Most people have to deal with some kind of clutter in their homes — clothes, shoes, kitchen implements, artifacts, etc. I’m no different with my clutter arising from books. One might wonder why a book lover like me would call books clutter, but I would urge you to read on and see what I did after years of struggling to manage the vast book collection I have in my small apartment in Mumbai (and in my office space as well!).
I can’t remember when I started collecting books, but I do know that it began with a set of Amar Chitra Katha comics, which I still have ! My book collection grew slowly over the years, but really took off (or exploded as my oldest brother likes to say wryly), when I started working in 1993. For the first time I had unlimited money (or so it seemed at that time) to buy all the books I wanted. Of course, reality intruded but I was still happy that I had buying power.
And so the book collection expanded filling bookshelves, sharing space with my clothes, getting stuffed in the loft space, and even getting stored in the kitchen ! Also, since I didn’t have enough space at home I started keeping books in my office as well.
In an ideal world, a house or a workspace overflowing with books would have been considered charming, even romantic. I thought so too, till an overloaded bookshelf at home collapsed one day, missing my right foot by mere inches. Out of fear from other bookshelves meeting with the same fate, I decided that something had to be done. That something being discarding/giving away books that I didn’t need/like any more and lightening the shelves. For the first time, my book collection did not give me the usual feeling of joy or pride; instead, what I felt was claustrophobia.
That was the impetus for Project Declutter Bookshelves. This was in 2014.
A selection of my book collection over the years, both at home and at work.
The Declutter Bookshelves project began with a bang and ended with a flourish. Within a couple of days, I had a pile of books to discard/giveaway, which was then taken to a second-hand book seller near my house. Precious shelf space was created, my books were breathing again, and I was thrilled with a job well done. I told myself that this was only the first round and I would do another round of clearing soon. But that ‘soon’ didn’t happen and within a few months my bookshelves were overflowing again, thanks to new books purchased. Another round of Project Declutter Bookshelves happened only to have the bookshelves fill up again after a few months leading to another round of decluttering…
It took me a while to understand my approach to decluttering was all wrong and it wasn’t working (duh !). The frenzy of clearing and discarding books led to a euphoria of having cleared shelf space (Yay !), which would, in turn, trigger the need to to buy new books because I had the space (double Yay !). This would last till the bookshelves filled up and need to need to clear them happened, continuing the circle. No wonder Project Declutter Bookshelves never made any headway. 😦
The obvious solution as my Amma (gleefully) and friends (snidely) told me was that I should not buy any more books. And though the suggestion was well-meant, I knew that it wouldn’t work for I cannot. not. buy. books. Besides, not buying books was only part of the solution; the decluttering process too had to change with every stage of it being re-looked at for it to succeed.
That’s how Project Declutter Bookshelves 2.0 happened.
About 6 months back, when the books had reached overflowing stage again and it was time for yet another round of clearing, I adopted a different tactic. Instead of just removing books that I didn’t want or could let go and rushing off the discarded lot to the second-hand bookseller, I asked this question of every book I owned:
Will I read this book again?
Only if the answer was a resounding no, did it go into the discard pile. But before that, if I had not read any books in my collection, I had to read them. This process took over 4 months and at the end of it, I had almost 250 books in the discard lot. I had decided that I wouldn’t be taking them to the second-hand bookseller just yet for there was another question to help me sort the books further:
Would any of my friends or acquaintances be interested in reading/having any book(s) from this lot?
If the answer was yes, then the book was put into a separate pile with the name of friend/ acquaintance who could be interested. All the remaining books went into another pile. The ‘friends’ pile was tackled first by either contacting them and asking if they wanted the said book or books (the answer was always a resounding and happy yes!), or directly sending them off to friends I knew for sure would enjoy reading them. The New Year gave me the perfect opportunity to do so. 🙂
There was one more question to ask the books to help me with the final round of sorting.
Would a University / College library be interested in any of the books?
This may be considered to be a strange question, but in my experience not all libraries are open to receiving books as many have gone digital and most have limited space for physical books. College or University Libraries are different and that’s why I specifically targeted them. This question helped me to donate a number of books to a college library, as well as a University Library in Mumbai.
An unexpected outcome of Project Declutter Bookshelves 2.0 was that I hardly purchased any books in the 6 months since it began. I bought only about 8 books as against the usual 40-50 books I would have bought in the same time period. I can’t pinpoint a reason for this other than the fact that I was too busy going through my existing collection and re-reading some of them or reading the ones I had not read till then. I guess it also helped that decluttering was a slow process and not the frenzied one of the past. Instead of the need to fill them up, I concentrated on leisurely re-arranging books (I shelve my books genre-wise). That was a BIG Win.
The BIGGEST win, however, was discovering the joy that giving books. I have always loved giving away books, but this time it was different. The happiness that I got from finding homes for my books with friends, and the happiness that my friends got from receiving them has been special. The joyous thank you notes from some, the message from a dear friend who wrote to say that he and wife wished I was their personal book shopper, the friend who called and almost squealed my ear drums off, the friend who sent me this picture of reading the book, and more.
I’m still undecided about what to do with the books that have not found a home in this round of decluttering, and I’m not in a hurry.
In all likelihood they will go to a second-hand bookseller, but this time I’m going to take my time in identifying a good one — a bookseller who will, even if he can’t look at my books with joy, at least not roll his eyes and ask, “Why no bestsellers, Madam? I may just put the books through one more round of finding homes for them among friends, libraries and acquaintances.
The joy of giving books is very addictive.