The Shelf-Space Dilemma: Which Books Stay? Which Go?

Double-shelving: Should you do it?

Double-shelving: Don’t try this at home.

We lit-loving folk tend to accumulate an overwhelming number of books.

Even if you’re a diehard eBook reader, audiobook listener, or library borrower, chances are you’ll still find yourself receiving the odd hard copy as a gift, or springing for an exciting new release or two at a local author signing.

Next thing you know, you’re running out of shelf space. So how do you decide which books to keep and which to give away?

I’ve been surveying own collection lately, searching for a pain-free but expedient means of thinning the rapidly multiplying herd. I’ve got to admit the situation’s spinning out of control.

Books perch in wobbly stacks on my nightstand and have taken roost on top of my filing cabinet. Not even my six, 6-foot industrial metal bookcases can contain them; I’ve already resorted to shelving yards of books in spine-obscuring, dust-trapping double rows.

March of the Penguins. I collected these old editions while working for a used bookstore. The Virgil has its own little paper dustjacket and a 35-cent price stamp.

March of the Penguins. I collected these sweet, old editions while working at a used bookstore in Toronto. The Virgil has its own little matching paper dust-jacket and is priced at 35 cents.

There are yellowing, dog-eared texts from college coursework, beloved novels that once belonged to my late mother, quirky editions I picked up back when I worked for a used bookseller, and memory-laden ones from my years as a book reviewer and literary publicist. There are crisp, new story collections and memoirs, snapped up at AWP and bookstore events, and lavishly illustrated orphans rescued from garage sales and library discard piles.  Oh, and then there are my husband’s books….

Until we get that mansion with 12-foot ceilings, acres of built-in shelving, and a rolling library ladder to reach it all, I’m afraid it’s time to divest of some of these darlings. But where to begin?


To help me get a better grip on this project, I’ve broken down my home library into a few broad groups.

The True-Blue, Indisputable Keepers:

  • Books I’ve had since I was a kid. These are the ones that have withstood countless household moves, cullings, and reorganizations. They’re the “familiar faces” I’m used to seeing on my shelves and would feel bereft without. These include: Treasure Island, The Phantom Tollbooth, and fairy tale collections my grandmother sent me as birthday gifts.

    From the Keeper Pile: A few well-loved and well-worn childhood favorites.

    From the Keeper Pile: A few well-loved and well-worn childhood favorites.

  • Books that are part of my own writing. Reference books I’ve used to research my novel, including a book on 1940s Cleveland restaurants, a pregnancy manual from the 1960s, a copy of the children’s classic Paddle-to-the-Sea, and a history of the now defunct Euclid Beach amusement park. 
  • Books that might be worth something someday. Signed first editions. Um, especially those written by friends who are likely to visit my apartment.
  • Hall-of-Famers. There’s a wall-mounted shelf that sits above the desk where I write. It houses books by Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Cheryl Strayed, Carole Maso, Italo Calvino. It’s something of an altar. I like to believe I’m reaping mysterious benefits by proximate osmosis.
  • The To-Read List. Books I plan on reading in the next six months. Honest. If not, out.

The Giveaway Pile:

  • Obsolete reference books. These are the least painful to part with—especially in the Internet age. My list includes outdated atlases, travel books, and restaurant guides. Duplicate dictionaries can go too. Political books from past election cycles and 5-year-old technology books are on my husband’s discard list.

    From the cast-off pile. Why let a book like this take up valuable shelf space when it's just as easy to take your hypochondria online?

    From the cast-off pile. Why let a book like this take up valuable shelf space when it’s just as easy to take your hypochondria online?

  • Books I’ve had for a while, but haven’t read.  You know the ones. Titles that were once on the to-read list, but somehow never pushed their way to the front of the queue. Months, then years, roll by and interest fades. Time to just admit it and move on.

Everything Else:

This is where the real decisions get made. Do I really need all those old works of classic literature from my college English classes? If I’m honest with myself, what are the chances of my reading them again?

Dolls of Ozarkland, I just can't quit you. This book is just too weird to part with.

Dolls of Ozarkland, I just can’t quit you. This book is just too deliciously weird to part with.

What about tattered, old novels I inherited from my mother? Do I need to keep all of them? Or is it enough to hang on to just a favorite few?

Here I think it’s best to use the “special edition” test. Is the book of any particular value to me as a physical object (for example, is it leather-bound, or a first edition, or one of those adorable old Penguins with the matching dust jacket?). Or is it something utilitarian, and easily replaced or borrowed from the library?

A Plan for the Future:

As much as I love good old-fashioned ink-and-paper books, I’m going to be more selective going forward. Books with a built-in expiration date, such as travel guides and accounts of current events, are probably best borrowed or acquired in electronic form.

Lovely old out-of-print illustrated books.

The irreplaceables: lovely, old out-of-print illustrated books.

But I’ve got to say, I’m mostly unrepentant: I know I’ll still scoop up a few too many books at AWP and at bookstore signings, even though I know some of them will inevitably go unread.

My library will keep evolving—expanding and contracting—with all the mess and periodic maintenance that entails.

For me, it’s all just part of the fun.

Readers, now we want to hear from you. How do you manage your own home library? How do you decide what comes in and what goes out?

About Nora Maynard

Nora Maynard's recent work has appeared in Salon, The Millions, Drunken Boat, Necessary Fiction, and Underwater New York, among others. She was previously a weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn, 2006-2011. Nora's been awarded fiction fellowships by Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, Millay Colony, Ragdale, and I-Park. She's a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council of the Arts Chapter One Competition, and a member of the Board of Directors for The Millay Colony for the Arts. She recently completed her ninth marathon and her first novel., Twitter: @noramaynard
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4 Responses to The Shelf-Space Dilemma: Which Books Stay? Which Go?

  1. Sejal Shah says:

    Great post, Nora! This will be helpful as I need to cull through my own books. There’s another AWP fast approaching! :)

  2. Bert Archer says:

    Me? I got a Kindle.

  3. D. Riley says:

    Hhm, I only let go of crap, mostly escapist literature such as detective novels and contemporary fiction I find particularly sub-par. I’ve actually sold or given away all my Murakamis after the Wind-Up Chronicle because I found he became too formulaic, and the two Jennifer Egans I had tried after reading all the praised heaped upon them and finding them not much more above a decent plane read (including the Goon Squad one).
    I keep all the classics, because I’ve found I reread them occasionally and I’m reevaluating books I didn’t like the first time around but now I find really good.
    I mostly have a working library of non-fiction and literary fiction, not much else.
    I do keep “obsolete reference books” because they’re actually useful for historical research, including old atlases. What I trash mostly after careful shredding are old bank records and other useless junk papers that take too much place on my shelves, and I bring to the thrift store well-intentioned gifts like books of cocktail recipes, or biographies of people I don’t have much interest in.
    Also… You can actually hang wall-mounted shelves above doors.

    I found out after a move that well-stocked bookshelves are great for noise insulation. They don’t require to charge any battery, you can read in the bath and spill your coffee on them, and your rented content doesn’t mysteriously disappear if you move from a country to another and the terms and conditions somehow allow Amazon or whatever to erase all the stuff you thought you had been buying on your Kindle/iPad/other device. Plus, they look cool.

  4. Josna Rege says:

    Love this post, Nora, mostly because of its unrepentance, I must admit (and mine). But it’s also something a book-lover like me can use. Once it has calmed my fears by establishing those categories of indisputable keepers, it allows me to discard books freely in those reference and mass-market-paperback-with-no-sentimental-or-aesthetic-value categories.Those old Penguins are my personal favorites too. Even if I know that I will never read them, I still can’t bring myself to part with some of those WWII-era Penguin paperbacks with the logo of their era.