How to let go of unwanted books and magazines

If you are anything like me, turning the paper pages of a good book while relaxing on a beach chair or a comfortable couch is a total pleasure — one not quite matched by reading a novel on a hard, cold electronic device. For many of us, books and other printed materials have a way of accumulating over the years and taking over our homes.

But let’s face it, if you are downsizing to a smaller home, you may not have enough space for all these publications. Here’s how to downsize your reading materials in anticipation of a smaller home.

Schedule time on your calendar. In my experience with clients, it is often best to treat reading material as a separate category from other household items. If you are moving, think about putting time on your calendar to tackle this project. The amount of time you allocate will depend on how many books and other publications you own. If you have many large bookshelves stuffed with reading material, consider scheduling several days as opposed to several hours for this task. Also, if you already know where you will be moving, it’s wise to measure your space so you can decide how many bookshelves will fit in your new home. It’s also smart to collect boxes to sort and pack your books before you begin.

Prepare a staging area. To make the process easier, think about clearing floor space where you can work. Label boxes with the following categories: pack, sell, recycle, donate, return to someone else and undecided. And keep in mind that many people cannot resist the urge to start reading when they are surrounded by so many interesting items. Try to resist this temptation, because it could substantially slow down your progress.

Work on one category at a time. I recommend picking a category, such as textbooks, and then pulling every book in this category from all the bookshelves in your home into the staging area. Attempt to make a decision on every item in your category before moving on to the next one. If you really can’t make a decision, put it in the undecided pile — but remember that the greater this pile is, the more it will slow your sorting.

The following are some common categories you might be tackling, with suggestions on what to keep and what and where to donate, sell or recycle.

1. Pleasure Reading: Fiction, Nonfiction, Memoirs

A great story can draw us in emotionally as we become invested in the lives of the characters, so it can feel like breaking up with an old friend to toss a well-loved book in the donation box. However, given that so many good books come out each year, how likely is it that you’ll ever reread a particular book again? Seldom have I met anyone who rereads books — with the exception of my preteen niece, who has read each Harry Potter book multiple times.

One way to make it more palatable to part with your books is to start a book journal, in which you create a dated entry for each book you have read along with a short plot description. I started such a journal about 10 years ago, and it is fun to go back and peruse it from time to time. My book journal has freed me to be able to let go of the hard copy because I know, thanks to the internet, that I can always purchase it again quite inexpensively. However, I have yet to reread a book from my list.

Another problem area for many people: unread books that you might read someday. If a book has been on your shelf for years and is still unread, you will probably never read it. Consider jotting the title and author in your book journal in case you ever want to buy it again. Then, simply let it go. Along the same lines, give yourself permission to get rid of books that you have only read half of. There are so many fabulous books in the world; if a particular tome didn’t grab you enough to complete it, you should feel no guilt about letting it go.

I recommend you keep only the books you truly love. I have a few beloved volumes that I will never part with, as well as a few rare and first-edition books. But the simple act of writing in my book journal has allowed me to clear out cluttered bookshelves and arrange interesting decorative items between the books.

What should you do with all your discarded pleasure reading? Many local libraries accept donations. Used-book stores also purchase books to resell to customers. I have found that some stores are more discerning than others; there is one store in my community that will take everything I drop off. I don’t make a lot of money, but at least I don’t have to go back and collect the books they don’t want.

2. Textbooks

Textbooks, especially from college or graduate school, often represent a significant amount of time and effort invested in completing a course of study. My clients working in a field related to their college or graduate-level work often keep textbooks thinking they will reference them again. But most often these books are stored in boxes in a garage or the back of a closet, and many of my clients freely admit that they haven’t looked at them since graduation. If you are moving to a smaller home with limited storage, you may want to free yourself of all these books.

Many online booksellers will purchase your textbooks, offering you a price after you provide them with an ISBN number, and most booksellers will pay for your shipping. However, it can be disappointing to learn how little your old textbooks are worth. Even a costly, brand-new textbook I purchased one year before for my high school-age daughter sold the following year for a fraction of the price. College textbooks are even worse. Many professors publish new editions of their books every year and require their students to buy them, making the older editions practically worthless. It is usually best to sell textbooks as soon as the school term is over if you want the best return on your investment. If you have more time and are comfortable doing so, you might consider selling more expensive items on Craigslist or eBay. Extremely old textbooks will fetch very little, so I recommend donating or recycling them.

3. Magazines

Like many of my clients, I enjoy the look and feel of a physical magazine. You may have subscriptions to several, and over the course of a month, you might not always have time to read them. If this is the case, they can pile up and clutter your home. Some people store the magazines away in boxes because they think they will read them later. But a very organized friend told me she has the habit of recycling old magazines as soon as the new ones arrive. At first this was difficult for me to recommend to clients, because it seems wasteful to recycle an unread magazine. However, once I developed this habit for myself, I really came to value the lack of clutter in my home. If there is an article I really want to read or save, I cut it out and scan it into my computer.

Some of my clients save magazines that are years old. Home and decorating magazines are especially popular to save. However, take a careful look at those magazines from 2007. Do you still appreciate the decor styles featured? For magazines you really can’t bear to part with, I recommend having an electronic subscription so that you can call up back issues. That way they will not take up space in your new home. I recommend recycling most old magazine issues.

4. Cookbooks, Gardening, Crafts, Self-Help, Reference

When deciding on books in this category, think about dividing your collection into subcategories. For example, look at all of your cookbooks at once. There may be some that you only use for one or two recipes. Consider making a copy of the recipes you like and scanning them onto your computer so that you don’t need to keep the entire book. Get rid of cookbooks that are dated or that your never use. Save your favorites, keeping in mind the amount of storage you will have in your new kitchen.

In terms of self-help books, many may no longer be relevant to your life. For example, a book on the “terrible twos” can be easily eliminated if your children are now in college. Discard the self-help tomes that are no longer useful to you.

In terms of gardening and reference books, you can find the answers to many questions online, and you may only want to keep those books that you look at regularly. As for home decor books, consider letting those that look dated go. Houzz is a great source for current decorating ideas and takes up no room on your bookshelf.

5. Yearbooks and Photo Albums

My husband recently inherited a large box of photo albums and old photos from his grandmother. They were pictures of long-deceased relatives that his grandmother had lovingly kept. He felt guilty about tossing them, so he sent them off to an online photo processing center and had them all scanned onto an electronic storage device. That way, he could dispose of the large box but save the images. I recommend you keep only the photo albums that are meaningful to you. If you simply do not have enough storage space in your new home or have a large quantity of albums, you may want to find a photo processing company locally or online and have albums scanned into photo books or digital storage to save space.

Similarly, if your high school or college yearbooks are meaningful to you, feel free to keep them. But know that most people save yearbooks for many years without ever thinking about them. If you are in this category, you should feel no guilt about freeing yourself of them.

6. Term Papers and Work Projects

Earlier this year I was working with a client who had recently retired. She had three large boxes in her office closet filled with college and work projects. She was having a hard time parting with them because they represented a great deal of time and effort and she was proud of the final result. However, she was moving to a smaller home and simply did not have enough room for them.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, consider letting go of the college term papers and projects. You most likely have never looked at them since you placed them in the box after you graduated, so hopefully it won’t be difficult to part with them.

The work projects might be a different story, as these often can be more difficult to part with. As with the photo albums, an electronic storage company can scan projects into an external storage device or online storage. My clients have used companies that scan all the information and then shred the paper copies, freeing them of much needed real estate in their new, smaller homes.