I used to like buying books. Now I like giving them away.

Once upon a time – the story began – I had an empty shelf and very few books. Ah, the innocence of youth: I enjoyed buying books. I enjoyed reading them, and putting them on my shelf for all the world, or at least the part of the world that visited my apartment, to see. How clever, how sophisticated, how worldly! Look! Thomas Pynchon! This man has read Thomas Pynchon, or at least has his books on his shelf, which amounts to the same thing.

But the worm turns, and with age comes wisdom. And now, I am giving many of my books away. Through hard experience I have, over the years, come to learn a few things:

So for a long time now, I have basically slowed my acquisition of new books to a trickle. This still leaves the problem of how to get rid of the many, many, many books that I have but didn’t want. You’d think this would be easy, but I have a neurosis that makes this hard. You see, I cannot throw a book away.

I mean, of course, a book that is in good condition. If it’s water damaged, or ripped up, that’s one thing. But if it’s in good condition, and readable, I cannot put it in the garbage, damage it, burn it, harm it, or through inaction allow the book to come to harm. Harlequin romance? Sorry. Can’t throw it away. Crappy endless fantasy series with pathetic wish-fulfillment freudian plot treatment (and yes, Robert Jordan, I am in fact looking at you)? Can’t throw it away. The collected speeches of George W. Bush? Well, OK, maybe I could throw that one away. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.

I blame Ray Bradbury, and that I read Fahrenheit 451 as an impressionable youth, for this neurosis.

I tried bringing my books to the library and donating them, but they didn’t want them. I briefly considered just shoving them through the night-deposit slot and making them suffer, but I decided that would be ethically bankrupt. I tried to sell the books for a penny apiece to the local used bookstore, but they weren’t accepting new books.

So I had given up on getting rid of any of these books for a while. But recently, the perfect storm of a neat application and a neat internet service has allowed me to free myself from bondage to my paper masters.

The application is Delicious Library, which allows you to scan the UPC symbols on books, movies, games, and other media using the webcam or iSight on your Macintosh (or, if you don’t have one, to just type in ISBN numbers). Once scanned, it fetches an image of the work from amazon, along with lots of other metadata, and lets you organize them and keep track of whom you have loaned items to. It’ll remind you when you should ask for them back. It’ll let you organize little virtual shelves, take notes, rate items. It’s very pretty, and very slick, and I liked playing with it.

Now, most people might use Delicious Library to keep track of what they have and want to keep. I use it to keep track of what I want to get rid of. In addition to the aforementioned abilities, each item also has a convenient “Sell on Amazon” button, so if you have an amazon seller account, it’s dead simple to list a lot of items.

At the same time I obtained Delicious Library, I also heard about Paperback Swap on NPR. The idea is one that has been pursued by others before: list books you want to get rid of, order books you want to obtain. Members send each other books directly, the sender paying the postage cost ($1.59 in most cases). The site provides convenient address labels for each “order” as PDFs, and if the book is small enough you can typically mail it without even using a storebought envelope – just wrap it in the printed PDF label.

Most of the other services I’ve seen like this charge a “service fee,” which makes them not terribly interesting. At least for now, there are no fees associated with beyond paying for postage. I’ve so far managed to get about 16 books I didn’t want shipped to other people, and have many more listed. The odd book that I’ve sold on Amazon has covered the postage. As an added bonus, I’ve managed to pick up a small number of books that I actually do want on my shelf (Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, in addition to being a great read, is also wonderfully slim and light, you see). But for me, it’s not really about getting new books. It’s about getting rid of the books I don’t want in a guilt-free manner.

My total workflow, now is: pick the books I want to get rid of. Scan them into a group in Delicious Library. Set a reminder for 60 days from now, so that anything I haven’t managed to sell or trade can (“in theory”) be thrown away guilt-free. List the books on Amazon and Paperbackswap. If it sells or trades on either site, delist it from the other.

Here’s the list of books I currently have listed on the site. If you want any of them, feel free to send me email asking for it. If you decide to sign up for paperbackswap yourself, you can say you were referred by paperbackswap - at - They’ll give me a book “credit” for your trouble.

Book list

I should note that psu makes fun of me for this whole thing on a daily goddamn basis. His latest threat is to create an e-commerce site on which you can obsessively list all the books you own but don’t want, and then every so often the site will send you an email for one of them, telling you “Throw this book away already, you dope.”

To be perfectly honest, I might sign up for that.