookcases. Or stash them in the garage in tubs. Or put boxes on top of the water heater…

I wouldn’t buy into the ebook philosophy

When we moved, I thought, “I’ll just get my books on my Nook or Kindle apps. I’ll read digitally. That way I can have more books and they won’t take up any room.

I was misguided.

I do read electronically. I appreciate the ability to download a book in seconds and carry a library with me when I travel. But still, overthrowing my whole book-buying pleasure for a tiny screen is NOT the same.

Yes, digital downloads of books are less expensive than books, faster to purchase, don’t use up trees, and are light enough to carry anywhere.

Yes, I’ll still purchase ebooks sometimes. But I’m back to my old habits. In the words of James P. Blaylock, who wrote, “My Life in Books: A Meditation on the Writer’s Library,”

“As is true of angels, ten thousand ebooks can dance on the head of a pin, but even en masse, ebooks cannot add up to a library.”

I need a tangible, touchable library.

Millions of others have written about the tactile act of book-opening; the olfactory thrill of the smell of ink and paper; the sound of the book spine creaking, the rustle of pages. I can only echo their sentiments. It’s no fun holding an electronic reader. It’s harder to highlight and make notes electronically. It doesn’t smell right. But give me a book in-the-hand, and it’s worth two on a device any day. It’s a canvas for comments and color — all that I can go back to, reread, and savor by flipping through the pages like the old-timey moving pictures.

I understand why ebooks are declining in sales while print book sales are up. There’s nothing like the physical relationship with a real book. A sense of partnership, shared memory, and literary longing.

Keeping my books, even if I would have had to sit on them, would have been far better than the guilt and grief I’ve suffered from tossing them out.

If you’re thinking about it, think again.


If you love books, you'll want to read more about both classic and contemporary "reads" in Book Talk.

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