Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How Little We Use

After purging many of my books about two months ago, I have approximately 244 books. I'm cheating big time with that number; I'm not counting a collection of about 200 paperbacks, nor a stack of books that I haven't decided yet whether to keep or discard.

But for the sake of argument, let's say I own 244 books.

How much do I use each of those books? How much use would qualify as adequate use of the book in order to keep it? Rereading each of them within a certain amount of time--six months, one year, five years--seems artificial to me. Many of my books are nonfiction books that I won't ever read again cover to cover, and others are favorites that I may not read for several years, but will then read several times in quick succession. On the other hand, if I look up one recipe in a cookbook in a particular year, it may not be worth keeping around.

So let's try to judge my entire collection of books based on the amount of time I spend using it.
Say I used each one for an average of an hour a year. That's much less time than it takes to read a book, but since I've already read all of my books and many are nonfiction books that I would use to look up particular facts for a total of much less than one hour, it'll do for an average. If I used each book for one hour per year, I would be spending 244 hours using my books. That works out to a bit less than five hours per week.

Do I spend that much time using my books? Not even close. Do I even want to spend that much time using my books? No; in general, I prefer to spend most of my reading time reading books I haven't read before. And an hour per book per year is awfully low--if I used a piece of furniture one hour per year, or used my computer one hour per year, would I keep it around? No way.

Based on this, I would judge that my book collection is still too large.

Seems like I should be able to apply this to other things--kitchen appliances, clothes. Some of my clothes spend hundreds of hours on my body per year; others see less than 8 hours of use per year.

Or I could calculate the number of items of clothing I have by the amount of time I would have to spend wearing each in order to get adequate wear out of them.


Anonymous said...

Very good points! My wife and I just put up a bookshelf that was too small for the books we planned to put on it, so I can relate. I've definitely learned that it is far easier not to acquire at all, than to acquire and then try to discard later. But sometimes things show up in your collection. I try not to worry about it too much, as I have also found that a LOT of time can go into trying to convince yourself to get rid of something that on some level you want to keep, when perhaps the time is better spent.

Barry Ritz said...

I have a big bookshelf in my study room where I place all my favorite books.

There are no criteria, like reading frequency or usage, for me to decide whether to dump or place them on the shelf.

There are mostly self improvement books so throwing them away is a waste. Who knows, my relatives or friends may be able to benefit from the books.

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Daniel said...

Rachel, this is a really insightful post. There's definitely an 80/20 concept at play with most of one's possessions: you will typically use some of your things extensively, while other things will basically collect dust. If you can limit your purchases to the heavy-use items, you'll get far more value for your money. I've applied this with quite a bit of success with regard to kitchen and food items.

I just discovered your blog today and I'm having a great time catching up on your articles!

Casual Kitchen

Alex said...

Hit Paperbackswap.com and get rid of some of your books in a guilt free way. I feel better passing things on rather than letting them sit at home and collect dust

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"a collection of about 200 paperbacks, nor a stack of books that I haven't decided yet whether to keep or discard"

You need to check out paperbackswap.com, the best thing since sliced bread.