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thinking of him, and how he’d react if he had to clear out this stuff (which also included old notebooks filled with outdated training materials).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.


One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

That stands for “To Be Read.”  One of the things that defines a bibliophile are the stacks of physical and/or e-books waiting “To Be Read.” You know how it goes. You are browsing in the bookstore or a library sale or online and you find a great bargain on a book you’ve wanted to read or you thought sounded interesting in a review you read. You can’t read it immediately so it goes on the stack–or one of the stacks.

If you are a bibliophile, you have probably struggled with this. On the one hand, there is the anticipation of reading the books, which sometimes can be as good as the actual reading! Just to look at the spines, the blurbs on the back of the book or the table of content can whet your appetite (and remind you why you bought that book in the first place).

On the other hand, this can verge on, or cross over the boundary to hoarding, particularly if it seems the piles are taking over your house! The challenge becomes even greater if you start getting sent books to review. I realized recently that I probably don’t have enough life left to read all the unread books I have, either in stacks in my house or on my Kindle. That for me seems to define the line where collecting is at least straying into the territory of hoarding–hard as it is to admit!

There is one TBR pile I probably won’t get rid of. It is by the bed and is what I’d call my “staging area.” When I finish a book, this is where I go for the next book to read. I usually filter books from other piles here as the pile shrinks. Right now the pile has some Jeff Shaara novels, a three volume Teddy Roosevelt biography, and some more “theological” books by Os Guinness, Jurgen Moltmann and an autobiography of Therese of Liseaux.  (Previews of future reviews!)

It’s the other piles that need to go. Truthfully, they all make the house look more cluttered. Either I do something or my family will stage an intervention! My first goal would be to clear the one in my spare bedroom by the end of the year (either by moving books into the stack by the bed or getting rid of them).

That confronts a reality I need to deal with. If the books have been on a TBR pile more than a couple years, I need to ask whether I’m really going to read them. This summer, I was able to give away two good size boxes of such books. Yes, I grieved, but I also remember what C.S. Lewis said about our libraries in heaven being comprised of the books we gave away on earth.

There is also the question of where books go after I’ve read them. Once again, it is increasingly apparent that unless it is a book I may re-read or reference, it probably needs to go. I’ve made a rule that I need to weed out a couple books for anything I shelve.

Finally, I can’t shrink these piles if I add to them! Perhaps a goal at this point is to not acquire a new book without reading five others and getting rid of at least that many. That means at most that I can acquire 24 books a year or 2 a month.

Here’s a big goal: have only the TBR pile by the bed by the end of next year. Looking for a good deal on books or even some free ones? Look for a big book purge next summer. It’s time to bring those TBR stacks in line with reality!