Tips for decluttering books that actually work.

Pile of decluttered books

Decluttering books can be really hard. They remind us of certain chapters of our lives, but they also add that intellectual gravity to a home. For many people, a home without books is simply missing something. And I partially agree…

My story

Books were the first thing I brought back into my apartment, after many years of extreme minimalism. At some point I decided that I just did not want a bookless home anymore. But in every other aspect of my life I stayed an extreme minimalist.

I had no fridge, no washing machine, no oven, no furniture, and just one set of cutlery, a single pot to cook in, and so forth. But books were kind of my thing.

I felt that they were visual proof of me being some sort of intellectual book-reading person, and that, without them, my apartment would not say much about me anymore. After all, I was defined by the books I had read, and I identified strongly with many of them.

However, at some point, I had gone from zero to over 1200 books. And once I had to move with them for the first time, I had quite a horrible experience.

When I was an extreme minimalist, moving was no hustle to me. I just carried my stuff to the next apartment. I had accumulated most of the books later on. So, moving with them, I had to fill up many boxes.

Never had I needed boxes before, and I was shocked by how much it actually was – especially in contrast with all of my other things, which basically fit in one box by the time… It was a quite a long-overdue wake-up call to me, and the reason why I decluttered half of them in the process.

With my last move then, actually just two years ago, I got rid of most of my books. I only kept textbooks, language books and a few ones that are just special to me.

I went from 1200 random to 100 meaningful books

Reading has just always been part of my life. I can imagine an apartment without books, but not a life without reading books. Decluttering my books was very hard for me, especially because I already thought, I had accumulated them in a way that was very intentional. However, that was probably just something I told myself. And now that I have a lot less books, I actually enjoy them much more.

Decluttering my books was the right decision. Today I own no more than 100 books. One shelf with four boards contains all of them. And for me, this is still very minimal. My 1200 books filled a whole wall once.

Decluttering my books was my way of cutting myself lose from the dogmatic idea that you can not be an intellectual if you do not have a giant bookshelf.

As a scientist, I have experienced it quite a bit, that people who studied something more poetic than me, thought that I simply »wouldn’t read« and that I’d probably not know the first thing about literature.

I’m not joking! Whichever student party I went on, I got my fair share of booksplaining, and at some point, I was so annoyed with my faculty of philosophy friends’ friends, that I just brought some very heavy classic piece of world literature with me on every party. Just to casually open my purse, get out some cigarettes and have all the semi-intellectual German Literature students have a look at my Tolstoi. – Stupid, I know. But show me one person in their twenties who doesn’t care what the other hipsters think.

Books were my visual proof of intellect

I did not buy books to show off though. I read them. But I read them for personal education. I was very keen on not reading anything »dull« or »entertaining«. And as much as I do not give a single crap about whether or not other people cared about world literature, contemporary literature, poetry and books in general… for myself different standards applied.

Today, I have pretty much let go of these overachiever-ideals. I do not care what anyone thinks I did or didn’t read. Because I know what is in my head.

And this goes for all sorts of situations in everyday life: If someone does not care to ask and right away assumes that I am just another nerd, who only knows how to solder, well, that’s not my problem. I can read my Tolstoi beginning to end and repair my hardware.

You don’t need to let go of all your books to be a minimalist

Today, I have an eBook reader. I like to read some books on it, not all of them. Especially textbooks… However, when I started collecting books, this was not an option, because back then these things were still really expensive…

However, it took me quite a while to realize that I read for myself, and not to prove to others that I am more than a science nerd. So, I do hope that I can make it a little easier for you by sharing this story.

I know that it is hard to let go of books. Whatever connects you with them, I am sure, it has meaning. So you can tell yourself: It is okay to keep some books. Maybe even a lot of books. Because what matters most in minimalism, is that it simplifies your life. Any kind of decluttering should be done with that goal in mind.

For now, I am done decluttering books. Basically, nothing good will come from letting go of these last 100 books that are left. It will not change anything in my everyday life. So, I like to keep them.

Like before, when I collected books to prove that I knew a lot of literature, I do not need outside approval now. I do not need to have zero books to prove that I am a minimalist, and that my way of living is about simplicity. – I don’t need proof or approval, and you don’t need it either.

How to declutter your books

Decluttering means letting go of things that don’t serve a purpose anymore. Decluttering books is no different. Just like you’d get rid of the clothes you haven’t worn in years, why would you keep the books you do not read? That do not even trigger an emotion anymore? At this point, it would even be better to bring new books into your life to replace the old ones. Essentially, minimalism and decluttering is about making life simpler and reducing the amount of items, so that only the ones remain that give you joy.

In conclusion, I would like to share some tips and tricks on decluttering books in general. I hope that these make it much easier for you than it was for me. I was in a rush, as I was moving, but that is not how it has to be for you. Take your time or don’t. What matters is to get started. So let’s get into the decluttering mood…

Decluttering books mindfully

For some people, it is quite important to not rush things. I want to be honest: This is not really my style. I like to do things fast, so they are out of the way. It does not make the process less mindful for me. At least not, if I pay attention to a few principles:

  1. Focus on the books you want to keep, not on those you want to declutter.
  2. Find a good place for your books in advance, where they will be appreciated.
  3. Set a “shelf-space” goal = a visual goal of how much books you want to own after decluttering.
  4. Practice gratitude and allow yourself to say goodbye to your books.
  5. Take pictures of your bookshelf (before and after) and of the books you want to remember, but not keep.

How to avoid accumulating new books

I am not a big fan of avoiding things and restricting yourself. Minimalism should give you more freedom, not trap you in a self-imposed dogma. Therefore, I will definitely not give you tips like »avoid book stores« etc. Don’t avoid things like that. Be smart about it instead.

Even as a minimalist, you can enjoy shopping. I go shopping with friends, and for me it is just a nice experience, much like a walk in the park. I mean, I don’t have to take the trees home to my garden, in order to enjoy them, right?

I can look at all these things and I go home without buying anything, satisfied and proud to say: No, I did not buy anything I didn’t truly need.

Some tips for the book store:

  • Take pictures of the books you find interesting. You can look them up later, maybe get them as eBooks or from the library.
  • Take your time to look at the books in the store. Many impulse purchases can be avoided, simply by taking the time to think about it.
  • Try to be in the present moment and make yourself aware of why you are drawn towards purchasing something. What are you after, what are you missing – and how else could you address this need?
  • Remind yourself of the fact that you might find this book much cheaper secondhand. And that it is most likely not important to have it right now.
  • Understand that it is often the feeling of being able to accomplish something, the idea of new possibilities, that feels so enabling about buying new books. But can you really only get that from this specific book? And does it have to be a hard-copy?
  • Think about what else you could do with the money, if you do not get this book.
My decluttered bookshelf. I am very happy with it. I could put the little drawer box in my bookshelf now, so it looks much calmer, and there is nothing on top of it anymore.

Decluttering books fast or slow – which is better?

Often, slow is used as a synonym for mindful. But that does not quite capture what it actually means. Mindfulness is just the practice of being aware in the present moment. And that is associated with less stress and a more peaceful experience of whatever you apply this principle to.

Of course, if you take more time, it might be less stressful. And it is also good to not rush anything with memorabilia, because it can really hurt if you find that you regret it a week later.

However, I am a big fan of doing things fast. And fast does not equal mindless. So, if your intuition, the universe or your inner child or whatever is telling you to go for it, then go for it.

Just do it as fast as possible. No stalling. Decluttering 1000 books is absolutely doable in one or two days. Assuming you have read most of them and you know them. They are not just in your shelf and you have no idea where they came from. Right?

Decluttering unread books

At this point, I would like to add that I especially recommend getting rid of unread books. Because, if you haven’t attempted to read that book in months, it is very unlikely that you will read it within the next weeks.

In my experience, if something really interests me, I will get to it right away. The ones that sit on my shelf longer than a few weeks, they are bound to be forgotten…

What to do with unread books if you are not ready to declutter them

  • Apply the 20/20 rule: If you can get it for <$20 in <20 hours, get rid of it.
  • Put the unread books next to your bed. If you don’t start reading them after one week, get rid of them.
  • Lend them to a friend. If they like the book and they read it, you can talk about it, and maybe find the motivation to finally read the whole thing. (Or you might just forget about the book and get rid of it that way…)

Books decluttering motivation: Declutter with me!

Last but not least, here is a whole video I made on decluttering books, or, more precisely, on how I just recently got rid of several books and gained some more space in my tiny bookshelf. Check it out, if you like. There is also a little before & after in it.

Practical tips on how to declutter your books | Save for later :-)

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  • Reply
    April 6, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    I follow the 20/20 rule – so helpful! but I learned this version from the minimalists: “Then we tested our hypothesis: the 20/20 Rule. Anything we get rid of that we truly need, we can replace for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from our current location. Thus far, this hypothesis has become a theory that has held true 100% of the time. Although we’ve rarely had to replace a just-in-case item (fewer than five times for the two of us combined), we’ve never had to pay more than $20 or go more than 20 minutes out of our way to replace the item. This theory likely works 99% of the time for 99% of all items and 99% of all people—including you.”

    I’m new to your blog and love it! My current struggle is with books – and with the piles of unread books. I mean, I have 16 books checked out from the library that I should focus on first… then look at the piles of unread books! It’s just too much!

    • Reply
      Undine Almani
      April 10, 2021 at 7:12 am

      Thank you, love to hear that!

      I am actually not super happy with the 20/20 rule, because for a lot of people, $20 is still a lot of money. I try to evaluate things a little differently, thinking everyone should find their personal “comfort interval” money- and time-wise—”How much is it worth to me to have this at hand even though I almost never need it?”

      For my painting tools this makes a lot of sense, for instance. I paint less than once a month. But I do it enough to be pissed, if I had to invest 20 min every time I need a tool. Every single one I can get in less than a day (or a few minutes online), and they are not expensive. But in sum they can be…

      Another problem would be that it might lead to not very sustainable shopping habits. What does “from your location” mean? Practically, a walk to the supermarket is longer than 30 min for me and I really try to avoid online-shopping things that I can get in my city. But shopping locally is basically a day down the drain… 😀

      So for me, that rule has to be adapted. E.g. I would invest 1-2 days to get something or even a week, if I really needed it. And I have often had the experience that the replacement wasn’t even as good as the item I had decluttered before. But that’s probably because I have been minimalist for quite a while and there aren’t much “just in case” items left… I think that the 20/20 rule is most helpful for clothes and “non-specific” everyday items. Or things that can only be shopped online anyway, which sadly a lot of things are today…

      Books are really hard. Yep! I’ve gotten rid of the unread ones. I read prose as ebooks usually and I can get all of them in the library if I want to. Good luck with the process 🙂 I’m sure it’ll feel pretty good once you’re done with your pile of books.

      My rule is actually the “10/7 rule”. Less than $10 in less than 7 days. Because I think, I can wait a week, and I would not get rid of anything I can’t wait a week to have 🙂

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