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No Books

When it comes to minimizing “stuff,” books are often one of the last things to go. Innumerable people have told me they’d love to live more minimally, but can’t imagine doing without books.

It’s easy to understand why; we develop a personal relationship with some books, and often associate our self-identity with them. Having a collection of cyberpunk classics on my shelf is important to how I see myself, and picking up that old copy of Neuromancer still makes my fingers itch to code up something world-changing.

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that alongside the books that mattered were a bunch that didn’t. High on that list were books I intended to read “someday soon” but which, if I was honest about it, I had my doubts about achieving. The result was that my bookshelf served more to make me feel guilty than inspired. So I talked H into running a six-month experiment:

1) we packed up all our books into boxes, put them in the back of a closet, and waited.
2) Six months later we sat down and made a list of the kinds of books we missed, including specific books that came to mind.
3) Then we opened each box and made a decision about each book: Did we miss it in the last six months, and/or did we seriously expect to read it in the six months to follow? If not, out it went.

In the end we donated two-fifths of the books to the library, either because it didn’t make us happy to see on the shelf, or because we could realistically expect that we wouldn’t get around to reading it in a reasonable amount of time. Between the Kindle and the iPad, it’s too easy to get books you just want for the content (as opposed to the experience), and the distance between the boxing and unboxing let us get perspective on which book fell into which category. As an added bonus, I feel like I understand much better what sort of books I want to buy in digital format (i.e., fiction and business books), and which I’d prefer to have as physical artifacts (graphic novels, books with pictures, reference books I wanted to take notes in.)

It used to be my eye would inevitably be drawn to the books I was “supposed” to read, which made me feel guilty, stuck, and laggardly. Now when I look at our bookshelves I *only* see books that make me happy. The difference is significant.