Why Is Throwing Away Books So Hard?

Oh my, controversial. Photo by pcorreia on Flickr.

Like most writers I know, I have a room full of bookshelves, all of them overflowing. Some have been read. Many haven’t. Most, I consider indispensable. A few, I have resolved to get rid of, but that’s like saying I want to be the world’s first ham-juggling world champ. I can say it all I want.

I have at least two canvas bags full of hardback books in my living room, longing for a new home. The used bookstore doesn’t want them — and in some cases I really can’t blame them for not taking my complete set of Mechwarrior Saga: The Last Thing You’d Ever Want to Be Caught Reading. My friends won’t take them. I could try selling them on the internet, that’s often a losing proposition when BookBargainJackholesDotCom can undercut me by selling for a penny.

So why can’t I just chuck them in the trash?

I’ve certainly thought about it. I’ve also thought about firing them out my window at the kids who ride by on their bicycles, which somehow doesn’t seem any more appealing. I’ve thought about starting a bonfire in the parking lot screaming JESUS IS LORD as I throw some old Star Wars novels into the flames, but I figured the landlord might frown upon that for some picky reason.

Long story short, I’m still stuck with these books. Why am I so averse to tossing them out?

Books Have Sentimental Value

Yes, I am sentimental about books. I’m nostalgic about them, too. I won’t apologize. I’ve had far too many conversations with Kindle fanatics who talk about emotional attachment to books as if it were some kind of disease. Shelf full of books? When you read paper, you murder the world!

Ahem. Sorry. I should really let that go. Anyway, many of the books I own have been deeply formative to me in one fashion or another. Just because I no longer get anything out of a particular volume, that doesn’t mean no one else will. So just tossing a book in the trash feels like I might somehow be cheating someone, somewhere, out of that experience. Is that really likely to happen with this copy of Steve Perry’s The Omega Cage that I can’t unload? I’m guessing not. This is a totally irrational feeling, yet it’s tougher to shake than a rabid howler monkey.

Books Retain Their Utility

Soon to be a major motion picture with Jean-Claude Van Damme, only not really, and thank God for that.

I don’t have this issue with, say, my busted microwave or that free Amazon review copy of From Justin to Kelly some complete asshole in the Seattle office  thought I would enjoy. I’ll fire those at people’s heads all day without a single moral qualm — because their utility has expired. When electronic devices go bad, that’s it. I’m probably not going to hang on to my Kindle when it finally clicks its last, caressing its face like a dead lover and shedding manly tears as I think of those times we spent together reading blog entries on Instapaper. Okay, this is kinda creepy now.

My point is, it takes a lot to destroy a book. A book can take a hell of a beating and still be readable. Thus, the miserly curmudgeon inside me minces with snooty horror when I think of throwing something perfectly good into the trash. I keep expecting my deceased grandmother to rise up like a terrifying undead revenant and tell me about how bad they had it during the Depression. We had a complete set of the Black Stallion novels, and that was ALL, and we were THANKFUL, ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah-nagl ftaghn!

And So, In Conclusion…

Want some books? C’mon, Omega Cage, you know you want it. Going begging. Anybody?

No, but seriously — I’m surely not alone in this, am I? What do you do with your old books? Do you toss them out, give them away, or do they just hang around forever, like unwanted guests who drink all your gin and put ABBA Gold on repeat?

8 Replies to “Why Is Throwing Away Books So Hard?”

  1. I can never bring myself to throw old books away. When we moved from Texas, my mom had to sneak into my room and grab a bunch of books she never saw me reading anymore and donated them to the Goodwill. I was livid… Still kind of am. Lol.

    1. No doubt! I still carry a small grudge against my sister for “borrowing” a stack of books from me and then either losing or selling them. That was decades ago now. NEVER FORGET

  2. This hits *really* close to home. My wife and I have been in the process of purging our shelves for the last couple years. It’s not something I wanted to do. I’m addicted to the notion of “one more time.” It’s this feeling that’s somewhere between a connection to the past experience of reading a book and the anticipation of reliving that experience again at some undisclosed point in the future. Then there are the books I haven’t yet read, of which we have many. The problem is storing them all. We plan to move sometime in the next year; we aren’t going to have a lot of space. The last time we moved, half the trips we made up and down stairs were because of boxes and boxes (and boxes) of books. We can’t do that again. So we’ve had to make a choice between sentiment and practicality. Now the struggle is negotiating what volumes are actually indispensable to us and which are not. I’m never going to part with my John Milton poems or Ender’s Game, but there were quite a few graphic novels that were collecting dust. We jettisoned several of my wife’s Agatha Christie books (one of her favorite authors), but we will never get rid of her collections of folk tales.

    When we fill a bag of books we know we won’t read again in the near future, we just cart them over to Half Price Books. Even if there are some they don’t want, we let them keep them. We’re contributing to, as the Ferengi say, the great material continuum. We love used bookstores and purchase things from them often. I don’t personally feel bad about letting go of books into that market, because, within a couple decades, used bookstores might be the only real bookstores out there.

    Between trying to stay more organized and streamline our lifestyle, we’ve found that there are a lot fewer truly essential books than we’d thought in previous years. When we finally settle down into a permanent residence, or if we hit the lotto jackpot and become obscenely rich, we’ll probably purchase several more shelves and fill them to the brim (and over) with books again. At the moment, though, it’s rather a necessity to shed the things we don’t use on a regular basis for the simple reason that if we don’t use it often, we don’t really need it — even if we are incredibly attached to it.

    1. What’s terrible is how seductive the ebook can be for these kinds of dilemmas. I had the same reaction when I moved back from Ohio. Three-fourths of the boxes we shipped to California were books. We paid a steep price to keep these books rather than sell them off.

      Lugging them up the super-long flight of stairs on my new apartment was no treat either.

      The ebook, on the other hand, whispers to me: “I’m so portable. So light. I take up barely any room on your hard-drive. I know you don’t want to collect books, but surely that doesn’t mean me? Look, there are three different versions of Nennius’ Chronicles for free on Amazon. :3”

      /weeps gently

      1. Well, Ellen and I bought Nooks for ourselves for Christmas. The seduction is complete. The worst thing about it? E-readers don’t smell like books. They smell like my laptop.

        And my laptop smells like stinky writer-fingers. 🙁

  3. I’d gladly give you my unwanted books, if you promise to throw them at cycling children or screaming JESUS IS LORD at bonfires.

    I once gave a friend a loan of my Virginia Andrews box set of Flowers in the Attic, and never got it back. The pain is still raw.

    My dad takes all his unwanted books to the ex-serviceman’s club where they have a little library of everyone’s cast offs, to help yourself to. It’s very cute :’) That’s how I came across Sidney Sheldon’s gloriously indulgent novels about filthy rich characters and evil schemes… oh I love it.

    Anyways, I think you should just let go of the books… treat it as a cathartic, ritualistic event. Maybe throw in a wee tribal dance 🙂

  4. Half Price Books is a scumbag company. They are only good for getting rid of material that you were intending to throw away anyway, because you save on disposal fees. They throw away most of what they buy. Go behind any Half Price Books and you can watch them dump the books they just bought in the dumpsters. Look in the bins, they are full of books, records, software, etc. They don’t allow dumpster diving, but if everyone does it, how are they going to stop us? One way is by pouring water on the books (they actually do this at some locations). Don’t give me any lip about “recycling”. Recycling is not good for the earth, and is irrelevant, but I don’t want to divert to an argument about that garbage. I understand most books are worth little and they can’t use them all, and it makes business sense to destroy the type of thing they are selling to try to keep prices higher. It’s not moral, but they feel it is in their interest. It doesn’t matter if the books become paper pulp or are put in a landfill, they are destroyed in either case. They throw out much more than they donate to charities.

    So I admitted their huge destruction of books is done because they think it helps their business, so why are they scum? Because they deceive the people selling to them by telling them that the offer amount is for “everything”, when in reality they are only keeping some and throwing a lot of your books in the bins to be destroyed. Some buyers will admit that one stack on the counter they can use, but the rest they are going to “recycle” or donate, but most Half Price Books buyers will not tell you that and people are not allowed to take back what they are going to throw away. Also Half Price Books employees go ballistic if you ask them if you can have or buy something in their trash bins. If they are just going to throw them away, why not allow someone who wants or needs them to have them? Because they are trying to protect their market. It is similar to book burning, but they do it out of greed. Half Price Books buyers are ignorant as can be. They actually throw away rare and desirable items, and put trash on their shelves. Their bins contain thousands of dollars in software they think is too old, and antique books they know nothing about. Experienced people do not sell to Half Price Books, but only use them as a disposal service. There are many online sellers who would be happy to pay you more for your media than Half Price Books will. So what needs to happen is for online sellers to stake out Half Price Books parking lots, and when ignorant people bring valuable media to sell to Half Price Books, make them an offer on the spot before they stupidly go into Half Price Books and get ripped off. More money will be made by deserving parties and Half Price Books will not be permitted to destroy as many books.

  5. I’m having the same problem RIGHT NOW! Moving to a new location at the end of this month, but I got shelves of books I can’t bring myself to get rid of. I already packed ten whole boxes and there are still some hiding around, which means if I don’t throw some out, I’ll have to hire an U-hall, which also means my parents are going to be pissed off!

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