How a Minimalist Deals With Books and Heirlooms

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Stack of books and coffee mug


When decluttering, getting rid of the frivolous kitchen gadgets may be easy; but what about the things that we hold dear? Joshua Becker has some advice.

Recently the topic of books came up with decluttering dynamo, Marie Kondo, whose preference is to keep a paltry 30 books on hand. And, well, let's just say that the book lovers of the world weren't having it. One could practically hear the collective gasp as bibliophiles everywhere (myself included) ran to their bookshelves, protectively spread their arms across their treasured tomes, and defiantly dared anyone to mess with their books.

But hey, not everyone has the same attachment to books, and for anyone really looking to minimize their belongings, books may be up for discussion. Likewise, family heirlooms are another area that can be tricky to deal with when decluttering. Which is why I was very happy to see Joshua Becker tackling both subjects during a live chat with The Washington Post. As the founder of the Becoming Minimalist website and author of the new book "The Minimalist Home: A room-by-room guide to a decluttered, refocused life," Becker is a minimalism maestro and a great source for advice. In the chat, readers wrote in with their questions; there were a lot of things covered, but these two topics stood out for me.

On books

Becker stresses the importance of reading, noting its role in helping us to develop into the best versions of ourselves. (There are also plenty of scientifically proven health benefits of reading.) But he doesn't think that every book should be kept; some, but not every one. He says:

"In my opinion, if you found joy or help in a specific book, the best thing you can do with that book is spread around the joy or inspiration by allowing someone else to read it too! Keep a few, for sure (especially if you refer to it often). But giving them away to a local library or friends who can experience the same joy in the story that you experienced is a beautiful expression of generosity."

I would also recommend a book exchange for family and/or friend groups every Christmas or gift-giving occasion. Every person gives one book to one other person – and then the books are rotated once they are read. If you have 10 people in your group, for example, you get 10 books, but only have to have one of them on hand at any given time.

On family heirlooms

It used to be that everyone wanted the family heirlooms – now, not so much. Several readers asked Becker about family matters, like what's the best way to store old family documents and pictures and what to do with a deceased parent's stuff.

Of old documents and photos, Becker writes: "The ABSOLUTE best way to store old documents, pictures, etc. is to scan them into a digital format. The reality is that physical documents and photos will always fade eventually and are more susceptible to fire, flood, theft, etc. There are many services online (or probably even in your local community) who can help you with this. It's an important step is the only way to guarantee that your grandkids and great-grandkids will be able to enjoy them as well."

(And I hate to argue with the minimizing master here, but I do have a secret graduate degree in Museum Studies (basically, a degree in keeping stuff) and will just say this: Also keep the hard copies of documents and photos that are extra important to you; use archival storage materials to keep them safe and protected. Yes, scanning them to digital format is great, but you have to also keep the device used to access said format, since technology moves ahead so quickly. (And who knows if we will still have a "cloud" in a few decades.) I have a lot of important things on floppy discs that my great-grandkids will definitely find challenging to enjoy. Meanwhile, I have family photo albums dating back a hundred years that I can still look through. Just sayin'.)

As for decluttering after a parent's death, Becker recommends repeating this mantra: "Only the best." He writes:

"Keep 'only the best, most representative' pieces of your parents' lives and the values they sought to pass down to you. Also, remember, the way you most honor your parents is living your best life going forward. I don't know a single person who wants to burden their child or grandchild with their possessions when they die. Most people say, 'Yes, sure, keep a few things to remember me. But I don't want my possessions to be a burden to you or your home. If you can't use it, find someone who can.' That's how I view my things... and probably how your parents' viewed theirs as well. So keep a few books, but find a place to donate the rest (or look for places to sell as a collection if you think they are valuable)."

And of course, be sure to check in with other family members and friends to see if they would like anything.

Becker also had good advice for someone wondering what to do with their father’s WWI Navy uniform and clothes from the 60’s made from Vogue patterns. He recommended contacting museums to see if there might be interest in acquiring the pieces.

If that doesn't work, I would add checking with a costume/textile archive, historical society, library, or a college collection – and if all else fails, selling historic items to a private collector would ensure that they were well taken care of. These options go beyond clothing and could be used when looking for a new home for all kinds of things with historical interest.

For parents with a lot of stuff who are thinking ahead about what they will leave behind, we have thoughts:
'Swedish death cleaning' is the new decluttering trend
A Norwegian grandma’s approach to dealing with family heirlooms

On more minimalist ideas, there were a number of other clutter questions answered by Becker on the live chat, you can read them all over at The Post.