An Experiment in Minimalism: Tackling the Bookshelf

books classic

After my last posts on minimalism (and my personal failings), I decided I should do an experiment in practicing what I preach.

I decided to pare down my library.

As I mention in my confession post, I know that they take up unnecessary space in my house. And anything that I’m not using could potentially be used by someone else. And besides, I thought it would be valuable to explore the reasons I hang onto things – to examine myself and try to understand what is driving my compulsion to hoard things.

Let me tell you, it was hard.

I didn’t realize how the exercise would force me to confront certain things about myself.

I realized, while I was struggling with my book shelf, that I was letting material things define me. That’s why I had so much trouble letting them go.

See, for years, I got my sense of identity from being a scholar. I was a very successful student in university. I kept all of my books and proudly displayed them at home on a book case in my living room like trophies. I have all these because I am a scholar, my bookshelf said.

 Or at least that’s what I thought it said.

Now, as a more mature person going through each book, one by one, then compulsively putting them back on the shelf, I realized what they were saying was something more like, I am a pretentious douche who hangs onto material possessions because I derive my self-worth from them.

(I wonder how many other people have heard them say that?)

For a long time, my books represented who I wanted to be: a smart, creative, cultured, intellectually sophisticated person. I kept them as physical reminders to myself that I am a worthwhile human being because I am well-read.

* * *

As I went through on each of my books, I had some almost-legitimate reasons to hang on to some of them.

What if I wanted to re-read them someday?

What if I wanted to reference a work in some of my own writing someday? Or just fact-check, or procure a quotation?

What if Lydia wants to read them someday?

I realized that these were pretty frail reasons to hang onto many of my books.

Most hadn’t brought me pleasure in their first reading – I’d only read them because I’d had to, and because they were canonical. I hated The Mill on the Floss. I found Wordsworth’s sister unbelievably boring. What made me think I would ever choose to read them again? And when would I ever write another academic essay in my life? And why would I want to encourage Lydia to read something as awful as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk?

I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to store books for years and years – moving them from house to house — just on the off-chance that I would want to read them again.

I concluded that it probably was not.

Into a box I reluctantly put them.

Then there were some completely illegitimate reasons for hanging onto my books.

But this one’s about Donne. I have a published article on Donne! I’m practically a Donne scholar! I can’t part with this.

And this one’s about Blake. I traveled to England to give a presentation on Blake! It just wouldn’t seem right to get rid of it.

I helped to publish these books! I’m . . . I’m kind of a part of them and they’re a part of me, right?

But these are CLASSIC WORKS that any true student of literature should have in her library!

In other words, I was still deriving my sense of identity from these books. I felt like they defined me, and I had sentimental attachments to them.

I had to argue with myself: But if they’re not enjoyable, what’s the point of keeping them? What’s the value of being a “true student of literature,” anyway? There’s no monetary reward for having read and kept Anna Karenina or Brothers Karamazov. And how does owning certain books make you one, anyway? 

And besides, if you ever decide you do want to read them for whatever reason, there’s always the library.


Into the box, into the box.

* * *

I decided to keep some of my books, of course.

I decided to keep books that I’d truly enjoyed, not the ones I thought I should have enjoyed. Jane Austen, Julian of Norwich and Charles Dickens (but not Hard Times) got to stay, as did John Donne (but not books about Donne).

I reasoned that I might want to lend out these books. I would want Lydia to read them someday, maybe.

And frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with many of them, though it’s unlikely I’ll read them again, just because they were so formative. I LOATHED Nietzsche, but I spent so much time and energy into hating him, he was almost like an old friend.

I also kept all my anthologies. I am still a mere mortal. I paid so much money for them.

* * *

OK, honesty time:

When all was said and done, I only managed to get rid of about one-fifth of my books.* Many books that went into the box ended up back on the shelf. I know I’ll probably never need my German language textbook again, but what if I go to Germany some day?! And oh, those beautiful anthologies that smell like iambic pentameter. They are filled with my handwriting. Who would want scribbled-on anthologies?

But I guess the most valuable outcome of the experience was having to recognize how I let my material possessions define me.

I had to come to terms with the fact that that part of my life – the academic part – is over. While my experience at university shaped me profoundly, it’s not the biggest part of me anymore. I’m not a student anymore. And that’s okay.

And even if it was, owning books doesn’t make you a literary person. Loving books does. And my love of books will always be with me, no matter what’s sitting on my shelf.

How about you? Do you think you’ve ever let material possessions define you? Do you have the same problem with books that I have?


*No, I didn’t do any real math to come up with that number. I started out with five shelves full and ended up with four.

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

“Acquire no more here than what is absolutely necessary.” –Hermas

“Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.” – Saint Augustine

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

In response to my recent posts exploring how to minimize the amount of baby stuff we acquire, a common question popped up a couple of times:

What’s so wrong with buying and owning stuff, anyway?

I’ve been meaning to explore this for a while – why a minimalist lifestyle is becoming increasingly important to me as a Jesus-follower.  So I decided this was as good a segue as any!

Minimalism and Jesus

I first became acquainted with the minimalist lifestyle the way many people did: through Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

Leo taught me about how possessions are a burden, and how giving them away and living with less are liberating. He showed me how the compulsion to own more is rooted in fear and actually dragging us all down.

As I learned about the minimalist philosophy and way of life, I couldn’t help thinking: Why aren’t Christians at the forefront of this movement? Isn’t this exactly in line with what Jesus teaches?

. . . That material possessions don’t bring lasting joy, and can actually serve as dangerous distractions from what really matters?

Isn’t Jesus famous for saying that it’s harder for a rich guy to get into heaven than for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle, and for telling folks that in order to follow him, they need to sell all their possessions? Isn’t he the great leader who didn’t even have a place to lay his head?

So why was I not learning about simple living from the pulpit? Why weren’t we Christians talking about how to get by with as few possessions as possible?

The only things I ever remembered being taught at church in regards to material wealth were that you should give 10% of your money to the church, and that you should avoid being too caught up in materialism. (“Just try not to love your stuff too much, in case Jesus ever asks you to give it up,” was the general idea. Interestingly, Jesus never seemed to ask anyone to give up their material wealth, so that was a huge relief).

I’m so grateful that Jesus’ wisdom can be found in so many places, and not just in Christian circles.

Since becoming acquainted with minimalism, however, I have begun to see that Christians have been talking about living with less for a long time (as seen in the quotations at the beginning of this post) . . . I just hadn’t been hearing from them within my North American Evangelical context.

I truly believe that the things I learned from Leo and others are in tune with what Jesus taught, and as a consequence, minimalism has become increasingly important to me.

So what do minimalists (and Jesus) have to say about owning things?

As I’ve been learning more and more about the minimalist lifestyle, I’ve come across a few central arguments for getting rid of excess and trying to live with less. Here are a few of them.

(Remember, of course, that I’m writing this as someone who owns way too much stuff herself, and enjoys a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. I don’t know why you should even listen to me.)

Owning Things Comes at a Cost

Of course, almost all possessions have benefits and advantages – that’s why we own them. But we often forget that each additional thing in our possession comes at a personal cost beyond what we originally paid for it.

There are the obvious costs to many of our possessions: many modern commodities require a continuous stream of resources to maintain — things like batteries, gasoline, minutes, data, and insurance.

Many North Americans own so much stuff that they actually have to pay to keep it in storage: the self-storage industry in the U.S. has grown bigger than the entire music industry, at a whopping 12 billion dollars a year. We also have to build and buy bigger homes to house all our unused stuff: new homes today have three times the closet space of a typical 1950s home. 1

But on top of the financial cost of owning things, there are other costs. Each thing I own is another thing I have to look after — to keep clean, keep working, keep safe against thieves. Each additional item in my home is something I have to pick up, walk around, dust, clean, or keep in storage. They tax my time and attention.  More possessions mean more clutter in my home and in my mind.

All possessions beyond what I need to survive are ultimately a burden.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to “store up treasures in heaven” rather than “treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19).

Getting rid of excess and keeping out whatever I don’t need is therefore liberating.

Possessions distract us from the important things.

Because we need money to own more stuff, we have to spend more time working to earn that money. As mentioned above, we also have to take time to shop for things, keep them organized, and keep them clean and in working condition.

In other words, owning stuff takes up our valuable time.

We also tend to waste time worrying about our possessions – worrying that they will be stolen, stained, or broken.

This is all time we could be spending having conversations with our spouses, kids, friends, and neighbours. It’s time we could be spending enjoying nature, praying, meditating, or being creative.

Owning things we don’t need deprives others who do need them.

There are only so many resources in the world. We live on a finite planet. As Gandhi famously said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

The more stuff we own as individuals, the less there is available for others to access.

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

Jesus once said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none” (Luke 3:11). Dorothy Day interprets this to mean that “if you have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.”2

Basil the Great said it this way: “When someone strips a man of his clothes, we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not – should he not be given the same name? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”3

In other words, anything I own that I’m not using rightly belongs to someone who could. One might say that I am hoarding other people’s possessions by holding onto things I don’t need.

Owning things beyond necessity takes a heavy toll on the environment.

First there’s the manufacturing and shipping of commodities. Then there’s the energy required to build and run retail stores. Then there’s the energy used up and the pollution created by shopping. Then there’s the energy used to run our devices and heat our homes full of stuff.

And when we’re done with stuff, it gets chucked and has to sit in a landfill.

If we own less, that’s less waste happening at each of these points in the chain.

(And I’ve discussed before why caring for the environment is relevant to life in the Kingdom.)

* * *

These are just a few of the reasons I strive to own fewer things. They’re the reason I try to own as few baby items as possible.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not even close to owning the “bare minimum.” I indulge in plenty of waste and surplus. But I want to begin to work towards a minimalist lifestyle, where I get rid of the excess so that I can spend my time, energy, and money on the things that really matter — friends, family, community, and God.

This is my goal: to own so little (or things of so little value to the rest of the world) that if someone ever broke into my home and robbed me, it wouldn’t be that big a deal because I don’t have that much to lose. (Honestly, I’m almost at that point. I’m not going to get too broken up about it if someone steals my six-year-old flip phone or desktop computer).

I’m still working on doing better, though.

If you try to live life with fewer possessions, what are your reasons?

PS – Don’t worry — I definitely have a “Confessions of a Hypocrite” post lined up to follow this one.

Update: See my post on Rethinking Minimalism (A Little Bit): The Ethics of Food  Storage.



1. Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers, p. 86.

2. Quoted in Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, p. 165.

3. Ditto.

Photo credits: Chris Bartow and leigh blackall.

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