Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What To Do With All These Books?

We just moved, and as always, the process involved coming face to face with the amount of books I have. They look impressive on the shelves, less so in a never-ending stack of boxes. And in boxes they will remain for the time being because our main bookshelf disintegrated in the move. I'm left wondering, what am I, finally, going to do with all those books?

My husband and I are book "collectors." We both love having books related to our academic interests as well as books we just like (or, admittedly, should like). My PhD in comparative literature contributed a great number of "classics" to our library which we will never part with. My eclectic teaching history has added to the list of books we own and might not have otherwise. And then there are the piles of science-fiction and fantasy books that are left over from our "youth." None of those books will ever be parted with, either. Most of my husband's books are in his office at work.

No, the books I am thinking of parting with are a part of my collection of Canadian literature. A long, long time ago, I was a Canadianist. I taught a year-long intro course in Canadian literature. My dissertation and research interests were in Canadian literature (they still are, but it's not really all that marketable, so now I call it postcolonial). I am also a bit of a completist, and thus when I found affordable (cheap) Can Lit, I gobbled them up. Now, I have shelves and shelves of obscure Canadian literature (and Canadian literary theory/criticism) that I am pretty sure I will never read or use again.

A study was published just this year showing that the more books that are in the home, the more academically successful a child will be. I'm not tremendously concerned that our children won't be exposed to books (the number of boxes of their books we had to move was astounding), but I do wonder: is it the quantity or quality of the books that will make the biggest differences? I don't mean quality in terms of the books being "great" literature or "trash"; growing up, our house was filled with trashy romances read by my mother and pulpy science fiction and horror books read by my father. It was the act of my parents reading them that had the greatest impression on me. I devoured books of my own choosing and felt free to read whatever I wanted to, in part because my parents read what they enjoyed.

And that's the problem. I own all of these books that I probably will never read. They sit on the shelf in near-pristine condition, spines unbroken, pages almost immaculate, out of obligation. When one of the kids comes up to me to ask, "what's this book about?" I won't be able to tell them. There is no connection between myself and the book. We gladly lug all of our old CDs with us, in part because we want our kids to pick them up, look at them, play with them, play them, and ask us about them (this was when I knew I was marrying the right man; when I asked why we weren't just getting rid of them, my husband said exactly that). The music has meaning to us, or at least had meaning to us. Many of my books hold no meaning to me.

So, over the protestations of my husband, who believes that no book deserves to be discarded, I will be purging books from my library. This will (please, please, please) be our last move for a long time, which means that the books will be unpacked and left on the shelf. But that's not what I want for my books. I want books that will be pulled down, read, and hold meaning for the reader. Don't worry; I won't throw them out. I'll donate them to a library somewhere, if there is still a library that cares about Canadian literature out there. Either that, or my rural, southern US state college will become proud and confused owners of a very significant collection of Canadian literature.

If anyone has any other ideas, I'll gladly donate my books to a place where they can do the most good.


  1. I recently completed a move and decided to donate some of a huge pile of books that had sat untouched for years. It was a significant challenge to find a good place. Since I live near the Washington, DC metro area, I was able to get http://www.booksforamerica.org/ to come to my house and pick up 64 of my hardbacks and paperbacks! They set pretty high standards for what they will take, though. Goodwill also takes books. The local library was not taking donations of fiction, but were happy to take on some of my husbands collection of foreign-language study books, for which there is apparently always a demand. Start with your local libraries, and then your local university libraries. Look for local charities that specialize in this (google can lead the way). I found some great charities that recycle books that really have no further use (poor condition, outdated, etc) but they were not near enough for me to make use of. I found charities that donate books to women's shelters, prisons, and more. Good luck finding something local for you!

  2. Been there. Books are about identity. And you had to lug that Canadian lit collection around for a while because you weren't ready to let go of your identity as a Canadian lit specialist. You are now. You are something else. Those books probably still have meaning to you, it's just not how you want to tell the story of your life anymore.

    I carried several boxes of books across an ocean and left them in boxes in my basement for several years before letting them go. Fortunately I have a friend who is a recovering book seller (not recovering very well according to his wife) who has the skills to figure out what to do with them and took them off my hands.

  3. Thanks everyone. I realize that it was a part of my identity, or at least who I thought I wanted or who I thought I should be. Isn't that what academia is all about, after all, fitting into someone else's vision. Time to let that go, donate some books, and get over it!

  4. Sometimes you can use the Amazon sell service, if the books you have are still wanted. Try there?

  5. Just a thought. When I changed academic focus off my advisor's area and back onto my own, I decided to purge. I listed slightly more than half of the books for sale on Amazon and have made a good bit of money back. Half weren't worth more than my threshold ($3.00), so those were donated, but I've had some sell for anywhere up to $20 or $30 dollars. It was really easy, and the vast majority have gone to other academics. (More than half of the shipping addresses have been to either Professor so-and-so or to a campus office.)

    The one negative is that it takes time to sell them. They've been trickling out at a rate of 2-5 per week, and are about half gone. Still, by pricing aggressively (I always try to make sure my books are the lowest price, regardless of condition, since that moves them faster) and they will flow out to people who will love and read them.

  6. My brother just moved with his academic wife for a tt position that they hope will be there last move ever. He purged 2000 books. (Yes, we're biblioholics. How did you know?)

    I probably need to go through my books as well. But I haven't. It's such an undertaking.

    Good for you for letting go.


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