OK, I will readily admit that I have too many books. My wife and I are both book lovers (bibliophiles, for those who desire a classier word). Our home is packed with books. We have passed this love onto children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. It is not unusual for one of our preschool grandchildren or great-grandchildren to bring us a board book, climb into our laps, and look at pictures and name what they see there.
Having to discard books is a traumatic experience for me, but I have come to point that I need to cull my collection. If it were not for the Kindle, I would have about 200 more to deal with. With great reluctance I am deciding which of my friends to discard. Some say if you have not used a book in the last five years, you should toss it. I am not there yet.
There are many books that I have used for research and study over the years. Some in discipleship, apologetics, and interfaith witness will be moving on. I am not as engaged in those topics as I was when I was a campus minister. I will probably hold on to the books on faith development and the adult life cycle—Fowler, Erickson, Levinson, and others–that I used when I researched my doctor of ministry degree. I sweated over those volumes and still use them from time to time in teaching.
Some books have made such an impact on me that I will hold on to them as long as I have shelf space. I first read The Bible and Race by T. B. Maston when I was a student at a segregated college, and it helped me to understand the conflict I felt between my Christian faith and the reality of my culture. I will hang on to To Kill a Mockingbird and a number of Will Campell’s books. C. S. Lewis books are not going anywhere, either. His writing is timeless and always fresh and refreshing.
There are academic books that I have not used in years but I will keep them because they remind me of professors like John Newport and John Nau who shaped my worldview and my ministry. There are classics by theologians such as H. Richard Niebuhr, Langdon Gilkey, Ian Barbour and Dale Moody that I will keep. I even have some religion and ethics texts from college that will continue as part of my library because they introduced me to new ideas and expanded my horizon.
In like fashion, there are books with sentimental value that I could not give away with good conscience. They were given for special occasions or signed by the author and are keepsakes. Knowing my appreciation for President Jimmy Carter’s writing, my wife has given me several of his books—one a signed copy. Those will stay with us.
Commentaries stay. I continue to collect new biblical commentaries and they come in handy on a regular basis for writing, preparation to lead Bible studies, and just personal edification.
The toughest category is the books that I have purchased but not read. Yes, I am guilty of this sin and you probably are, too. You see a book in a bookstore, in online browsing, or a friend recommends it to you. You have good intentions but a month, three months, a year pass and you have not opened the book. Some of these will be given to the church library if appropriate, but others need to find a new home with a person who will appreciate it more than I have.
What do I do with those that don’t make the cut? First, I ask a friend who buys and sells books to look at them. If he finds something he can use, I give them to him. Second, since I have been working with Central Seminary, I have a “book fair” for students from time to time and give them the opportunity to build their libraries with my discards. Some others will go to a mission church in rural Tennessee. I have given some thought to online selling, but I have not made that step yet. The last stop for the survivors is Goodwill with the hope that they will escape the shredder and find a good home with someone who will appreciate them.
As you can see, this is not an easy task for me. I probably spend more time on it than I should, but I do value books and hate to see them wasted. If you have ideas about how to do this more effectively, please let me know. Meanwhile, I will work on severing my attachment to these old friends.
The exercise also reminds me of what is important in my life. Life happens, situations change, and relationships end, but some things are enduring and unchanging. Deciding what is lasting and what is transient is the real challenge.