Books, Books Everywhere

May 8, 2016 by

Elaine and I recently met a physician in Boston - let’s call him David - who approached Elaine because he has concerns about the large collection of books, printed matter, medical journal editions, periodicals, etc. that he has amassed over the years. In addition to his own books, David is now the curator of his father’s extensive book collection as well.

David is concerned because his vast collection is starting to take over his home and office space. Lately, he has tried to reduce his collection in a “socially responsible manner” by attempting to donate the books to hospitals, other doctors, libraries, universities, used book stores, etc., but this approach has not been very successful. David is becoming very distressed that he might have no option but to send all this material to a landfill site.

David has quite a bit of difficulty in getting rid of his books for several reasons: 1) He has quite an attachment to his books – describing them as his “beautiful books” or “valuable first-edition books.” 2) He feels that the books contain important past information that he might need again. 3) He does not want the world to lose all the knowledge contained in the books, and feels that “surely” someone must be able to use them. His preferred solution is to find the right person or the right organization to take the books that he feels he can let go. This person would be someone who would appreciate and use them. Unfortunately, he does not know these people or organizations.

Breaking down his Attachment

Elaine talked David through her process, asking him to decide if all books were equally important to him. David agreed that not all books were equally important to him; the first editions, some of the core books for his professional life, and a few of his absolute favorites were most important. These items are his 1-2-3's. Items ranked 1, 2, or 3 mean that there is an exceptionally strong attachment to this particular item or type of item. David’s internal response is almost protective, prompting a response that is something like, “Absolutely no way it leaves! I love it! I cannot imagine life without it.  It doesn’t matter if no one else values this as I do. It is extremely important to me!” Elaine suggested that David should retain as many of the 1-2-3's as he has proper space for, as these items are what bring joy and meaning to his life.

At the other end of the spectrum, David could identify many books that, if he thought about it, he was not going to use again. They were occupying space that he needed, and he could consider going through and identifying these items as 7-8-9's. These items produce a very different internal reaction in David. Some of these items would be nice to keep in an ideal world, if only to save him the trouble of deciding about them, but truthfully, his internal response is, “It doesn’t really matter,” or “What’s that silly book still doing here?  It can go.” The internal energy that these items produce is very, very different.  There certainly isn’t protectiveness, or the positive intensity of a 1-2-3 item. Elaine recommended that David identify his 7-8-9's when he returns home.

Where are the books going to go?

It became clear in our discussion that there were not very many places for the books to go. Libraries didn’t want them. Used bookstores didn’t want them. Because they were of diverse topics, it would be monumentally time-consuming to find people who might want them through online sales methods such as eBay, or want ads.

So what would be the net gain of keeping the books? Basically, David felt that if he kept the books: a) it would be personal relief at not having to make the decision and, b) it would be a relief to not think of them somewhere in a landfill. However, David would still be left with a cluttered home and office and the stress that this situation creates. So keeping ALL the books is not a healthy solution.

Elaine suggested that David consider that the format of learning has changed. Information and articles are updated much more frequently these days, and the medium for learning has changed as well, with the growth of internet learning, e-books, and audiobooks.  The vast majority of people are gravitating to these mediums, rather than physical books. This change makes the opportunity to find the “perfect person” for David’s books much more difficult.

Elaine asked David to consider if the 7-8-9’s could serve a purpose, and he could honor their importance, by hiring someone to remove their covers and have the paper pages recycled. In this way, the paper could become part of the next paper, or the next bag, or the next item that is part of our current culture. David felt that this might be an acceptable solution for the 7-8-9’s.

So how does David handle the books that are left over – books he might rank as 4-5-6’s? These are items where more difficult decisions must be made. These are not the absolute jewels of David’s collections, but he would have difficulty determining if they are 7-8-9’s.  Elaine asked him to pick up a 4-5-6 book, and compare this item to three other books:

  1. His strongest # 1 book
  2. A #3 book from his 1-2-3 pile
  3. A #7 book from his 7-8-9 pile

Look for the easy wins! Is the book in David’s hand so close to the #3 item that he would love to keep it if he has space? Is the book in his hand closer to the #7 item that he will get rid of?

If the book is closer to the #3 book, then David should rank it as a 4, and place it beside the 1-2-3 pile. If the book is closer to the #7 book, then David should rank it as a 5 or 6. As much as possible, Elaine instructs David to let any item that is a 5 or a 6 go with the 7-8-9 pile.

We hope, in doing this process, that David will have more than enough room for the jewels – the 1-2-3’s, and as many of the 4’s as will comfort him and make him happy in the future.

Check out for more information about hoarding and watch for the new book entitled Clearing the Path: Take Back Your Life When Your Things are Taking Over by Elaine Birchall and Suzanne Cronkwright COMING SOON. Follow us on twitter @Clearingthepath or Facebook at Clearingthepathbook.

About the Authors

Elaine Birchall MSW RSW

Elaine is recognized as the leading Canadian expert in the field of Hoarding. With over 20 years’ experience as a community based and clinical social worker, she has provided training and consultation to individuals, families, professionals, and community organizations across North America and internationally. In the last three years alone, Elaine has assisted 212 clients/families and over 130 peers, and offered more than 80 training courses and workshops on hoarding to individuals and professionals in North America. She is sought after as a keynote speaker and her work has received frequent acknowledgement in print, radio (U.S.A. and Canada), and television media, including features on W5, Canada AM, and 16x9 The Bigger Picture.  She recently hosted a six-part series with Canadian regional TV, Channel 22 in the Ottawa area.

Suzanne Cronkwright

Suzanne is a successful technical writer, editor, and instructional design professional with over 30 years’ experience in both high tech and government in Canada. She is recognized for her ability to translate complex technical subject matter into simple, clear procedures. Working with Elaine on Clearing the Path has provided a wonderful opportunity for Suzanne to fulfill a lifelong dream of using her writing skills to “make a difference” in the lives of others.