Downsizing a Library

When I had the privilege of presiding at the wedding of a seminary president and a professor of Homiletics, both dear friends, I told them, in the homily, that I wasn’t nearly as concerned about the long-time viability of their relationship as I was about how in the world they would manage the challenge of combining two large personal libraries. I’d like to claim the idea as my own but the truth is it is from a superb short essay by Anne Fadiman, “Marrying Libraries”. It’s in one of my favorite books, Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, which Fadiman wrote in 1998.

After five years of marriage she and her husband decided finally to mix their books together. In her delightful essay Fadiman explains that “Promising to love each other for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health – even promising to forsake all others-had been no problem, but it was a good thing The Book of Common Prayer didn’t say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that probably would have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt. We were both writers, and we both invested in our books the kind of emotion most people reserve for old love letters.”

Deciding now to organize the common library was the first hurdle. He was a “lumper”, co-mingling books under the all-inclusive category of Literature. She was a “splitter”, balkanizing her books by subject matter and nationality. He had a high tolerance for clutter: she had none.

The greatest challenge came when they sorted through duplicates and decided whose to keep and whose to discard and why. Hardbacks prevailed over paperbacks. Books that contained elaborate marginalia received special consideration, as did books that had particularly personal meaning to each of them.

I remembered the essay and reread it recently when my wife and I moved and it became apparent that the time when I could simply keep adding books to my shelves had come to an end and it was time now to begin to downsize. I knew that day would come sometime but dreaded it. The simple fact is that I love books. I love owning them. I like to hold them in my hands, open new books carefully and properly and smell them, look at them standing with such dignified elegance and substance on their shelves. When I visit in another home I cannot keep my eyes off the books they are reading. I like to see what the woman sitting across from me on the bus is reading and my seat-mate on a plane. I keep books that I have purchased and read and used for my work in one place and books that we have read for pleasure in another place. I have a special place for big, beautiful books of art, photography and travel and always several books on my bedside table. I have a special shelf that I call the “On Deck Circle”, for the books I plan to read next, lined up in order of priority. I have a shelf for poetry, drama, short stories, and John Updike has his own personal shelf for novels, short stories, poetry and criticism. When I finally had a book allowance as part of my compensation package I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

When I arrived at Divinity School, a new classmate, as we were moving in, inquired about my library. “My library?” It never occurred to me that the half dozen or so books I brought along -a Bible and a few college texts – constituted a “library.” But it was then that I started to read books that fascinated and challenged me, inspired me, made me think, brought me to tears, books that I wanted to own and keep. It was then that I learned the beauty and power of literature, books that were becoming deeply important to me.

Now it was time to decide which books I could live without. It wasn’t easy. It took a long time. I started months ahead. I looked at each title on a shelf, sometimes opening it to see what I had underlined or written in the margins and inevitably decided I couldn’t part with it. An hour of downsizing usually resulted in a paltry two or three volumes. I kept at it, becoming more ruthless with each pass. Finally I had an impressive number of boxes ready to be taken away. But I still had most of my books.

I kept books that had particular meaning for me along the way: Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, the reading and rereading of which taught me that faith is far more than intellectual assent, but a deeply personal, almost visceral commitment. Kathleen Norris has half a shelf as does Barbara Brown Taylor. Hans Kung, Douglas John Hall and Langdon Gilkey each informed me at important moments along the way and have rewarded revisiting many times. Frederick Buechner, Harvey Cox and William Placher easily made the cut. Martin Marty kept his entire shelf and it felt downright insensitive and irresponsible to consider letting go of Joseph Sittler’s few small volumes, Gustav Aulen, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, even though I never made it past page 50 of Tillich’s two volume Systematic Theology, despite several tries.

I may have at it again some time, but I seriously doubt it, although I have committed myself at least to a state of equilibrium: every new book must occasion an old book’s departure.

It’s a problem that I really don’t mind leaving to my children and grandchildren to resolve.


John M. Buchanan


  1. John Briggs says:

    Absolutely masterful! His is an elegant expression of what most bibliophiles have to agonize over at some time in their lives. It’s nice to know there are many out there who share the same foibles.

  2. Ann R Schenck says:

    My IPad library allows for lots of books in a small place.

  3. Karen and Jerry Johnson says:

    Jerry and I reduced our number of books a few years ago as our shelves were lessened to make way for the 50 inch TV. To make a long story short we do love books and instead keep all the new ones in various places in the condo, including in stacks under our big coffee table(they look really nice!). We are NEVER going to purge our books again. Our clothes, yes. Our knickknacks yes. Never our books. Let the kids handle it someday!


  1. […] As I see more and more of my colleagues prepare for retirement, this is an article from the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago worth the read:  […]

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