Are Your Bookshelves Full of Friends? Or Strangers and Houseguests?

Just a few of my favorite books.

“Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers” is a popular method of de-cluttering, introduced by Judith Kolberg in her book Conquering Chronic Disorganization.

This game can be played with any category of clutter, but I most often use it with clients whose bookshelves are overflowing. (Not to mention their floors and other surfaces.) Readers are loath to part with their precious books! And, as a reader myself, I can totally relate. But readers desire more space, and peaceful surroundings too. What to do?

For any book, ask yourself which category it belongs to:

Friends: These are favorites from younger days; gifts from, or reminders of, loved ones; books you read, or refer to, over and over. I personally don’t care how long it’s been since you read them, or whether you intend to read them again. If they make you feel good to look at, display them in such a way that you can enjoy them. Don’t hide them away in boxes, or behind other stuff like other books and knick-knacks!

Acquaintances: This is a hard-to-decide category which I like to simply skip. I find that my clients usually make plenty of progress if we focus on categories that they DO know and CAN decide on their own, or with my guidance. Agonizing over a hard-to-make decision can sometimes be a waste of time.

Strangers: These are gifts you were never interested in to begin with; books you really thought you would read but never did; or maybe you don’t even remember where you got them. Donate them. Or, recycle them if they are in poor condition. But don’t let them steal precious bookshelf space!

Houseguests: I came up with this category as a way to say, “We had a good time together…thanks for visiting, but it’s time for you to go now. Bye, bye!” It includes book that have overstayed their welcome — most old textbooks, outdated reference books, books relating to a long-abandoned hobby — and books in poor condition.

Enemies: My client came up with this category the other day, inspiring me to write this article. In her case “enemies” were books related to her divorce. Although they were still sitting on her shelves, it was only because she had been preoccupied with other things. Now that we were focusing on her overflowing bookshelves, she had no problem at all parting with them!

Rather than go book-by-book, which can be exhausting, what I like to do is say to clients: “Look at the shelf; do you see any Strangers?” Or, “See if you can find 5 Houseguests.” Or, “Let’s fill one box with donations and then quit for the day.” That gets the ball rolling.

Take a look at your own bookshelves. First, do you have enough shelves? Maybe that’s the problem. Pull off some Strangers, Houseguests, and Enemies and donate them, if they are in good condition, to your local Friends of the Library (check their donation guidelines first), or Goodwill. If inspired, tackle some Acquaintances too.

Look – now your Friends are more noticeable, accessible, and easier to enjoy!  And there’s room for a few new Friends…or decorative items…or space, simply space.

Copyright 2012 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. George Ann on September 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Great Blog, Hazel. I do check out my books every once in a while, but never thought of them as “friends, acquaintances, houseguests, or enemies”. I’ll have to try that next time.

    • Hazel Thornton on December 28, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Thanks, George Ann!

  2. Janet Barclay on December 28, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Ironically, Conquering Chronic Disorganization has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for several months, so this is the first time I’ve read these particular concepts. It’s a great approach that I’ll keep in mind the next time I’m organizing.

    • Hazel Thornton on December 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

      LOL, Janet!

  3. Moreen Torpy on August 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Ah yes, books. I take my cast-offs to my local public library and encourage my clients to do the same. Most of the time, I cart them there myself.

    I’m embarking again on a personal downsizing project, and books are the first target. Interesting how those books multiply on the shelves. There aren’t any “enemies” there, and I kick the “house guests” out as soon as I’ve finished reading them. So that leaves the “friends” and it’s time to part with some of them.

    Wish me luck–books are hard for me to part with.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 12, 2013 at 7:42 am

      Good luck, Moreen! Surely some of them will turn out to be acquaintances or strangers. I have a number of books on my shelves that I intended to read…need to clear some that I’ve changed my mind about, and display the rest more prominently so I don’t forget about them!

  4. Teri on July 13, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Great blog Hazel. I need to do this with my Kindle as well as my physical collection! Think I’ll use the one shelf at a time approach, like I do with my closet! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Hazel Thornton on July 13, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks, Teri! Good point about the Kindle…I’ve only had mine since Christmas and it could already stand some clearing out!

  5. Darryl Postell on December 2, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Timeless post worth sending to twitter two years later.

    • Hazel Thornton on December 2, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Thanks, Darryl!

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