Last week, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, What Should I Read Next? with the charming Anne Bogel. Her guest was Whitney Conard, who has started an Instagram adventure called #theunreadshelfproject2018, where she and other bookstagrammers consider the unread books that they own and make a plan for tackling them.

I was fascinated by this idea, especially when Whitney said she had only a few dozen unread books on her shelves. Anne said that in her home library she had 114, and I thought, OH MY WORD! I have hundreds and hundreds of unread books. Most of my bookshelves are filled with unread books.

My Philosophy of Book Buying

I am an indiscriminate book buyer. I love books to read. I love books as artifacts. I love books as decoration. So I buy a lot of books.  But I typically follow a pattern for how and when I make purchases.

  • I will buy almost any book that intrigues me at a library book sale, charity shop, or yard sale because the funds from that purchase are going directly to a good cause or an individual.
  • I will buy almost any book as an ebook if I’m intrigued by it but it’s not a tested author for me.
  • I will buy almost any book in print if it’s by a friend or if I am absolutely fascinated by the concept and have birthday/holiday money (I did this on Sunday with The Librarian of Auschwitz*) or if the author is one of my favorites.

This book-buying habit means that I have literally hundreds of books waiting to be read on my shelves, and when I think about that too long, I start to get short of breath. . . .so moving on.

How I Know What Books to Keep

My book-buying and book-keeping processes have changed over the years. It used to be that I focused on buying classics – all those books that I knew I should read but hadn’t yet. So my shelves were chock-full of books that felt like duty rather than pleasure.  But in the lean days after I left teaching full-time, my friend Sarah and I did a major purge of my library and sold what we could to Powell’s or via Ebay books or gave a ton of them away through Bookmooch.

Now, with pleasure and learning and the appreciate of beautiful language driving my reading choices, I have seven rules for what books I keep:

  • I keep books by authors I adore – Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Anne Lamott, Ta Nehisi Coates, C.S. Lewis, Chaim Potok, etc.
  • I keep all essay collections because, in my deepest writer’s heart, this literary form feeds me most and is most what I want to write.
  • I keep books about the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S.
  • I keep old editions of books including a set of Carlyle’s works from the 19th century that a professor once gave me.
  • I keep children’s books for Milo. (We will purge these as he gets older, for sure.)
  • I keep books by friends.
  • I keep books I want to read but haven’t yet for as long as I have shelf space. When the shelf space runs out, I do a purge.

All other books – or the books I buy and read but that don’t ultimately fit in the first three categories – go to our Little Free Library (that isn’t so little) here on the farm.

I feel good about my system, even if sometimes, like now, it means my shelves are full mostly of books I want to read but don’t have the time to with a five-month-old in the house. And I LOVE sharing books with other people via the Little Free Library or just by lending them out with no expectation of getting them back.

So if you’re in Central VA and want a book or two, stop by the farm stand and pick up a couple . . . leave a few that you don’t need on your shelves, too.

What’s your process – if you have one – for which books you buy, which you keep, and which you give away? 

As I said last week, I’m getting totally giddy with the pleasure that is Instagram, and I’m sharing a lot of books there. You can find my writerly and bookish page here, and if you’d like to follow my page about African American history and genealogy, you can do that here. 



*This is an affiliate link, so if you buy anything after following it, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Those commissions help me keep this site going, so thank you.