downsizing your book collection

To many book lovers, myself included, the title of this post may be a bit panic-inducing. I’m not talking about getting rid of all of your books, just those that you no longer need. I consider my favorite books as friends and would never suggest parting ways with those whose presence you still love and cherish.

About this time last year, I moved out of my office at work. Since I don’t have any pictures (odd, I know!), I’ll just have to settle for describing the scene. First, imagine any professor’s office. Whether you’ve been to a professor’s office or just seen one on TV, you might already have an idea of what mine looked like. I had one bookcase bursting with books. It was a beast of a bookcase at about four feet wide and eight feet tall. In hindsight, two smaller bookcases would have worked better, but I didn’t pick the furniture. Then there were the piles of books and papers on my desk, my file cabinet, and chair. I swear, it was organized chaos. The term had just ended, and I was trying to figure out my summer research projects. Little did I know that massive life changes were afoot. Justin had accepted a new job offer and we were relocating to Colorado.

I recruited Justin for a Saturday packing party at the office. We picked a non-school day because I didn’t want any awkward run-ins with my colleagues. The news of my departure was still pretty fresh and took several of them by surprise. In addition, I knew that going through my stuff would be a bit emotional for me and wanted to minimize witnesses to me ugly crying.

As you can probably imagine, my books spanned a variety of topics. I had books related to the courses that I taught, my dissertation research, current research projects, two future research projects, and some just because I wanted to read them. I’m sad to say, but some of the books I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet.

Over the course of about two hours, I went through my bookcase and created four piles: 

  • Keep;
  • Read and then sell; 
  • Donate (for those books I wanted to sell, but weren’t worth anything); and 
  • Sell.

In terms of the “keep” pile, I had to be ruthless. We decided to move with a 4×6 trailer towed by our Subaru. The maximum weight we could tow was 900 pounds and that included the people, pets, the trailer, and our stuff. Basically, I had to get my books down to about forty pounds or so. I limited the keep pile to books that had specific meaning for me. These included an edited volume that I have a chapter in, a book that was a gift from a trusted professor for passing my comprehensive exams, two books that made a profound impact on my thinking, and a first edition of Crime and the American Dream that formed the basis of my dissertation research. These five books form the basis of the books that I absolutely had to keep.

Next in the “keep for now” pile were books related to the teaching that I was scheduled to do for this year. Beyond the textbooks that I assigned for each course, I also held on to many of the supplementary texts that I often reference throughout the semester as examples during lectures or as extra readings for my students. The plan was to move these books on once I was done teaching those classes.

Finally, I was down to the books that I needed to figure out what to do with. This part of the process took the longest and was the most frustrating. As I said, many of the books that I had to deal with were for current and/or future projects. Getting rid of them meant that I really was taking steps towards leaving academia (the subject of a future post, I promise!). I dedicated more than ten years of my life towards this larger academic project. Getting rid of these books was like putting an ex-boyfriend’s stuff in a box and contemplating setting it on fire. (I’m not the only one to ever consider that, right?)

For each book, I did the following:

  • I asked myself if I was ever going to read it (for the first time or again). If the answer was yes, I checked to see if there was an e-book copy available on Amazon. If there was, I put the book in the sell pile and added it to my reading list. If no, I put it in the “read and sell” pile. If there wasn’t an e-book available, I just put it in the “read and sell” pile. 
  • If I was sure I wasn’t going to want to read a book (either for the first time or again), I put it in the sell pile. Justin went through this pile as I worked and listed the books that were worth something on Amazon. The books that he didn’t think were worth selling were put in the donate pile. (Justin was a real trooper during this process. I think he knew that it was bothering me, and he didn’t try to rush me or hassle me about the books I wanted to keep.)

Writing out my process makes it sound a lot easier than it was. So much of who we are can be wrapped up in our possessions, particularly books. Our books represent who we are at different times and say quite a bit about our interests. Clearing out my office was like a snake shedding its skin. I was taking off my professor skin in order to embrace what comes next. While I still don’t know exactly what my next steps are, I can tell you that my current bookshelves are starting to give me an idea. My shelves are full of yarn for my projects and shop, games for random meet-ups with friends, vegan cookbooks, and the books that I’m still keeping from my time as a professor. 

In the year since moving out of my office, I’ve come to have some peace. This was just the first step of many as I worked on my transition out of academia.

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