How to Pare Down Your Home Library and Uncover the Books You Love

If you love books, you have a deep emotional connection to your favorites.  They're not simply impersonal containers for knowledge – they seem to carry your feelings and memories, whether of delight, self-recognition, or "OMG, I didn't know that and from now on my life will be completely different!"

I know the idea of pruning more than a handful of titles from your shelves is unwelcome.  I had to completely change my thinking in order to do it.

The books I own today are my "desert island" collection, plus a few newer publications that cycle in and back out as I read them.  I buy a few e-books, and also borrow them (more on that later).

old books

I've loved reading since I was 6. 

That's when my bright yellow hardcover copy of Key to the Treasure * was one of my most precious possessions.  Even before that, when Mama read a fairy tale or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was smitten by the magic contained between the covers of a book.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through one of my links, I may earn a small commission.

A book store is one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon, and I used to purchase something from every school and library book drive I came across.  After all, who wouldn't want all the books you can carry for only $1 or $2 apiece?  I would buy books just because the title or subject looked interesting, or the author was one I recognized, or it was something I had once read but didn't actually own.

At one point, my home had five bookshelves, and all were completely full.  Most of the books were mine, some were my husband's, and each of my kids had substantial collections as well.  I'm not sure what the total number was, but I'd guess it was about 400.

My daughter got married, and we started thinking about downsizing, even though our son lived with us for another three years.  After we packed, there were boxes and boxes of books – heavy boxes.  And guess what?  Our new home didn't have room for five bookshelves.  We squeezed in three.  There was no way to organize my way out of the situation.  There simply wasn't room to keep every book I owned.

Decluttering books was difficult at first.

There were books that I'd loved in my teens, or twenties, or thirties, and even though I didn't want to read most of them again, it was hard to think about parting with them.  There were children's books that I cherished because I had read them to my kids, or because they were exceptionally beautiful illustrated hardcover editions. There were other books that made me feel guilty.  Purchased on a whim, they had looked interesting in the store or at the used book drive, but I had never actually read them.  But maybe I should, and that meant I had to keep them.

Fast forward a few years.  I now own 57 books, plus about 20 picture books that I read to my grandsons.  I also have a physical copy of each of the books I've written and published.  Everything fits on one bookshelf.  And I think I'm ready to remove another half dozen volumes, which leaves room for something new and interesting!

How did I deal with my emotional attachments, change my thinking, and ultimately reduce the weight of my book collection?

5 realizations that can help you declutter books (and other stuff)

1.  Buying and reading are not two sides of the same coin.

I've always been an avid reader, but I don't read or finish every book that catches my eye or piques my interest, and I certainly don't need to buy all of them.  

It's fun to dip into something new and different, but I don't need to make a purchase to have that opportunity.  The public library is the perfect place to grab an armload of books that you might want to spend time reading.  Libraries let you explore new reading possibilities to your heart's delight, without guilt or clutter.

Even e-books can become clutter, if you purchase many that you never read or that you read once and will never refer to again.  An alternative is Amazon's Kindle Unlimited, a service which lets you borrow unlimited books to read or listen to for a small monthly fee.

Instead of collecting books, consider keeping a book journal instead.  That way you can look back to see what you've read without feeling the need to possess it all.

After all, the value comes from reading the books, not owning them.

If you've acquired more books (or anything else) than you can possibly use, ask yourself why you buy so much.  Are you buying for the sake of buying?

Related article: Are You an Emotional Shopper?

2.  You don't have to read every book you've bought.

Let go of guilt, and let go of books you bought but never read, or that you've abandoned part way through.  There are no book police!  Thousands and thousands of new books are published every year, and you can't possibly read everything.  Spend your time reading what you want to read, rather than what you feel obligated to get through.  

Once you let it go, you probably won't even miss it.  And if you ever do want to read it – that's what the library is for.

3.  You can't recover money you spent by hanging on to a book.

Decluttering anything can be hard if you feel guilty about how much you spent for it.  

It's tempting to feel that you have to keep things because you don't want your money to be wasted.  In fact, the money has already been spent.  It's called the "sunk cost," and nothing will bring it back.  But you can still free up space and make wiser choices in the future.

4.  Sometimes we grow away from books.

Some books become treasures that you revisit over and over through the years.  For me, To Kill a Mockingbird and Emma fit into that category.  My husband and I both love The Lord of the Rings, Hatchet, and The Martian.  But like some old friends, there are other books we cared for in the past that we have drifted away from (Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes come to mind).  

As time passes and we evolve, our preferences change too.  That includes things like books, music, art, or hobbies that we once enjoyed but no longer do.  When you remove them, you create space, time, and energy to explore what adds value to your life today.

Related article: Declutter Your Fantasy Self

5.  Your books don't define who you are.

You might think that having lots of classics on your shelves shows that you're well-read, or that beautiful travel books or cutting-edge science books show that you're sophisticated, adventurous, or super-smart.  Do read these books if they interest you, but it's your lively, intelligent conversation that will display these attributes, not the books sitting on your shelf.

Of course some books will have a profound impact on you.  A few are so rich that they'll continue to provide knowledge, guidance, or support for a long while, or even forever (for me that includes the Bible and a handful of books by C. S. Lewis).

Related article: The Magic of Reading

Why we love books

We connect with certain books because of what they carry within them.  The story is the thing – the physical book or e-reader is merely the delivery device.

The books we've read and studied in the past have shaped who we are, and how we think and act in the world today.  They're part of our memories and experiences.  But the benefits we gained came from the act of reading, not the act of owning.

Decluttering books won't diminish us at all.  

If you're trying to declutter other long-time possessions, you'll value my book, Uncluttered.  It's a comprehensive handbook for a simpler life – not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a creative, encouraging, multi-faceted guide to help you:

  • remove the stuff that's bogging you down
  • uncover a cleaner, more spacious home that welcomes and supports you
  • escape the consumer treadmill
  • overcome bad habits and practice better ones
  • highlight your favorite things and memories
  • find time for what you care about
  • discover focus and peace

Updated September 2022


  1. I'm a librarian, and I've gotten my bookshelf down to a pretty small size. Two things have helped me. (1) The comment that there are things that belong to different seasons of my life. This would be along the lines of 4 above, our growing away from some books. (2) Using a social media reading log, in my case - goodreads. I've found that being able to backtrack and relocate a book title serves some of the same function as actually having the book. It feels like I haven't lost touch with the title, but I don't have to carry a book and all its weight around.

    Even as a librarian I've found it's liberating to let go of one's books.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! Yes, the idea that there are different seasons in our reading lives was very helpful to me as well. And in point #1 above, I mention keeping a book journal as an alternative to physically collecting books. I "collect" them in my journal, and as you say, "It feels like I haven't lost touch with the title." Exactly!


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