What’s your definition of a keeper?

Stacks of books

We bookworms often talk about which novels deserve space on our keeper shelf. For some, it’s a symbolic expression referring to books we adore, whether we own them or not.

For others, the keeper shelf is an actual shelf or bookcase with a finite amount of space. In my case, it’s two plastic containers under my bed since the three bookcases in our spare room are mostly filled with my husband’s books (friends, never marry a fellow bookworm, unless you want to spend time fighting over whose books are more worthy of shelf space).

Our flat is tiny. When my American family comes to visit, they all exclaim over how “cute” it is. I know they mean tiny. So I’ve had to be rather ruthless about which books I keep and which I give away after reading.

In less than a month, though, I’m moving to the Netherlands. I’m spending the next few weeks clearing out all the stuff I’ve accumulated in my six years in London, and it’s a chore I never want to have to do again.

You see, I attach sentiment to objects. I remember where I bought them and how I felt at the time. Even if I haven’t ever used them, I convince myself I will one day end up wandering around my flat muttering, “Now, where did I put that left-handed paper stretcher? Surely I wouldn’t have given away such a useful item!”

Books, though, are even harder for me to give away. Because, unless they’re non-fiction, there’s nothing really useful about books. They are pure sentiment. They’re comfort, excitement, adventure and passion. They are love.

I tried to come up with a rational argument to get rid of some books, a kind of definition of a keeper – along the lines of “If I’ve read them more than once, then I’ll probably want to read them again. If I’ve owned them for years and only read them once, I probably won’t bother to read them again.”

But it doesn’t work. I end up sitting on the floor flipping through them all and getting caught up in the story-web the writer has created.

I also have dozens of books I got at this summer’s RWA National Conference which I haven’t read yet. Do I take the ones that look most interesting and leave behind the ones that don’t intrigue me? But I’ve already found new favorite authors I hadn’t expected. What if one of those books I don’t give a chance is a missed opportunity for me to discover a new keeper?

To make matters worse, there aren’t any bookstores selling romance in the small town I’m moving to. I’ll have to buy from online retailers or use my Kindle, which is a lovely solution to my space problems but definitely doesn’t compensate for an actual paperback.

One comfort I have is that any books I give away will go to a good cause. Most big charities in the UK have second-hand shops, called charity shops, which raise money for them. The charity I work for raises millions of pounds every year simply because people give them the stuff they no longer want and others come in to buy cheap goods.

Red Cross field hospital in Haiti
©Olav Saltbones / Norwegian Red Cross

So my novels will have a second life. They’ll be turned into money that can buy life-saving  mosquito nets or water-purification tablets. Or, if I can bring myself to part with enough of them, perhaps an entire field hospital.

Do you have criteria for books you keep and ones you give away? Do you find it difficult to part with books? More difficult than with other objects?


  1. This is such a hard thing. When I moved from New Orleans after being in the same house for 15 years, I had to do some major surgery on my book collection. The closer the move became, the more ruthless I became. If I had had it more than two years and hadn’t read it: out. If I’d read it once and thought I’d never read it again: out. And then I bought a new house based solely on the presence of a room with an entire wall of built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves. I still haven’t filled them all up!

    1. I’m so jealous! I’ve always wanted bookshelves like that. My dream is to one day have my own library (which is also one of my excuses for not getting rid of my books). Hope your bookshelves always have more space for future keepers, Suz.

  2. I’ve gotten more ruthless as I’ve gotten older. I’ve also gotten more ruthless the more I learn about craft. Books that spoke to me even 5 years ago don’t necessarily speak to me now. I have a general policy that for every book that comes in at least one book has to go out. Stand alone books, if I read it but haven’t touched in the last 2 years is gone. Series books are kept until that series is done or I bore of the series. I have my “pretty” books, hardcovers that I use more for decoration than reading, and while i have space I keep them but if ever I don’t they’ll be the first to go.

    I think that hardest part is having to go through a large collection and downsize it. But once that’s done it’s easier to maintain a smaller library. One thing I found that helped me, was to create a book list. On it I have the books I’ve read (title, author, date read), my TBR books, and the books I want to get. By having a list, I could always go back and pick up a favorite book I’d given away if needed. Good luck.

    1. Raelyn, I love your policy of one-book-in-one-book-out. I heard of a woman who had that policy with clothes. And you’re right, cutting down a large collection is terrifying. Hmm…your rules have inspired me – and I think my husband will be really grateful to you!

  3. I also attach sentiment to most things but especially my book collection. I haven’t moved in 35 years and my favorite thing to do is book shop. I would have to live 2 or 3 more lives to read what I have now but I just can’t stop myself lol. My husband says one day he is going to come home and find me buried under one of my piles of books (I’ve long since run out of room). Recently I did give a few books to our American Legion that gives them to hospitals and sends them overseas. I know I have to start doing more of this but it’s very hard.

    1. I’m glad that your books have found a new and honorable purpose, catslady! And I hope you get to live those two or three lifetimes, just so you can get to the bottom of those piles!

    2. Catslady, I totally understand! I have so many books now. But I cant stop buying! And I struggle when it is time to pick which one to read next! My husband is very patient about it all. Thank goodness for him!

  4. It is the struggle of all readers, isnt it? When you finish a book. You have loved the story. The characters. Perhaps it is part of a series? Perhaps it isnt the best book, but other previous ones in the series are! So do you split up the series? What about the ones that come after it in the series? There will be a hole! haha At this moment, I am in a position that I dont really ‘have’ to get rid of any. But eventually, I will have to. So I find I am being a little more discriminating. And every so often, I see one or two on my keeper shelves that I can do without. I have been trading books. But that doesnt cut down on my numbers! So now, I can occasionally bring myself to pass off to Goodwill. I promise to get better at that. Its a good thing to do. I also have to get better at my ereader. I am not fond of it yet. But I dont hate it any more either! haha Ahhhh, books. I love love books!

  5. Parting with books has always been excruciating for me. I had to do it so often during my undergrad days. There were only a handful of books I couldn’t bear to part with; in preparation for Yom Kippur, actually, I pulled out a copy of Living Judaism and showed it to Ba.D.

    “Want to know how long I’ve had this?”


    I opened the back flap. “‘Wendi.’ As in, Wendi from my three months in a sorority when I was nineteen.”

    A German copy of a book by Barbara Myerhoff (acquired by my mom at a garage sale), Silver Kiss (my intro to vampire books–and with reference to Oregon!), and Bridge to Terabithia are the others that have stuck with me through a few transoceanic moves.

    I love buying books now and thinking, “I will almost certainly be able to keep it.” Thinking this now has me beaming.

  6. I just went through this same pain! When I moved from Ontario to Alberta, I had to make drastic cuts to my book collection. The cuts are still happening as I clear books out of my family and friend’s homes each time I visit.

    I do have some criteria for keeping a book: I keep a book if a) I loved it (really, really loved it); b) if I think I might know someone else who might like to read it; or c) if I haven’t read it yet and really want to. As you can imagine, I brought a lot of books with me 😉

    I’ve put myself on a book-buying ban until I catch up with the ones I have, but it’s tough! Good luck with your packing!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.