The Great Book Purge of 2010

January 14, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 41 5 min read

For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me.  Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn’t help–it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing.  During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge.  The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on.  Something had to be done.

Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge.  For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration.  Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you’re one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant  (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.)  Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room.  Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company?

covercoverI also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives.  The first thing I look at when I walk into someone’s home is their bookshelf.   That is, if they’ve got any–lord help me.  On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, “If you go home with someone, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!”   This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I’d like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar.  If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick?  If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us?  Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb.  I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov.

Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library.  “You’re not actually going to re-read these, are you?”  he asked.  It should come as no surprise that he isn’t a reader (I wish I could say, “If you don’t read, I don’t want to be your daughter”…but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.)   Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched.  We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left.  “But I need them for teaching!” I cried.  I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student.  “You’re not a librarian,” Patrick replied, that witty asshole.

coverSo, one Sunday, we began.  My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work.  I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine.  Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter.  Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me.  That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.

It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily.  We were even a little frenzied.  It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them.  Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins.  I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.

The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well.  The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things.  I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers.  Let them live on!  I was in the service of humanity now!

Of course, we didn’t get rid of everything (sorry, humanity).  Our favorites remained.  Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson… and these were just a few of the authors who survived.  Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two “favorites” shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts.  We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag.   We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened.  Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.)

covercoverOur best change is “The Unread” (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you).  I am happy to say, it’s only a short pile, and it’s in no danger of blocking that movie poster.  This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it’s difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us.  Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I’m halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).

It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves.  To my surprise, I don’t grieve the change.  Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books.  It’s like a flattering new haircut that no one sees–they just think you look great.

So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books?  Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I’ve previously established).  But we weren’t so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd.   If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I understand the reluctance to get rid of books combined with the desire to keep them (and keep adding to the collection!). Here’s how I deal with it. I occasionally make a pile of all the books I 1) know I’ll never reread and 2) feel like I probably won’t need to refer to for any other purpose, and 3) don’t have some other kind of attachment to besides a generalized attachment to them because they’re my books.

    Then, to ease the pain, I take them down to my favortie used book store (shout out to Kaboom here in Houston). I sell them to Kaboom for store credit. Then I buy more books!

    The reason this works is that Kaboom (like all used bookstores, buys cheap and sells dear). So for me, the net quantity of books is negative–which was my goal, after all, but I still get the excitement of having some new books to read.

    But I have found that there is an additional psychological benefit. If I am paying for a book with cash, I always feel like it needs to be a book that I have intended to read, that seems important to read, either because I read a great review, or its on a subject that particularly interests me, or because it’s a classic.

    But when I am buying books with store credit, I feel weirdly freed to buy any book for whatever whimsical reason. Like–I like the cover. Like–Chinese history, I bet that’s interesting! Etc.

    I can’t say I have drastically reduced my library by this method, but at least each trade at kaboom results in fewer total books, and often leads my reading down unexpected routes.

  2. I have been purging my books as well. Two years ago our movers were stunned that a two bedroom house could hold as many boxes (and the resulting filled truck weigh) as much as it did. Most of those boxes were filled with books.

    Last year I started weeding out books when our bookshelves would hold no more. Everyone who visits our house is offered books, and I often contribute them to local yard sales, thrift stores, and the library, but I love to pass on books by hand to those who will enjoy them.

  3. I live in a dorm room that’s quite small, and although I’ve managed to wedge a full sized bookcase in there, I’ve had to weed out books I was absolutely sure that I wouldn’t read or read again out occasionally. Even though I know it’s not practical to keep every book I buy, it’s still a little painful. I get rid of a lot of books by giving them to people as gifts, and also on book trading sites like bookmooch.

  4. Next time you do a purge, please get in touch with ReadThis. Our organization locates schools, daycare centers, hospitals, etc., that are in dire need of books and helps them build a library. We are currently on Facebook at ReadThis; you can see a list of the locations we have helped to date. You can also join and receive announcements when we hold book drives.

    Another way to join is to email at [email protected] and ask to be put on the mailing list.

    You would be amazed how many public high schools, for example, have no library of any kind and how happy they would be to receive your books.

  5. Firstly, I am neither an asshole nor terribly witty. Secondly, I must report that Edan’s separation anxiety came to a boil the night of the purge as we were lying in bed. “I feel sad,” she told me, “like I did a bad thing.” I’m happy to say that she’s come around to my perspective, and that the purge was rejuvenating, like a colonic.

  6. Sorry babe, could only get about two paragraphs in due to your pretentious bitchiness. I would hope that any reader OR non-reader wouldn’t be willing to be friends with such a judgmental, neurotic, materialistic snob as you. Here’s a quick wit: One can have books climbing the walls and have never opened a one, while another could have a room devoid of books and have read more than even you…how so? It’s called a LIBRARY; you’re also apparently in LA, which has one of the best and most extensive library systems in the US. Now get your head out of your ass and quit basing your identity on material things like a typical LA hipster-wannabe. Thank you and have a nice day.

  7. We just moved recently and I have been entertaining the idea of purging as well. I have the same misgivings about getting rid of books and too, like to be surrounded by as many as my living space will hold.
    However, after lifting all the boxes of books several times I am more amenable to a purge but have not done anything at this point.
    I too feel the same way about bookless people. Books are the first thing I look for when entering someone’s home but most people that I know have few or no books that are visible and they can’t understand why someone would keep all those books after reading them.

  8. I love hearing about how people manage their personal libraries. Keep ’em coming!

    Thank you, Biz, for the information about ReadThis. I will keep that in mind next time around, and pass it onto my friends.

    Patrick, you’re a liar.

    And The Quote: thanks for correctly attributing that phrase! My mistake. My friend Brian is so funny and clever I just assumed he had written it.

    SK, it’s very easy to be mean on the interwebs, as you have shown us. Thanks. For the record, I love the LA Public Library; I have a book on hold for me at my local branch right now, actually, waiting for me to pick it up (the stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Anyone read him?). Thankfully, all of my closest friends are either neurotic, judgmental, or materialistic, and can accept my human ways.

  9. Firstly, Patrick clearly represents himself as an asshole on Tumblr. Clearly witty, though.

    Unless you live above a library, the ill-natured comments above do not apply at 3 A.M. when you absolutely need to find that White Noise quote. The internet, you answer? The internet doesn’t have my underlining for ease of finding it OR my gem-like marginalia to remind me of what a silly ass I was. Then.

    That said, I regret recycling/selling/giving away/throwing-away-in-anger almost every bound volume I’ve shed. My wife, son and I moved to an actual house this summer and we have room for all of our books and more.

    Rent a storage unit and pile them up in wait for that beautiful day! Book owners are not like the Collyer brothers!

  10. ” ‘You’re not a librarian’ “.

    Why ever can’t you be? You can be the librarian of your own personal library. My mini library is currently awaiting it’s home in my future (possibly never to be physically attained) den/office with wooden built-ins on every wall. Oh yeeeeessss, it will be wonderful!

    Materialistic, sk? Oh well, books are one thing I’ve never felt guilty buying and collecting! Funny thing is, your snarky post says more about you than it actually says about this article. I don’t care how many books a person has read, if they don’t at least own a handful of their very favorites, I’d be suspicious indeed!

  11. I moved last April and donated half of my collection, and I’m still drowning in books. What a wonderful problem to have!

  12. I read as much as anyone I know, but I’m also a librarian…and have access to hundreds of thousands of book every day when I go to work. And because I tend to move a lot, and am not by nature sentimental…I don’t actually OWN more than 50 books (though there’s often at least 20 check-out items laying around). I have a bookcase with more Trivial Pursuits on it than books. Does that mean I don’t deserve to get laid!?

  13. I do book purges from time to time as well — I always keep my trusty old favorites (and new favorites too), though. And I, too, feel that my books say something important about me — for instance, if you know that I love Tennyson, E.M. Forster and PG Wodehouse, that I read literary fiction but also have a semi-secret shelf of Harry Potter books and trashy chick lit — well then, you already know quite a bit about who I am.

    SK, your comments were both rude and way off-base. Maybe if she’d written an article about her giant collection of designer purses, you would have a point. But the girl is talking about books. Books! And let me also point out — while I’m a frequent visitor to the library, I also make a point of purchasing books when I can afford it. Because if no one actually buys books, there will no longer be any books to read. So, no, buying a book is not necessarily a materialistic act, because it’s partly about supporting art that you believe in and want made.

    Besides, I have a feeling your comments were based more on your own insecurities than on anything Edan said in her post.

  14. My Intro to Fiction teacher thought Breece D’J Pancake was amazing, but I don’t think anyone in the class got around to reading him during the semester. I still haven’t, probably should.

    I totally agree on the Nabokov love. There are a few books I have to take with me wherever I move, no matter how tiny the room is going to be.

  15. Thanks for writing about this Edan. I am constantly struggling with which books to keep and to not keep. I just love books! Recently though, I was the judge for a book award and I had 300 books shipped to my house and while part of me was over the moon excited, it really showed what a book “problem” I have.

    I, too, have started purging. And maybe having someone help me would be the way to go because I am so slow in the getting rid of them. Because books are a painful thing to part with. Especially the ones that I want to read and still haven’t. (I’m looking at you White Noise by Delillo) (still on my bookshelf)

    So I’m going through it slowly ad I have been purging in many different ways. 1) I donate age appropriate books to my neighbors, both elementary school teachers. 2) I donate to my two local LAPL branches (they’ve had their budgets cut last year) 3) I went to a book swap. Where people traded books. Delightful!

    The thing that is great about book purging is that if I really find that I gave away a book that I still miss or want to re-read. I just go and buy a new copy!

    And you know what they say: “clear out the old (books) to make room for the new (books).”

  16. I have the opposite problem – I recently moved to Los Angeles and left most of my books behind in Chicago at my parent’s house. To decorate my living room I bought one of those giant IKEA bookcases – cubes, 5X5, and it is woefully unfilled that I’m actually having about half of my books sent from Chicago.

    it’s a very nice feeling to have empty bookshelves, actually, waiting for them to be filled up…

  17. I swear you guys could be me and my husband. After years of drowning in books and being sort of vaguely aesthetically pleased by the idea, we just last weekend FINALLY did the purge. We also created shelves for the unread–which are still overflowing. We’ve decided if we stop buying books and take a year off of work to read full-time, we might eventually catch up.

  18. My True Story

    I once had a library of about 1500 books. I knew this library well, had read about 2/3 of its books. Plus there was a reference section which included, for example, dictionaries in Irish and Swahili–just in case I needed to look up a word.

    For many years I was an apartment manager so people were always coming into my apartment to be vetted by me and to fill out paperwork. I loved to see the look on people’s faces when they saw my walls–and this was only the 10 x 12 dining room which I used as my office. Some people walked to the bookcases and twisted their heads to start reading titles. I would mention this was the fiction room, the code that other rooms contained bookcases filled with nonfiction–which was true. Other people felt a bit intimidated and lesser-than and asked “Have you read all of these books?”

    It hit me one day that I was showing off. I’m not saying other people are showing off, but I was. Definitely. It was pure ego–separate from the fact that I read a lot and have a lot of reading interests. My books on display was my bookish alpha male display. I was really upset, really really upset, when this truth hit home. All the purity of my beautiful library vanished. I had used my books in an unseemly way.

    When, about 2 years later, I decided to take a leave of absence and go overseas to teach English, it made no sense to hold onto my library. I had minimal storage space in the basement of the building and needed to use it for furniture and kitchen stuff. To lighten my book load was a necessary psychological purge. I needed to get over myself. I sold about 900 and got about $1 per book–bastard bookstore guy! When I came back two years later and after six months realized I liked my life better over there, I sold everything, absolutely everything including my books.

    Now it is ten years later. I’ve been back 18 months and I have started replacing some of the books I let go. The essential 200 or so. I keep book buying in check because I am poor and after all my bills are paid every month I have less than $50 in Spending Money. Seattle has a great library, as does the UW where I use someone else’s library card. Literate Seatleites have fabulous sidewalk and alley sales where one can find a Swahili dictionary for maybe $1.50. And my ego sleeps well at night.

  19. Sk,

    Your comment above feels logically jumbled and needlessly vituperative. Here’s a few more quick wits: Public libraries and private booksellers (and the readers who buy books from them) can and need to coexist. The work of both benefits the culture and the writers who create the books in the first place. The author doesn’t claim that the size of her private collection makes her well-read, but rather that the books she and her husband have purchased–a choice which directly contributes to the financial well-being of many writers–are simply taking up too much room in their living space. And I think the writer would gladly say that the books she reads affect her sense of identity–any curious, enthusiastic, and open reader would probably agree. Finally, it’s possible to consider books “material things,” but the values expressed in this post, and even those in your response, speak to the “special” nature of books. They are material objects whose contents can offer wonderful reading experiences. I think your anger may have led you to misread or misunderstand the intention of this post.

  20. my family believes that a book should be shared. after we read a book we never see it again, we move it forward whether to friends, family, book club, used book store. only book that stays is the bible.

  21. Thanks for the feedback on my comment! Perhaps it was a bit needlessly bitchy, but I stand by the sentiment. The writer wraps her identity in books as materialistic possessions; it is a materialistic pursuit, a numbers game, akin to collecting shoes or, yes, designer purses (“If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick?). Her collection of books is not for reference, to be reread and re-enjoyed, to lend out, nor as keepsakes, as many of you seem to wrap your books; I firmly believe there is a difference here. She is literally (and literally) *hateful* to people she does not view as readers (“…if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar.”); that is the bitchiness that I alluded to in my first post. To be hateful, elitist and possess a false sense of entitlement/superiority because you have a BOOK is ridiculous. I see the importance of the book as a collection of ideas and cultural statements intended to inform, entertain and unify; ideally, it’s not a status symbol intended to divide people or allow one person to denigrate another. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a fair-sized collection in my personal library (appx 1000 books, spread between two bedrooms, a garage and storage), as well as an MLIS in Reader’s Advisory (though I don’t work as a librarian yet, thanks to the lack of employment opportunities in So CA public libraries); I also sell used books online as a hobby. And, yes, I’ve been described as a voracious reader, devouring approximately 200-300 books a year, who keeps only those books in which my physical, emotional and psychological memories are wrapped. Thank you and have a wonderful day!

  22. ReadThis! is a great program and should be your first stop for donating books that might be suitable for up to age 17. But if you’ve got lots of other books you might want to donate, The Center for Fiction will even come pick them up! Just give us a call at 212-755-6710. Or if you’d like to sell books, stop by. We price them individually, but almost always do better than $1 a book for hardcovers. And all the money we make reselling your books goes to help support our programs for emerging writers!

  23. On the idea of books being a way of people seeing into your identity: perhaps having fewer books makes the significance of those you do have greater. To have Joyce but not Fielding, or Fielding but not Joyce, represents some kind of choice of emphasis, rather than just a complete spread of classics.

    The overflow of books (and – whisper it! – ego!) is something I’ve tried to moderate too: letting go of them does shift some senses of obligation, and/or burden, and keeps life in perspective (at, say, two of these books a week, only a about five hundred will get read in the next five years: so which are definitely not in that 500?). Despite being a voracious reader, I’ve bought very few books over the last year, gradually trying to work away at the pile of good intentions and previous enthusiasms.

    The thing I do slightly regret is telling my sister about my desire to de-clutter myself from so many books between her buying and giving me the most amazing present: a book for every year of my life so far. But I feel confident that she knows I’m grateful!

  24. always fun seeing how others manage to remove some of the wonderful tomes! Would suggest, though, that the next time you do so, try sending some of your “moved along books” to who sell ’em online for the benefit of literacy causes around the world.

  25. I’m with you, fifi. When I finish it I share it. Why should book’s life end in my apartment? And I hear you SK, it is a pet peeve of mine to hear people judging others by what sits on their shelves. It’s kind of antithetical to the idea of enlightenment.

  26. Thanks for the tip, Abbess. I will definitely will look into Better World Books (as well as the aforementioned Read This! that others have mentioned) when I have this problem again–and, trust me, I will have this problem again.

    Thanks again to everyone for sharing their book stories with me and with The Millions.

  27. And, for the record, I do re-read some of my books, and I often lend them out, either to students or friends. In fact, a few years ago, a friend gave me a personal library system, which comes with check-out cards, a date stamp, and even “reference” stickers. It’s great!

  28. Personally, at the conclusion of any such book purges, I like to hand over my precious books to somebody I know will appreciate them. So the beloved school stories from my childhood went to the kid next door, while my collection of whodunits when to my tweeny cousin.

    But that said, I must admit that I’m still quite a book hoarder and unfortunately, my pile of Unreads is larger than my pile of Reads.

  29. I have a very strict, “one in, one out” policy, which especially applies to books, magazines, and clothing. If the book is in good shape, and fairly recent, I give it to my local LA public library; if it is in bad shape, old, or scandalous, I take it to the laundromat down the street, along with magazines (which I purge every six months). Many people in Los Angeles have English as a second language, and they like to practice but can’t afford to buy books or magazines.

  30. I joined and it’s been great. I can post books I am willing to give up my “Bookshelf” and create a “Wish List” of books I’m interested in reading. The folks at PBS match folks — You get a credit for every book you send to another member and pay media rate postage when you ship your unwanted book to another member. You can request one book for every credit you have or you can purchase credits and request books from other members. The system works well and includes not just paperbacks, but also hardback, audio books, large print, etc. It costs nothing to join and you are given two free credits when you sign up. They also have a program that enables you to donate credits to schools in need so they can build their libraries. Try it, you might like it and you know your books are going to folks who really want them. I currently have a library of about 2500 books, but have also become a fan of Kindle (it requires no additional bookshelves).

  31. In most cases, I give away my books as soon as I finish reading them to friends or colleagues. Why waste them on a shelf? They are no good to dust bunnies. You write beautifully.

  32. SK- your comment still doesn’t apply. Edan’s hardly being hateful to non-book-owners. She simply says that they aren’t the sort of person she wants to spend time with.

    Just as some people, for instance, might not want to spend time with people who aren’t sports fans. Or people who don’t have children. Or people who do have children. Or people who buy too many shoes. She likes to be with people who enjoy owning and reading books. She’s not saying she wants to gun down non-readers. *That* would be hateful.

    And I really don’t think she’s flaunting her books. After all, she said many of her books are in her bedroom, and who goes in her bedroom besides her and Patrick?

    And didn’t she purge all these books? If they were a result of her bitchy little ego, would she have done that? Unlikely.

  33. Am starting the Great Purge myself. While it seems counter-intuitive to give away the classics, I have decided to purge first those books which are public domain (up through 1923) as they can be instantly downloaded for free on a Kindle if I ever want to re-read, check for a quote, etc.

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