There comes a time, in every library, when a purge is required. What do you keep? What do you toss? When is it time to get rid of that unopened copy of the complete works of Emily Dickinson? Sara Nelson, O's books editor, says you have to be both careful and ruthless as you cull. Gather your tomes around you, she advises, and ask the following questions:
1. Have you owned it without reading it for less than two years? Then move it to a probationary shelf, where it can remain for another 12 months. But if it has been hanging around unread since the Clinton administration, out it goes.

2. Was it a gift, inscribed by an old friend or boyfriend or even the author? Don't give a book like this away, ever; it's a diary, a literary road map to your past.

3. Would you recommend the book to a friend? If so, it's okay to keep one copy for yourself and one to give away. I used to be like a squirrel in winter: I'd have one book to keep, one to lend, and one just in case I lost the other two. What I've learned—books are not nuts. Don't do that.

4. Will you really read Jude the Obscure? Right. Toss. Ditto all that other homework. And guess what? Your teenager couldn't care less about the collegiate scribblings in your Signet Shakespeares, however charming you think they are. (And anybody can read all about Henry IV for free on Google Books these days.) Having loved something in school is not justification for clutter.

5. Does it complete an author's body of work? If so, you might want to keep the family together. But if you're letting a title stay only because of what you think (or hope) it says about you, forget it. Books, like clothes, cars, and homes, are reflections of ourselves—so the first step to making over your library is looking not on the shelves but in the mirror.

Next: Six ways to maximize a small space


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