I’m not a hardcore minimalist (like, I own things), but I’m very drawn to minimalism: white walls, matchy pantry containers, capsule wardrobe, that sort of thing. As you might imagine, this does not jibe particularly well with being a bookworm, especially an Orthodox Jewish one who does lots of reading over Shabbat. But yes, I am still a minimalist about books. I definitely own more than your average non-nerd, but probably less than a typical bookish person. Here is how I go about it:
- Be selective about physical books
- Invest in digital texts
- Develop a note-taking system that works for you
- Cull periodically
Be selective about physical books
First, a word about physical books. You do not have to stop loving them. I do think it helps to think a little bit differently about them, though.
Here in the digital era, books are more like experiences than they are like repositories. For those of us who remember the pain of needing-not-wanting to know something and not being able to because the public internet hadn’t been invented yet, old habits die hard, I know.
Chances are, you will not open a paper book for information once you finish reading it, and if you do, we’re talking occasionally at best. (Yes, even you, academics.) Instead, you will Google it. If you’re like me, you’ll use Google Books or Amazon to search within physical books you actually own because it’s faster and better than using the index.
So think of a book not as an object to be possessed but an experience you’re buying an entry ticket to. Once the reading experience is over, you’ve fulfilled the purpose of buying the book.
Seforim (Torah books), and other primary texts or out-of-print scholarship, might be different if the specific edition has features you value or if the text is unavailable online.
My criteria for keeping a physical book are that it is:
- A critical edition or other specialized text; or,
- Has extensive sections that I expect to return to, cite directly, or reference in my work; or,
- Is rare or otherwise difficult to access.
That’s it. I do not keep almost any books for sentimental reasons alone. (I do have a few. The rest, I take photos of the inscriptions and maybe the cover and give away.) I do not generally keep books my kids have outgrown or aren’t into. I do not keep books that I can access in digital form now (even if I paid full price for them at the time) or have taken sufficient notes on.
Altogether, including seforim, nonfiction/academic, fiction, graphic novels, kids’ books, and craft/cookbooks, my bookish family owns about
four three “keeper” bookcases’ worth of books.
I’ve given away hundreds of books over the years. I’ve looked into selling, but I’ve never found a way to do it that’s worth the amount of hassle involved.
Invest in digital texts
This is my biggest tip, honestly. Six days a week, I mostly use digital texts. It took me some time to make this leap completely, but I haven’t looked back. Most of us are working in front of screens, and it’s nice to have your text right there in front of your face. It also allows you to manipulate the text, add your notes, search, copy and paste into your writing, and so on. I often read PDFs, mostly academic journal articles, on my tablet. I read digital books on my phone in bed before going to sleep. Most phones have crisp screens, bluelight filters, and bedtime settings these days, so it can be just you and the page if that’s how you like to roll. I love being able to highlight and annotate in bed (or anywhere).
Beyond free resources (like Sefaria, AlhaTorah, and HebrewBooks.org for seforim, Academia.edu and JSTOR’s free tier for research), I think it’s eminently worthwhile to invest in digital copies of texts. For example, I purchased Bar Ilan (someday I will add Otzar, which, by the way, is great for people who like having the visual layout of the printed page). I also subscribe to Scribd [invite link] and Kotar. Your mileage may vary in terms of your profession or interests. I occasionally purchase individual eBooks (Kindle, E-vrit, Magnes and other publishers) or borrow digitally through my public library via Libby.
Pay for cloud storage
I have a humongous library of PDF articles. The core is actually digitized from photocopies I made back in grad school (dating myself here). I spent several hundred dollars getting my physical articles scanned but it was so worth it. They’re all catalogued in Zotero and I can access my entire library with a few clicks. To keep this working, I currently have a 2Tb cloud storage plan. (A big chunk of that is also family photos.)
Destructive book scanning
I was keeping around a number of books that I basically never open, mostly texts in translation, for teaching purposes or to consult in making my own translations. Given that I’ve moved to using and assigning PDFs whenever possible anyway, I decided to invest in getting these relatively few books destructively scanned. I added to this pile a few other books I use for occasional reference but otherwise don’t often pick up, plus ones in poor condition with falling-apart spines.
Okay, I know this will make many a bibliophile wince, but destructive book scanning is called that because the spine of the book is cut off, destroying the physical book but making it substantially cheaper to scan. When you send in books for destructive scanning, you only get PDFs of the book back; the physical pages are discarded after scanning.
Scan with your phone (and Google Lens)
If you want to preserve a few pages in detail from a book before passing it on, you can scan the pages with your phone. This will usually allow you to turn it into PDF format and/or OCR text that is searchable. You can also take photos and use Google Lens to extract the writing. I use this last combo to copy recipes from cookbooks into my digital recipe manager (Paprika, by the way; I’m kind of obsessed with it.)
Develop a note-taking system that works for you
Whatever knowledge management system you come up with, it is vital that you have a way to “catch” and record your insights from your reading which you can then resurface and access when needed. Other than the sunk-cost fallacy, I think it’s the sense of losing access to one’s ideas that mostly drives the building of large libraries.
Often you’ll be able to export your highlights and notes from digital texts to add to your personal note system.
If you have a limited amount of shelf space that you want to use, you can use that as a barometer for when you cull books: a “one in, one out” approach. Otherwise you can simply go through your books once a month or once a season or whatever works for you—as long as you recognize that it’s a maintenance job, not a “one and done” type of thing.
Now that I’ve horrified recalcitrant bibliophiles, I’ll just say that I hear you. Those paperback tables selling $1 critical theory and anthropology outside of every NYU building had my ticket back in the day. However, if you love reading but also white space (or just don’t have a giant house), this is to say that minimalism and bookishness are not mutually exclusive. Ideas don’t care whether you have a paper book or a digital one, they’re just happy you found them!