In response to my previous post, Stuart asked: “So, what do you do with all your books?” The answer got a little long, so I’m forking it out as a separate post.

I don’t have any great solutions. But, if you assume a fixed capacity, there are basically two tacks you can take: get rid of existing books, and limit acquisition of new books.

For a while, I was successful in getting rid of existing books: I would go through my shelves, and, for each book, ask myself “what would cause me to reread this book?” (Or read it for the first time – at the time I started doing this, I owned way too many books that I’d never read.) If I couldn’t think of a good trigger, I would then ask myself “then why am I keeping it around?” Often, I didn’t have a good answer to that, either, at which point it would go on the stack to give away. And I still revisit my shelves periodically with this question in mind: if I ask that question about a book twice a year for five years, and I haven’t actually reread the book over those five years, then my brain is sometimes willing to accept that as evidence that, perhaps, I don’t need to keep the book around.

Also, it’s useful to remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you give away a book that you want to read five year later, you’ll probably be able to find a copy five years later. (Which is one of the nice ways in which the world has changed in the last decade and a half!) There are certain rare out-of-print books that I’ll probably never give away, but if it’s some random novel from a non-tiny press, I’ll be able to track down a replacement copy if I want one. Which means that you shouldn’t sweat over being perfect: as long as you don’t just give away books willy-nilly, chances are that the replacement costs of mistakes will be much less than the savings from reduced storage.

This helped a lot. Having said that, in recent years, my rate of book reduction has slowed. Fortunately, we still have some amount of blank wall space in our townhouse. (True story: when moving to California, our first landlady gave us a choice between one apartment with windows on three sides of the living room and one with windows on two sides. We chose the latter: sunlight is all well and good, but we really needed the wall space for bookshelves.) So we’ll buy a few new bookshelves this summer, and I imagine that will last us for a while. (Miranda is actually the one who really needs more bookshelf space.) My guess is that we’re giving away enough books that we’ll last for another decade and a half or so without bursting at the seams, at which point Miranda will be living in her own apartment and we can take over her bedroom!

So that’s the “get rid of books” side. The flip side is: how do you make yourself happy about not buying tons of new books? One answer is the library: if I don’t have reason to believe I’ll want to reread a book or use it as a reference book, I check it out of the library if possible. (And Mountain View has access to a good interlibrary loan program, which I use pretty heavily – I miss Harvard’s libraries, but having interlibrary loan access to several decent smaller college libraries is good enough most of the time.) Another answer is to reread books that I already own: as part of the pruning books exercise, I’m making claims that I want to reread most of the books on my shelves at some point. Which means that I should be happy to test those claims by actually rereading them! If I’m finding that I don’t want to reread those books, well, that’s interesting information too.

For a while I was on a fixed schedule where I’d read a new book, then a book I already owned, then a book from the library. That was useful as far as it went, but I’m hoping that, now that my queue has gone away, I can relax that schedule, reading even fewer new books while still being happy. So if I’m in a mood to, say, reread all the Jeeves and Wooster books (which I already own), I can just go and do that without worrying about screwing up any schedule; if there’s some new book that I’m curious about right now, I can go and read that, but I’ll try to get it from the library most of the time; and I’ll try to browse random books at the library periodically so I get exposed to new authors.

I suppose I should set a target here, just to make my planning empirical. Maybe I should try to restrict myself to, on average, acquiring at most one net new book every two weeks? (Which I can meet either by not buying many new books or by giving away old ones.) I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to do that (if for no other reason than that work prevents me from spending as much time reading as I’d like); I usually buy 6 foot by 3 foot bookshelves, so if the average width of books I buy is a little less than an inch, then I’d only have to buy a new bookshelf once a decade under that plan. Seems workable to me.

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