From the Blog

The Agony of Downsizing

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One of my goals, more than a goal really, more like a lifestyle revamp, is to be rid of objects that fill my space. I have a lot. This weekend, I have sold a camera and an evil chair on Craigslist. And just getting rid of those two items gave me a boost of enthusiasm and energy, and $235 extra in the piggy bank. I have been casting a discerning eye over our entire apartment, looking for items that are needlessly filling space. Like other furniture, extra coffee tables, and disused symbols of former bachelorhood, like broken kegerators. We’re married now. I can do stuff like that.

Some items will be so easy to shove out the door, I’ve already forgotten I had them. I will not miss them when they are gone. I still have boxes I carry around with me during every move. I don’t even know what’s in them. I have a couple of boxes of summer clothes I never even opened this year. I could probably drop them off at Goodwill and never think about them again. I have clothes hanging on hangers that I haven’t worn in years. I keep them because they were gifts. And maybe the person who gave me those clothes might one day come to Portland, and happen to look in my closet. “Hey! Where is that red shirt I gave you for Christmas in 2005?” This keeps me up at night.

So I’m battling a northeastern, Yankee tendency to SAVE everything. Because people in the northeast have attics and cellars, and they never, ever, move. I have been carrying around a metric ton of crap with me as I moved from each corner of the United States. Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Oregon. If I move to Florida, you can shoot me and take my stuff. You have my permission.

However. As virtuous as it feels, and as much as I enjoy thinning my possessions, and getting rid of my “stuff,” I have a certain weakness about books. It just seems blasphemous and flippant to get rid of books.

I have a bookshelf filled with books from college. Shakespeare was two classes. Chaucer was two classes, my instructor was the guy whose name was on the spine of the giant Riverside Chaucer tome. I took European Culture in the Latin Middle Ages. I took Philosophy and Literature. I took Celtic Myth and Folklore. I took Greek Lit, American Lit, Brit Lit, Sci Fi Lit, Children’s Lit. I took Comparative Religious Ethics. I took History and Structure of the English Language.

Now. This all sounds smart. I absolutely assure you, it was not. Because I took all those classes, all those classics, all that literature, all that culture, and religion, and philosophy, and you know what my profession is? I’m a goddamned accountant. GODDAMNIT. Be ye duly warned. You can spend the money and take Humanities if you want to feel smart. But you may fucking kick yourself later.

So, books. To my endless shame, I took those classes, but even into my 20s, and even into my late 20’s, I was a lazy student. I didn’t really read these books. I read them enough to get by. I read them enough to write papers. But I didn’t DEEPLY read them. Homer. Nietzsche. Descartes. Plato. Rousseau. Milton. Yeats. I read them enough to bullshit my way through essays. Even into my 20s, when I should have known better. I was paying for the classes myself. And essentially, I just honed my bullshitting skills. Into a fine, sharp point of bullshit.

I haven’t cracked these book in ten years, since I graduated. I’ve taken them with me everywhere I go. They probably collectively weigh one hundred pounds or more. I continue to keep them. They aren’t light reading. I will probably never have a free evening where I peruse my bookshelf and pull one of these volumes to finish before bedtime. They aren’t fun. I’d have to slow… way… down… to comprehend these words. I’d have to read them over and over before would I start to “get” them. I’d have to re-tune my brain from my instant news, constant twitter, endless stupid blather frequency that is my normal life. I’d like to think I am a thoughtful person. But basically, I have mush brain. I’m too dumb to read these.

But I’ve kept them. I keep them out of guilt. I keep them because I never really “read” them. It seems counter intuitive to get rid of books I haven’t read yet. Which is 90% of my books, honestly. And I keep them because they make a “smart” bookshelf. Maybe “I’ll find the time.” Maybe my neurons and synapses will reconnect, and I’ll read these, comprehend them, I’ll sprout wings and fly of into the land of enlightened intellectualism.

Would I be happier with the empty space? Without a reminder of my guilt and shame? How quickly would I forget them? Or should I carry them with me, with that heavy weight, and an everlasting, unfulfilled promise to myself, that some day, some day, I will read them?

I know the answer. There is nothing I am better at, than torturing myself.

(Update on this situation over here: Wrestling a Bear.)

(And another update here: Getting Rid Of My Books was the Best Idea Ever.)


  1. What is it with books? I have some of those very same college texts on my shelves. I am 57 and still have college papers in a file cabinet ready to be reread and studied in a moments notice! We are kidding our-self about now, but it allows us to connect with a tangible object those heady days of college when anything and everything was possible.

  2. I dumped all of my college books a year or two after graduating, realizing I was never going to read Kate Chopin’s “Awakening” in my life. I wish I’d saved my Riverside Shakespeare though. With kids, it would have made an awesome booster chair.

  3. If we ever have an apartment with two really heavy doors, I have to fantastic $100+ doorstops waiting for the occasion. #riversidechaucer #riversideshakespeare

  4. Keep ’em!

  5. This comment section is reserved only for people named Mike.

  6. Ohhh books are hard to part with! Maybe this post will inspire you?

    Thanks again for dinner last night. We had a blast. :)

  7. I had the same problem with textbooks. Over a few years, I started to get rid of them – first the ones that weren’t too painful to let go, and slowly onward from there. Initially, I’d wait awhile after each purge to be sure that I didn’t regret the choice. But over time, I saw that it was really no big deal and have since purged all of it. Honestly, I don’t miss any of them, and I feel like their absence from my apartment opens up space so nicely.

  8. I echo that….”what is it with books?” I had some books forever. And then recently, I started wondering if I’d survive without some of them. So I sent some off to the thrift store. Oh. I feel…okay. Would do this every month for a bit… and just recently, I looked at some books I swore I would never ever get rid of but found myself offering them to a friend. The look of happiness on his face when I dropped off the books was so worth handing the books over. (he didn’t even have to tug them out of my hand).

    The biggest thing has been some decor books….those big, coffee table-ish books that have so many pretty photos and cost about $30 or more each. Yeah – I’d never part with those. Then last night, I donated them to the library – hoping the almost-new books won’t be dumped in a “sell next year in the library sale” bin. I feel responsible for some of my books..and yeah – can’t say I worry about them because they’re “just books” but I think I did worry about them.

    What IS it with books?!!!

  9. I’ll take some of those books of your hands! I want to read them, and will. I just don’t want to buy them, or get them from the library ‘cuz I keep them too long and rack up the late fees, or don’t get to finish them.

  10. My breakthrough was when I started used the library obsessively. I finally realized if I would never put it on my library “reserve” list, I would never pull it off my shelf.

    If that didn’t help, I would search the library catalog to see if it was there, so in case in 10 years I did want to put it on my reserve list, I could. Even books I loved. Sure, it’s nice to have the copy of the Grapes of Wrath that I read, but since the library has 120 of them, I know that I’ll be able to read it again should I have ever time or desire again…

    Maybe if moving your own 100 pounds of books hasn’t helped you purge, you should help someone else move *their* 100 pounds of books. That inspired me to think, “ugh, am I that annoying girl with tons of heavy boxes when people help me move?”

  11. Kathleen Parker says

    I am so there…., my problem is that I do read them and reread them and….. You get the picture. Oh, did I mention that one can not find these books in a library? To tote or not to tote? Is that the question??? LOL

  12. The Tiny Homestead says

    wow, so funny and so true. As a yankee that hasn’t moved in 10 years and probably wont ever move again, I feel quite entitled to keep books. Other things still trouble me though. And I still be shortchanged by my home’s lack of a proper attic.

  13. Books were my weakness, too, but every time I look at my bookshelf now, I see a few more I can part with. It’s helpful for me to tell myself that if I ever actually DO want to read Canterbury Tales again, I can check it out from the library. Eventually, I’d like to get to a place where I only have books with some kind of sentimental value or those that aren’t easily accessed at the library, Amazon, etc.

  14. Wow, guys. Thanks for all the comments. I am happy to say that I am getting reacquainted with the library after many years of avoidance. The Multnomah County Library makes it unbelievably easy to borrow books rather than buy them.

    I guess I want to be smart enough to read these old classics. Heavy literature. Western philosophy. Maybe not Chaucer in actual the Middle English. But I feel like I *should* read them out of penance for not reading them in the first place in college. I wonder if I can carve some time away from my regular reading and spend some with these cranky old buggers.

    I don’t know if it is admitting defeat to let them go, unread. Or if the empty space is the true victory.

  15. I’ve moved so much in the last decade that I have been ruthless, or so I though, about the books I kept. This week I sold most of them. Kept the book my husband proposed with and my favourite book of poetry. Feels great! We live three blocks from the library and are there once a week.
    I say give yourself a year to get reading and then decide if you should free up your bookshelves.

  16. I’ve always had books, lots and lots and LOTS of books. I’ve also just started purging all of the excess from my life, and guess what falls into the category of excess…. BOOKS! So far I’ve only made the first step to remove those books that I KNOW I will never read. Now that I’ve freed up that space on the shelves, I’m looking at what books i’ll probably never read again. It’s a slow process, but if you pick a few at a time and give yourself time to digest the emptier shelves, I’m sure you’ll be able to pass these books on to someone who WILL read them!

  17. my theory with books is that unless i use it as a reference, absolutely love it, or it’s a theatre book (I’m an actress) I can always get it from the library if I want to read it again. particularly the classics. They’re hardly ever checked out.

    even still, I have an awful lot of books.

  18. i like the idea of purging only a few books at a time, so i can get used to the empty space.
    oh, how my inner nature abhors a vacuum on the shelf!

  19. Boy, am I with you! I just went through a two-week purge, followed by a rather cathartic yard sale. Three days before the sale, I just said “Enough.” There will be another chance to get rid of books and other treasures later, and hopefully then they won’t seem as precious. I’m planning another purge this winter, and then in the spring.

  20. help

  21. I’m doing a full divestiture right now. Surprisingly, for someone who reads as much as I do, the books were the easiest things to get rid of. They’re large, heavy, and they don’t travel well, nor do they keep much resale value beyond the sentimental. For me, the toughest object to part with was my Super Nintendo. That one hurt, badly. As I was packing it up to ship to the buyer, I felt some serious pains of remorse.

    That said, each object I get rid of makes me just a smidge happier.

  22. Thanks for reading and sharing your stories, everyone! I can’t wait to go read all of your blogs.

    I like my stuff. I’ve lived with stuff all my life. Getting rid of it really is a huge lifestyle change, like we are standing on the edge of a cliff. It feels like it will be a steep drop, but I have to remember, we will likely float, not fall.

    Thanks for all your contributions and encouragement. It helps to know so many people are going through the same thing.

    And if I get rid of my books, it means I can get an iPad, right?

    Ha, ha. Just kidding.

  23. I have always found the attachment to books odd, especially the type you have.

    These books will be available in any library you walk into, and from the sounds of it, most of them would be free ebooks if you went that route.

    Personally, I only buy books that my library system does not own. When I have read them, I gift them to the library. My hope is that they will find a spot in their collection for them. Unfortunately, they may be just dumping them in a pile for their fundraising sale.

  24. Oh, you have Shel Silverstein. Now THAT is some good reading worth keeping around.

    I don’t own (or buy) many books anymore as I realized I don’t really read the books I own. But I do read the books from the library like they’re going out of style. Maybe it’s the pressure of having to return them in three weeks, who knows.

    We read Silverstein in the evening to the kids. I mean, cuz the kids like the poems. Yeah, the kids. That’s it.

  25. I love books! I have a similar problem — way too many books. But I have managed to trim down by quite a bit over the years and several moves. One of my big rules is the library rule: if it’s a book I could easily pick up in the library, I don’t keep it. Even my favorite book (My Antonia) isn’t on my shelf.

    I do keep around easy-access not continuous reads (biology textbooks, poetry collections, etc), some books I really love that are a bit harder to find, and some truly obscure things. And cookbooks.

    I still have more books than I probably need, but I don’t find myself overwhelmed with them like I used to. I used to have a 7 foot shelf and a 5 foot shelf filled with books, and now I’m down to perhaps just the equivalent of the 5 foot one now (I got rid of both of those shelves in a big move).

  26. Ah yes, thank you for summarizing my own agony. I have recently and with ease filled up a large box of clothes for goodwill and included in that is 20 pairs of shoes.

    But the books…oh the books, they hurt me so.
    And yarn, the yarn hurts too. But my love of books goes back to childhood and that is one tough nut to crack.

  27. I have a master’s in English Lit, and this is all. so. true.

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