Am I a (Book) Hoarder?

When I was a kid my parents and sister deemed me a pack rat, and over the years I’ve been a collector of many different things: stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, fossils, feathers, anything featuring puffins or llamas, and so on. At this point my only active collection is of books, but the others are all still in evidence in my old closet. I had a few good reasons to contemplate my belongings recently: first, I read a book about decluttering; then, on my recent trip back to the States, I helped my sister pack as she prepares to move out of her home of 12 years, and co-hosted a yard sale at my parents’ house to get rid of some of ye olde stuff.


Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub

Schaub faces the possibility that she has inherited a family tendency to hoarding and tackles her house’s clutter-filled “Hell Room.” From one February to the next she enlisted her daughters’ help sorting things into piles and came up with a regular route of consignment shops, thrift stores, and libraries where she could drop off carloads of donations. Bigger projects included a photo book of 100 of her daughter’s artworks and a rag rug incorporating many beloved articles of clothing.

I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details of how this family organized and got rid of things because I like big tidying projects and putting everything in its rightful place, whether that be the recycling bin, a crate in the attic, or a charity bag. But what I most appreciated was how sensitive Schaub is to all the issues that can be tied up with our stuff, especially OCD, nostalgia, and indecision. “Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life,” she writes. “It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.” 


Helping Out

My sister is very much of the Marie Kondo school of de-cluttering. She strives for minimalism in her décor, and is constantly going back through her sons’ clothes and toys to see what she can get rid of. All the same, 12 years of living in the same house has spelled a lot of accumulation. As she did her last-minute wedding preparations in early August, I was let loose on the packing and soon got all the easy stuff – like books and decorations – boxed up. But I quickly became overwhelmed by what remained, such as the boys’ toy room, DIY supplies, and stacks upon stacks of framed art and photographs plus photo albums.

Nephew #2 “helps” with packing.

As I was packing I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the albums and tearfully marvelling that the whole life she built with her first husband – who died of brain cancer in January 2015 – is over. Death is so simple and final, right? Yet even these many months later I have a hard time getting my head around how the huge personality and web of connections that was my brother-in-law could be gone. And this even though I couldn’t be happier that my sister has found love again and gained two terrific step-kids.

When she and her husband move into their new-build home later in the year and get all this stuff back out of storage, she’s going to have quite the job sorting through everything and deciding what of her old life to keep on display, or keep at all. How to honor the years that are gone without having them intrude on the new family that she’s made?


Making It Personal

Mementoes, including travel souvenirs and special cards and letters I’ve received, are particularly hard for me to cull. There are four or five sizable boxes full of mementoes in my closet in the States, and another couple in our attic here. Getting rid of correspondence just feels wrong to me; I’ve probably rarely deleted a personal e-mail in the last 20 years. It’s like I need that physical proof of the relationships and events that have meant the most to me.

I’m much less sentimental when it comes to most other objects. The yard sale my mom and I had last weekend was a great opportunity to get rid of things that had been sitting around for a decade or more and were just never going to join me in the UK, including lamps, cushions, a clock, a CD player, a jewelry box, a formal dress, a shoe rack, and various figurines and framed prints. I only made $37, and a lot remained to be picked up the Salvation Army (including a whole box of VHS films I found at the bottom of the closet), but it was good to shed some stuff – and I at least earned enough to cover my book and maple syrup shopping on this trip!

Now, even though there are 25–30 (smallish) boxes of books remaining in that closet, I can definitively say that I’m not as much of a book hoarder as I once was – back in high school, say. On this trip I went back through all of the boxes to consolidate them and pulled out another 50+ books to give away or resell on a future visit. I looked back with fondness through three boxes of books from my childhood, but then promptly handed them over to my mom to share with my nephews or give away, as she chooses.

Back in the UK, I keep on top of my book collection by considering carefully every time I read a book whether I want to keep it: Is it a favorite? Will I read it again, refer to it or lend it to others? If not, I might give it away to a friend, check the resale prices on Amazon, WeBuyBooks or Ziffit, or donate it to a charity shop. This keeps the review copies from piling up, and means that my shelves are always full but generally not overfull.


Are you brutal or sentimental when it comes to books and other possessions? When’s the last time you had a big clear-out?

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27 thoughts on “Am I a (Book) Hoarder?

  1. When we converted our basement into an office ten years ago we no longer had a place to put all those things that take up space but that are too good to throw away. As a result of that, and a nearby charity shop happy to take what we don’t need, I’ve become quite brutal.

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    1. We’ve moved 10+ times in the last decade, and every time I shed a little bit more, putting clothes we never wear in charity bags and reassessing the bookshelves. Are you as brutal with your books?

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      1. I used not to be but now I am as our extensive set of shelves are jammed full and my academic partner has an office similarly jammed with books that will, I suppose, eventually make there way home with him.

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    2. I’m incapable of holding books to quite the same ruthless standards as other stuff, but I’m definitely better than I used to be re: keeping books just for the sake of it. Now I have to have a good reason to keep a book: I am sure I will read it, or re-read it if I already have.

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  2. Living in small-ish apartments and moving fairly frequently when we were living in MD helped keep the clutter at bay, but nothing compared to the big clear out we did last fall (Oct 2016) when we packed everything into a u-haul truck and moved to Indiana. Got rid of so much stuff – not necessarily books (you know how much I love those) but kitchen gadgets I never used, CDs that had long since been ripped and turned into digital files, baby toys that Fiona had long outgrown. I’m a sentimental person, more so than Aaron, but clutter also drives me kind of nuts lol so it’s an interesting balance.

    Once a year or so I look through our book list (we keep an excel file up to date with all the ones we own) and pull out some that I just know I won’t read again. Others will be lifelong “keepers”, especially ones I can’t wait to share with Fiona once she starts reading like The Borrowers, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.

    We don’t get the influx of books the way we used to (budgeting changed once Fiona came along!) but I still have an ever-growing list of books I want to read and own and de-cluttering books is definitely the hardest for me! With Fiona’s growing collection I try to de-clutter every 6 months or so and give away ones she just has outgrown, isn’t interested in to friends with younger kiddos or to our local library. But still, can’t help but hold on to some of those precious ones she loved when she was a baby! Good thing we have a decent amount of storage around here…

    PS – we will always happily accept any of Auntie Becks & Uncle Chris’ castoffs in the form of books 😀

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    1. Yeah, I bet moving halfway across the country was a real spur to cut down on the stuff! I think it’s good to have occasional moments that force you to think about what you’re really using and what you really need…but of course that’s more complicated when it comes to books. I love that you have a spreadsheet of your books! I thought about making one of my collection in the U.S. (because I have sometimes accidentally repurchased books that I forgot were in boxes over there) but it was too much work for this time. I’ll see if those kids’ books are still hanging around next time and if I think any are suitable for Fiona 🙂

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  3. I’m very sentimental and in the past two years cleared out both my mother-the-hoarder’s house (4 storeys packed) and my mother-in-law’s home of 65 years. Needless to say, we brought a lot of things home with us. What I mess I have now. Not just one junk room . . . . Now I’m trying to simplify so we can move to Ecuador in the next couple of years. It’s very painful.

    BTW, I LOVED “The Dogs of Babel”. Stick with it – it’s not what you think at first.

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    1. Hi, nice to see you here again! Going through my sister’s stuff and my parents’ basement for the yard sale did make me think about what a herculean task it would be to sort through an entire house. (Luckily we’re not at that point just yet; I got the chance to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday with her while I was back.)

      I think you would find Schaub’s book quite interesting for her general strategies and for some of the specific projects she undertook to preserve the memories without keeping the STUFF. And gosh, Ecuador! How exciting. Will you ship things over, or start from scratch? I still haven’t bit the bullet and shipped all my remaining possessions from the USA to the UK, I guess because I have that “you never know…” attitude that says I might move back there one day.

      I loved The Dogs of Babel too! I raced through it at the airports on my way back. More anon.

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      1. Ecuador is peculiar in that they have no postal system. Experience of friends has shown that belongings shipped will sit in a container on the coast until they have been pilfered and then gone moldy. We can, therefore, only bring down what will fit in suitcases. I’m thankful that most real estate, both rentals and sales, comes fully furnished. It’s the book s(and the guitars for Bill) that will be problematic.

        Thanks for the recommendation of “The Year of No Clutter”. I’m reserving it at the library today.

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  4. I read an article about a young millionaire who realised he had way more possessions than he really needed. So he began disposing of them one item a day. That sounded really easy so I started doing that. It’s far less painful than having to do a big splurge.

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    1. I’ve heard about that one-item-a-day policy before…in fact, I may have heard it from you! 🙂 I tend to do culling sprees, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe I’ll try it in advance of another move.

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  5. It was when we left France that we finally had to Get A Grip, and stop lugging hundreds and hundreds of books on 1000 mile journeys at ridiculous expense. Which books did we really treasure? Which books would we read again? We were quite severe with ourselves and Got Rid, in a few cases by selling, but mainly by giving away. And to our surprise, it’s been OK. Perhaps being in a new home helped, where we weren’t used to seeing all these books around us. Now we have a strict policy with paperback fiction. One in – one out, unless it’s a 5* book. However, despite our best efforts, the book mountain is building up again ……. At bottom,. though, I quite enjoy being a hoarder. All that history!

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    1. My mom is big into family history, and has passed that love down to me to some extent. The photos and letters and mementoes are things I could never bring myself to get rid of. (She also has 50+ journals from the last several decades that she says I’m free to read after she’s gone!)

      I think if I was truly honest with myself, there’s probably very few books I’d reread; no more than one bookcase’s worth, I should think. But here and in America the bulk of my library is still unread, and I’m loath to get rid of a book I haven’t read yet. One day it may come to that if I work out that I can’t unite my transatlantic collections.

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  6. Thank you, Rebecca, for this true view into your heart, your life. You have a gift for words — how to express the way one feels. I’m with you, babe. ❤️

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  7. I don’t hold on to books – I still have more than the average person but unless it’s a signed copy or a rare 5/5, I pass it on.
    As far as all the other ‘stuff’ – I try to have a big annual clean-up and clear-out. I’ve got into the habit of doing ’30 bags in 30 days’ – you simply fill a small garbage bag each day, with the focus on a single drawer/ your car/ a shelf – by clearing a small space it’s manageable.

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  8. I’m glad you found the book useful – I, too, liked the detail of exactly how she did it, and her honour for the things people, including her, care about. I am careful with books, going through and weeding every few months and also doing that with new completed books – does it belong to a proper collection, will I re-read it? Otherwise off it goes to a friend or to BookCrossing. I was good with our clothes when we moved and try to have a one-in-one-out policy. VERY BAD with running shoes, though. Oops.

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    1. Well, shoes are essential to that hobby, I’m sure! My husband and I realized we have no shoes that would fit the bill were we to take up running.

      One of these days I’ll get to grips with BookCrossing. For now it’s to charity shops instead.

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      1. Yes but I allow dying and dead ones to fill the house. There are only so many trainers you can wear for gardening. I can’t donate them because I stick a raise in one! If you want to start running, cheap trainers are ok till you know you like it.

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  9. I often wonder how bad of a book hoarder I would be if I didn’t work in a public library. Since I have easy access to pretty much any book, I went for years and years without buying much of anything. It was only since my son was born six years ago that I started buying books regularly. It was a way to treat myself (self-care) when everything was so topsy-turvy. I never went back to NOT buying books when things calmed down a bit, ha ha! But I still don’t have many at home for someone who reads 80+ books a year. I do try to consider if I’m likely to reread a book; if not, I pass it along to my mother’s church library or give it to a friend or something. I like the sound of Year of No Clutter, though. Might have to read that one.

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    1. Most of the U.K. libraries I have encountered have pretty restrictive borrowing limits and a so-so stock, or I too might read almost exclusively from the library. When I’m back visiting my parents I usually try to take advantage of free interlibrary loans from the whole state of Maryland. If I had that available all the time it would be far too tempting! Anyway, I think buying books (especially secondhand ones) is a very benign addiction 🙂

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  10. I’m getting better at getting rid of things like clothes and gadgets, but papers and photographs are difficult – I like the idea of compiling them into photobooks though. Books once read – I’m keeping fewer and fewer – I need to acquire fewer of them too though – that would really make a dent (and save money!).

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  11. What an amazing post! I love how you mixed thoughts on a book with personal stories and general opinions on tidying. I’m personally quite the minimalist as well, but I’m only 19, so decluttering is definitely easier for me than for someone with children!

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