What I talk about when I talk about curating my personal library.

When I was younger I didn’t buy books. I read books at a great enough speed and in enough quality that the library was the only way to go. When I started working in a library I went through a brief and horrifying phase where I would rescue discarded library copies because I might read them someday. Then I started working at Books of Wonder with an employee discount and things really got out of hand. This doesn’t even factor review copies and gifted books from over the years. Not to mention author signings of which there are many because I live in New York.

I always read closely on my first read–taking time to write down quotes I want to remember and, now that I’m a reviewer, making sure to note key information and pages with important points to reference in my review–so I rarely re-read books except for a handful of exceptions.

People talk about dealing with their books in a lot of ways. Culling. Sorting. Organizing. Hoarding. Admiring. Brag shelves. TBR piles. Bookcases. Stashes. I’ve always thought of it as weeding since I have a library background.

Then last year I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō and I started thinking about getting rid of books in a different light. (I haven’t reviewed the book on here but I cannot recommend it highly enough. I really like the idea that you can take and leave what you want from her approach and also that you can find your own perfect balance.) One of the main tenets of the KonMari method is that you focus on what you want to keep instead of what you no longer want. You also keep things that bring you joy.

Now instead of thinking about it as weeding I have started to think about curating a personal library. What titles do I want to have on my shelves? What books do I want to own? What books would I re-buy if I lost them? And so on.

Again, as someone who doesn’t re-read, it’s not always enough to say I enjoy a book or that I want to come back to it. Sometimes even having a signed copy that I bought isn’t enough.

Then there are the difficult books with the prickly topics. Do I want to own a book that reminds me of when my aunt died? What about the novel with a strikingly resilient and strong heroine and a plot also mirrored some of the worst years of my life? Or the book that was painfully beautiful and romantic but also made me physically ill with its description of a character’s fingers being broken?

I think about books in a few ways when they’re on my shelves. There are books I want to keep close (the books I might flip through or reference, books from authors I admire or favorite stories I can’t stop thinking about, books that have a personal connection to me), there are books that make me smile (favorite stories, classic titles, things you would pry from my cold, dead hands), and then there are the mementos (books I got signed by authors I can almost call friends, titles from BEA, a book I’ve had since I was a child).

So the books I asked about before? I probably won’t be keeping those.

I’d prefer to keep room on my shelves for my three copies of The Hobbit and the copy of Ella, Enchanted that my mother got me years and years ago during her freelance stint at HarperCollins which I got signed years after. Instead of keeping books that cause me stress and make me sad I’m keeping my set of Chris Van Allsburg picture books, my multiple editions of Emma and Little Women and my full set of R. L. LaFevers ARCs.

It’s a process and what I keep or don’t keep changes constantly. But that’s how I’m thinking about the books I own now. Not so much as what I do or do not want, but the personal library I choose to curate to represent who and what I am at this moment.

That’s me. What about you? How do you curate your personal library? Tell me in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “What I talk about when I talk about curating my personal library.

  1. I have been thinking about this a lot recently too, and have somewhat different reasons for how my collection is currently shaped. I too think of it as weeding, both from a librarian’s perspective, and also because my collection is always threatening to grow out of its shelving and take over my apartment – it needs constant pruning. Unlike you I am a definite hoarder, though I am always trying to curb this impulse.

    I grew up literally surrounded by books and was lucky enough to always have opportunities to acquire more and more for myself – everyone knew that I loved books so every holiday meant books and bookstore giftcards as presents, including my godmother who would take me out book shopping on my birthday and let me buy as many books as I wanted. I used the library as well, but I have always been a re-reader, so it made sense to have my own books so that I could read them again and again and again and again.

    Living in a small apartment, and having to make space for other necessities is really the only reason I have had to learn how to control my book hoarding habits, and while the difficulty in getting rid of books has decreased over time, the core collection has become so meaningful that in many ways it is also harder to let them go. In addition to re-reading (which I have less and less opportunity to do these days) my memory is weird in a way that I don’t know if other people can identify with – it isn’t bad exactly, but it is sometimes very specific. Physical objects and sensory connections are really good at sparking my memories, usually linked to a very specific moment or feeling that I can almost viscerally re-experience, and from there it slowly ripples out and I remember more and more things. Books are really good at this for me, so there are some books that even if I never read them again, I hold on to because just seeing them helps me remember things I don’t want to forget. Beyond that, I love books as physical objects, especially if they are actually well-designed, or if I have them signed, or they are a particularly rare edition of something, etc. so that factors in as well.

    Then there is the fact that I want people to look at my bookshelves. Part of this is definitely braggy in a bad way, a sort of look at all the things I’ve read, and what good taste I have, etc. but I hope a very small part. It is more that books are really good at sparking conversations, and I want people to love the things I love. So I try to keep some things on my bookshelves that maybe aren’t my personal favorite, but give someone looking at my books a way into a conversation, or an idea of who I am beyond the obvious signs, and I also love it when people say “I’ve always meant to read this” or “Is this any good?” and I can just give them the copy (provided it isn’t signed or deeply personal to me in that specific form of course).

    Finally, some of the books I keep on my shelf are for my son. I want him to love the things I love more than most other people, and I also want him to be exposed to things I respect but maybe aren’t so into myself. I know the experience of growing up surrounded by other people’s books as well as my own meant that I tried things I never would have encountered otherwise, and I want him to have that same experience (subtly guided by my own taste and ego of course). This doesn’t mean I have to keep everything, for example I can get rid of a whole series I like or think he should know of, as long as I keep the first book somewhere where he might encounter it, but it does influence my weeding in ways I wasn’t so aware of before.

    Sorry this got super long, please take it as a testament to the ability of your writing to inspire.

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    • I feel like I understand your book-acquiring habits at work a lot better now! All of my bookshelves are hidden in a corner by my desk or in the bedroom where no one ever sees them so I wonder if that is an influence as well.

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  2. I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who got something out of the Marie Kondo book! Of course not all of it works for me, but a lot of it DOES work for me! I live in Phoenix and luck out and have an awesome indie so I have a lot of signed books that I’ve never read. Until last year I was keeping them because they’re signed! Then I ran out of space and decided I would rather keep an un-signed book from my childhood that means something to me than a signed book that I have yet to read.

    With that in mind I got rid of a good portion of my book collection last year. I had enough. I also added a plugin to my goodreads so that if my library has it, it’s shows and that also makes it easier to get rid of books. I’m an academic librarian so I don’t have access to recent publications and that add on helps.

    Now of course I have all this credit for the used bookstore…

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    • Those are some great strategies. Despite being a librarian I am sometimes lazy about saying I will get books from the library. I’ve also discovered that working in a department that has access to ARCs means I end up picking up a lot of titles I might not consider otherwise simply because they are RIGHT THERE and FREE. That’s the biggest habit I’ve had to work to curtail.

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  3. Love this post!

    I really need to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — I like the way she frames it in terms of not thinking about what items you can get rid of but rather which you want to keep/make you happy. One of my friends adopted the same strategy when going through her closet and was able to get rid of so many things. I really want to test this out since I’m moving again in a few months and moving with a ton of books is always a nightmare.

    There are definitely some books that I can never part with (I also have a Jane Austen addiction and I have wayy too many versions of her books). It’s hard for me to part with the classics, since I usually revisit them, or signed books. My current library is full of TBR books though and my rule is that if it’s been sitting on the shelf for than six months and I haven’t made a move to pick it up then I try to pass it on.

    It’s so interesting that you write that our library should reflect who we are at the moment. Certain books definitely help shape you into the person that you are today and so for me at least, it’s definitely a combination of books that reflect who I am today and how I came to be my present self.

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