Letting Go

a pile of books

Is this what your house looks like? Image by pteittinen via Flickr

I have a friend who is a hoarder. He owns somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 books, along with numerous DVDs and videos. He’s in his seventies, so this represents a lifetime of collecting. His house is jammed full of the things, along with a large storage shed in his back yard, not to mention two off-site storage units. His wife is furious, and he is slowly coming to the painful realization that a lifelong dream of his — that he could merrily collect books and spend his retirement years reading them — is nothing more than the most ghostly of fantasies. He’s retired now, and he’s too overwhelmed to read any of his books (most of them he has no idea where they are). At this point, never mind reading them; he’ll be doing well just to sort through them.

His wife is demanding that he winnow his collection by 95%. That will still leave him over a thousand books — which means, if he reads two books a week, he’d still have a decade’s worth of reading material.

I’ve offered to help him. This is dangerous stuff, because I have a bit of the hoarder in me. I’ll be tempted to want to buy some of his books from him. But the truth is, my hoard at age 50 is probably not too different from what his hoard looked like when he was my age. So I have two reasons for wanting to help him: first, because he’s my friend and I’d like to see him dig out from his mess; but more importantly, because I want to face the hoarder in me (of course, my friend may well need professional counseling before this is through, and I may have to be the one to tell him that this is necessary).

The problem with hoarding is this: the bigger one’s collection (of anything, not just books), becomes, the more time is spent managing the collection rather than simply enjoying it. I probably have somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred books. Even with that relatively modest sized library (at least, modest compared to my friend’s holdings!), it’s amazing how much time I can spend trying to find a book that’s misplaced, or organizing my bookshelves, or purging my library (which I do on occasion, given how many new books I acquire, both in terms of purchases I make for my own research, and the relentless parade of complimentary review books that publishers send me, hoping that they’ll get mentioned on this blog). I probably spend as much time fussing over my “little” hoard as I do actually reading books. Getting to know my friend, and seeing his out-of-control hoard, is something of a wake-up call for me. If I don’t make the right choices today, I could end up like him in 25 years.

If you hoard books, you might be tempted to buy a book about hoarding...

Academics, booksellers, writers, amateur philosophers and theologians… I know a lot of people who have book collections larger than my own, and who feel that their profession or avocation requires this of them. For years, I would have “library envy” whenever I met someone who had a more impressive catalog than mine. But seeing the chaos that has overtaken my friend’s life, and recognizing that the seeds of such a fate lie within my own restless heart, has given me pause to consider if, when it comes to a personal library, maybe (like so many other dimensions of life) smaller really is better. Okay, so maybe a thousand books is not unreasonable for a middle-class American who is a professional writer. But does my library ever need to get any larger than that? I don’t think so. Which means that as new books come in, old books need to go. Books that I’ve read and have no desire to re-read, or don’t expect to use for research. Review books that I’m not interested in. Books that were acquired for a project that is now complete. And, increasingly, books that I may need for reference purposes, but can own electronically (yes, that’s a dangerous loophole: I’m only saying 1000 hard copy books. But I’ve come to realize that I just don’t enjoy reading ebooks, so I only own them for reference purposes — after all, it’s easier to find a specific word or phrase using Kindle’s search function than by flipping through pages of a paper text).

Hoarding is related to anxiety. For years, I was loathe to let go of any book that was out of print or generally difficult to find. I still have a significant number of books (hardcover editions of the Classics of Western Spirituality, or my hardcover books by Merton and Underhill) that I simply cannot imagine letting go of, precisely because they would be difficult and expensive to replace. Every time I load a box to go to the used bookstore, a little voice insists, “But what if you find out you need this or that book the next time you sit down to write?” I firmly remind this inner doubter that it’s better to get rid of 100 unwanted books even if I eventually re-acquire 2 or 3 of them, than to do nothing… and end up like my hapless friend.

So the opposite of hoarding, ironically enough, is trust — and faith. Trust that I’ll always have, or be able to locate, whatever books I need, both to enjoy reading and to complete the work I want to do. Faith that a small, carefully chosen collection of books is far more useful than a large, unwieldy hoard. And faith that at this stage of my life I need to be doing more praying and meditating, and less reading anyway!

So , dear reader, pray for my friend, that he can find the inner strength (and faith and trust) to do the hard work of letting go of some 24,000 books (don’t worry, if we decide to have a monster yard sale, I’ll post word of it on this blog). Pray for me, that I can be clear about setting boundaries around my own nascent urge to hoard — and spend less time fussing about books, and more time reading (or praying or meditating). And if you are a book hoarder, I invite you to join us on this adventure of owning less stuff and appreciating the spirituality of letting go.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Jane

    Hi Carl

    I can’t help but think that letting go is ultimately about letting people discover for themselves and trusting that, to that which is!

    There is huge paradox here but at least knowing this hopefully allows us to write or teach, or whatever it is we do, for the greater good/Truth/God.

    Hope all is well with you


    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Hi Jane, thanks for your comment. I am doing well, and hope you are too. Since I’ve been back in the states, Ali and Gareth have come to visit me, and I’ve been to see Kevin… so the Rostrevor spirit lives on!

  • maggi sale

    Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!……What a mirror to be faced with on a Sunday morning! Perhaps we should form a ‘Collectors Anonymous’ group Carl! I have just paid £2000 towards my Amazon bill and I won’t tell you what is outstanding! And I don’t have your profession as an excuse! I will try to justify it on the grounds of having the right book at the right time to give to one of the many young people who pass through my life. But it is not sustainable and both my homes are now fit to bursting! I shall take this blog-post as a timely wake-up call to at least stop accumulating as I approach my 3 score and 10 too. My last Global Exchange group decided to ‘categorise’ my Glasgow library and now I can’t find a damned thing! In fact, I now have 3 copies of Andrew Harvie’s ‘Son of Man’ ….on 3 different shelves!!!!!!….So much for for their ‘help’. Anyway, point taken! Shall take photos today and regularly, until order is restored!

  • Larry

    I wonder if a local library or a specialized library (church, monastery, etc.) could use the books? Then, they’d be there for not only the original owner to enjoy, but be of benefit to many more.

  • Linda

    Have you ever heard of Book Crossing? Its help me let go of books. Google it and go their site. Its like you still have the book as you track their journeys.

    Also, many libraries, schools and literacy programs would love those books.

    It helps to let go if there is a greater purpose in doing so.

    What about a storage shed to start with? The books are not really going anywhere and it helps to sort them and catalogue them. Makes it easier to part with if they have been gone for a while.

    Truthfully, I’m having a hard time with my own collections. Can’t wait to get a Nook or Kindle.

    My daughter has the same problem, but packing books for a move is a good cure.


  • http://www.woodka.com/ woodka

    bookcrossing and paperbackswap.com… as long as you get rid of more books than you acquire!

  • http://www.outoftherainmusic.net Carol

    I wonder about the connection to grief, too. A family member began to do the same when her brother died suddenly and tragically. Something about the finality of letting go. There can possibly go any of us. Beautiful post, Carl~and thanks for discussing this sympathetically/with soul.

  • http://yaholo.net Yaholo

    This is a great piece. I struggle with hoarding/collecting tendencies as well. To combat this, I draw lines. Years ago I picked a corner of my house where I had my desk and some shelves and told myself said “I am not going to own any more stuff than what I can fit here”. It took a lot of work, but I did it.

    Years, since, I still struggle with this. My corner “bleeds” and I have to go through it again. The digital age has made it worse since I can still own lots of stuff without “seeing” it all. Now I am striving for a new goal: To only own what I can “fit in my head”. Now, if I have more stuff than my mind can be aware of, I get rid of things. For example, if I have music I won’t listen to without seeing it, movies I won’t think to watch without looking through them, or games I won’t play without being reminded I have them, I get rid of them. I am trying to keep only what is relevant to me at the moment.

    Anyway, that’s where I am on “stuff”.

  • Day Kenneth

    Serendipitous discovery of this today Carl.

    I have recently come to the start of the same pruning process too. The scale of my ‘problem’ is hardly that of your dear friend, but just as real.

    Since becoming an oblate novice my attentions have been increasingly focussed on what I own, what I think I need to own and what I actually need to own. Also, as you mention what the things I own do to me and distract me from.

    May your friend discover the ‘best way’ for him and may you, and may I.



  • http://babushkajo.wordpress.com Babushka Joanna

    Hoarding can also be a form of OCD (my daughter was diagnosed with OCD, so I have learned a great deal about it the past few years). Clearing stuff out without addressing the reasons BEHIND the hoarding may just lead to another pile of stuff later. Medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy together can help people manage their disorder.

  • http://www.thewheelandthedisk.blogspot.com Alyss

    Hording as the opposite of faith – yes! I wrote a blog post about that exact sentiment a year ago (http://thewheelandthedisk.blogspot.com/2009/08/breathe-sigh-of-relief.html) but I didn’t put it quite so succinctly. Thank you. I am getting ready to move and using it as a time to really dig through my possessions and purge purge purge… I want a simple, uncluttered, easy to clean, easy to be in home. Stuff gets in the way of that, doesn’t it?

  • Kathy Lewis

    “Letting go” of anything you cherish is life is painful yet can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. It gives you the opportunity to establish a new boundary. I recently went through a similar experience (not books) and it was painful yet it gave me the opportunity grow closer to God throughout the whole process. Isn’t that what life is all about, God giving us opportunities to grow closer to him>

  • zoecarnate

    So…tell me about that yard sale if it happens, Carl. :)

    In the meantime, I shall resonate with your thought like a tuning-fork: “at this stage of my life I need to be doing more praying and meditating, and less reading.”

  • http://www.dorothybaez.com Dorothy Kernaghan-Baez

    I have a gigantic book collection. For the most part, any of my books that are “valuable” are ones I’ve inherited. Most of my books are in paperback – I try not to buy as soon as a book is released – as I tend to be seriously thrifty. I even print favorites from Gutenburg.com and keep them in binders.

    I have always loved to read and I enjoy re-reading my favorites. I went through a whole set of encyclopedias at age 5.

    Fortunately for me, I live in a big house and have plenty of room to keep my books. I don’t have a cataloging system, but I can tell you if I have a particular book and, if so, where to find it. Off the top of my head. And I’m often asked since all the kids in the extended family love to do homework at my house.

    It’s a matter of really owning your possessions, and not letting them own you. My books give me pleasure. It’s sad that your friend got distracted and ended up being owned by his books instead of the other way around.