Where Do Our Books Go When We Die?

Image by Achim Thiemermann from Pixabay 

One of the great “ultimate questions” is what happens to us when we die? It is an important question, and I personally think that we are not able to truly live meaningfully if we have not reckoned with that question. But I’m going to leave that for another time, another post.

A conversation with my son recently raised a question that matters to many book lovers. What will happen to our books when we die? I was telling my son of clearing out ten boxes of stored books and selling them at two of our local Half Price stores and remarked that what motivated me was thinking of him, and how he’d react if he had to clear out this stuff (which also included old notebooks filled with outdated training materials). He said (maybe half-jokingly) that he’d just get a dumpster and haul it away.

That’s probably realistic based on experiences with my own parents. Fortunately, before they passed, we were able to load up our station wagon with books and donate them to a local library’s book sale, and save a few of the most valuable. We certainly couldn’t take all her books–we had too many of our own!

That ten boxes (and others we’ve previously disposed of) still leave us with plenty of books. The other day, I was looking at hundred year old books that were my grandfather’s and then my mom’s. Cared for, they will outlive me, as will many of the books in our home. I think of the hours of enjoyment and the helpful information many have provided. I hate to think of them ending their lives in a dumpster. I would rather they end in the hands of others who would enjoy them.

Recently, I’ve been reading Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. It’s a fascinating account of bibliophiles who legitimately, and sometimes illegitimately, accumulated huge collections of books, sometimes of great value. Some literally died surrounded by stacks of books. Others made plans to donate collections to libraries, sometimes treasure troves to researchers. Some even donated funds to maintain the collections.

What’s plain to me is that now is the time to accelerate my efforts to find good homes for my books if they are to avoid a dumpster destiny (unless that is what they truly deserve, which might be where mass market paperbacks that are on cheap paper and falling apart should go). Here’s some of the ways I’m approaching it.

  1. With any book I read, it has to be outstanding for me to keep it. If it is new, now is the time to re-sell it, when it will likely command the best price.
  2. I need to cull my shelves, where books are stacked atop of books, sometimes two or three deep. Step one would be to get rid of all the stacks. Step two would be no hidden books. Step three would be to eliminate the books stored in boxes or in other stacks in my office or by the bed.
  3. For my theological books, I’ve been able to pass some along to people building their libraries and to the seminary library where I was a student. If they can’t take them, there are some overseas libraries in developing countries that may take them. I do want to think about what will be useful, which includes thinking about the cultural bias in those books. [A comment for this post from James mentions the Theological Book Network in Grand Rapids, Michigan which has shipped over 2 million theological books to 90 countries.]
  4. I’m still working in collegiate ministry and some books relate to that work. When that work ends, my “higher ed” shelf, and other related books should go.
  5. At some time, it probably makes sense to identify the hundred or so books that are “best friends,” preferably before we may be in a situation where that’s all there may be room for, and start culling out everything else.

Of course, none of us never knows how life will unfold. But being in my sixties and still healthy, it seems that this is a good time to pass along my books where they can be useful for others. They deserve better than the dumpster.

5 thoughts on “Where Do Our Books Go When We Die?

  1. A couple of thoughts and a question.
    Pre-pandemic, booklovers in our local congregation held a book swap every year. We don’t have summer Sunday school classes, so we had plenty of space for people to bring their books (and sometimes educational materials for home schooleers). A few of us spent a few hours organizing the donations into rough categories and then the room was open for a few weeks for anyone to come in and take home new reading experiences. Of course, it’s very hard to resist the temptation to bring home at least as many books as we take in, but it has helped a little. (We also “warn” everyone that, showing no mercy, the day after the book swap ends, ALL remaining books are immediately taken to the public library’s used book store.)

    On a personal level, I have developed a few Excel lists of specialized books and sent it via email to friends and familly who might be interested. There was the cookbook list, then one dealing with small group ministry (hard to believe how many books on a specialized area of ministry can build), and one of children’s books. I do try to have the discipline to give any not chosen from these lists to the library too.

    One year I did give a gift to my kids of allowing them to wander through my full “library” and choose five books for their own. While I told them I reserved the right to deny any choice, but I would try not to do so. In the end, they alll got to take whatever they chose, though I did go out and buy a used copy of one of the Extending the Table cookbooks to replace one that was taken. A side benefit of this was being able to see the breadth of their choices. This led to wonderful conversations, both as they were looking over the books (why did you ever get this one, Mom? Which of these two would you suggest for me?), and they had time to look over the books as “individuals,” not as a mass of “stuff” that needs to be disposed of. As I write this, I am thinking that maybe I need to do this again!

    And now my question: You mention sellling books. We don’t have a Half Price Books outllet here (and I understand that you get paid only in credit for buying more?), and my sales experience with Amazon resulted in a lot of disappointments, increasing expenses, and more hassle than it was worth. What are your suggestions for other alernatives?

    • Thanks for your comments, particularly about book swaps. At least in our area, Half Price will give you cash. I’ve not tried to sell online so am not the best to comment. Seems to me that you have the chance to make more, but it does involve more hassles. I have decided I don’t have the time for that.

  2. I’ve instructed my wife and kids that my library, which is mostly theology, biblical studies, and language reference, is all to go to Theological Book Network in Grand Rapids, MI. They send it overseas to two-thirds world seminaries.

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