How to throw away a book

Tyler Cowen, blogging for Penguin, explains:

But isn’t it a horrible thing to throw out books? It just doesn’t feel right. Shouldn’t you donate the books somewhere? I think not, at least in many cases.
Here’s the problem. If you donate the otherwise-trashed book somewhere, someone might read it. OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead.
So you have to ask yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted reader might otherwise spend time with? No I’m not encouraging “censorship” of any particular point of view, but even within any particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good. These books are traps for the unwary. A lot of books don’t make the cut of “above average to those readers they will attract” and of course since you’ve spent some time with the volume you ought to be in a position to know. (But note the calculation is tricky. Sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to “bad” readers and lure them away from even worse books. Please make all the appropriate calculations here.)

As so often, Tyler is leaving some of his assumptions unstated (for example, that the environmental and financial costs of producing books are trivial relative to the time taken to read them) but this view seems reasonable.

Then there’s the question of how many books to throw away, which is not an easy one, either. This comment (via 43 folders) helped me a lot:

To some extent, I think de-cluttering involves recognizing that regret is part of life, and being OK with that. Yes, I’ve given away books that I now often wish I still owned. But I’ve also screwed up relationships, made iffy career choices, etc. — you suck it up and move on. If you try to cling to *every* *single* *thing* (material, spiritual, or emotional) that you might need one day in the totally hypothetical future, you’re going to end up bogged down in a lot of stuff.

I wouldn’t have put it quite like that. But clutter consumes time, space and attention. The optimal decision rule must be to throw things out before waiting until there is zero chance they will be missed.

Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.