As part of the move to a new house, we’ve got about thirty boxes of books in the basement right now; everything we had, boxed up. That’s maybe 1,000 or 1,500 books; and that’s after we gave away a few hundred each year to the Sunnyvale Library. Lots of books. And they’re heavy.

I used to think that I really loved books — with the advent of the Kindle and iPad, what I’ve discovered is that it’s not so much the books that I loved as the reading. So my relationship with books is changing.

On the one hand, I really like the physical reminders of what I’ve read and the works that have most meaningfully shaped my thinking over the years. It’s neat to walk by a bookshelf and have the spines of the books remind me of my UX work in school, or my interest in various histories, or even some of the fiction I read when I was a kid. And I like that other people can get a glimpse into my background that way, not to mention that it’s always great to hand someone a book after a dinner together. (Increasingly, as SPL gets older and able to read, I’m hoping to share some of my favorite books from childhood, too.)

On the other hand, they’re heavy. And a hassle to move around. And they take a lot of space. And when they’re in my bookshelves, they’re not really very useful to people who haven’t read them yet, like they might be if they lived in a library instead.

And, increasingly, they’re showing an out-of-date picture of what books & writing influence me. The past 200 or so books I’ve read have all been electronic (with maybe half a dozen exceptions), so the most contemporary view of what influences me is probably on my blog or my Kindle account. Not totally satisfying.

So as I unpack all the books (I saved them to the end, basically), I’ve got to figure out what to do with them all. I’m going to try to give away about half of them. We’ll see how I do on that, but I figure they’ll do more people more good if we give them to a library.

As I go box by box, though, I’m realizing that I have no good mental model on which books to keep and which to get rid of. Keep all the coffee table books? Get rid of all the random history books? Keep books by people I know? Get rid of things that are mostly text, better to read by Kindle? Keep things that SPL might like as a kid? I don’t really know, and it’s interesting emotionally.

So far, though, here’s what I’m keeping:

  • Books that have sentimental value & were given to me by people I care about
  • Books that have changed the way I see the world
  • Books I think SPL & I might like reading together in the next 10 years or so
  • Old and/or unique books
  • About 2/3 of our coffee table books that are about interesting topics
  • Books that make me smile when I look at them, for whatever reasons
  • Books I want to read right now

What I’m trying to give away:

  • Books that I can’t believe I really liked (there’s some Ayn Rand in there, for example, not all of it, but books like Anthem)
  • Books that I think I kind of, sort of, probably want to read at some point in the future
  • Books on things that have finite shelf lives (on technology, for example)
  • Everything else

So we’ll see how it goes. About 8 boxes in now, and pretty muddled in my thinking on it still. Have had some of these books my whole adult life.


  1. Please keep sharing these thoughts, John; I’m wrestling with almost exactly the same problems (I catalogued around 750 books into LibraryThing during our last move) and am interested to hear any more thoughts you have on the matter.

    I’ve considered destructive scanning of the books into high-quality tiffs which I can OCR for future search/use, and also figuring out a creative way to display the covers on a small LCD or some such. Those would resolve some of the functional and emotional tensions with getting rid of the books, but they’d also … well, they’d be a lot of work. 😉

  2. I love your posts on books. I’ve recently destructively scanned all of my marine life reference books. It is strange that I had to buy something and destroy it in order to enjoy it digitally. I loved having them in physical form, but they just sat in the bookshelf collecting dust. Having them searchable on my computer and iPad gives them new life.