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Letting Go of Books

Despite the Kindle and Nook and the iPad, good old-fashioned books still have enormous appeal for many of us and continue to be a big organizational dilemma for many of my clients.

Books, even more than clothes, are often thought of as old friends. They sit on their shelves (or in dusty boxes) as silent evidence of things we’ve learned, worlds we’ve visited, potential met as in, “I read all those books when I first began meditating,” or unmet, as in, “I bought all those books because I thought I’d get into meditating …”  

Letting go of books these days is even tougher than it used to be because good homes for used books seem to have dwindled. As people convert to digital books, there is a glut of novels, cookbooks, travel guides and other genres in the marketplace and donation centers.

I took a bag of books into a seller recently and was told she could not use a single volume. I was surprised — these were first edition, hard-bound best sellers; it wasn’t like I was trying to unload my college textbooks from the 1980s.

Libraries are still a great place to donate books, but call first to make sure your branch is accepting them. Don’t expect to see your old buddies on the library shelves, though — almost all of the donated books go into sales to support the library. Many other charities (Salvation Army, Goodwill, women’s shelters) also welcome book donations.

I recently got tough with my own collection and pared away three grocery bags’ worth. The criteria I used were as follows:

• If I’m choosing between two books I like equally, hardbacks and first editions trump paperbacks every time. But if a paperback was extremely memorable and enjoyable and a hardback was not, out goes the hardback.

• Books signed by their authors are notoriously hard to part with. I would do so only if I ended up really hating the book once I’d read it. Never keep a book you didn’t enjoy reading or at the least, learn something from.

• The most valuable criterion for letting a book go that I’ve created for myself in the recent past is that if I bought a book a few years ago thinking that I should read it, but somehow never have, out it goes. Most of the time it’s me “should-ing” myself rather than buying myself a book I’m actually excited about reading. For me that meant saying bye-bye to Nietzsche and a few dense historical volumes. For some reason though, I still can’t part with “The Golden Bough.” Someday I will read that, if my eyesight holds up.

Those little comic or artsy books at the book store checkout stand are usually good candidates for donation or regiving. They are often impulse buys and only good for one reading before they lose their charm.

A cookbook I’ve never cooked from is easy to part with. Cookbooks can have sentimental value, but usually only if they are chock full of tried-and-true recipes. They are the printed matter I can most live without now that so many great recipes are online at sites such as epicurious.com.

Volumes that are falling apart can be recycled. If a book is falling apart because it is often read, consider buying a new edition or downloading it onto a device.

This last purge of my books witnessed the release of the final college textbook (circa 1988). I opened that volume of Spenser’s collected poetry (circa 1510), which I always thought I should reread and my eyes practically rolled back in my head. It just isn’t going to happen. When I slipped it into the giveaway bag, I felt almost giddy.