books, identity, stories

Shelf Theory


Do you like to read? Books, I mean. Do you like to read books?

I could be wrong, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the answer is probably yes. I’m basing this on my assumption that there’s a fairly sizable overlap in the Venn diagram of people who read blogs for fun and people who read books for fun.

Okay, next question: Do you currently, or have you ever in your life, owned a large book collection?

Again, I could be totally wrong about this, but I’m going to bet that the answer to this question is likely also yes. I’m thinking that you currently have, or used to have, or aspire to have, multiple full bookcases. Maybe you were even one of those kids (or adults) who thinks it’s fun to spend their Saturday afternoons carefully arranging and rearranging the volumes on their shelves.

And if you did indeed answer yes to both of these questions, as I myself did, then this post might be relevant to you. (And if you didn’t: I’m still super happy you’re reading, and there’s a note about you at the end of this post!)

I’ve spent most of my life strongly identifying as A Person Who Loves To Read. For many years I owned several bookcases full of books and was extremely stubborn about keeping ALL of them, no matter what. The main reason I finally got rid of about 80% of them a couple of years ago was because I had spent my twenties repeatedly packing them into multiple small boxes and lugging them from one apartment to the next, and I simply decided that enough was enough. (By the way, if you want some inspiration for downsizing your book collection, definitely check out Maggie’s post on purging and organizing books.)

I find passionate book ownership to be a truly fascinating phenomenon. Fascinating because it is so widespread and also because for many adults it is highly impractical. Take me, for instance: did I enjoy packing hundreds of books into boxes and lugging them up and down flights of stairs every eight to twelve months for nearly a decade? Definitely not. Did I really think I was going to read most of them again? Hardly. Did I have hoarding tendencies in general? Nope—in fact, when I was younger I used to tell my parents that when I grew up the only objects I wanted to own were a bowl, a spoon, and a blanket.

A bowl, a spoon, a blanket…and all my books, that is.

I’m reminded of something that Professor Bhaer, the somewhat poor immigrant academic in Little Women says (okay, fine, I’m reminded of something that Gabriel Byrne says in the 1994 film version of Little Women; I don’t even know if the line appears in the actual book or not):

“I sold everything that I owned to buy my passage to come here. But my books—never.”

I can’t tell you how many other people, including myself, I’ve heard utter some version of this. “I don’t care about any of this stuff—except my books.” “I’ll get rid of anything—but not my books.” “Never my books!”

What is up with this?

Okay, I mean, I get it. A book is not the same as a vase or a coffee table. It has entertainment value. And maybe, unlike me, you truly plan to read all of your books again sometime in the future. But I actually have another theory about book ownership that I want to throw out there so I can get your opinion on it. The theory has to do with lists.

We all love lists, right? They’re so nice and neat and organized—and so complete. It’s so satisfying to read through a list of items with their matching bullet points or numbers and think, yesiree, all the information on this topic is compiled right here, with nothing omitted. This is a list of the available apartments that fit your criteria. This is a list of the seven secrets to a healthy relationship. This is a list of the ten best restaurants in New York. This is a list of the twenty most beautiful places in the world.

We also love to make lists about ourselves, or at least I do. I find that it can honestly be kind of difficult as a human being to definitively answer questions like Who am I? and What makes me unique?, and lists can function as a sort of external aid in attempting to answer these questions. This is a list of my hobbies. This is a list of my core values. This is a list of people I would invite to my birthday party. This is a list of the places I want to visit before I die…

…And this is a list of books that mean something to me.

My theory about books on bookshelves is that they’re basically lists. Comforting, self-defining, identity-reinforcing lists, transformed into physical objects and rotated ninety degrees, like this:


The more I think about this, the more it rings true for me: throughout my life, I really have viewed my book collection as a physical list of ideas and stories that have helped to define me—almost like a catalogue of my soul. And there’s something about a list of favorite books that feels a lot more profound than some of the other methods we sometimes use to try to define ourselves. I may take a personality test and find out that I’m INFJ or ENTP, but so are lots of other people. Whereas if I say, my three favorite books are X, Y, and Z—and here they are on my shelf to prove it!—that somehow feels far more meaningful.

I have no criticism of owning lots of books. I still own two shelves’ worth myself and have no plans to get rid of them. But I do think it’s important, at least for me, to acknowledge that I choose to hang on to these books because of a subconscious belief that if I love something, or if it is important to my identity in some way, then I need to own it and put it on a shelf alongside the other components of my identity, as a way to tie myself together and remind me who I am. 

(If that resonates with you at all, definitely also check out Des’s post “Killing My ‘Sacred Cow’ Spending: Books“.)

Interestingly though, a bookshelf is not always perfectly reflective of what we actually read or love. As we all know, when we create a profile on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or on a blog, ahem), we make choices about how we want to be perceived, both by ourselves and by others. And I think that can often be true for bookshelves too, especially since book collections are easily visible to visitors and houseguests. I spent tons of time reading and thoroughly enjoying People magazine in my early 20s, but did any of those magazines make it onto my bookshelves alongside my classic British novels? No way.

I’ll close by noting that I’m very intrigued by my friends who, despite being highly intellectually curious and caring a great deal about ideas, are not obsessive about collecting books for their bookshelves. My in-real-life friend C., for example, hands most of the books she reads off to friends when she’s done with them. “I just finished this book,” she’ll say. “It was really good. Here, do you want it?”

Maybe those people have just figured out that if you give something away, it doesn’t mean you love it any less. You don’t have to own something for it to be a part of who you are.

What’s your book philosophy? Does my shelf theory resonate with you at all? By the way, I forgot to write about the personal finance element of book-buying and book-owning, but we can totally talk about it in the comments section!

Also, want to hear a secret? I’ve actually read very few books in the past year. I think I’ve read maybe two, tops. Eek, my identity is crumbling away! 

And finally: if you have books you want to get rid of, please consider donating them to prisoners. Here’s a list of organizations in the U.S. and a list of organizations in Canada that will gladly take your books and send them to people in prison who would very much like to read them.

37 Comments on “Shelf Theory

  1. Thank you so much for the shout out Sarah! And omg, this:

    “You don’t have to own something for it to be a part of who you are.”

    I am STILL working on this when it comes to books. When I KonMari’d my stuff in August I got rid of a LOT of things, including a lot of sentimental old clothes that I hadn’t worn in years, because I finally made peace with not owning them, and that it didn’t mean I had fundamentally changed.

    But books? You can take them over my dead body. I still struggle with not identifying myself by the books on my bookshelf. Someday I’ll get over it, haha, and this post was a beautifully written reminder that I’m still me if and when I do 🙂

    1. Thanks, Des, I’m glad you liked the post. And I loved your Sacred Cow post. 🙂 Honestly, I see zero problem with anyone owning a lot of books, and also zero problem with anyone identifying themselves through the books on their bookshelf (as if it’s my place to decide what’s a problem and what’s not a problem for other people, haha). I just think it’s really interesting to ask ourselves why we do these things and to be honest about the answers. I think it can show us a lot about who we are and our motivations, etc. It’s more a curiosity to me than anything else. And as far as I’m concerned, never “getting over it” is a totally fine option!

  2. I find this topic intriguing. Both me and my dad love reading books, my dad has a huge bookshelf and I own less than five books. During my childhood we moved a lot and all of those years my dad dragged those books with him. Because I saw how much hassle it was, I decided not to keep any.

    Instead i started journaling about books that I’m reading, if a book resonates with me I journal about it. By journaling I can communicate what I’m learning through the books. I’ve found that journaling about my experinces is enough for me so I dont need the book anymore to be a physical reminder of something I have learnt. Have you tried journaling? 🙂

    1. That’s really interesting that you so consciously chose not to collect books because you saw that it was a hassle for your dad to lug his around. My parents had a lot of books too when I was growing up, but somehow it never occurred to me to do anything differently. 🙂

      I love your approach of journaling. I can’t say that I’ve tried journaling about books before, but one thing that has helped me is to catalogue all the books I read on Goodreads (which is sort of a social media site for readers). I don’t always update it regularly, but whenever I do, I find that it allows me to keep track of these elements of my identity without having them take up any physical space. 🙂

  3. I actually stopped buying books mostly. I rarely reread them, and I couldn’t handle the clutter. It might have something to do with the fact that, in a single-wide trailer, my parents had 7 books between the living room in hallway. Three of those were full size, and all of them had books stuffed in the gap between the top of the books and the next shelf. Several had two rows of books, and by the time I left for college there was a growing stack next to one of the bookcases.

    So I love books, but I also associate them with mild claustrophobia. There’s nothing like briefly having to turn to the side to actually enter the hallway.

    But mainly, like you, I kept moving. Eventually, I asked myself how many of the ones I was hoarding I would actually read again. So while every fiber of my being screamed “Noooo!” I sold them at a yard sale I was having.

    Even so, when a guy started picking through them, I defensively grabbed a couple. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean to put that in!” I said. “Or this one or–” I looked down and realized I had 5 books in my arms. Five that I’d never read again. So I put them back down. Since then I’ve just tried to avoid accumulating them because it’s too hard to let them go. I’ve let myself collect Terry Pratchett books because I reread those quite a bit. Otherwise… e-library.

    1. Ah, I can see how the association with mild claustrophobia would be a deterrent to book-collecting.

      I love your story about the yard sale. I definitely remember than when I got rid of 80% of my books I had a really hard time deciding which ones to let go of, and I kept changing my mind. I actually did it in a few waves: first the ones that I really didn’t care about, then the ones that I cared a little about, then the ones that I cared about but felt I could let go of, and so on.

      I guess e-libraries are the way to go these days, huh? I don’t have a reading device; instead, I go to the actual physical library and borrow actual physical books. I feel super fortunate that I live around the corner from a huge library, so it’s very little trouble for me to do this. For now, I think it’s my best solution.

  4. I have only moved a couple of times but each time, I knew that book collection was going to break my back. I’ve very reluctantly moved to purchasing e-books, at a snail’s pace because loving and reading books is a necessity but buying remains a luxury, and it just doesn’t *feel* right to have all my books on a device. It’s sensible on a space conservation/minimalist level, but it feels so wrong as someone who thinks of her books as friends, and the more worn they are, the older our friendship. No wear and tear allowed on the comics, though!

    But I stopped feeling they had any reflection on me as a person or my personality. I did in high school, the lists of books I’d read were a badge of honor. But now, much like my actual friendships, we’ve moved past that to a mellow understanding that what I read and what I love are my business and my bookshelves are more a private matter. Literally, actually, we’ve had to move my preciouses out of the shared living spaces to protect them from the Little Grubber. Ze doesn’t get to touch them, a bit of my soul would shrivel if ze tore one or chomped another!

    1. Ah, the highschool-era mindset of books being a badge of honor. I think for me that mindset persisted well into my 20s, and I can still feel a little echo of it today. In the post I only briefly mentioned that maybe we care about what other people think of our book collection, but in truth that used to be a big issue for me.

      The “books as friends” concept I totally get, too. That’s a good point.

      On a slightly tangential note, my friend’s baby was given an unrippable book as a toy — I think it’s made of plastic or something, but it feels like a real book, and it truly doesn’t rip. She has had a ball with it. Too bad they can’t make adults’ books out of that same material so we wouldn’t have to worry about small people tearing them to shreds. 🙂

        1. Yeah, I don’t know what those books are made of but I think they’re probably going to be lying intact in landfills for eons to come. But hey, at least my friend’s child and your child each have one indestructible piece of reading material! If I had a kid I would probably get one too. 🙂

  5. I actually turned a room in our house into a library to deal with all of the books. And I agree that we probably keep a collection of books as a reflection of who we are. I know that I’m doing that with a bunch of books. There really are probably less than ten that I genuinely do want to read again.

    But for the last few years, two shelves are dedicated to the website PaperBackSwap. I have a shelf of books waiting to be read, and a shelf of books that I am ready to send to someone else. I like the idea of having a rotating library of books to read.

    1. Oh, I hadn’t heard of PaperBackSwap; I will have to look them up. And I agree that the idea of having a rotating library of books to read is an appealing idea. I’ve also found that I actually like the idea of reevaluating my remaining book collection and getting rid of more books on a regular basis — it feels a bit like I’m allowing myself to change and grow as a person, and let previous versions of myself go, and that seems like a positive thing.

  6. I love how you point out that bookshelves are really just lists of who we are and what we like. I’ve never thought about it that way but it really is true. I have a large book collection that just keeps growing (thanks to a masters in history!) and I hate the idea of parting with any of them. It look me until last summer, when I was 27, to finally part with my Nancy Drew collection from childhood. It does feel like I’m getting rid of a small piece of myself every time I get rid of a book, but I’m getting better! Funny enough, I’m the only one in my family with this “problem” but they all support and seem to understand (I think they figure it could be worse, like hoarding cats or car parts).

    1. Cats or car parts, haha. Yes, that would indeed be “worse” than books. But honestly, I don’t think it’s necessarily *bad* to own — or even to hoard — books. I just think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to think about WHY we do this. And for me personally, the answer has a lot to do with trying to hold fast to my identity. So for me it’s more of a thought exercise than anything else. And I totally agree with you: giving up a book that I’ve loved is super difficult! That’s why I’m still holding on to two shelves’ worth. 🙂

  7. I rarely read a book twice, but I have bought a number of books over the years. I have trouble parting with them, partially because I feel like the ones I really like become part of my identity. When I was really into politics I read and bought a number of libertarian and Austrian economics books. I still have them on my bookshelf and I guess part of me hopes it will create conversation down the road.

    1. Ah, that’s an interesting point about potential conversation pieces — I hadn’t thought of that. That could be a good reason to hold on to some of them, especially if they’re on a very specific topic, as it sounds like your politics books are.

  8. I love physical books (as opposed to e-readers). As a result, my book collection continues to grow. It’s weird because I don’t resonate with buying or owning a lot of possessions anymore. That is, except for books. Once I have read a book, it becomes so much more than a few hundred pages of paper and ink. The ideas, stories and learnings become a part of me. And I don’t know if I will ever be able to part with them.

    1. Yes, it’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? I feel exactly the same way, but I’m trying to keep in mind the distinction between knowing that a book is part of me and needing to keep that book physically on my shelf. It’s definitely something I’m still working through!

  9. I love your theory, and understand how they are a part of your identity.
    I had a big clear out a few years ago, and figure I can borrow them or download any that I need. If a buy a new book (very rarely, although I always ask for books for birthday/Christmas) I like to pass them on to friends and famlily – it always strikes up a conversation.

    1. I really like the idea of passing them on to friends and family and would like to do that more often. If we love something, why not share it with people who we also love? Plus it’s a great conversation-starter, as you say. 🙂

  10. Oh man, I think this is dead on. I love books and for a long time had many boxes and many shelves of them. But you’re right. It was just a list of ideas and thoughts I connected with. I almost never actually opened them again. Looking at the titles on the shelf was like looking into a self portrait. But I’m glad to have more self confidence now- and I don’t need to hang my identity on a shelf. I had not expressed that thought in the way you do, so thank you for putting into words what I had only intuited.

    1. I’m glad it resonated. 🙂 I too find that as I’ve gotten older, this has changed for me a bit. I was truly fanatical about my book collection in my teens and early 20s. I think it probably does have something to do with gaining self-confidence, as you point out. (And a nice side benefit is that my next move will be a much lighter, faster one, with only a couple of small boxes of books involved!)

  11. So many things! First, I switched in the last year to buying very few books, and only buying used in those rare instances. But before that, I had already switched to mostly buying Kindle books instead of real books because I didn’t want to necessitate chopping down more trees, shipping more things around the planet, and all that stuff. Plus, so much easier to travel with a Kindle than three big books! And honestly, in this switch, I still haven’t quite found my bearings. I like to see the LIST of everything I’ve read, and that list no longer exists in one place (it used to exist on my bookshelf), and now some of it is on my Kindle, but a lot of the list is… nowhere. Pretty discombobulating. I can’t count up how many books I read in a year anymore and that makes me a tiny bit sad. But that’s not a good enough reason to fill my house from floor to ceiling in every room with books, so I deal with it.

    As for letting books go, I’ve gotten rid of TONS of books over the years, but still have tons. I get rid of a few in every thrift store run, but the core collection seems to be pretty firmly established. What’s interesting is how many books I insist on keeping that I haven’t read — I have no emotional attachment to them because I don’t even really know what’s in them, but I must have some aspirational attachment. Fortunately, we’re currently in book homeostasis — there’s room for the ones we have, so long as we don’t get more — so it’s not too urgent to get rid of more of them. And actually reading the hangers-on is high on my list for when we quit our jobs in a few years. 🙂

    Great topic, as always! Hope you had a great weekend!

    1. Ah, interesting! Owning books that I haven’t read is, I have to admit, not a practice I’m familiar with. Maybe occasionally if someone gives me a book as a gift and I don’t get around to reading it, but otherwise they’re pretty much all facets of my identity that I’m desperately clinging to. 🙂 But since you’re planning to have a ton more time on your hands in a year or two, hanging onto to-read books actually seems really logical.

      Yes, I also like to have a list of everything I’ve read. I definitely recommend Goodreads for this if you haven’t used it: it’s a very friendly site with a pleasant interface, and it lets you connect with people, read reviews of books, and keep a running list of what you’ve read and want to read. I actually need to update mine, come to think of it.

      I recommended Fates and Furies to my book group as a possible March read! (Still waiting on it from the library though.)

      1. I hope your book group does Fates & Furies, even if not in March. It’s one of those books that I’m still dying to discuss, weeks later. I don’t feel that way about every book, not even every book I love. And I signed up for Goodreads once upon a time, but didn’t really use it — I’ll have to check it out again!

        1. Goodreads is pretty fun. And I definitely plan to read Fates & Furies whenever it’s my turn to borrow it — book group or no book group!

  12. 17 years of working with used books definitely changed my view toward books and book collections. If I had kept everything i acquired in that time, I would have no room for anything else in my house.

    The ones i kept were the ones that I knew were difficult to replace, so lots of serious history or very attractive books or sets. Also, I kept reference materials (cooking, gardening etc.) and favorite authors I thought I would reread or wanted to share with my daughter.So basically I’ve collected a lot of books that I may not have read but wanted to someday, a decent reference library, and books that I really love to read. Also, some super cool Folio editions of the Book of Kells and Shakespeare’s First Folio. I guess those are more books as objects.

    The books I shed tend to be fiction and biographies, most of the stuff I actually read but know is easy and inexpensive to replace or find again. This was frankly the majority of what I read. When you know that you used to sell Grisham paperbacks for a dime, you have a very hard time valuing them enough to keep them after you finish them. If I want them again, they should be easy to pick up at a used store or yard sale.

    1. These all seem like very practical ways to look at this issue. I’d forgotten about reference books, but those obviously seem worth keeping if they’re on a topic that’s relevant to you. I do have a couple of textbooks that I am holding on to as references. And I like the question of, can I easily find this again or not? as a yardstick for deciding whether or not something is worth keeping. Also the concept of books as objects vs. books as books. It seems like you have a very logical book philosophy! I’d be interested to hear more about your work in the used book industry.

  13. I love your shelf theory and it definitely resonated with me. I think that if anyone shows the people I know a photo of my shelf, without knowing it is mine, they will probably suggest it does belong to me. I did give away some of the books I love a couple of times not because I didn’t value them but because I thought they were really great that it would be too selfish of me to keep them. I did ask the people I gave them to to pass them on to other people once they’re done, though I’m not sure if they followed through with that. I stopped buying books since mid last year because they are a pain to pack and unpack! My boyfriend and I agreed that we’ll start buying books again when we get our own place, so for now, Kindle.

    I’m actually currently reading Farenheit 451 and the story makes my heart ache a lot. I cannot imagine a life without books!

    Great post, Sarah! I really *really* enjoyed reading this!

    1. Thanks for your nice comment, and I’m glad this resonated with you! I love that you started giving books away so others can enjoy them too — I aspire to do more of that. And yes, the packing and unpacking (and carrying!) is a serious deterrent. 🙂

  14. Your theory makes a lot of sense here Sarah.. The books that I read and there’s plenty of them are mostly about sport, business or communication & relationships..
    What this says about me is that I enjoy getting out and about, being fit, working in business etc 🙂

    How are you going with that identity of yours btw? I’ve read about 12 this year 😉 haha

    1. Well, it’s still tough to find the time to read sometimes! But I have read a few novels lately — I joined a book club, so now I have deadlines! 🙂 It’s all good though. I actually really enjoy the book club, and it’s cool to discover new books that I might not have found on my own.

  15. That’s an interesting way of looking at it, Sarah! I personally love my books to death but I have learned to part with them (about 10 boxes of books this year, in fact!). I guess when I get rid of the ones I don’t love as much, I’m culling the list so it’s full of stuff I’m really attached to.

    Still very neurotic about them getting folded and creased though. I think of books as my friends as sad as that sounds to some people.

    1. Wow, 10 boxes, that’s a lot! I’m definitely continuing to cull my collection as I go along — it’s an evolving process. 🙂 And I totally understand the idea of books being friends!

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