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How many books should we keep?

30 books, Marie? Really?

Well of course we all now know that’s not what she said. Or at least I hope we know that. What she said was ““I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time” - which doesn’t mean she thinks you should only keep thirty books. That’s just what works for her.

So, why do we keep books, what do they say about us, how many books do you need, and most importantly if you were only allowed to keep thirty books, which ones would they be?!

Reasons for keeping books

There are many good reasons for surrounding yourself with books:

  • They are a record of your reading life, and can remind you of how you felt when you read To Kill a Mockingbird at aged fifteen, or Crime and Punishment at aged twenty-three.

  • They can make you feel erudite, or at least well-read.

  • They are there if you want to dip into them, to remember the opening lines of Vanity Fair or the closing lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

  • They are very aesthetically pleasing, naturally, especially if you have an eye for arrangement and some nice editions.

  • They are a reflection of you and your taste. They say something about you to visitors.

  • They are a talking point. People feel comfortable perusing your collection of books, or albums, and saying, oh, is Things Fall Apart any good? Or, what did you think of The Fire Next Time?

  • If you have unread books, it’s like having a personal library. You’ll never be short of something to read.

  • You’re a bookstagrammer and having a large number of books to hand is essential.

However, the single most valid reason is this – I like being surrounded by books, it makes me happy!

Reasons for not keeping books

There are plenty of good reasons for reducing the number of books you have:

  • Someone else could be reading them.

  • They collect dust.

  • You’re never going to pick them up again.

  • The books you read are already part of you. Owning them adds nothing to that. Scout is a real person in your head, as is Merricat. As are Aged P, Dorothea, Lucy Snowe, Miss Honey, Heck Tate and Betsey Trotwood.

  • Materialism is bad for the soul. You are not the sum of your possessions. You are far, far more than that.

Still, all of these points are trumped by the previously mentioned reason – I like being surrounded by books, it makes me happy.

How many books should we keep?

If you have a local library, or a kindle, or even access to Google, then you can get pretty much any book, any time you want, so you don’t actually need that many books. I mean, how many times do you get overwhelmed by the urgent need to read Mansfield Park. Now. I need it now! Doesn’t really happen does it?

Marie Kondo thinks she only needs thirty books. Could you reduce to thirty?

For those of you having a panic attack now… breathe… breathe… it’s just a theoretic exercise. We could all get rid of a few books. A book isn’t less real because you don’t possess it. It’s not too hard to imagine a conversation with your favourite characters. All that it taught you, and how it made you feel is still inside you.

The Guardian responded to Marie Kondo with a think piece “What we gain from keeping books – and why it doesn’t need to be ‘joy'", and the Telegraph offered its own take "The Marie Kondo backlash: what's wrong with owning more than 30 books?" A writer for Oprah's O declared she was opting out of the thirty-book requirement, thank you very much.

But hold on, someone else has an opinion too. It’s our friend the Abbé Faria, the learned Italian imprisoned in the Chateau D’If with Edmund Dantes, in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo:

“In Rome, I had nearly five thousand volumes in my library. By reading and re-reading them, I discovered that one hundred and fifty books, carefully chosen, give you, if not a complete summary of human knowledge, at least everything that is useful for a man to know. […] Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, Strada, Jornadès, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Machiavelli and Bossuet; I mention only the most important.’

OK, so hopefully most of us are not in prison, and we could probably afford to amass a few more if we wanted. But if Marie’s personal approach became law, and you were only allowed to own thirty books, which would you chose?

I’ve had a go at creating my own list, albeit taking a few liberties such as putting pretty much the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s literary output into one book, but just roll with it OK? This, off the top of my head, would be my thirty-book library:


1. Complete works of William Shakespeare

2. Complete writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

3. The poetry of AE Housman

4. The poetry of Charles Bukowski

5. The Collins Albatross book of English Verse

Chunky Novels

6. The great novels and non-fiction of Virginia Woolf

7. Hugo’s Les Miserables

8. Complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson

9. The Thomas Cromwell books of Hilary Mantel

10. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

11. The collected works of Agatha Christie

12. The works of Maya Angelou

13. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

14. The D’Artagnan books of Alexandre Dumas

15. The great novels and non-fiction of Chinua Achebe

16. The writings of Jorge Luis Borges

17. A Song of Ice and Fire, by GRR Martin

18. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina

19. The collected works of the Brontes

20. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

21. The Cider House Rules, by John Irving

22. The great novels of Willa Cather

23. The Chris Guthrie trilogy by Lewis Grassic Gibbons


24. Just Kids, by Patti Smith

25. Fortunate Life, by AB Facey

26. Two Side of the Moon, by Alexei Leonov and David Scott

Non fiction

27. A Complete History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

28. An encyclopedia of French Literature

29. An encyclopedia of Russian Literature

30. An encyclopedia of Literature in English

What would your thirty be?

And here’s a final thought from Anakana Schofield’s Guardian article, to make you feel better about your to be read piles:

“Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.”

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