Letting Go

I’m sitting here looking at my bookshelf in my office. It’s completely full of books.

Some of those books are there for reference and regular re-reading. Those are ones I’m keeping. Let’s say they make up 10% of the books on my shelf – that’s a good estimate.

There are a lot more that I picked up somewhere and read once, extracted the core ideas or the story, and will almost assuredly never read again. I liked them. I like seeing them there on my shelf. But if I’m really honest with myself, I’m not going to pick up that book again. There will virtually always be a new book I’d rather read or a genuine classic I’d rather reread. That’s another 60% of the books on my shelf.

There are quite a few more that I haven’t read at all. Books found at library book sales or given as gifts or found in little free libraries, books that seemed interesting that I thought I might read someday, but I always find something else to read. There are probably a few I will actually read sometime soon, and a few more I might read within the next several years, but the rest won’t get read. That’s the remaining 30% of the books on my shelf.

As I look at them, I want to keep all of them. I have fond memories of reading a lot of the books on my shelf, and I remember the excitement of finding and picking up many of the remaining books. It feels good to look at that shelf of books.

On the other hand, those books take up a lot of space, and there are a lot of them. There are only so many books I can read at a given time. Moving with this many books is a hassle. Some of them probably have some value, too, even if it’s just a swap at a used book store. The most painful thought, though, is that these books are just sitting here unread on my shelf when there’s likely someone in the area who would absolutely love to be actively reading that book, and if I’m never going to read it, why shouldn’t I send it on its way to find that person?

It’s time to let go of a lot of my books, and then it’s time to think a little differently about how I refill these shelves and what I choose to hold onto in the future.

* * *

Most humans in the Western world collect physical things. We fill up boxes and bins and closets and shelves with the stuff we accumulate.

We collect other things, too. We collect friendships and other social relationships. We collect slights and hurts. Almost everything I’m saying below applies to collecting those things, too.

Whenever we add a new item to our life without eliminating one, we’re actually adding a problem to our life as well. Every time we take on a new item, we further divide up the time we have to spend on the items we already have, and the bigger and more unwieldy our collection becomes.

If I have 10 books on a shelf that are unread and I add yet another one, I now have even less of a chance of reading the ones I already have. There simply isn’t time, even if I spend a lot of time reading. I can commit to a full moratorium on buying new books and even on going to the library, but I still have more books on that shelf than I’ll be able to read in quite a while. In all truth, what I’ve done is reduced the likelihood that I’ll read any of the ones already on my shelf while simultaneously adding another book that has a relatively low probability of being read unless I make some sort of firm commitment to it.

That’s true for everything. Clothes in the closet. Small kitchen appliances (more appliances but the same number of meals means all appliances are used less while taking up more room on the whole).

The more we have of something, the less time and energy we actually have for each of the items, and that means we get less value from them. We’re getting less value for the money we spent on every item on the shelf.

Yet, there’s still the problem of having a bunch of items that we like having but still don’t really have time for.

I call it the “letting go” problem.

* * *

The reality is, I would have never brought any of those books into my home if I didn’t want them on some level. Each book on my shelf wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t some excitement in my life, at some point, for reading that book.

When I look at the book cover, I get a twinge of that feeling again. I remember being really excited about the book, and I feel a little excitement again. I’ll tell myself, “You know, I might just read this sometime… I’m going to hold onto it.”

But then I’ll see the next book and feel the same way, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the reality of my life is that I don’t have infinite time to read, and even if I did, it’s very likely that I’m not going to give that time to a lot of these books. I’m not going to re-read most of the ones I’ve read, and I’m honestly not going to read most of the unread ones, either.

It’s that twinge of feeling, though, that makes it hard to let go.

But it’s just a twinge. If I listen to that twinge alone, it’s enough, but if I step back and look at the bigger picture, I might just come up with a different answer.

* * *

As I sit here looking at my bookshelf, the reality is that on some level I don’t want to get rid of any of them. I don’t want to let go of them at all. In the end, there are really only three big things that actually work as a motivation for me to let go of some of these books.

One, if I’m not likely to read that book any time soon and I can get a little value from it, I can use that value elsewhere in my life. If I can sell that book for 50 cents, then that’s 50 cents that I can use elsewhere.

Two, those books really do take up a lot of space. I don’t mind having a nice bookshelf full of the books I truly love, but having shelves stuffed with books I read once and probably won’t read again or books that I’m fairly likely to never read? That’s a lot of space for those things.

Three, and this is the big one, if I let go of a book, it’s likely to find its way into the hands of someone that will appreciate it. The idea that one of those books that would otherwise just sit on my shelf for years might end up making a difference in someone else’s life really sways me.

So, what am I doing? I’m purging the books. I’m selling off some of the ones that individually have some significant value. This turns some items that were just sitting on my shelf into money that I can do other things with. It’s very likely that said money will wind up in a Roth IRA, honestly.

I’m donating most of the rest to the library. With some others, I’m sticking them into Little Free Libraries in the area.

* * *

Still, it’s hard to let go sometimes.

I decided I was going to put a few particular books in a nearby Little Free Library, because I thought there might be some people in the neighborhood who could get some value out of them.

I bundled up the books and walked over there, but as I was sticking them in there, I began to question it.

Do I really want to let go of this book?

I liked that book. I really did. It was a joy to read. There’s some small chance I might read it again.

In the end, though, would I actually read it again? And wouldn’t it be better for this book to wind up in the hands of someone else? And won’t I be glad to have some free shelf space in my office?

I slipped that book into the Little Free Library and closed the door.

* * *

It’s hard to let go, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

Related Articles: 

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.