Ask Richard: Hard to Throw Away Books, Even Gawdawful Ones July 22, 2009

Ask Richard: Hard to Throw Away Books, Even Gawdawful Ones

Dear Richard,

Another book related question! Yay!

I love books. I’m almost at the level of Thomas Jefferson in that regard. I can’t deny myself a book. Today, I broke my prohibition on going into bookstores and walked out with an arm load. While I can imagine having books stacked floor to ceiling, my wife likes them on bookshelves. There just aren’t enough shelves or enough room to add more. I think I need to start getting rid of some old books. Herein lies the problem.

When I was a child, I was nominally a Christian. At least I was told I was and given books to reinforce that. I had many religious themed books, many passed down from my parents and cousins. They should be the first to go. I’d like to someday have children, but I can’t have them exposed to that filth before they’re old enough to think for themselves. I can’t throw them away. They’re books. How can you throw away a book? It might have something useful to say regardless of the subject matter. That alone is a reason it is hard to part with them, even though I’ve never read many of them. But, alas, they must go. I can’t bring myself to donate them to a library or charity or sell them to a used book store because children might read them. I don’t want to be responsible for poisoning a mind. Do you have any suggestion of a way I can get rid of these books in a way that won’t ruin young minds? I also don’t want to destroy data. I’m sure they’re not the last copies, but each one destroyed brings us one step closer to losing something that might be important.

— New Thomas Jefferson sans shelves

Dear Thomas,

I understand your dilemma. I adore books. I covet and clutch them like the Gollum with his “Precious.” My parents raised me to love and revere books, and their home was filled with them, as my home is now. I was encouraged to read any book I found, provided that I always washed my hands first, and I that I practiced the proper method of turning the pages, to make sure they did not tear or wrinkle. Books were precious things. So, throwing away old, obsolete books was for a long time impossible for me.

But when I became a man, I put away childish things. (I’m not making fun of you, just myself.)

I had hundreds and hundreds of books in my home, many of which I had not read in decades, and many of which I never would read at all. They were handicapping my life with clutter. My keeping so many of them was a little about clinging to nostalgia or sentiment, but mostly to my misplaced veneration for all books no matter what, even those that had become junk, useless at best and misleading at worst. So one day, I gathered up several old science books, (especially precious to me) that had become obsolete, incomplete, and just plain wrong. I first considered donating them to the local library’s used book sale, but for reasons similar to those you have mentioned about your old religious books, I didn’t want them confusing and misleading kids with their incorrect content. Some well-meaning thrifty parents would pick them up for fifty cents each, and not knowing any better, would give their kids outdated science books, setting them back a step instead of helping them forward. So I carried them to the paper recycle bin, took a deep breath, bit my lip, forgave myself, and…… DUMPED THEM!

Liberation! The moment I did it I felt so much better, like having a great big and long overdue crap. I went through my morbidly obese home library and I kept the classics, the valuable collector’s items, the still-current reference books and a couple of childhood memory indulgences. I gave the novels I’d finished to friends, donated appropriate ones that I would not need again to the library book sale, and having some empty space on my shelves, realized that those books I had kept were smiling back at me with their genuine value. My collection was more of a treasure, not less, because they were selected and kept for the value of their content, instead of stored mindlessly simply because they were books.

Thomas, If you find those old children’s religious books to be so vile that you shudder at the prospect of children finding and reading them, then let them be “born again” as paper bags and ceiling insulation. Save some trees. Unless you can find some kind of museum or institution that is dedicated to the scholarly study of religious schlock where they can be safely locked up, then help kids be safer by eliminating hazards like unexploded ordnance, bottles of caustic chemicals and to use your own word, “poisonous” religious junk literature.

Thousands of new, first edition books are printed each day, and thousands of books go out of print each day. Regardless of their subject, most of them are tripe. They were not worth printing in the first place, they are not worth reading now, and they will not be worth keeping to catch dust on shelves or in attics. Keep or share the few good ones, and toss the dross. They’re yours. You have the right to dump your books, just not somebody else’s. Don’t worry, somewhere, somebody else will be keeping their copy of the rubbish you cast off, but that’s their problem.

If you’re still stymied by the taboo against throwing away any books, think about how automatic, how reflex is your reaction to the object itself, a book. Try this thought experiment:

Imagine that you find on your doorstep a single page flyer from some horrid racist hate group. You look at it, curse at whatever low life creep left it there, and rip it up. Now imagine instead that it is two pages. It has the same content, but it’s folded and stapled into a pamphlet. You curse and rip it up just the same. Now imagine instead that it’s twenty pages folded and stapled into a booklet with a cardstock cover. Exactly the same revolting and infuriating lies are inside, but now it’s beginning to resemble a book. Maybe you begin to hesitate about trashing it. Ask yourself how far along does this have to go toward resembling a book until it becomes the sacred object that must never be destroyed no matter what its content? If you can’t bring yourself to destroy it, then somewhere along the way you have switched from assessing its value by its content to assessing its value by its physical form.

Maybe in this way you can see that you are attached to the object, to the form of these things, instead of making a judgment about their value or lack of value. Maybe you can shrug off your old injunctions against destroying any book no matter what it is, and be able to mindfully choose what is yours to keep and what is yours to discard. Get rid of clutter, claptrap and crap. Be free!


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  • Mandarb

    Good advice. I might take it myself. I have some L. Ron Hubbard books that I thought was good once, but can’t get through now. Might just rid the world of their presence.

    My main problem with throwing away books has always been that it’s a bit too close to book burning to be comfortable. That’s something I just couldn’t justify, no matter the content. The same reasons however can be given, except that it’s not so environment friendly.

    Richard, would just like to say that I’m enjoying these entries, makes me think about issues I wouldn’t normally.

  • Thanks Richard. I can benefit from your advice as I too have collected far too many books and need to prune my overflowing shelves. As you suggested, I’ll probably start with some easy decisions like out of date books of a technical nature. In the future, I might rely more on getting books from the library since you have to return those.

    I’ve really appreciated, enjoyed, and benefited from the time and dedication you have spent with this advice column.

  • penn

    Be careful with recycling books. They generally cannot go in the paper recycling bin because extra steps need to be taken to handle the glue in the binding. Most material recovery facilities will sort them out and just send them to a landfill. You should try to find a specific book recycling program, which may be difficult.

  • Matto the Hun

    That reminds me of when I had to get rid of my D&D books. My wife and I needed to declutter and I had to give some stuff up. It still makes me a little sad to think of it. I had loads of fun playing… but at the time I hadn’t played in 3 years. Ten years later I still haven’t played. I kept a few particular faves like my Fiend Folio, but otherwise why would I be keeping that stuff around?

    Besides, that was mainly second edition stuff, I understand 3rd (or 3.5 ?) is the bee’s knees these days.

  • lurker111

    I say treat these books like duplicate romance novels–toss ’em in the trash. Think of this as “carbon sequestration”–possibly the best use that could be made of these things.

    That said, older hardbacks should be examined to see if they have any collectable value. Check them on

    for example.

  • Jen

    Tom- you might want to check out the Unclutterer blog. Books come up there regularly. They are also a frequent discussion (the buying of, selling of, and donating of) on the personal finance blogs.

  • Sebeka will give you a list of recycling centers near you that accept books.


    Yeah, you could say I can’t get rid of books.

  • Peregrine

    If you have an issue with destroying data; (I’m an IT guy, so I understand) you could try scanning each page of the book. Being children’s books, some of them might be short enough to productively scan each individual page.

    With the book scanned, you can save it as a PDF file, and hide it somewhere in a hidden directory along with any porn you might have. Now that you have a digital copy that can be stored, backed up, and copied at will, you can do whatever you want with the book. Data files take up disk space, but not shelf space. And they don’t weigh anything.

    I suppose if you have issues with copyright infringement, then this might cause some ethical quandaries. However, some of these books might be public domain, or years out of print, so it depends on the book, I guess.

  • You know, the Christians have a book that gives good advice about how to prepare your kids for when they might read stuff you don’t like: “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” Proverbs 22:6. (grin)

  • Gary

    Here’s a suggestion, though it obviously involves a bit of work: Donate the books to your local library’s book sale, but annotate them first. “Pure unadulterated crap!” and “Complete bullshit!” come to mind as possible useful phrases for marginalia….

  • ATL-Apostate

    Damn, Richard! I learn something every time I read one of your entries.

    Thank you!

  • @arthwollipot,

    That looks alot like my basement. Only about 10 times as much!!!!

  • Jude
  • Julie Marie

    I pitched all my christian childrearing books.had no problem putting them in the big trash can where they belong, with the coffee grounds, banana peels, and dog poop from the back yard. This was in 2007.

    It has been 2 years since I’ve heard any Christianese childrearing advice, so I was unprepared a few weeks ago, when someone directed a not so subtle “you are not in control of your child madam” shot at me. Cody was having fun at a jumpcastle, and although I usually give him a 5 minute warning so he can adjust to the idea that its time to leave, this time I forgot. And I was tired and wanted to go NOW. So I just told him, time to go. Cody bellowed NOOOOO and flopped his body down. I repeated myself, without anger, telling him I know he’s having fun, but its time to go. I understood his behavior was more along the lines of expressing his feelings about leaving than outright defiance. He started making his way to the door. The fine christian child care volunteer next to me said, under her breath, “yes mommy” (which is how all good children are supposed to respond, immediately, to an order from mom). Before I could throw up the filter, a “what fantasy island are you living on” popped out of my mouth. She was clearly shocked and confused by my reaction. I didn’t bother to explain myself.

    I mean, really…a six year old boy being dragged away from fun with no time to adjust to the change is expected to merely murmur “yes mommy?”


    oh my!

  • Neon Genesis

    I like Richard’s suggestion of thinking of the books as being born again. Don’t think of it as destroying books, but think of it as being like baptizing the books into something better and washing away their evil. Also, try not to think of them as books, but more like trash pretending to be a book.

  • If the books are illustrated there are lots of artists who love to tear apart old books for projects. I talk to several who do that on twitter so I could probably put you in touch with them.

  • Gary

    Please be environmentally responsible see that your books go into the recycling bin rather than sending them to a landfill. Also, most communities have a freecycle ( or similar group where you can give away stuff that you do not want, if you don’t want to send your books for recycling.

  • GullWatcher

    Ah, Gary beat me to the freecycle suggestion, so let me just second that. That, and library fund-raising book sales are where my old books go. Even the outdated science ones, since it can be interesting to see what people thought when. It never occured to me that anyone might think they were current…

    For really good books, the kind that demand sharing, there’s BookCrossing, which is sort of like “Where’s George” for books. You put a sticker in it and leave it somewhere, and people who find it read it, then do the same, and sometimes they post on the website where they found it and where they left it.

    The only exception is the unadulterated tripe that doesn’t seem worth my time and effort to find it a good home. If I am bothered by a lingering thought that I am maybe destroying something precious, I check Amazon and eBay to see how many used copies are out there looking for good homes. That’s usually enough to convince me that the world is in no desperate need of my particular copy.

  • Peregrine

    I love BookCrossing! I’ve gotten rid of many old outdated text books that way.

    No one ever updates on most of them though; Most folks are usually only interested in fiction or self-help. So I don’t know where most of those old books went. And… I really don’t care.

    Probably rotting at the bottom of a Lost and Found bin or something. Not my problem anymore.

    Ditched an old e-commerce text book that way too. If there were ever an argument in favour of book burning, it’s e-commerce. That stuff is evil!

  • I think you can safely get rid of any old IT reference books like
    “Windows95 for dummies” 🙂

  • River

    Ah, I am a book hoarder as well! From a family of book hoarders… yeah. Good advice, and general good advice for someone who doesn’t like to throw away anything.

    @Matto the Hun: Oh, dear. The Fourth Edition of D&D is fixing on releasing the Player’s Handbook III.

  • I’m proud of the community of atheists for having such a strong aversion to burning books that they will reject that as an option out of hand, as a matter of principal. However, I submit to you all that if an exception is to be made for the “no burning books, ever” rule, that it should be made for religious books aimed at children. They contain no value whatsoever and can cause great harm. I’m right there with you all in that the thought of burning any book is anathema to me (it calls up visions of Kristalnacht and other dismal episodes in human history), but I think I could suppress my gag reflex long enough to introduce my creme brulee torch to the indoctrination materials with the bright colored illustrations.

  • Anyone who works for a book publisher or a bookstore will tell you that “books are sacred” doesn’t make sense. Bookstores rip the covers off of paperbacks that don’t sell, send the covers back to the publishers for credit, and throw the rest away. Go look in a dumpster of any publisher and you’ll see how many books–real books–are being discarded. And these are the people who love books the most! Nope, the books themselves aren’t special. Time to toss them.

  • Meg

    If it makes you feel better, libraries/librarians throw out books all the time, for similar reasons–out of date, inaccurate, damaged, etc. We call it weeding. Go forth and weed without guilt!

  • Stephen P

    @manyhats: there’s nothing at all wrong with burning (or otherwise destroying) books which you personally own. The point about the appalling book-burning episodes in history is that the perpetrators were destroying other people’s books and persecuting the people who printed them.

  • I have a problem with the notion of recycling these books … shouldn’t we keep them as an example of how stupid we (humans) can be? Isn’t there a lesson to be learned from that as well?

    Kyu (AngryAtheism.Org)

  • Aky

    Or another thing to do is to donate them to a church, and let them “recycle” the books by handing them down to the believers. You aren’t poisoning the minds, since they’ve already been poisoned and you’re merely being nice and saving some people a bit of money. Or you really don’t want to go into a church, do the same sort of thing by handing them to Christian relatives (who are poisoning their children’s minds anyway, and you’re just saving them a bit of money).

    Also, you could try and think of it this way; say you had a gourmet food item of some kind, but the ingredients making it up have been poisoned. The only thing to do is throw it away, although in normal circumstances it would be a thing to be treasured.

    And yes, I know this is late (been reading this column because it’s very enlightening), but I hope it might help anyways.

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