Book Burning

A systematic way to get rid of your books

The Problem

I have too many books that I never read. In fact, there’s a fair chance I will never read them anymore. A lot of those are books on software. They are just sitting there, taking up valuable weltraum, accusing me of not reading them; they are the occupy movement of my living room, stairway and bedroom.

Last year and a half, I tried to solve that problem by going digital. I got a Kindle and an iPad, and took a subscription on Safari Books Online. I hoped that would solve the problem, or at least stop the madness, but it didn’t, for a variety of reasons:

  • Some books just don’t read well on the curren generation of eReaders. Last year, during the Amazon announcements, I was hoping for a bigger Kindle, but it didn’t happen. The result is that I still keep buying paper books. Not necessarily a problem, but the pile of books is still growing. That needs to stop!
  • Some books never make it to Safari Books Online. So I buy electronic copies of them. They end up sitting somewhere on my harddrive. The ever growing pile of books now crept in my computer. So I need to make sure there’s a backup, and that they are getting synchronized to my devices. Which is not fun, and even more work. (Oh, and these copies don’t read very well on Kindle either.) And then at some point, I loose the right to download copies from the web, need to reset my password. Ugh. Too much trouble.
  • The books that I had before were still sitting there in the book closet. Not getting any love or attention. That’s not very lean. Having stock is expensive.

The question I had: how do I get rid of them? This is what I found:

Step 1: Pull them all from your book closet / shelves

Every good starts requires taking a first irreversible step. You need to force yourself beyond the point of no return. In my case, I just pulled all books from the closet. Putting them all back again seemed pointless now.

Step 2, attempt 1: Ordering them

Everything in life is about search and sort. I thought I could crack this one by just putting all of my books in an order that reflected my desire to hold on to them, then just take the top 30 books of them, and toss all the others out.

That was a mistake. You cannot possibly sort your way through a pile of hundreds of books without using quicksort, and quicksort doesn’t work all that well with the human mind and the physical properties of books.

Step 2, attempt 2: Grouping

Sorting all books might be a problem, but I figured sorting a few piles of books might be a lot easier. So I grouped books and put them on piles about the same subject.

That helped a little, but not a lot. I noticed that I got some piles that were HUGE (programming languages, and Java APIs for instance). And inside those piles I already had books that I definitely wanted to let go, and others I surely wanted to hold on to. This wasn’t going anywhere.

Step 2, attempt 3: Simple rules

All that sorting business is too complicated. I basically just want two piles: one pile with stuff I want to keep, and another one with stuff that I don’t care about. And the ambition is to make the second pile as big as possible.

So I started all over again, and increased the selection criteria while I going. These were the rules that I eventually ended up applying. Perhaps they will help you to, if you ever find yourself in the same position:

Ditch it:

  • If you’d only use it as a reference only, toss it out, unless it’s the industry standard reference.
  • If it’s about APIs toss it out.
  • If it’s about outdated standards toss it out.
  • If you don’t like it, toss it out.
  • If it’s about failed experiments, toss it out.
  • If it’s conference proceedings, toss it out (auch, this is painful).
  • If it’s an O’Reilly pocket reference, toss it out.
  • If it’s about something you no longer feel like doing ever again, toss it out. In my case, that’s stuff about MDA, EJB, and a whole bunch of other Java standards, but also a book on Perl. Nice as a reference, but seriously, there are kazillion languages that I prefer learning rather than Perl.

Keep it:

  • Keep some books that have sentimental value only. However, if you have more than three books with sentimental value only, you’re either cheating or you need to talk to a shrink.
  • If it’s about something you don’t master yet, it’s not outdated, and you have it on your list of things to learn, keep it.
  • If it’s a book that you would pick from the shelf just for entertainment, consider keeping it. Finding your iPad and digging up something online or in your local bag of books is just taking too much time.
  • If it’s so complicated that you need to study every page carefully for 10 minutes, consider keeping it. Staring at a screen for 10 minutes is probably not something you want to do.

And these are the books that will go. In fact, there are quite a few more now, since - after I started cleaning out some drawers - I came across another bunch of books I didn’t even know I had anymore.

If you’re interested in having any of these, send me a tweet. ;-)

The books I decided to toss out