Ah the mystique of books. Why is it so hard to part with them? Is it because we feel the sight of lots of (tasteful?) books on our shelves projects a certain image about ourselves? Or because we subconsciously believe that the proximity of all that knowledge and erudition will cause at least some of it magically to transfer itself to our brains? Or do we fear not being able to put our hands on a piece of information or quote that we’ve once read?

I used to keep all books that came into my possession. Stacked up on overladen bookshelves. I liked the idea that I could get a fiction book down if I wanted to reread a passage, and I held onto lots of non-fiction as I was sure the contents would be useful ‘someday’.

Then I joined BookCrossing. BookCrossers register books on the BookCrossing website, and write a unique reference number (a BCID) in each book, along with a message explaining how BookCrossing works. Then we leave our books in public places in the hope that whoever finds them will log them on the website. When they do, the finder’s message is added to that book’s ‘journal’ and we get an email to let us know. (Of course, we also pass books between other BookCrossers and people we know personally).

Released book

I left a book at Brighton railway station yesterday. I let you know if it gets journalled.

I don’t hear from all my books again straight away. In fact the average length of time it’s taken for an entry to be made on those of my books that have been journalled, is over two months. Part of the fun is never knowing when I might find an email in my inbox telling me a new journal entry has been made. Nearly two years after I left The Optimist’s Daughter in a phone box in Dorset, having just finished walking the South West Coast Path, I got a message saying it had been to Brazil and was now off to Toronto. Who knows where it is now?

Other times, a book jumps from owner to owner quickly, with journal entries that make me laugh out loud. This Dictionary of Quotations & Proverbs was journalled several times in quick succession.

Nearly a third of the books I’ve ‘released’ have been journalled again since.

Soon I was pulling down books to release and wondering why I’d kept them all these years. I found books I was never going to read again, books I couldn’t remember reading, books that had moved house with me several times even though I didn’t even think they were any good…

It freed me up. Before I became a BookCrosser, I kept a record of the books I’d lent out and felt aggrieved if someone failed to return a book, or returned it in a much worse state that it was in when they borrowed it. Now I don’t care. Once I’ve read a book, what’s the point of it cluttering up my house? Chances are I’ll never want to read it again and, if I do, I’ll easily be able to get hold of a copy from a library or online.

I haven’t completely let go. I now keep:

Released book

Close up of The Meaning of Night at Brighton railway station. My note says “Travelling book. Please take. See inside :-)”

  • books I haven’t read yet (and am intending to!)
  • about a dozen of my absolute favourites
  • books set in my beloved home town of Brighton (only good ones though)
  • some classics (this is probably the least justifiable as they are so easily available)
  • recipe books
  • books I’m in (there aren’t many!)
  • coffee table books
  • non-fiction/reference books that I’m genuinely likely to use.

That’s the theory anyway. In truth, my shelves still contain lots of books that I could move on. Ah well, maybe I’ll shift some more when my bookshelves come up in my decluttering schedule. And I already have two clear shelves. Wow, I love the feeling of space that gives me.

And I never buy books, even secondhand. Most of my books come (and go) through BookCrossing and, if I find myself running short of reading material, a trip to the library, or a loan from a friend, soon sorts that out.

The only exception is guide books, which are tricky because they go out of date so quickly. The ones available to borrow from my local library are usually at least one edition out of date. So I do sometimes buy guide books when I travel. These days I Freegle/Freecycle them or pass them to charity shops as soon as I get back, before they’ve dated too much. My old ones probably wouldn’t sell though. I have them marked as ‘available’ on BookCrossing (which tells other BookCrossers that I’m ready to move them on and it’s worth contacting me to see if I’d like to do a swap) and local Freeglers/Freecyclers sometimes ask for a guidebook saying that they’re only interested in the information on sights, so the age of the book doesn’t matter.

BookCrossing‘s probably not the LOWEST impact way of reading. We post books to each other, using (and reusing) jiffy bags and the fossil fuels involved in transporting them. Plus a proportion of the ones we wild release (i.e. leave lying around to be found) probably get thrown away by overzealous cleaning staff. Using the library has got to be lower impact. BookCrossing‘s fun though and makes you part of a community. Plus using a library didn’t shift my attitude to keeping books the way BookCrossing has. I didn’t expect it to be such a great clutter clearer when I joined.

Beware though. BookCrossers tend to be generous and, if you’re not careful, you could end up with more books than you started with.

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