Figuring Out How to Prune a Library

The libraries of booklovers are like the forsythia around my home. They grow like crazy and require regular and sometimes drastic prunings or they become a total mess and take over the house! That’s something I’m realizing as I look at the stacks of books in different rooms of the house and the fact that every bookshelf we have is crammed full. I’ve started pruning and in the next years probably need to set out in earnest if I don’t want to leave a huge job to my son.  He has enough books of his own–thanks in no small measure to our rampant bibliophilia!

So how does one figure out what books to “prune”? Here are some of the thoughts that are beginning to form for me and I would love to hear from others who have gone through the same process:

1. If I haven’t touched, or even thought of it in the last five years, it is a likely candidate for pruning.

2. If the information in it is out of date, or the discussion (if a book of non-fiction) is clearly no longer relevant, then it goes on the discard pile. I think I still have a few textbooks that would readily qualify.

3. If I say, “reading that once” was more than enough–if I know that this is not a book I’d read again or reference, why am I keeping it? A recent book I read on the European Union fits this category and is on the pile to go to Half Price Books.

4. If it is a book that I think could be of help to a friend (and they welcome this!), then it is far better that it not collect dust in my house!

5. In some cases, there are books that hold special memories, and these I would want to go to those who might share those memories–best to make those decisions when we can!

A friend of mine is going through this process and suggested starting with the idea of deciding what books to keep. I admit, there is more than a little of the hoarder in me that would be tempted to say, “I don’t want to lose any of my friends–I want them all around me!” But if I had to use that criterion, here are some of the things that would (and likely will) guide me:

1. Is it a book that I have, or am likely to re-read because there are still undiscovered depths to explore? Obviously for me, the Bible (although not all the copies I have in my home) would qualify as would almost anything written by Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien (the father), Augustine, Shakespeare, J I Packer, Calvin, or more contemporary writers including Steinbeck, Paton, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner. That’s not an exhaustive list but suggestive. Oh, and I would add anything by or about Winston Churchill! And there are a few historians I might re-read, like Manchester, Tuchman, and McCullough.

2. I would keep reference books I actually use–commentaries and dictionaries in particular. Even here, a number of these works have been digitized and it may make sense to donate print copies to theological students or others who might benefit. I need to think about that.

3. For this time at least, I would keep our Library of America volumes, which include a number of classic American historians and writers, and probably the set of Balzac novels I inherited from my mother who loved these as a child. And these I would want to find a good home some day.

Pruning a library really reminds me of my limits and mortality. There is so much more I would love to explore than I have life to explore it! The t-shirt my son gave me many years ago is true: “So many books, so little time!” One of the things I like about the idea of eternity in the new creation is the thought that this truly affords adequate time to explore not only the infinite wonders of God but all the things of God’s cosmos and perhaps many of the personages I’ve known only through their writing. Perhaps this is what the writer of Ecclesiastes was getting at in writing, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV)

I’d love to hear how others have thought about library pruning. And if you believe in something beyond this life, do you think there will be books, libraries, or something better?

2 thoughts on “Figuring Out How to Prune a Library

  1. Good advice, Bob! Elizabeth and I recently moved, and there was a period of a couple of months when almost all of my books were in storage. I discovered that I legitimately missed seeing some of my books around the house. Perhaps that falls under #5 above – books with special memories – but I’ve learned that “wanting to see a book on a regular basis” is a fine reason to keep it on a shelf.


    • Mike, thanks for your comment! Perhaps the converse is true as well–that the books we never missed we probably should dispose of. Great to hear from you. You realize, it is your encouragements that got me into this blogging thing!


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