Sunday Salon: The Great Cull

People’s attitudes toward their unread books fascinate me. Some people love being surrounded by books they have yet to read. From what I can tell, those piles represent all the possibilities for their future, the many pleasures that are ahead of them. Or perhaps they consider it a comfort to know that they’ve stockpiled a nice collection that will keep them happily busy with books to read for years.

And then there are those people who consider those piles of books a task to accomplish. They feel obligated to read those books, which is fine except when the books come in more quickly than they can get read.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you probably know that for the most part, I’m a member of this second tribe. I do like having books around—it is indeed a comfort to know that I won’t run out of anything to read anytime soon. But those unread books tend to taunt me.

One of the reasons that I dislike having large numbers of unread books around is that it takes some of the spontaneity out of my reading. I  like to have a general plan of what books I’d like to read in the coming months, but I don’t like to make many firm commitments. And buying a book feels like a commitment. These commitments make me feel bad about following my whims when my whims call for something different. I end up not using the library so much—and I love the library, so not going makes me sad. What I’m realizing is that there’s a point of balance that would allow me to have plenty of options on hand without feeling hamstrung by the commitment I have to those books. For me, having enough books to last for three years even if I read nothing else is probably not it.

Last year, thanks in part to the TBR Dare, I did a a big cull to get all my books onto a single bookcase. Despite my best sadly ineffectual efforts, the bookcase was overflowing again by the end of 2011. So I decided it was time for another cull. This year, I decided to get rid of all books I can get at my local library. It’s silly to have them in the house when the library is in walking distance. I also got rid of books I could get on Project Gutenberg, the logic being that they’ll take up less space on my e-reader than on my shelves. The only exceptions to these rules were for gifts; some of the more collectible editions (Persephones, Folio Society, NYRB, Viragos, signed copies); and the two series I’ve recently started (Margery Allingham’s Campion series and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series). Everything else had to go.

Newly Culled Bookcase

I ended up getting rid of about 50 books, which are now in bags in the trunk of my car, waiting to be donated to the library. Is there a chance I’ll buy one or two back at the next Friends of the Library sale? A small one, perhaps, but my plan for the future is to try to buy books I’m prepared to read right away, books I can’t get at the library, and books that are particularly collectible. These are not rules but guidelines. I’m not a fan of hard-and-fast rules. I have been thinking it would be smart to make a list of books I can’t get at the library, so I’ll know what I’m on the hunt for when I go to book sales. Sometimes I do buy books thinking my library doesn’t have them only to find out that it does.

As far as this year’s TBR Double Dare goes, I feel like I haven’t been properly participating because I’ve been all about the international crime fiction this January. I did plan for exceptions for this month, and in truth, almost all the books I’ve read have been from my shelves. Still, I haven’t been thinking much about it. What I did do was go the library at the end of December to pick out several books to have at the ready if I were to finish what I had on my shelves. This reminded me once again of how much fun library browsing is. So many possibilities! Free for the taking! No commitments! And the hourlong walk there and back is lovely exercise. Must. Do. This. More.

And then there’s Netgalley. I’ve been requesting books on Netgalley as if the TBR Dare weren’t a factor. So with February on the horizon and two months left, I decided to get serious. I went through my Netgalley list and declined all books that are coming out before April 1. Technically, I requested several of those before January 1, so they would officially fit within the parameters of the Dare. However, part of the point of the TBR Dare for me is to read the books I have sitting around. Books on a virtual list aren’t sitting around my house.

So, from now until April 1, I hope to read only physical books from my TBR bookcase (pictured above). (There are a few international crime books and a review copy not on the bookcase because they’re in my “read soon” pile.) I’ll be interested to see how many I’ve read come April 1!

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50 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Great Cull

  1. Tony says:

    Over the past year or so, I’ve been more selective with books I buy, usually only buying books from certain areas (J-Lit, German-language books, certain Victorian authors) – everything else can be borrowed from ther library.

    Mind you, I’m not saying it always works…

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve tried to be more selective, but I keep finding reasons to make exceptions to my usual guidelines, which does make me wonder why I bother setting guidelines at all :/

  2. litlove says:

    I’m definitely in the camp of needing to be surrounded by lots of books. I love the feeling of choice and abundance, and it just gives me a kick to look at them. It’s always intriguing to think how emotional our relationship is to books. Both the physical objects, and also the stories they tell. It’s still hard to hear a book bashed by someone else when we’ve loved it. And I do not respond well to Mister Litlove eyeing up my piles and telling me I could stand to lose a few! But books have all this potential to make us happy, so I figure that we simply have to respond to our impulses where books are concerned, and maintain whatever status quo feels right.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder how much of each person’s comfort level with unread books has to do with their feelings about books as objects. You mention loving the object itself, and I do appreciate physical books, but not to the degree a lot of people do. For me, unless it’s exceptionally well-designed (like a Persephone book or Anne Carson’s Nox), the object is mostly a vehicle for a story. So having the objects around is not particularly comforting to me if I haven’t yet experienced the stories inside them.

      And you’re absolutely right that we each have to discover the status quo that feels right to us, and it won’t be the same for everyone.

  3. gaskella says:

    I love being surrounded by them, but I have far, far too many, and sometimes it seems like a battle to reduce the numbers, so I cull gently and constantly, and am trying not to acquire so many at the moment, especially during the TBR double dare which I’m sticking with well. Good luck with your plans, however flexible they are.

    • Teresa says:

      I think the key for me from here on out will be slowing down the acquisitions and being more intentional about what I buy, always keeping the library in mind. I can’t really imagine getting rid of any of the books I have left without at least attempting to read them, so we’ll see.

  4. Karen says:

    Love the kitty! I love the feeling of having many books waiting to be read..although mine are stored on my kindle. It so exciting knowing I will always have a book available at any time.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s funny that the books on my ereader don’t stress me out nearly as much as the physical ones. And I do love knowing I have tons of great classics at my fingertips there.

  5. I do like being surrounded by lots of books that I someday hope to read. I don’t like to have loads of books that I most likely will never read, so I get rid of books and donate on a regular basis. I know I have way more books than I’ll ever read, but that’s ok. I also love Net Galley.

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s being surrounded that I don’t like. A nice little stockpile is my goal. And Netgalley is great! I’ve gotten to try some wonderful books there, and I love that it gives bloggers a little more control over the review copies we read.

  6. Lisa says:

    I wish I could be more ruthless about culling, but I feel like if I bought a book, I should at least try to read it, even if it’s just a few pages – and I also have this fear that if I don’t I could be getting rid of a *really good book*. But the piles of unread books around here do make me more anxious than excited. I think the solution for me is to buy less and borrow more – and to buy more mindfully. The TBR challenge is really helping me focus, though I do have a growing list of “after the challenge” books to read. I came across Amitav Ghosh in the new book bins of the library yesterday – which was my first real temptation to cheat.

    • Teresa says:

      In my heart, I feel the same way you do, Lisa–that I ought to at least try every book I buy. But I really let it get out of control and needed to clear the decks and start over. What was painful about this cull is that I bought some of the books just a few months ago. But I added them to my “to borrow” list at my library’s website and will make them a priority. If I love them and want to own them, I’m sure I can find another copy to buy.

  7. Deb says:

    It’s now been two years since I made a resolution to buy no more books until I worked my way through my 300+ tbr mountain. Other than gifts, I’ve brought no more new books into the house and have used the library whenever possible for books that I want to read but don’t already have. I did try to do a cull, but I ended up being like those people on hoarding shows who dither about throwing away a broken coat-hanger…so, for now, the tbr mountain is being reduced at a rather slow pace, but I’m getting there.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so impressive! I thought about doing the same, but I’m not sure I could do it. I think sticking to reading new purchases right away, while I’m still excited about them, will be a better solution for me.

  8. amymckie says:

    Congratulations! I used to be in the second camp but am slowly moving to the first. I am coming to love the shelves overflowing with unread books without feeling too guilty about them. Congratulations on culling so many, that is fantastic! I’m hoping to get a lot of my shelves this year too, mostly by reading though if I can. With 500+ to choose from I still have quite a choice any time I want a new read!

    • Teresa says:

      I thought last year I was converting to the first camp a bit (at least making peace with a full bookcase), but I think there’s something in me that likes to *use* everything I own, including books. So I’m stuck in that second camp for now. Good luck with reading through your books!

  9. christina says:

    I get crazed if I’m not surrounding by a gazillion books. Seriously. It’s soothing. So, yeah, I have a lot of unread ones (looking at over 100) on my shelves but it doesn’t stress me. I guess I sorta see them as my bucket list. Creating a list of what I want to do doesn’t stress, but I like the anticipation.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a great attitude, even if I don’t share it for myself. I do love having a long virtual list, which I see as a lovely pool of possibilities to look forward to. I think it’s the feeling of commitment attached to buying a book that bothers me.

  10. I love this post. I used to be one of the people who felt warm and fuzzy for having scads of unread books around, but with age and lots of additional responsibilities, I find myself in the second category. After a recent (and temporary) move, most of my unread books are in storage and I only have about 20 on an “immediatete” TBR pile. I also have a small stockpile on my Nook and in my Kobo account. It’s helped me IMMENSELY to have a smaller collection of books at my disposal. It’s easier to choose what to read next, and I don’t feel so guilty if I need something not from my TBR just to keep my reading mojo going.

    Hope you don’t mind, I’ll share this link in an upcoming Linkapalooza post on my blog. :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s funny. I’ve never liked having tons of unread books. I’ve liked getting the books, but it doesn’t take long for them to stress me out because I want to read them all right away and I just can’t! There’s part of me that would love to get my physical TBR pile down to 20 books or so. I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, but I can absolutely see how it would make choosing easier.

      And yes, feel free to share!

  11. Jenny says:

    I’ve always been anxious about having lots of unread books, now more than ever because I live in a wee little apartment. I need to read the books I have and cull them judiciously but it is harrrrrrrd and the library is so tempting!

    • Teresa says:

      Having a small space makes a huge difference. One of the things that made me more ruthless was realizing that my small condo may be my permanent home and I want to have room to expand my library of “read” books, so I shouldn’t waste space on books I may not want to keep. Better to make it so I can more readily give in to the temptation that is the library.

  12. Susan E says:

    I’ve always been in the first camp, as long as they all fit in my bookcases, but they’ve overflowed the shelves. The TBR challenge is helping because focussing on books at hand keeps me from adding to the stacks, but I’m afraid a cull is in order here. So I found this post inspiring.

  13. JoAnn says:

    I love being surround with books I want to read, but run into problems when choosing what to read next. Too many choices can be overwhelming! I had a few slips with the TBR Double Dare this month, but will continue reading from shelves.

    • Teresa says:

      So far, I’ve only read one book not on my shelves, and it was for international crime fiction month and I’d reserved it before Jan 1, so it technically fits. But I really want to focus more on what I own for the next two months and whittle that pile down!

  14. Lu says:

    I’m some where in the middle in regards to my feelings about unread books in my house. On the one hand, I do like having all those possibilities. On the other, I do feel a certain anxiety about it. This is my first year participating in The Dare, and I hope to have all the books in my apartment read before 2012 is done. That being said, all the books I have in my apartment are not all the books I own, as the majority of the books I own are living in my old bedroom at my parents house. It will be something of a lifetime goal to get those all read! But I’m starting with the books on my shelves now. So as soon as they are read, out they go, unless I really love them and want to hold onto them.

    • Teresa says:

      I know what you mean about feeling both ways. I do like having some books around, but for me, the anxiety had overtaken the pleasure. I’m now wondering what number of books will make me feel like I’ve found that balance.

  15. Vasilly says:

    When you wrote, “buying a book feels like a commitment”, I couldn’t help but nod. That’s exactly what every unread book in my house feels like right now. I’ve ran out of space to shelf more books so I feel guilty about buying books or even checking them out from the library. Most of the books I own aren’t at the library so I can’t cull any more until I read them! :-( Good luck on the TBR Dare.

    • Teresa says:

      If I could get over the sense of commitment, I wouldn’t mind having unread books around, but I just can’t see owning books I don’t intend to read or haven’t yet read. So every book turns into a commitment.

      I am very lucky that my local library has so many books that I do want to read. I could probably get rid of another 50 or more if I added what I could get from neighboring library systems.

  16. Heather says:

    I am definitely OK with being surrounded by books I haven’t yet read – I do see it as possibility rather than commitment. Though I just moved, and having packed and unpacked the majority of the books I own (some are at my mom’s house and have been for over a decade now, eep) has made think a bit about what I’ve read and what I haven’t, and what I’ll probably cull once I’ve read it vs. what I’ll probably keep. My boyfriend did a pre-move cull of his books (do we really need half a shelf of Lonely Planet books from several years ago? no, we don’t) but I wasn’t that organized. I’m doing the TBR Double Dare, too, and am enjoying looking at my recently-rearranged shelves and wondering what I’ll read next.

    • Teresa says:

      Moving really does make you think about everything you own, doesn’t it? I think one reason I never used to have a large TBR pile was that I moved every couple of years. But five years in the same place has caused me to get lazy about culling all my stuff (not just my books). At some point, I’m hoping to get the shelves down to where I see possibilities and not burdens.

  17. I have a really hard time getting rid of books I haven’t read yet. I think having them around feels more like a possibility rather than an obligation (except the review copies… those I do feel a little bad about). Getting rid of them feels like giving up on a book before giving it a chance. I’m impressed with your culling efforts though!

    • Teresa says:

      I really would feel bad if I got rid of something I can’t get at the library. But I think I was starting to resent all those books that taunted me every day. If they’re at the library, waiting for me to check them out, I don’t feel the pressure.

  18. Kwadwo says:

    I belong to the same tribe as you, Teresa.
    And it’s true, having more unread books than wanted does take the spontaneity out of reading.

  19. Jeane says:

    I have had to do several great culls – particularly when we moved and I simply couldn’t take them all with me. About two years ago I culled a little over a hundred books out that I really thought I would probably never die if I didn’t read them. The rest of the TBR now fits on in one bookcase, and I made myself a promise I wouldn’t purchase any new books until I got through most of those- down to at least a single shelf, I’m trying to get. Making slow progress! (c.b. james’ tbr dare is helping a lot)

    • Teresa says:

      I’d like to get down to a single shelf, too, I think. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. At this point, I’m thinking it would be nice to read two books I own for every new or borrowed book. Then I could make some progress!

  20. Betty says:

    I have 18 bookcases and a few piles, so culling is not something I’m good at. On the other hand, I think of my TBRs as an opportunity, not a burden. But I had to STOP buying so many books, so a number of years ago I converted to an obsessive library user. Then I had to adopt a reading journal because it turned out that the physical book was a form of memory. If I was trying to remember a title or author (what, that doesn’t happen to you?), I could go to my bookcase and find it. Mind you, with that many books, I do have them organized. I think of them as a savings account, which I plan to spend more of. My goal this year is for at least half of my reading to come from the “bank”.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s interesting about the book holding the memory for you. One of the reasons I enjoy blogging so much is that it functions as a reading journal and helps me remember. But when I do try to think of what my favorite books are, I do usually look over my bookcases of books I’ve read, so having them here helps, too.

  21. Kristen M. says:

    I’m in that second category too — I see all of the unread books by my bed as a bit of a stressor. I’m slowly making a pile to the side of ones that I’m less than excited about or would be just as happy reading a library copy. I don’t know that I’ll be able to get rid of 50 but between this pile and my “read 50 of my own books this year” goal, I should at least make some headway (as long as I keep my buying in check, of course!). Sadly, this also means steering clear of the library for a while too. I do miss it!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve continued to use the library, but sparingly, and I miss going frequently and getting piles of books. When I was looking for international crime books, I just wandered the aisles of the mystery section and grabbed all the books that seemed to apply and ended up taking 6 or 7 home. It felt soooo gloriously self-indulgent. I doubt now that I’m going to read them, but I did get the fun of picking them out and bringing them home without the commitment of having to read them.

  22. Juxtabook says:

    You’re a brave, brave lady!

  23. Samantha says:

    I’m bad when it comes to NetGalley as well. I’ve accepted/requested more books than I could possibly read but that doesn’t stop me from visiting and looking at the books. I think I need to work on self control :) Good luck with your challenge!

  24. Bybee says:

    Since I’m moving to another apartment later this month, I’m culling about 50 books as well. I’m planning to take them to the International Students’ lounge. The paperbacks there are old, crumbly and cheaply made back in the 1970s. My contributions will be an improvement; they couldn’t be any worse.

    • Teresa says:

      The last time I moved, I got down to maybe a dozen unread books! Moving is a great motivator. I’ve thought about donating books to my office cafe, where the selection is more recent than the 70s, but tends to be nothing but mass market romances.

  25. I love to be surrounded by books, but the vast majority of mine are unread. I do look on them as a to-do list, but a gentle and forgiving one.

    I think I have about 500 unread books. Unfortunately, I think I’ll have to move in about 5 months. I can’t read 100 books a month. Oops.

    • Teresa says:

      If I felt that the to-do list were gentle and forgiving, I wouldn’t have given up any of those books. It’s my virtual TBR list that seems gentle, so that’s what I’m trying to rely on :)

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