How Do You Choose What Books You Keep?

As a bookstore owner, these days, my relationship to my personal bookshelf has changed. Years ago, I would go to bookstores every chance I get. I’d browse and pluck things off the shelves–a sucker for an exceptionally beautiful cover. Or I’d hold close to my chest a book that I exceptionally loved at one point in my life.


I remember visiting a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi and tears flooding my eyes as I saw their Flannery O’Connor section. So many different beautiful editions of A Good Man is Hard to Find. Sidenote: I’ve been low-key contemplating getting the illustration of the 1955 cover as a tattoo for several years, now.

I would buy all of these books that I could. I’d keep a running list in my head of all the books I wanted to have and I would buy every single on that I would come across. For some reason, once they were on my shelf I would immediately lose the whole need to read the book right away. I think, as it turns out, I wanted a large collection of books. I wanted to be surrounded by books. I wanted to read these books, too. But once I have them, then the pressure to get them read is gone. I could read them whenever I wanted to! So… I kinda never did. I mean, I read a lot of them but my point is that before I owned the bookstore, the acquiring of hundreds of books was my greatest priority.


But something definitely shifted when I took over the store. Now, my need to be surrounded by books is totally fulfilled at work. I’ve gone through my shelf at home and donated a good 75% of my personal book collection to the store. Some of them are still here. I’m looking at my own copy of Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday right now. Honestly, it’s been on the shelf long enough that I should have moved it to the clearance table by now but the cover makes me feel so happy that I’m not sure I’ll ever do it. If you want to buy it, you certainly may. But you’ll have to do so at full price just because of my own personal stubbornness.

I don’t really buy books anymore. I belong to the Book of The Month Club (if you want to sign up, here’s my referral link) because I love to keep up with new releases and then when I’m done with them, I donate them to the store. The only way I get my books otherwise is if I get them through–an audiobook service that helps to support local bookstores or if they show up at the store (so if you want to support my bookstore with your audiobook listening, feel free to check it all out here). As a rule, I try to only read paper books that I’ll be selling at the store–it’s the only way that I’m able to recommend things that I have actually read. And with 12,000+ books in the store… I mean, I can only read so much.

But listen. I still love a bookstore. I still go to bookstores every chance I get. I browse and pluck things off the shelves–still, a sucker for an exceptionally beautiful cover. And I hold close to my chest a book that I exceptionally loved at one point in my life.

This weekend, we went out of town for a few days. On Sunday we went on a bookstore crawl of sorts. There were a few books that I wanted to buy for my own personal bookshelf. And I did! I added to my own bookshelf for the first time in a long time! Here’s a list of the books I bought and how I decide what goes home with me:

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchet: I listened to this on Libro.Fm. It is narrated by Tom Hanks. I mean… ugh. It was so good. And now, when I’m reading a book and having trouble following along, I read it to myself in Tom Hanks’ voice and it helps get me refocused. So, The Dutch House was an incredible, epic, family love story. It’s exactly my ideal kind of book and on top of that, the cover is flipping gorgeous. I don’t know why I just gave you a look at the spine. Anyway–this book meant so much to me and the cover is so gorgeous that I just had to have it on my own shelf. Also, I wanted to spend some money at Strange Tides–a new bookshop in Wichita. So, obviously, this was the perfect combination. Support businesses that you’re psyched about, friends.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This book was released waaaay back in December and I’ve wanted to read it every day since that happened. But I’ve kept myself from it and the reason for that is twofold: (1) it hasn’t been sold in any space that is conveniently accessible to me and I’m working really hard at eliminating Amazon from my life–especially when it comes to books. (2) I’ve read enough Carmen Maria Machado that I know that I’m going to want to read her words with my eyeballs. I bought it on but I just haven’t been able to listen just because I know that I love to savor the words of Ms. Machado.I’ve heard the audiobook does her poetic, brilliant voice right.But I still… I just know what I need and I need to sit in a sunbeam and read this book with my hands and eyes and mind all engaged together. And with a pencil in hand. I need to underline and make notes. That’s the kind of engaged reader I am when I love something this much. I love Carmen Maria Machado this much. Because of the underlining and the notes I know I will make in this book, it won’t be sold at the store. It’s going to live on my bookshelf.

Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher: So, contemporary romance is having a renaissance and it has definitely become a part of my self-care routine. Honestly, I’m as surprised as anyone. I was an literature major for crying out loud! I’m a snob. I love Flannery O’Connor and Virginia Woolf and big fat books that won the Pulitzer and are gonna make you probably a little bit sad. I loved Fates and Furies even though everyone else thought it was too literary and pretentious. I love a pretentious book. But contemporary romance is the perfect pallet cleanser. It’s predictable. It’s usually funny. It’s relatable. And I’m glad that it’s coming around! We don’t get much of it in at my store, though, so I have to buy my own–which I then donate to the store so that I can sell someone else on the idea that contemporary romance is a perfectly delightful genre. It is! It’s good for us all, I think. Also, I can’t listen to these books on audio. They make me blush too much. Maybe one day, I’ll devote a whole post to how much I love romance.

How do you decide which books come home with you? How do you decide which books you’re ready to part with?


2 thoughts on “How Do You Choose What Books You Keep?

  1. I love this post! It is great to think about books we want to read vs. books we want to own. Sometimes those overlap in the venn diagram, but often in my case they are different circles all together. I, like you, am drawn to a beautiful cover. Especially if the book is older or has a nice binding.

    My collection of “pretty” books hangs out in my bedroom on shelves near my bed. Then I have a shelf that contains many favorites, from my absolute favorites, to favorite novels in paperback, to favorite books about faith/spirituality.

    I’ve recently purged a ton of books from my collection. I had limited shelf space for several years in my current home and when I started opening boxes and seeing books I’d not seen/touched for 4+ years I realized there were a lot I could do without. The books make the cut if: 1) They are something I would potentially re-read 2) They are something I would lend 3) They are about a subject I care deeply about like Church of the Brethren/Shaker/Quaker/Mennonite tradition, British royalty… 4) They are signed to me by the author 5) They are written by a favorite author – including Edith Wharton, Joanne Harris, Jane Austen… 6) They have pretty covers/binding 7) I would like to read it in the future (though I’m much more likely to read and give away now than I use to be). When a book doesn’t fall into any of those categories I generally pass books along now.

    One thing I’ve always played with is having one book that I buy every edition I find of that book. There’s a movie that has this premise (I believe with Ethan Hawke possibly?) where the heroine buys all copies of Jane Eyre because her father wrote her a message in a copy she lost along the way. I’ve wondered if I should do that with something like “The Age of Innocence” or “Much Ado about Nothing” or some other favorite. But I’ve never committed because, while it sounds like fun, I just don’t really want to spend money or space on a repeat. I did buy LOTS of copies of “Chocolat” by Joanne Harris from Better World Books until I got the cover that I wanted 🙂 I just gave the extras to friends who I hope enjoy the novel.

    1. I love hearing about what makes the cut and what doesn’t.

      My spouse has a favorite author (Michael Crichton) and he started collecting the first editions of all of those books. Now he has those and he’s started collecting the different hard-cover versions of them and he even recently got his hands on a manuscript (!) of one of his favorite books! I think collecting different versions of the same book is really cool.

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