Readers, by their very nature, have a love affair with reading. For many, the physical word is the most compelling format to engage with. Thus, it is not a far reach that the readers love affair is equal parts with the act of reading and equal parts with physical books as well. Sadly, like rabbits, books have a tendency to multiply and can quickly fill all available space.
In that vein, I have been wrestling with the question of what books are worth keeping? When I moved from Charlotte to Nashville over 17 years ago, I moved 9 boxes of books from one apartment to the next. In the same way that having guests i your home regularly becomes a helpful prod to keep the house tidy, semi-regular moves also can help play a similar role in how we approach our physical possessions. Whether it is moving to a new house or changing jobs to move into a new office, each time I have to load, carry, and unload a box of books, it forces me to question anew why these books are worth keeping.
In one of my favorite articles of the last year (“Everything Must Be Paid for Twice“), the author notes, “One financial lesson they should teach in school is that most of the things we buy have to be paid for twice. There’s the first price, usually paid in dollars, just to gain possession of the desired thing, whatever it is: a book, a budgeting app, a unicycle, a bundle of kale. But then, in order to make use of the thing, you must also pay a second price. This is the effort and initiative required to gain its benefits, and it can be much higher than the first price.”
For books, the second price is the time required to read, the time required to capture/digest/integrate the book’s lessons into your life, and the physical space the book occupies. For the great book, the return on this investment is nearly infinite. For some, this is a neutral to losing position.
Books may also serve other functions – besides just entertainment or knowledge transmission. Books often serve as a kind of working memory. While I may not be able to remember everything within a text, having it close at hand, renders its lessons just a few steps away – a great cognitive salve. Nassim Taleb has highlighted the importance of an anti-library – or a collection of books that are owned but have not yet been read. Such a collection creates intellectual humility by physically showing how much more there is to learn.
While there are great benefits to having books present, there are costs as well. I mentioned the physical toll of moving books from place to place. As well, books can represent a form of virtual clutter. As Psychology Today notes, “clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.” Importantly, the article concludes, “Clutter in one’s workspace constantly signals to the brain that one’s work is never done.” This dynamics speaks to the appeal of a certain degree of minimalism.
So what books are worth keeping? I have developed the following rubric to decide what books are worth keeping around:
- Do I refer to the book often? Do I find the book’s contents regularly at use in my day to day where having it close at hand would be valuable?
- Do I re-read this book regularly? Just as Heraclitus noted that “no man steps into the same river twice,” so too does a book land afresh as you evolve and change through time
- Do I recommend this book often? Am I buying copies of this to give out or regularly telling people it is worth a read?
- Does this book inspire me? Does it align with somewhere I want to go and having it on hand helps signal to me about the type of person I am becoming?
- Did this book change my life? Is how I view the world or who I am different after reading this book?
- Is there a sense of nostalgia around the book? Does the book remind me of a time / place that you want to remember?
When I read a book then, I try to capture my key learnings from it as quickly as possible – either by reading it through Kindle and exporting my notes or by typing them up. After capturing that feedback, I let the book sit for a couple of weeks before running it through this rubric. If it does not pass the test, then I feel no qualms about letting the book go – knowing that I may need to borrow it from the library or buy it again if necessary in the future.
But the rarity of that event is more than compensated through the reduction in clutter, and the consolidation of my library down to the books that are just amazing to me.
Of course, I could just buy everything on kindle.