It all started with a crack in the wall. Years ago, during a remodel, my husband and I moved a doorway. Now, 20 years, later, the old doorway was trying to re-emerge. The crack where the door had been grew longer and deeper almost daily.

Eventually, something had to be done. The wall had to be repaired, and that meant repainting the dining room. And as long as we were painting the dining room, we might as well paint the living room, the hallway and the stairwell. And that meant moving books.

Moving books, as you likely know, leads to culling books. I have culled in the past, and it was excruciating, going down the rows of spines and trying to decide which titles I could live without.

But this time, my thinking shifted. Maybe it was the Marie Kondo concept of physically handling each object that made the difference. I picked up each book, opened it, made a choice: Into the “Fiction: keep” box or the “Nonfiction: keep” box, or into the giveaway box.

An astounding number went into the giveaway box, with no regrets.

Books that I had read and loved I kept, no problem. Books I hadn’t yet read, same. But other books — well, it no longer felt necessary to keep them all. My hoarding days, I think, are over; it’s enough to have read a book. I no longer need to possess it forever (although that was a very real need for a long time).

Nonfiction proved easier to cull. I could see chapters of my life reflected in those shelves. As chapters ended, my need for the books diminished. There were the years when I was fascinated by Russian history and the Soviet Union and traveled there twice; those books I almost certainly will not reread. Off they went.

There were the years when I devoted myself to narrative nonfiction; I still love the form, but likely won’t be teaching it again. Goodbye, books.

The last time I culled books, about six years ago, I found ephemera that made me pause — letters, photographs, receipts and bookmarks from long-gone bookstores. But this time, the ephemera didn’t stop me — if a book needed to go, I just slipped the letter into a different book.

In the end, I had filled 12 boxes and canvas bags with books to give away.

On a sunny day in late September, I hauled tables out to the yard. I e-mailed neighbors and put a note on the neighborhood Facebook pages. Come get books, I said. Free.

And people came in droves. People I hadn’t seen in years stopped by to look through books and chat (safely, in masks). Neighbors left us flowers, chocolates, homemade jam. They took almost all of the books.

And later, when the painting was done and the bookshelves moved back into place, there was more fun to be had. I spent days sorting the remaining books by category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, Minnesota, and, of course, Irish) and shelving them in alphabetical order.

I made decisions: Does a biography of Max Perkins go under “P” for Perkins, or under “B” for the author, A. Scott Berg? (I went with “P.”) Should authors whose names begin with “Mc” and “Mac” be filed separately, or together? (Together.)

Our shelves now gleam with wood polish and sunlight. There is not a speck of dust. (That won’t last.) I can now, for the first time in a decade, find any book instantly. The house feels peaceful and orderly.

And best of all was the great book giveaway, which sent books off into the hands of friends and neighbors who will read them, appreciate them, and, I hope, pass them on.


Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. E-mail: