do books make the reader?

the six titles in my collection

The best summers of my youth, the ones before I started working full-time at the beach concession stand, were spent reading. I’d ride my bike or walk to our local library and fill my back-pack. With no school I was free to stay up as late as I liked to finish a book the same day. My favourite addition to lazing about reading all day was candy. Book + candy = nirvana for ten year-old me. It’s really quite baffling that I went on to become an internationally decorated athlete.

In the fall I pared down our book collection. Chris still has a few titles but my collection is limited to what you see above (plus two to be returned to my brother). When I really considered what had sentimental value to me, and what I would read again, these were the ones I wanted to keep.

  • One Day My Soul Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant – gift from one of my best friends and a beautiful book to read, work through, and read again. Gotta get your thinking cap on and open your brain and soul for it.
  • Two copies of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Chris gave me the first copy on our second date and he proposed with the second copy
  • No Cry Sleep Solution – great book but don’t ask me how my kid sleeps =)
  • The Rattlebag – anthology of poetry from my university days
  • Brewster’s Phase and Fable – family copy I got when my mom was cleaning house
  • *Not shown: The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield – just received this as a gift and will be keeping it for a while before passing on.
Henry's book collection

A piece I wrote for Babble on 20 things you can live without to reduce clutter was recently published (yeah paid writing!). I was disheartened to read some of the comments on getting rid of books. At first I felt attacked and insulted. The insinuation was that only an illiterate fool would get rid of most of their books.

If you keep a small library does that mean you don’t read? If you don’t hold onto every title you’ve ever read and display them prominently in your home, does that mean you don’t respect literature?

I’m well aware that I am immersed in the simple living culture. That my view point has changed and could be considered radical. That I have, and will continue to have, a different idea of what I really need, and what my home and children really need, than others.

But as I reread the negative comments and looked beyond the hostile tone I unearthed what was really being said. I am a reader. I love books. I value books. That was the point that was being made.

Here’s my question: do you really need all the books to tell us you are an avid reader and a lover of words?

  • Maybe if you borrowed instead of buying books, you’d have more time to read.
  • Maybe if you let the library dust the books, instead of keeping your overstuffed shelves, you’d have more time to read.

Courtney from NomadBaby, a teacher now taking time away from career to travel in an RV for a year with her husband and young daughter, weighed in in the comments section. I was delighted to read her balanced and knowledgeable take on books and children: A home library is nothing if you don’t engage the reader.

Owning things does not equate to doing things.

Does owning a treadmill make you a runner?

I want to raise a reader. It doesn’t matter how many books I have on my book shelf, Henry won’t develop into an avid reader unless I read to him. If we read to him, and if he sees us reading books for entertainment, knowledge and pleasure, we increase the odds that he will read for entertainment, knowledge and pleasure.

Last week, while Katy was watching Henry, he was flinging books off the shelf and then paused on one book. Katy said he looked the book over for a moment, walked over to her (she was sitting in the rocking chair – where we read most of our books), handed Katy the book and then put his arms up to be picked up.

He gets it.

It’s not the books on the shelf that make a reader, it’s the act of reading.

our library

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  • I absolutely love your quote “does owning a treadmill make you a runner”. I used to have a library with almost 3000 books, I had pretty well read or used all of them.

    Now the extent of my library is 20 books with the majority of them “green & sustainable building” reference material. There are also a handful of yearbooks.

    I’ve written and talked to people about books it’s a hard one to grasp and release. You said it well.

    • Thanks for your comment, Stephen. Great to meet someone on the same page (harhar!) as me.

    • That was the same line that caught my eye because I would almost say the opposite! Owning a treadmill, in my experience, means you are *not* a “runner” – you may run but it is just for fitness not for the love of doing it because if you love running you don’t want to spend that time staring at a wall or TV…. but then again, I live where it is possible, if not always comfortable, to run outdoors year-round.

      I have seen it work with books too. My BIL used to buy a lot of books, mostly used, for the magical day when he – with 4 boys and a job that requires him to travel internationally at least 1 per month – has the time to read them. In the mean time, he likes how they look. Owner of books does not equal reader of books.

      I am an academic and I don’t think that I will ever be able to pare down to 6 books, though I am close for my “personal” books — 10 to 15 range.

      • This could be a heated debate! Are treadmill runners really runners? Have you read Born to Run? I’m noticing a lot of people inspired to get into running after reading that book. These new runners are all about the joy of it, no watches, no Garmins, no rigid training plan, just a want to run freely. Love the idea and intention behind it but I am smitten with getting all that data from my Garmin running watch/GPS.

  • What a timely article! I was at a home show yesterday and there were 2 divine books on house plans that I wanted. Seeing that I’m not going to be building a house in the future (and I can see most of these plans online), walked away. It was difficult, but I feel better now that I read your post! Thanks!

    • Nice work =)
      I was a sucker for cook books. Had a few shelves of them but, funny, never used them. I always looked recipes up online.

  • Very good article!

    I used to be in the ‘Don’t touch my books!’ camp. One day, while trying to shove yet another book onto the shelf, I got to thinking about my books and book habit. I RARELY re-read books that were in my collection. It was a big ah-ha moment for me.

    It was at this time, I started utilizing our local library. I donated, sold, and gave away most of my personal library. I would be lying if I didn’t say it gave me a bit of a panic at first. Now I like to think of my shelves as more of a book terminal where they hang out for a brief time before heading off on a journey to a new reader.

    My books aren’t what defines me. I am well read and if you spend any time with me, you’ll know this without me having to prove anything with a full book shelf.


    • Well said, Michelle.

      I think part of being able to move to a small home library is getting past the ego of owning a lot of books. Do I really need to impress strangers and acquaintances that come into my home? My good friends know I love to read and aren’t going to judge me for just owning six books.

  • I am slowly letting go of books, but we still have a lot. Just this weekend I downsized the kids’ collection again.

    I do like to have books available to read, but you can only read so much at a time. I am finding that we read library books more because of their temporary presence in our home.

    I have also found that having too many books can distract us from what we are reading. When I walk by a shelf of 6 books waiting to be read, it makes me read what I’m reading more quickly. I am less focused and I find myself reading to finish – not to enjoy or learn.

    All that being said…we still have a lot of books. It’s hard to pick and choose which ones stay and which ones go. I also homeschool and that adds to book clutter.

    This post was well-written and has given me some stuff to think about. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Jill. Agree with your comment about having too many books in the queue. Makes you rush through – something I am very guilty of. Nice to pace yourself and really “taste” the book.

  • This was perfect timing for me. My 20month old pulls all of the way-too-many board books in our collection off of the shelf about 17 times a day, and it drives me crazy! I feel like I’m always saying “I just put those away!”…. What is the point of having so many board books that keeping them on the shelf is a source of stress?

    Last night I tried to go through and add some to my yard-sale pile (community wide yard sale this weekend- yay for motivation and deadline!!), but only pulled out 3 books. Thanks for the reminder- it’s not about the shelves filled with books, it’s about taking the time to sit down and read with my little girl… I’d rather have the endless variety of books that come with frequent library trips and save myself the annoyance of feeling like the books are always a mess! Today I will re-visit the shelf and be more honest about which ones are special and worth the very limited shelf space. Thank you! :)

    (Note- I didn’t even get into the way-too-many picture books for my 4 year old… they’re less of a mess, but certainly overstocked.)

    • That photo of Henry’s book was taken in a rare everything is on the shelf moment =)
      Good luck with reducing your shelves!

  • Most of my collection is now travel books. They’re all outdated and the ones that cover a large area, like Central America, I rip out the country section when I visit it so I don’t have to bring the whole thing. Feels wasteful but the information is a really old and I basically use them for the maps.

    Totally agree on the point about feeling like you need to impress people that visit with your book collection. I would rather discuss a book I just read on my Kindle or borrowed from the library than discuss with people a book I read 10 years ago, can barely remember but is on display to let them know I read it at some point.

    • So true. And I think it’s resourceful to rip out the now out of date pages of the travel book. You recycle them, right?

  • As a child I loved reading (and still do). I always imagined my future home with large filled bookcases. Although I still like houses with a lot of bookcases, I’ve let go of that wish. I realized that owning lot of books equaled intelligence for me, but I know that doesn’t make sense. As you said ‘owning a treadmill doesn’t make you a runner’.

    I also realized that there were very few books I re-read. Over the past year I’ve sold and donated a lot of books. I am nowhere near 6 books as I’m still afraid that I will have regrets giving away all of my books. I am also a bit worried what friends or family will think when they visit my home and see that I’ve given away or sold the book they gifted me. As you can see: work in progress for me…

    • It sounds like you’ve made some big steps – enjoy them!

      Someone commented on my post about Henry’s toys that I shouldn’t be beating myself up about things I have held onto. I agree. Now I am trying to find the sweet spot of where I am right now. It keeps changing and when I feel like I want to let go of more I do.

  • Rachel,

    Books were so hard for me to downsize, but once I did I felt liberated. The interesting thing is I read just as much as I used to (a lot), but now I’m typically reading “new to me” books rather than re-hashing books I’ve already read. Thanks for sharing this post because I know books are one of the toughest spots for a lot of people trying to minimize!

    I was like you and downsized all the way down. Until recently I “owned” none at all. Currently I “own” around 10 reference books for an upcoming project. As soon as that project is done they’ll be giveaways or library donations!

    • I’m moving in the same direction as you. The Pressfield book is such a great read – I know I’ll hang onto it for at least a year and then pass it onto someone to enjoy. If have a new project or hobby I am not averse to buying/keeping a few books on the topic as long as I am using them somewhat regularly.

      Great to hear from you!! Your site is looking great.

  • I recently heard of this program where you leave a book that you’ve read in a coffee shop for example and someone else picks it up. You can register it so that you can track where it ends up!

    Here is the link:

    This may be fun as we try to reduce our home library as well!

  • For most people books become trophies. They mark the completion of an adventure and are stored on the shelf as trophies. There is a lot of emotional attachment in this, and people tend to cry a lot when you suggest they get rid of books.

    I noticed I was holding onto books as trophies, as I would never reread these books. I find it a very rare case when I would desire to reread something when there are millions of unread books just waiting for me to pick them up.

    • I had a lot of trophies/medals/ribbons and all they did was collect dust! Having the memories and talking about books, discussing them, is more important to me than showing them off.

      Thanks for commenting. Haven’t checked in on you guys in a while – excited to pop over and see where you are at.

  • Thank you so much for sharing about your book journey=)
    I’m constantly going through my son’s books he gets so many given to him but we have our favorites that we keep rereading. I would love to take more out from the library for him because I loved doing that as a child but when we have so many at home that we have yet to read,so I think what is the point of taking out more.
    Just last week I hurried through a book just to get it read & put in my donation box I didn’t really get to enjoy it, I think I will be going through our book stash again this week.
    Thank you=)!!

    • Thanks for commenting, Steph. We get so many nice books as gifts I have stopped buying them myself. Helps keep our little library under control.

      We have a lot of beautiful books that I am still waiting to read to Henry. They are for older children, a lot of text and fragile pages. Hopefully I can continue to keep them out of his reach so he doesn’t destroy them!

  • I love reading real books (vs online) but also rarely find myself re-reading them. Once I finish a good book I can’t wait to pass it along to an eager friend!! Sharing and discussing good books is such a great feeling!
    Great post as always!

  • I like owning kids books. I’ve noticed it takes a couple of weeks for Aiden to warm up to new books, then he can become obsessed for a good long while. We don’t tend to have library books long enough for his liking – at least at this age!

    • Henry is the same, takes a couple of reads for him to get into a book. It’s a lot like exposing him to new foods =)

  • I completely agree with you Rachel, owing and displaying books don’t make up for not reading.

    However, even though I am a born minimalist, I (as well as my husband) always loved books. We have hundreds of books, but they are all the ones we know we will re-read, no duplicates/mutiplates of the same kind (eg. no three travel books on Italy or on how to raise kids). We have our books neatly packed on white shelves on the two sides of our fireplace.

    I read somewhere from a had-core minimalist, that we should only keep what we use and what we find beautiful. Even though we are minimalists with tiny wardrobes, few toys and an empty fridge before shopping day, we re-read the books we have and more importantly, we find our bookshelves beatuiful to look at! :o)

    • Well put, Laura. Own just what you find beautiful and what you use. And I am a huge proponent of doing what works and what brings joy to you and your family.

      • It’s actually a quote by the famous textile designer, artist and writer William Morris. “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I have always loved and try to live by that quote. It’s a great thing to ask yourself before you buy anything. No coffee table book lovers here? I love art, decorating and fashion and enjoy them again and again. As for other books (hardcovers mainly -paperbacks are too ugly) that are unread I say I’ll read them when I’m old and bored. For now I only buy used books and do enjoy the look of them artfully arranged on my shelves.

  • I’ve always loved reading, but I am not a lover of the paper versions of books. I used to love buying books as a kid/teenager, but as an adult it just seemed like a waste of money – spending $15 on a book that was finished in a day or two just didn’t seem worthwhile. The last real books I bought were university text books and it’s been 12 years since I graduated – whoops. I recently heard someone referring to books as dead trees, and that was the proverbial nail in the coffin for me. I don’t know if I will ever buy another paper book, but I got a Sony eReader for Christmas which I love! My frugal self especially loves the fact that I can take books out of the online VPL for FREE. Whoo hoo! I’ve read more books in the last two months that I have in the past five years! I do still have a handful of books in our tiny bookshelf (nothing particularly special), but what I’d really love to do is convince my husband to declutter his economics text books from his days at uni – wish me luck on that.

    • The cost to entertainment hours ratio of books always bothered me too. Before having a baby I couldn’t pace myself with books and would finish them as fast as possible (now I don’t have the time for 12 hours of reading over two days).
      Love that the VPL is offering digital book rentals now!

  • After following your posts for some time, I felt very encouraged to do some decluttering and books is an area we’ve made great strides in. We cut our collection from 8 packed shelves to about 2 shelves and we made $100 at the second hand book store for the 20 books they took. More interestingly I find I am now visiting the library once a week and reading so many more books then I had been.

    • Nice work on the $100 and less to move!
      When we cut cable, and Chris got a library card, he read more books in one month than he had in the previous five years.

  • I also love reading, but have a minimal personal library. I only buy books that I’ve previously read (by borrowing from the library or family and friends) and know that I’ll read over and over again. Anything that I can’t live without I box up and donate to the local charity that benefits the library. I, however, struggle with keeping my son’s book collection to a manageable number.

    • Interesting that you only buy books you have already read. So many people would do the opposite. It makes sense though – you already know you want to read it again.

  • Here’s a phrase for you
    This isn’t so much related to books, but over the years I have been involved in various sports/activities. I’ve never spent a lot of the equipment particularly, but someone else would come along try it once, but would get all kitted up so they look the part.
    Owning things doesn’t equate to doing things – owning expensive things doesn’t equate to doing things well.

    • hahaha! Love that phrase. I once had a road bike and most of what went along with it. Nothing too expensive. I always had a laugh at the cyclists with the very expensive bikes, clothes, etc, that didn’t have a clue about how to ride properly in traffic.

  • My husband and I are what I like to call “book junkies.” We would go to the bookstore and we could never leave empty-handed. We always had at least one book each. We did/do read our books, they did not sit on the shelves collecting dust, so to speak. Unfortunately, our habit got pretty expensive and difficult to pack and move (we also have a habit of moving to a new home about every 2 years). So recently we have begun gently decreasing our book collection. Ok, me…not so gently. I’m down to about 4 books I could not part with. I have recently gotten a library card. I have not taken the time to use it yet, what with Amazon offering free titles on the Kindle. Woo, hoo, free books delivered to my hand!! But there are some titles I’d like to read that aren’t offered for free through Amazon, so I figure the public library is the way to go. My son’s personal library, however has not been reduced or decreased in any way. I am ever so grateful that he has finally decided he enjoys story time, though I’m not sure if he really enjoys the reading or if he’s just delaying bed time :)

  • This is inspiring. We are totally overloaded with books as all of us–including 3 kids–are big readers. We’ve been shedding them steadily over the past couple of years, ever since returning from overseas where we did not have access to a library and did, indeed, need to buy books in order to read them. Every time we go through the exercise, I manage to let go of a few more titles that I thought I had to keep forever. I doubt I’ll ever get down under ten, but your example will help me keep trying!

    • It’s all about getting in the editing habit. Getting down to under ten all in one go isn’t for everyone – especially kids – but if you make a habit of culling books, as you are, it will keep things in check. Great work!

  • My husband and I both come from families of avid readers, and in turn have started our own family of avid readers (our son, 18 months, is obsessed with reading). It is not books that make a reader, but access to books, and the act of reading. Thank you Rachel, for this blog entry. I am trying to let go of many of my books now too, to gain space and freedom.

    Since selling secondhand books in Canada is not a very lucrative pastime (thanks to Canada Post’s high rates, selling books on is all but a waste of time), I have decided to try and release my paperbacks into the wild for others to read for free. I read about this movement, called bookcrossing, in Spacing magazine, and am thrilled. I thought you and your readers would like it too. explains it all. I just registered today and am going to print out labels this week! Happy book hunting.

    • Thank you for the kind comments, Kirsten.
      Canada Post is highway robbery! It’s deterred me from trying to sell a number of things. Not worth the bother and better to find someone locally the can use it.
      Just read about here and I love the concept!!!

  • Just a comment on kids books – they will collect less books as they get older, as they bring more books home from school and library.
    However keep a few from the younger years as they are great ‘easy’ books for when they learn how to read.

  • Great post.

    I have far far too many books and am starting to pare down my collection because the books are just gathering dust and taking up space. I went through a bad book buying patch while I was studying Literature at uni – I’d scour the secondhand bookstores for my texts for uni and come home with several other books I wanted to read! I gave away a few boxes of books a few months ago. Since then I’ve found a couple of avenues to sell some books. I’m also planning on doing a book swap with a few friends: coffee and dessert at my house, everyone brings a book or two they don’t want anymore and goes home with someone else’s book.

    Kids books are the hardest. I find the library so difficult for finding good quality children’s literature – the good and the bad are all mixed together! – so end up buying a lot of books. But buying picture books is also an emotional experience too, because i end up buying books for my kids that were books that I loved growing up.

    I also just want to share a funny story about my SIL who was showing me her Kindle and saying I really should get one because you save so much money buying digital books. I told her there were plenty of other things I’d rather buy before a Kindle, especially since I enjoy reading a physical book. She said ‘oh, but I read a lot’. I refrained from pointing out the whole ‘I have a degree in English Literature’ thing, and instead said ‘is it cheaper than going to the library?’ Her response was “who has time to go to the library?” Maybe people like her who work extra hours to be able to afford to buy books?

  • I didn’t enjoy reading until I was like 23 yo. Now I like to read a lot and I get into different subjects and then I want to know all about them. I get obsessed with certain topics and then I move on to the next. I have just a few books and I should get rid of them because I never reread books. There are so many good books out there to be rereading the same ones. That’s my own personal opinion.

    I wish there was more time in the day so I could read all the books on my wishlist.

    I also think that sometimes parents say “I want my child to be a reader” and I say “I want my child to read good books.” Sometimes I think that parents think that as long as the child is READING that’s ok. I think that the quality of the material is more important than the quantity of books the child reads. I don’t like books that dumb down the vocabulary so the child can understand them. Let the child read beautiful words, don’t switch the language for the child. Have some respect!
    Now I got too passionate.
    Excellent post!Thanks!


  • Hi, new here. I haven’t read through all the comments, but I enjoyed your post. And I have to agree with you. We have a small collection of books at home, but we are at the library once or twice a week and always come home with a stack full of books for the children and me to read. We read every day and each night with very few rare exceptions. My kids will not think reading is not important just because we don’t have a wall of books to “prove” it. Thanks for sharing, nice post!

  • That’s my first time posting here :) I came across your blog twice in one week through different sources, so that’s pretty curious. I read a lot from the library and avoid buying books for myself, but since I “growing a reader” – my 12 y.o. step-son who lives with me, I buy the books for him. To me, at least for now, it seems that his joy in owning the books and knowing that he just received a parcel with books that will wait for him – it makes it very special. English is not our first language, and it took us a while to get him into reading. I did it by reading the books before him and only buying him those that I already liked. He is so proud do have become a reader that at least for now the books are his badges of honor. As for my little one, she will be three soon – we check out several books from the library and always renew them (twice), but she has a growing collection of books in Ukrainian that are all gifts from grandparents. I would like to have a Kindle or Kobo – as Kobo supports the library book format, but I would like the kids to read real books. I guess I am nowhere near ready to minimize. However, I did weed out my NGM collection and parenting magazines. Mothering is still staying. Since the seized publications I am not sure I can let go of the issues I own. But if you have any suggestions on how to get rid of three stacks of magazines I’d appreciated. We are in Burnaby btw :)

  • I agree with you. Owning books does not make you a reader. The huge pile of books I own and haven’t read is a primary example of that.

    And yet, to be totally honest, I’m not sure I could get rid of all of mine. I could pare down, yes, but books are the things I cling to almost unreasonably.

  • I wanted to thank you for this post. I was one of those people, who at one time, felt hostile to the idea that anyone should live without owning huge quantities of books. To me, loving books meant being surrounded by books. Until I realized that less equals more. Now that we have fewer books (very few my American standards) and I check out fewer books from the library (I used to have checked out to me 75-100 books at any one time), we all read more. We love our books, spend time getting to know them and then bring them back to the library, resell them to a local used bookstore or give them away. How wonderful. My children (ages 1.5 to 9) all have a few really important books that they or we read over and over, but I’ve come to realize that that is all we need. (We also homeschool, which leads to having a few more than we would otherwise, mostly reference books.) We love books. We read throughout EVERY day. We don’t longer own huge (and I mean HUGE) numbers of books. I was skeptical, but now I feel free! I plan to send a link to your post to all those in my life that feel as though I’ve lost my mind. :) Thanks.

    • You’re welcome and thank you for commenting. It helps me stay confident and motivated to hear of other families also decluttering and paring down. It’s not an easy thing to do. There is a lot of pressure to keep up the stuffed closets and shelves and overspending.
      Good for you =)

  • This is a heated debate! I don’t keep books because they are trophies. That never occurred to me. I keep them because I just looooooove old musty books. Some people like kitchen gadgets or china teacups or old dolls. I think it is ok to love something (or some things) and want it in your home as long as it doesn’t take over your home and your life. There are many things in my life I can minimalize or eliminate that are making me feel overwhelmed and anxious – books are not among those things. We read and re-read books in our house. Sometimes we get them out just to browse through. They are like old friends. Call me crazy, sentimental or whatever. It is what it is.

    If people didn’t keep some things that were sentimental or historic or just beautiful we wouldn’t need museums or historical societies. If people didn’t own books authors would be out of work or only on-line which I think would be a TERRIBLE thing. Think of all the people who don’t have access to the internet or a computer but do have access to books throught the library or used book store.

    I think pairing down and minimizing are great things but sometimes people seem a little OC about it. There has to be a balance between the two extremes of being a pack rat or hoarder and living with less than 100 things. I know you say this all the time Rachel – everyone has their own path to walk – and you are always so good at not judging others’ decisions. It can be hard though, huh? We get so defensive not just over the things we own but the reason we own them.

    I ramble again…. Have a great clutter-free day!!!

  • I have lots of books, but as soon as I lose interest, they go to the trade store or paperback swap or my cousin, the librarian. Others I just keep rereading because I enjoy them. I like the concept of having 6 or 10 books, but don’t see that working for me. Haven’t thought too much about what others might think, other than that I am a book nut. I don’t have too many visitors outside the family, anyway. So this is an area where I have what others might consider clutter, but is the easiest area for me to review and move out those I’m no longer interested in.

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