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Ask Surly Amy: What to Do With Books You Don’t Like Anymore

Dear Surly Amy,

I have a question. Before I became a skeptic, I purchased A LOT of pseudoscientific self help/metaphysical books (a la Chopra, Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, etc.) and now I have them sitting on my bookshelf (a constant reminder of my shameful past!). I don’t know what to do with them now. I feel bad donating them because I do not want to contribute to filling someone else’s head with nonsense, but I definitely do not want them anymore.

Do you have a solution for my quandary?

Thank you!


Dear Veewok,

I LOVE this question!

I love it because there are so many great things you can do with old books. And with the digital book era in full swing, physical books are often out-dated space hogs. So why not upcycle the ones you don’t need!

I also love this question because this is exactly the kind of project that the writers at Mad Art Lab do all the time. So I asked a few contributors what they would do with a book that doesn’t need to be read again. And here is the responses I got. Some of these ideas could help you with last minute holiday gifts or decorations too. Enjoy!

From Mad Art Lab’s resident photographer, GiGi:

This was my first foray into book art and I chose to make an iPad holder. I pretty much just winged it, but I think it turned out okay. I have some ideas for improvements on my original design. I’ve attached a picture of the steps I took.

1. I picked out a crappy book and since it was holiday themed, it also works as a “holiday project”. I know this book isn’t a magical-mystical type book like Chopra, but it was one I will never use. I also have two copies of it because I inherited them from someone who, for some reason, had two.

2. I ripped all of the pages out of the book, even the spiny part.

3. I then measured and sewed a little pouch to put inside of the book where the pages used to be.

4. I hot glued the pouch into the book.

5. Side view of the holder (not really a step, just a photo).

6. It’s measurements are perfect for an iPad, I just don’t happen to own one so I can’t show you how it fits, but you can toss a wallet and iPod Touch in there, too. I think my next one I make will have a clasp and handles; I was just working with the tools that were available to me at the time, otherwise I might have been able to attach some. I might try a purse next time :)

iPad holder. Art and Photos by GiGi of Mad Art Lab

And because Gigi is so awesome, she didn’t stop there. Check out this kick-ass book shelf! This is a project I am going to try for sure!

Again from Gigi:

I just finished my second book project. It is a “Book-Shelf”. A shelf literally made of books. I took two books I didn’t care much about anymore, two Dr. Laura books (I know), and used them to create this cute shelf. The wonderful thing is: you can paint the books (which I did not do) to cover the titles, then no one will be the wiser. So if someone has some crap books that spew mumbo jumbo then, ::BOOM:: make a shelf and paint over them.

Book-Shelf. Art and photos by Gigi.

Smashley, Mad Art Lab’s resident musician and writer of our Lab Tracks, contributed this piece of book art. I present it here without commentary, as none is really needed.

Nihilism. Art and photos by Smashley.

Elyse promised me she was going to do this:

I’m just ripping out pages and throwing them at my neighbors and yelling “LEARN TO FUCKING READ”

But I am still waiting on the video.

Instead she sent this and said:

It was actually going to be a wine tote. Then I was like fuck it, this is hard, I’ll just make it a Christmas tree. But now it’s a crown.

It is photos like this that should explain to everyone why we keep and need Elyse on BOTH Skepchick AND on Mad Art Lab.

TreelobsterSteve, one of our masters of the Mad-Quickies sent in a few cool links from instructables that have upcycled book projects. There is a speaker and a clock that are pretty cool. You can find both those links and some others by clicking here.

For my project, I found a really cool tutorial from a website called, Under the Table and Dreaming. On that site, artist Stephanie Lynn shows you how to make paper flowers out of old books. Here are some of mine:

I find the content and pages of religious books too flimsy for paper flowers but the covers seem to work great!
I used bamboo for the stems and hot glue to attach them.
If you don’t have any old books you can use colored tissue paper or almost any material that you can cut in a spiral and roll up.

I started a wreath.

This is going to take a while but should look awesome when done.

And I SWEAR I was going to complete a whole big beautiful bouquet and frost the tips with red spray paint but this happened:

This was fun! Hope we inspired you to do something other than throw or give those books away. Once again the tutorial for the paper flowers can be found here and be sure to visit Mad Art Lab when you can.

Happy holidays everyone!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Surly Amy art by Jill. Photos by Amy except where specified. We assume one of Elyse’s genius children took the photo of her.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Wow, there’s no craft I despise more than crafting with cut-out book pages. Bad books should be used, yes. But every time I see this, I envision scads of crafters haunting used book stores, and someone finding a gem of a vintage find, and using its spine, among others, to make a kicky box for his or her crafting shelf. I shudder every time. Besides that, the craft reminds me too much of the crappy crafts I used to see all the time in the seventies. Especially paper Christmas ornaments made from decimated books or sheet music. Poor destroyed sheet music.

    1. When will someone finally DO SOMETHING about the crafters! WHAT WILL IT TAKE? How many Pinterest boards have to offend someone on the internet before SOMEONE TAKES ACTION?

      1. Now’s not the time to discuss these things. We are too close to the tragedy of a book that died before its time to make a paper centerpiece.

  2. I had a similar predicament with my towering pile of books on witchcraft (siiiiigh). In the end, I contacted a local pagan group and donated them. They’re a small group of people and, while I also don’t like the idea of promoting nonsense, I figure they’re all adults who are going to believe what they’re going to believe. And they were thrilled beyond. I considered it a little act of charity.

    Sometimes, I think I should have just recycled the lot of it, but the book lover in me couldn’t. So there is a group of silly but very happy people out there, chuffed at the additions to their small community library. I am mostly okay with that.

  3. There’s always altered books, too! One of my good friends does altered books and they look amazing! I’m not sure they’d work with the types of books this person has to use, but it might!

  4. I love that your dog said, “No, stop, Mommy, I’m art too! Look!” At least that was what I imagined it saying. Very cute!

  5. I had this exact same problem when I read in Michael Shermer’s last book about how he’s a freaking libertarian. WTF?

    Okay, that was a little tongue-in-cheek. But only a little.

  6. I donated a bunch of my old pagan/wicca books to one of my good friends’ coven; occasionally I will donate books of which I disapprove to the library -but they are generally so full of my snarky notes and addendum that I feel like they’ll do more good than harm. I don’t do crafty stuff myself, so I generally do just donate, but I make sure to add a bunch of “this is not true! please see http://www.ActualScience.com for more information!” I did also donate some outdated history books to a school art class, along with my National Geographics.

    1. I hate to tell you this, but if you donate a book you’ve marked in to a library, there’s about a 95% chance that it ended its life in a shredder without ever going on the shelf. Actually, let me rephrase that: If you donated a book to a library because you didn’t want the book anymore, there’s about a 95% chance that it ended up in the shredder without ever going on the shelf.

      Someone below already mentions that the biggest “secret” libraries keep from the public is the massive amounts of books they dispose of every year. Another secret is that, for most communities, public libraries serve the unofficial role of “book disposal”. Our society considers it utterly taboo to destroy a book, no matter how old, decrepit or utterly outdated it might be. Eventually, old books usually find their way to a public or university library.

      Where they are put in a pile, briefly examined, and then usually all shredded.

      Public libraries only really want fiction that’s going to MOVE. If a book they have does not circulate, sooner or later it will get weeded out. Some of these books do get sold, but with the majority of them no one wants to buy them anyway and they have to be destroyed (because if you just try to throw away a library book intact, someone will assume it was a mistake and take them back all too often). By the same token, if you donate a book that looks worn or beat up, it will not be put on the shelves, because books that look bad do not circulate well. The same goes with fiction that is merely very old. Shelf space is at a premium, and every inch you waste on something nobody wants to read is something you could fill with a book someone DOES.

      Non-fiction, on the other hand, comes with its own problems. While you do want to have books that will circulate in your non-fiction sections, you also absolutely want to have books that are useful. Information in print media goes out of date so fast it’s ridiculous. So a worn, 5-10 year old book on Wicca or spirit healing? Probably destined for the shredder. With some subjects, it’s outright irresponsible and dangerous to keep outdated material on the shelf — you would not believe how often someone shows up with an armful of their old medical textbooks from college and the assurance that they’re full of “good information”.

      Unless you’ve got something brand new and recent, something genuinely rare (do not donate that to any old public library — find a library with a special collection it would be good for), or something, say, in a foreign language that is widely spoken in that library’s particular community, you are just committing destruction of literature by proxy.

      Quite honestly, the above pictures are more constructive. At least the old books are being used for something after they’re shredded up.

  7. I can see where hellboundallee is coming from. I would certainly not have books thrown in the garbage.

    But some of my friends, like the one who taught literature to college kids, are sensitive about how books are treated and in the course of history are reminded of book burnings when one is destroyed.

    Being a science type I get that sentiment. Also considering the resources used (wood, and water) and pollutants, it seems a shame to tear it up unless it’s to become something that will last for a long time.

    I write about greenwashing and nutty Creationists on my blog; so books like these are fodder for amusement and debunking. Why not write in the margins all the crap that is wrong? :D

  8. You guys, most modern and classic books are on kindle or something comparable now (or will be soon.) It’s not like if you cut up a book the message is gone forever like it was in the days of book burnings. I think the whole idea of an object like a book being sacred is overly sentimental. If it is something historical or out of print with no intent to digitize, I can understand the desire to collect and save- that makes sense, but an average run of the mill book is just printed paper.

    Maybe my next post should be on upcycling 8 track tapes and planting trees.

    1. That’s why I used the term sentiment, Amy. Sure the book can be replaced; but for those of us who value literature, books represent something deeper: books we read as kids that got us hooked on fiction. Books that launched our passions. Books that influenced our character.

      Maybe young people who were never around before Kindle don’t see it that way, but to many of us, individual books have meaning just like when a loved one makes something by hand for you.

      It might not be completely logical. But neither is my love for the works of Herman Melville or Shakespeare.

      1. I don’t know if you were joking about that last bit but I would love if you guys took up the topic of ecology and upcycling. It would fit in quite well with the debunking and pro-science format here!

        1. (One more thing) that’s not to say it’s a crime to use a book in some other way; much better to use it creatively than to toss it! Just expect some people to not like the idea in a hypothetical sense. But you bought the book, do whatever you want with it as long as it isn’t horribly wasteful.

      2. @ Luna: I grew up in a house with a library of +4000 volumes. Although I enjoyed (and still do) the accessibility, the house has just so much space and it’s not getting any bigger. Not to mention the smell. So for me Kindle and other devices are heaven sent because I get to buy and keep as many books as I can store on one. When it comes to books, I’m a hoarder.

        1. Wow, that is a huge volume of books. We have a modest amount that circulate among the family. I know people who like the Kindle and that’s great; I just get frustrated when Kindle owners tell me I should not value my books (not referring to anyone here by the way).

      3. I share your sentiments as well and couldn’t myself do what I see as desecrate a book. The images above also made me cringe, even though I blunted the reaction by imagining them being “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.”

        One thing to keep in mind, at least so far as donating books goes, often when you donate to public libraries the books don’t go into circulation. The library will sell them for cash to buy books they actually need for their collection. Yes, the books still exist out there somewhere, but they aren’t out there for free for young Jimmy to read about nonsense.

        1. @Captaintripps yes good points. I also get annoyed that perfectly good materials are used to make essentially worthless books; but they’re still books, and somehow a few of us feel that’s valuable. Now I wonder if we’re in the minority among a world of Kindle users.

          1. Oh, I’m also a kindle user, too, and have been for several years. I think it’s a brilliant device whose full potential has yet to be unlocked.

            However, I also love physical books and my home library. It sure does take up a lot of space, but it’s worth it.

        2. Rich Dad Poor Dad was hilarious. There’s one part of the book where he gives this kid terrible advice. The kid is saving money to buy a car, and he’ll have just enough to buy one. Kiyosaki tells him that he’ll be able to quadruple his money on the stock market and get an even better car. Of course, it turns out that a kid that has never traded stocks before isn’t automatically better than all the people that do it for a living, and he loses all his money.

          In Kiyosaki’s mind, that was good advice because it got the kid really interested in the stock market. I don’t like to admit this, but my first reading was not ironic and I didn’t even realize how badly that story reflected on Kiyosaki’s character and self-awareness because of his framing of the issue.

    2. Actually, you are probably wrong about that. I have hundreds, and trying to put the titles in via a ISBN reader gave me the annoying discovery that about 20% of the ones I own are just ***not*** in print any more, and that is just the ones I own, never mind ones I may have read at some time, but don’t own, or need to complete collections, etc. You just can’t find them. And, sorry, but Kindle, despite the insane number it has listed, is probably missing the same 20%, or more that you can’t look up via ISBN. And, every book on Kindle can be looked up using such a number, which is a problem if you expect “everything” to be available. None of these are, like, so old they are in free archives either. A few where only first sold in the mid 1980s, some, maybe the 70s, etc.

      The biggest problem with digital media isn’t just that we don’t know if it will last as long, or even if someone will know how to read it 100 years from now (never mind, with proprietary BS and DRM, etc., two days after the product changes/stops selling), but the companies that own the publishing rights for these things **literally** don’t give a crap if everything ever printed/made (the latter being a huge problem with old movies, and maybe even with some music), is actually available for purchase.

      Heck, here is so much of it, at this point, that tagging all of it for sale, especially in paper versions, would require throwing out ISBN bar codes, and going to something like qr codes. The first “crisis” in IP addresses was never on the internet, it was in publishing, but, instead of coming out of ISBN V3, they just stopped printing/selling half of them.

      So, sorry, but I can’t agree at all with the idea that you can get all of them via some sort of digital service. As to what to do with them.. well… while I have no problem with the idea of a copy being “available”, and like in a museum of the stupid, for example, my love a books didn’t stop me, on finding out some of the bullshit that the whole Scientology nonsense was doing to people, of shredding the Dianetics book, by hand. Yeah.. might have been a “bit” of an over reaction, but, at the time, I was just starting to become really aware of just how toxic religions where, and here was this new, entirely made up, and toxic religion, and well…

      I also think that, unlike their gibberish, there is something semi-useful even in the old witch craft books, if for no other purpose than RP ideas, where you need something sort of authentic, for a magic ritual, or something. lol What are you going to use something like Scientology for in an RP setting? :p

      1. I so agree kahehi, old traditions are valueable for anthropology on some level, not to mention some Kindle users don’t appear to understand the concept of industrial metabolism.

  9. I just recycle them. My old Christian apologetics serve humanity better in the form of toilet paper, and one more tree gets to live.

  10. The library director at our local public library is very quiet about the fact that books are regularly removed from the shelves and discarded. The general public hates the idea. The other group of books that get tossed are the old moldy books from Grandma’s basement that are donated (dumped) for our annual book sale.

  11. With these kinds of books you could donate them to a local group of skeptics. It would be cool to amass a library of woo.

  12. Other ideas: Make a hollow book to store things inside you’d like to keep private or safe. Give it to a pet rabbit (my fiance did this with a really terrible textbook, and the bunny loved tearing it up). Use strips of paper from the books to make a balloon pinata.

    I’m generally pretty sentimental about books too – I don’t think I could straight up burn them. Maybe it’s a silly scruple, but the symbolism is a little too strong for me. Although I have used phone books as campfire tinder, but I feel like that’s different. But I have no problem using books that I don’t like and have little value as material for other projects – that kind of thing does not have an association with oppression and censorship to me.

  13. I don’t think anyone mentioned that you can turn books into boxes by cutting out the center part of each page, and then glueing the pages together. Now you can hide stuff in there. Did that to the last Dan Brown novel I bought; after reading it, I didn’t want to keep it, but also felt bad about inflicting it on anyone else.

    1. The problem with the whole, “Store things in a book”, meme is that its so common that often the “first” place someone with half a brain looks is cookie jars, pantry shelves, and/or hollowed out books, for your valuables. Its not quite as bad as leaving things you don’t want people into on a table, in plain view, with a note saying, “Please don’t steal.”, but it comes close. About the only real deterrent would be if you owned so many damn books that they would spend hours just checking all the books, or, maybe looking for ones that are worth something they recognize as valuable to sell (assuming they know something about that, and are not just going by, “I saw a TV show last week, where some idiot hid things in their books.” ;)

      So, yeah, don’t hide anything really important in there.

  14. I have to confess feeling uneasy about cutting into books. I grew up pre-internet; I think that might have something to do with it. But I can see that reusing books is better than just discarding them.

    And I do like the idea of book-themed crafts. Instructables as quite a few articles related to books. I really like this lamp, for example. And, if you can’t find an appropriately-themed book for a project, I suppose you could always take a discarded book and make a new cover.

  15. Here is a completely out of the box idea: exotic animal enrichment. In the past I have used old phone books, put scents inside the pages and let large cats (tigers especially) and bears tear them up. Parrots also enjoy destroying things.

    Ask your local zoo or exotic animal rescue if they could use your old books. They get destroyed (thus not spreading their bad information) AND they help the animals live a better life.

    1. (Sorry I’m over commenting here)

      Great idea to use for enrichment, however domestic cats have gotten intestinal blockages from ripping up paper and inevitably swallowing some of it. Not to mention the chemicals in there. So great idea, would just have to figure out a way to mitigate swallowing.

  16. These are great ideas! Another non-crafty alternative is PaperbackSwap. You post the books (have to be relatively recent, with ISBNs) you want to give away, and once someone orders one of yours, you can request books from others. Free, too: just pay postage for the ones you mail. http://www.paperbackswap.com/index.php

  17. I love the photo of the crown made of obsolete book material!

    I’m in the process of converting “HedgeHogging” by Barton Biggs (hardcover) into a cover for my Kindle reader. I’m glueing velcro strips to the inside back cover to match other gender velcro strips on the back of my Kindle. I’m cutting out a Kindle-sized chunk of the last 100 or so pages of the book so that what remains of each page is like an upside down L with the long arm of the L lying adjacent to the spine of the book and the short arm (no double entendre intended) of the L being about an inch and a half wide at the top of the pages. I’m then going to glue the last 200 or so pages of the book together so they form sort of a block of solid paper to fit around the Kindle when the book is closed. The rest of the book I’m leaving alone so I have lots of room for authors of my Kindle books to leave their autographs. :)

    I like the idea of recycling other useless or harmful books, but I’ve never been into apologetics and really don’t have that many totally useless or even damaging books.

    Even my obsolete Physics texts probably have something useful in them. My Stock Trading books are mostly useless, but it isn’t like they’re telling people not to get vaccinated or not to spare the rod, so they’re not actually harmful.

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