Books are trash too: Remember to throw them away during spring cleaning

I used to hold on to books as if they were cash, before realizing that all books are not created equally

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 5, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Throwing books in the trash (Getty images/Diy13)
Throwing books in the trash (Getty images/Diy13)

Trashing books has the power to save the publishing industry.

Spring cleaning has become a universal time to declutter our lives, chucking everything we no longer need. Those jeans you can't fit anymore and maybe will never be able to fit again. Your iPhone 3, unless you are an archivist who is planning to have an exhibit based upon technology that we'll never use again. And your mail, go through it. You don't need to save the red light ticket from 2023 because if you didn't pay it by now, I'm pretty sure you already paid to remove the boot or took care of it when you paid your 10 other tickets from Motor Vehicles. 

I try to do this every year and have to say that I am getting better with time because, in 2024, I purged some items that were near and dear to my heart, items I never thought I had the heart to get rid of: books. Yes, I got rid of books. 

Before you begin tearing me apart, I did not throw all the books in the trash; only about 30, and the rest of the books will be donated to an organization in Baltimore called The Book Thing, which frequently hosts giveaways. But yes, there are now about 100 books erased from my library, and I am so happy for several reasons. I'll start by addressing the elephant in the room, which you and I both know but up until now would never say. So, imagine me standing on top of a soapbox, dead center in the middle of a crowd of about 1,000 people, yelling at the top of my lungs, "All books are not created equal!"

This is when you may click off of this article, storm out of your room, slam the door behind you or become ambitious by writing a nasty letter to my editor. But before you do that, let me just tell you a little bit about my process and the books that are currently sitting at the bottom of my trash can. 

Most of the books that made it into my donation pile were celebrity memoirs that were beautifully written and surprisingly inspiring. 

My system isn't intricate or complex at all, as it is solely based on two general rules that are summarized in these questions:

Is this book so good that it deserves to be read by someone who can be inspired as well? 

Is this book so bad that I would never want to punish another person by mistakenly having it fall into their hands? 

Most of the books that made it into my donation pile were celebrity memoirs that were beautifully written and surprisingly inspiring. For full transparency, I never got into celebrity memoirs until I was given assignments to cover them for work – and then became more interested in the genre when I started writing them myself. Gabrielle Union has a beautiful memoir, as does Viola Davis, Chelsea Handler and Chef Kwame Onwuachi, to name a few. These books are hysterical, informative and most importantly, easy to read. 

My opinion could be biased, but those books are often written by highly talented writers who don't always get the promotion or backing behind their books that they deserve. So ghostwriting is the only way they could eke out a decent career. Many of the celebrity memoirs I have are directly connected to people I covered for work over the years; however, I buy them for myself from time to time, and they don't need to be a part of my library. I've learned the lessons, I will not revisit. They take up space, and we are spring cleaning, so it is time to pass them on. 

We've had all kinds of literary crises in my hometown of Baltimore. As a writer with some local success, I donated boxes of books like "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston.

Your bookshelf should be beautiful enough to make it onto someone's Pinterest page. I don't even know if people still use Pinterest, but if they do then your bookshelf should be on there. You shouldn't have a bookshelf that has nothing but books. You need a cute little woven basket, or a little statue from your ceramics class or maybe that plaque you got from work from being employee of the month or something, but you got to spice it up, you got to make it look good and you're not going to do it if you're holding on to that celebrity memoir that you are never going to open again.

Some of the classics should be donated as well. We've had all kinds of literary crises in my hometown of Baltimore. As a writer with some local success, I donated boxes of books like "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston. These are books that our young people need to read; they need to see themselves in the history of this country, they need to see themselves in the present, and they need to see themselves in the future. We have an opportunity to do this if we stop hoarding books.

And then there is the trash pile.

If we hate some artwork, hate some of the food from some fancy restaurants that are supposed to be great, and hate the design, fabric, and everything related to some of the furniture we feel shouldn't have been created – then why can't we hate books? There's an awful stigma that we hold on to when talking about books that we need to release immediately. Your favorite singer's sophomore album can suck, but a book can't? So now everyone can write? 

Why must we sit up on our high horse and act like books are the one thing you can never get rid of? This could not be further from the truth, and I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to figure this out. Books can be trash just like that horrific excuse for artwork you made at some Sip and Paint you attended on a corny date night. 

So, as I did my spring cleaning, I threw away a book called "eBay for Dummies" because what is this, 1990? I trashed a book about a faultless preacher who saved his entire congregation because red flags flooded the first paragraph, and I tossed out a lovely tale about a pop singer who was forced to sell bricks of cocaine for the Mexican cartel as she soared up the R&B charts. There was also a collection of old college books that should have been in the dump a long time ago as well, like that Business 101 book that taught you nothing about business, and any book that was written by the professor, who you also had to buy the book from – and about 90% of your pity purchases. This is the part where you can call me a terrible person, but this is also how we can save the publishing industry. 

 A pity purchase is a book that you bought because you felt sympathy for the person selling it – and yes, as a person who wrote eight books, I have definitely been on the other side of pity purchases. These purchases often happen at empty readings or book fairs where you sit alone at your table with that big stack of work that you poured your heart and soul into, Sharpie in hand, ready to sign as everyone walks past you. People will walk past you for hours, but then from the shadows emerges a grandma with two big watery slits for eyes that glisten and gleam as she slides towards you and says something like, “I can't believe you wrote a whole book, sonny. I’ll buy one!" And you quickly pull it away from the stack. You sign it because you know once your signature is in that book that she can't take it to the bookseller’s brick and mortar and return it, that book is hers, and she stuck with it for life. And from this transaction you received that one little piece of hope, that makes you feel like you're writing and career aren't entirely worthless. That grandma gives you the industry to push forward. But maybe she can't do that if her bookshelf is full of 300 pity purchases . . . so we must purge. 

The point is that you got the sale, so you don't have to punish the person by expecting them to read it or hold on to it. It is totally cool if grandma throws that book in the trash because it belongs to her; she bought it. 

I feel so good now that I have cleaned off my bookshelves. And guess what? Not only do I have space to make my shelves look cute enough to be on someone's Pinterest page, but I can also make some more pity purchases — the kind of pity purchases that keep our industry alive. 

So do yourself a favor this spring and go throw some books away. 


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advice Books Spring Cleaning