Booklover or Clutter Bug?

- by Patricia McLinn

I’m an HGTV junkie. I admit it. I find the shows oddly relaxing. And what I learned from them probably assisted me in getting a contract on my home in five days in 2007, even as the market was slip-sliding away. (Though the past six months of doing projects in my new home has taught me that the shows lie, lie, lie about how quickly things will get done. Otherwise they would have a 13-week show about getting the guy to come back to fix incorrectly installed dimmer switches.)

But I have a real problem with HGTV-and-its-ilk’s attitude toward books. You know what they call books? Clutter. Clutter! Is that dissing books or what?

Now, really, do these shelves look as if they need to be depopulated?

Now, really, do these shelves look as if they need to be depopulated?

Last year, when I was getting ready to list my old house, my real estate agent, Jane, kept telling me not to bother with the extra projects I had planned. Instead, she wanted me to do just one thing: depopulate the bookshelves that resided in every room.

“There’s a reason they’re called bookshelves,” I pointed out with impeccable logic. “They’re supposed to hold books.”

“Not this many books,” Jane responded. “Besides most buyers want to see space so they can imagine putting their things on the shelves.”

“Ah, but this way they don’t have to imagine books on the shelves, because they’re already there,” I said.

“Uh, most people don’t put books on their bookshelves.”

After she picked me up off the floor, and I begged her

to tell me it wasn’t so, she relented a little, though she might have just been placating me: “At least not this many books.”

Notice a trend with Jane's pictures cutting off the bookshelves? Hmmm.

Notice a trend with Jane's pictures cutting off the bookshelves? Hmmm.

I did sort through my books at that point. I gave some away to benefit the public library, especially when I discovered I had multiple copies of the same book (inventory control is not my strong suit.) And I removed even more books than I gave away because I figured they’d have to go into boxes as some point anyway for the move.

Jane allowed that it was better, but if I could do some more . . . ? No way. All the blood was out of this turnip.

And not one person who went through the house in the days it was on the market made any noises about the house being cluttered.

But the whole process sensitized me to how shelves full of books were viewed by the real estate world, and thus by my shows. And it isn’t pretty.

According to one HGTV article:

“If your bookshelves are bursting at the seams, for instance, ‘clear them off and start over,’ suggests Michelle Yackel, owner of Divine Redesigns in Atlanta.

Start over? As in get rid of beloved read-them-every-year books? Is she crazy? Or just sadistic?

And then she went on to say: “ ‘It’s OK to have empty space around your books and knickknacks.’ “

First, if booklovers have empty space around their books, they fill it with more books. Second, they don’t have knickknacks because knickknacks get in the way of the books.

Another cut-off bookshelf . . . and then there's the big one behind the door, and the one in the closet, and another on the wall . . .

Another cut-off bookshelf . . . and then there's the big one behind the door, and the one in the closet, and another on the wall . . .

The general article goes on to give suggestions on dealing with the “clutter” of books, including: “Inexpensive baskets make great hiding places for unsightly paperbacks while adding texture and visual interest.”

Excuse me? Unsightly? Anybody else starting to wonder if these folks were rejected as book cover designers and they’re chewing on some sour grapes? Because if you want visual interest, what’s better than a Marscape or a spray of flowers or blood dripping off a dagger?

Another suggestion from the article: “You can even remove the dust covers from hardbacks and group them by color, turning a busy jumble into a decorative addition to the room.”

[Sarcasm alert! Sarcasm alert! Sarcasm alert! Sarcasm alert!]

Yeah, I think we should do that in all our public libraries, too. So those shelves and shelves of books are no longer a busy jumble, but instead offer decorative additions to the reading rooms. After that, start on the bookstores. So we’ll ask to be directed to the blue section instead of non-fiction. And on a blustery winter night we’ll curl up in front of a fire looking forward to the good mauve read we just picked up at the store. Yes, yes, it’s so much better to focus on how the books look from the outside than on what they have on the inside.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of real clutter, and I know there are people with true problems, from simply letting the “stuff” level of their home rise too high to serious hoarding issues. But books neatly arranged in bookshelves (or in a pinch stacked on floors or desks) do not constitute clutter. No way. No how. No where.

And one final point about all these designers declaring that books are clutter: Most of them seem to espouse their methods for fighting clutter by – you guessed it — writing a book.


  1. Any space on my bookshelves that I manage to make by donating books to the library book sale or passing on books to my relatives or friends promptly is taken up by the new books I acquire at library book sales or as gifts from relatives or friends. If I don’t have at least a dozen books waiting to be read I feel uneasy.

  2. Books clutter? No way. Magazines, perhaps. A dusting of shoes simply walked out of and not put away, definitely. But books? What kind of &%#%* are we allowing to dictate home decor fashion?

    Every true bibliophile knows that books breed. Turn out the lights and they’re in there multiplying like crazy. How else can I explain that without my having made a trip to the library, bookstore or garage sale in weeks, there are fresh drifts piling up in the corners?

    When we inherited this house there was one library built into it. We promptly added a second. Now, seven years later, we are adding a third, and we’re nowhere near caught up on shelf space, even after massive donations of ‘this we can let go of’ books to various charitable institutions.

    Maybe if we left the lights on all the time…?

  3. I’ve had people advise me that I needed to reduce the number of bookcases I have in my house- like it is a rite of passage. Or a sign of maturity.

    I find great comfort in having a nice stack of unread books to choose from when I want to escape for a little while.

  4. Bookshelves are for lots and lots of books….period!

  5. I made my husband build me twelve feet of bookshelves, and it STILL wasn’t enough for all the books. And this was after I’d culled out all the duplicates and had it down to the bare minimum of research books and well-loved-read-every-year books.

  6. When my parents were trying to sell their house a few years back, it was stunning how many people did a walk-through and then said weren’t interested (in this lovely, well-maintained, spacious luxury home in a good school district) for this specific reason:

    “Too many bookshelves.” (They’re all built-in.)

    Sometimes alternately phrased as: “We’d have to rip out all those bookshelves.”

    There was one sole exception. A man who said he couldn’t live there because the built-in bookshelves which line the one entire floor of the house PLUS a full room on the upper floor… wouldn’t hold even half his books. (We wondered where he lives now–the public library?)


  7. It seems like my book pile just grows larger and larger. Sometimes I get frustrated b/c I do not have the room.

  8. I’m not alone! I’m not alone!

    Joan wrote: If I don’t have at least a dozen books waiting to be read I feel uneasy.

    Absolutely. For me it’s like making sure I have enough Tab in the house (my personal addiction.) I’d feel adrift without enough not-yet-read books to be able to browse among them and find the one that hits that moment’s spot.

    Bookers unite!

  9. Leaving the lights on . . . interesting, Janis.

    But if the breeding stopped I might not have those drifts to browse through any more. No, no, that’s too awful to think about.

    Building new libraries sounds like a wonderful alternative.

  10. “I’ve had people advise me that I needed to reduce the number of bookcases I have in my house- like it is a rite of passage. Or a sign of maturity.”

    That’s just crazy.

    Having gone through a looong house-hunting process last year I’ll tell you that I found houses without bookshelves not quite trustworthy.

    So keep those bookcases!

    In fact, I think I might go order the one from Crate and Barrel I’ve been looking at for my office, where I now have books double-shelved because of lack of space.

  11. I like your style, Estelle.

    Michelle, oooo 12 feet of bookcases sounds marvelous. Do you have any pictures?

    Kimmy, the best solution is to read faster. After that, I find the under-the-bed boxes from Linens N Things work great for paperbacks (thanks to fellow Ninc member Toni Blake for the tip.)

    Laura, did your parents keep track of the guy who said not enough bookshelves? I want to buy HIS house!

  12. I watch the home decor shows and have heard the same tired shoulds. While I am an organizing nerd, and love to “stage” rooms for decor benefits, I draw the line when it comes to my books. This fall, I am embarking on a major move and if it weren’t for my bookshelves I wouldn’t need to rent the moving truck. I am leaving all my other furnishings behind (except for my desk of course!). But how does one part with their books? It’s simply not possible. My books and the dozen ceiling-high bookcases are coming with me, end of story. Needless to say, it will be a large, weighted moving truck!

  13. OMG! What a great post!

    I have to laugh. I’m a huge HGTV fan too, and I’ve been trying to trim my bookshelves fro a while now.

    I’m doing pretty good, but the box in the corner for the ones I read that aren’t worthy of “keeper” status might detract from the not-so-cluttered shelves. LOL

  14. Ah, yes, Lori. I had one of those trucks last fall. The movers were not amused by number of boxes marked “Books! Heavy!”

    I remember my first move, when the mover say, “Lady, you don’t have much furniture — but you sure got a lot of stuff, and it’s all books.”

  15. Aha, Sasha! See, those books would be neater on the shelves.

  16. I had to buy a bookcase, because I was using up my dresser space, but still have lots of room. :)

  17. I just got another bookcase! This one is bigger than my other ones are. :)

  18. I’ve also been trying to pack away the (triple stacked) collection. As fast as I pack …… Yes they DO breed!
    My organization warning gets tripped (literally) when the temporary piles on the staircase landslide.

  19. Advice to the addicted: Do not ever start the habit of putting a book on the stairs (not even for a second) It is fatal.

  20. I love to hear Dina and Susan got bookcases. After clearing out a filing cabinet to make room, I’m ordering the one I mentioned before.

    Then I was looking at benches to go at the end of a bed. The one I was looking at had open space underneath that was divided by two vertical boards to make 3 “cubbies.” It struck me that one horizontal shelf would make 2 bookshelves instead. Hmmm, now all I have to do is find a carpenter

  21. Oh, but Louise, stairs are such natural-born bookholders. You can stack them up on each step until they’re even with the step above (or a little extra) and/or put them between the balusters, and I can even rest a book or three or four atop the closing swirl of the newel non-post!

  22. I’m laughing at how my quote for on staging bookshelves became another full-page article! My advice still stands for those who are SELLING their homes – there should be space on the bookshelves. Those of you bibliophiles who continue to live in your homes are welcome to stack them high and wide wherever you find space! BTW, I read about 3 books a week, so my shelves probably look similar to many of yours!

  23. Ok, speaking as a realtor…….or should I say “the” realtor mentioned in this blog….you know what they say; you can lead a client to the storage bin but you can’t make them put stuff in it.
    I’m all for the books. I am in two book clubs and totally get it, but look at this way, if you have too many of them on the shelf, none of them will stand out.
    Pat’s house was great and would have sold with or without the book removal but a little less stuff (whatever it is) never hurts.

  24. Michelle, I’m so pleased to hear that you’re a reader, too.

    I concede that the books need to be neat and non-dusty for anyone selling a house.

    Maybe even slices of space here and there to show the depth of the room or the beautiful woodgrain of built-ins. (But the house better sell fast, because that space is a vacuum that will suck in new books in any booklover’s house.)

    But, please, NOT the clutter label!

  25. Jane!

    Storage bin? I didn’t need no stinkin’ storage bin.

    Besides, you know I’m your favorite client ever. . . . Ok, my dog was your favorite client’s dog ever and you put up with me because I was on the other end of Riley’s leash.

    Here’s the thing about books and house-selling. If the whole staging thing is about having the buyer imagining they would be neat and organized if they moved into that house, then why not have them imagine they’d become interesting and well-read, too (as we all, ahem, know that booklovers are)?

    And since you are such a terrific Realtor, I knew you could made prospective buyers see bookshelves as the benefit they truly are.