declutter · minimalism

how to declutter books when they’re a part of your identity

Earlier this week, I received two inquiries from two different friends within about 20 minutes of each other asking the same thing: how do you get rid of books?

Ah, books. Books are tough. They’re a double whammy because they fill up space quickly but seem to be difficult for a lot of people to part with, myself included. We attach a lot of value to them for a lot of reasons.

Here are the questions I received from my friends. They might look suspiciously similar to questions you’ve been asking yourself:

“The books. I can’t let go of the books. Are we allowed to have one weakness when it comes to this or is it better to adopt the same attitude toward all of your possessions?”

This is a good question. My opinion is yes, you’re allowed to have a “weakness” in an area, although I’d prefer the term “affinity” or “interest” or “passion.” We shouldn’t keep anything because we’re “too weak” too get rid of it; we should keep it because it sparks joy and brings us happiness.

If you read all of your books and they bring you great happiness when you see them sitting on your bookshelf, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about letting them stay there. What you should do instead is get rid of the other stuff crowding your space that doesn’t bring you the unbridled joy your books do.

Once you start combing through your belongings with a critical eye, you may find there are a few books you’re actually comfortable parting with. But for now, start with the stuff that isn’t near and dear to you. Start with the stress toys and cheap pens and takeout menus and everything else that has piled up around the books. You can examine your books later, when your heart has hardened and your standards for your stuff are higher.

And if, ultimately, you decide not to get rid of a single one of your books, you’ll still come out net positive because you’ve created more space for them to breathe. Think how beautiful your books will look when they’re not surrounded by mounds of other useless crap.

“As someone who has also been trying to live a more minimalistic life recently, I’ve gotta ask…HOW DID YOU GET RID OF YOUR BOOKS?? I can’t seem to let them go, even though I haven’t read any of them in years.”

You are not alone, my friend. Earlier I wrote about my method for sorting through books during my first purge. My rule of thumb: anything I had already read that wasn’t good enough to read again was donated to my local library.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel that simple. Here’s a quick story for you:

When my boyfriend and his family moved into their current house when he was a child, the previous owners left several bookcases full of encyclopedias in the basement because they didn’t want to move them. My boyfriend’s parents ended up giving them to a couple at their church. The couple had just built several bookshelves in their study and wanted the encyclopedias to “fill the space.”

When my boyfriend told me this, it blew my mind. Not only did the couple spend money to build new bookshelves, but they then proceeded to fill said bookshelves with books that, while probably fancy and impressive-looking, they very likely never read. All in the name of ambience and image.


Ninety-nine percent of the objects we keep can be classified into one of two categories: utility or identity. And, as the story above illustrates, books often fall in the latter category. We use books as a way to express our interests (i.e., “I love Harry Potter!” or “I’m really passionate about self-improvement”) and display our supposed knowledge to others. We identify as bookworms and bibliophiles, to the point where just the thought of giving up one of our tomes feels like treason.

It’s important to remember that your books, as lovely as they are, are just books. They don’t make you more of a person. You are not somehow smarter because you have shelves crammed full of encyclopedias or Penguin Classics or Shakespeare’s complete works.

If you’re having trouble parting with your books, here are a couple of tips that have helped me when I’m combing through my bookshelf:

  • Ask yourself why you want to keep them. Is it because they cost you a lot of money? Because the cover art is cool? Because they’re “classics”? Because they present a certain image? In my experience, those are never good enough reasons.
  • Be honest with yourself about how much time you have to read and whether you’d truly read the book again. If you won’t, there’s no use in keeping it.
  • Remind yourself how heavy books are to move and how cumbersome they are to dust. Honestly, just thinking about it exhausts me. The less I have to dust, the better.
  • Ask yourself if someone else could enjoy this story more than you currently do. This is a big one for me. Pick up one of your books and hold it in your hands. When was the last time you read it? Six months ago? A year ago? If this book was at the public library, it could have been rented dozens of times in the years it sat on your shelf, collecting dust. If you truly love a story, do the selfless thing—share its joy with others.


If you’re struggling with something during your decluttering journey and are interested in my perspective, post your questions in the comments section below, or drop me a line on my contact page!

5 thoughts on “how to declutter books when they’re a part of your identity

  1. “We identify as bookworms and bibliophiles, to the point where just the thought of giving up one of our tomes feels like treason.” No sentence has better summed up my life than this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like categorizing things as utility versus identity. As a visual artist, I have trouble getting rid if items I have created because they have become part of my artist identity. Even if I don’t necessarily like how it looks or functions within my space. I also have trouble getting rid of art supplies. I know my situation is different as I am in graduate school and unable to engage in art making as much as I would hope to. I feel if I get rid of my art I will lose my artist identity as I am unable to create more at this point in my life. What are your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great question, Alee. My recommendation for you would be to rethink your relationship with your art. Your identity as an artist doesn’t come from your paintings; it comes from your unique view of the world and your inborn desire to create. Dissociate your identity as an artist from your physical belongings, and you’ll find it’s much easier to get rid of the things that no longer serve you. 🙂 Hope this helps!


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