When you have to move: the trauma of downsizing one's personal library

Moving can be among life's most trying family events. This is especially so when moving means downsizing. This Kat recently endured this trauma, after 35 years living in the same apartment with Mrs. Kat and the (once small, now grown) family Kittens. IP was not spared. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the move was dealing with his book collection.

While the digital world is threatening the future of the personal library, this Kat would like to believe that the personal library will survive. And, as long as it does, the library owner will face the challenge of dealing with the stark reality that while copyright may protect book contents at the incorporeal level, books only have personal meaning in their three-dimensional, physical context. But books take up space, which may, or may not, be readily available to accommodate the book lover and his collection when the time comes to move. What is one to do?

First, why do personal libraries seem to expand even more than one's middle-age waistline. It is not merely that they are a storage repository for books that have already been read. It is also more than the physical embodiment of one's reading aspirations. Something deeper is going on. This has been explained by the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb (think "The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable"), writing about the Italian novelist, Umberto Eco. Taleb observes:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.

The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
In other words, a personal library trends to expand because the ultimate aspiration of the library owner is to assemble an antilibrary. Let us assume that this Kat's book collection has some (at least a scintilla of) characteristics of the antlibrary (which we still call a "library", so readers have a more ready linguistic anchor). For Mrs. Kat, Eco's waxing romantic about books may do wonders for one's emotional well-being, but it does little to address the question necessitated by the move: what are we going to do with all those books (especially when most of them are in English, and this Kat lives in a non-English speaking country where they read from right to left)? Hence the order—"Downsize!"

There are several aspects to formulating a plan to downsize. First, one must determine when categories of books, if any, can be ruled out in wholesale fashion (where to dispose of them is a separate issue, as we describe below). For all other books, the guiding principle then becomes: the category is relevant, but all members of the category may not be treated equally. I.e., how to cull these books?

First, what about those books that have been read (which means, given this Kat's reading habits, that there is copious underlining and other markings)? The answer is—"it depends". Depending on how severe the downsizing will be, it is not sufficient to conclude that this Kat may wish to consult the book again in the future. The future is without end, but shelf space is limited. Tough choices are required.

As for fiction, one is tempted to conclude that it is usually easy to obtain another copy of a work of fiction, should this Kat wish to reread it. But not always. This Kat rereads "The Catcher in the Rye" every 5-10 years. That means his multiple copies, each with its own marking and notations, will remain; so too will all the novels of Jane Austen. When you know that you will for certain reread a book, a copy of that book will remain, even it could be easily acquired later if needed.

What about unread books, those which feature so prominently in Eco's notion of the antilibrary? Three questions must be answered: First, how much do I want the mere presence of unread books to menace me, Eco-style? Second, how serious am I when I conclude to myself that I plan to read the book in the future (the "whom are you kidding" test)? Third, even if I am not really deceiving myself, are there enough reasonable hours in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead to make it actuarily reasonable that said book will indeed be read?

All of this means that a subset of all the books in this Kat's library will survive the culling process. But what does one do with the books that have failed to meet the test? This is perhaps the most painful part of the process, because it means that these books must be disposed of. As a young reader, the first commandment of this bibliophile was that "thou shall not throw away any book". For sure, libraries may do so, but that was part of the carrying out of their public service function (they too had to contend with too many books, too little space). Au contraire, when one's (modest) private book collection is concerned.

While the most rigid strictures of this commandment have been softened over the years, there is still the lingering principle that books are to be discarded only as the last option. As this Kat discovered, however, it is not easy to donate books to educational, cultural, or welfare institutions, or to libraries, at least in the current climate. No representative will likely come to your apartment to take the books off your hands. Some can be left at the near-by bus stop, which has several shelves intended for book-sharing, but the number of books that one can leave is tiny.

My town is blessed with an idiosyncratic second-hand book store, the owner of which will accept for free a certain quantity of books for inspection, but his interests are commercial and his available time to do so is limited. As for holding a sale in one's apartment, that may work in Greenwich Village in New York City, but not in the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean. Which left this Kat with only one alternative—a large bin around the corner intended to dispose of paper products. And so, he made tens of forays, each time with a cart full of books that, with a heavy heart, were then unceremoniously pitched into the bin.

This Kat would like to believe that he is not naïve. He is aware that in today's world, throwing away household items after a certain time is the norm. But books were always different. Downsizing put an end to that romantic notion. May those books, and the knowledge and enjoyment that they contained, rest in peace.

Picture on top center is by alanharder.ca and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Picture on bottom center is a painting by Vincent van Gogh and is in the public domain.

By Neil Wilkof

When you have to move: the trauma of downsizing one's personal library When you have to move: the trauma of downsizing one's personal library Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Tuesday, August 23, 2022 Rating: 5


  1. My solution was to cut the books I could not keep (for lack of space), and to scan them. This can be done very quickly with an appropriate scanner. I would then discard the remains, but at least I have the possibility to consult the books again later, should the need arise. So, over the years, I have scanned tens, probably even hundreds of thousands of pages. My library is still full as can be, but at least the sickness did not spread to other rooms.

    You also have to think of the people that will have to get rid of all the heavy books when you're gone, which is earlier than you would like.

  2. I feel for you, Neil, especially as I will be going through this process in the foreseeable future. I realised the other day that I am currently reading two books that, according to my note on each flyleaf, I bought in late 1974 - it's just that their time for reading has taken many years to arrive. Incidentally, I disposed of my copy of Alone In Berlin, the topic of a conversation we had many years ago, after reading it, and will surely have to find a replacement copy before long!


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