It was the Roman Republic's chin-stroker-in-chief Cicero who said it first: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” But is that really true? And what about a room with only a handful of books?
Ask legendary clean-queen Marie Kondo and she'd likely disagree. For the bestselling Japanese author and her millions of global fans, less stuff = more joy, and the path to true happiness is to only keep the things that make you happy. That includes books. “I now keep my collection of books to about 30 volumes at any one time,” she wrote in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, adding: “Let’s face it. In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again.”
But then, if you'd asked Italian writer and inveterate book-keeper Umberto Eco – whose labyrinthine personal library creaked with more than 30,000 books – he'd have told you to cling on to every title you buy for dear life, whether you plan to read it or not. For him, the books you haven't read are as important as the ones you have. Because unread books are where the real action lies. They represent your literary ambition; the places you're yet to go.
But what kind of book-keeper are you? The kind who can't wait to get rid of a book the moment you've read it? Or the kind who stuffs your home with everything you've ever read, like a literary roadmap of your life?
Or more likely, you sit somewhere happily in between. Let's see...
0-5: The book monk
If one of your five books isn't Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying by Marie Kondo then I'll eat the perfectly-pruned bonsai on my vintage Scandic coffee table. I'd offer you my copy, but you clearly don't need it.
So what books do you actually have? A cookbook in the kitchen, a book of urban photography on the coffee table, and your graduation year-book in a box in the attic? The Great Gatsby? Well... You're a KonMari master, a walking masterclass in the Danish art of hygge. You're among that rarest breed of human who's tasted true spiritual freedom, in all its functional and decluttered glory.
5-50: The read-and-chucker
Is that a well-worn library card in your pocket? Or just a giant credit note for your nearesr secondhand bookshop?
For you, a book is merely a vessel for the knowledge contained within; its paper, typeface and coloured card are but clothes to keep the naked truth warm.
You're the kind of bookworm who will keep a book that touched your soul – a gift from an old flame, the Roald Dahl book your dad read to you 50 times as a kid, a treasured signed celebrity memoir – but that's it. The rest are best kept on an e-reader, as an audiobook on your phone or at Her Majesty, The Library's pleasure.
Exactly 42 books: The meaning of lifer
It's OK, you just took The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a little too literally, didn't you? Relax. Plus, there's something Sisyphean about keeping your collection to an exact number, having to decide which books to replace every time you bring home something new.
This could get serious, like a literary equivalent to Sophie's Choice, or when a waxwork museum has to choose which celebrity to melt down to make a new one. It's time to branch out, read something out of your comfort zone. Books don't have feelings; you can't cheat on one with another. Some Umberto Eco, perhaps?
50-150 books: The shelf sharer
For you, books flow through your life like friends. Many come and go over the years, but the best ones stay with you forever. This is the most common of the book-keeper types.
Your collection is far from representative of all the books you've ever read. But it contains the books you've loved and can't bear to let go; the ones you know you'll one day read again.
They are also a paper-and-ink manifestation of all the best parts of your personality, and you want to show them off. And why not? To share your shelf is to share yourself, and you wouldn't want it any other way.
150-500 books: The lay librarian
You're encroaching into “small personal library” territory here – the Holy Grail of bookkeeping. Someone comes over and asks you a question you can't answer... sure, you can just pop over to your wall-sized bookcase, put one finger to your lip and run the other along the rainbow of spines until you find your answer.
You're obviously a Proper Reader, the kind who inhales the written word like air. You love the way the paper feels between your fingers, the "shushing" sound each page makes when you turn it, as if it's telling the outside world to shut up and let you read. Do you lend your books to people? Seriously: does Harry Potter lend out his magic wand? Exactly.
500+ books: The tsundoku master
Your home is no longer just a home. It is a temple of the written word, an ode to thought, a bibliophile's inukshuk where books stretch in every direction to remind you who you are, where you've been and where you've still got to go. You're more than just a reader, you're a collector. You're a sensei in the way of tsundoku – the Japanese art of buying lots of books and never reading them.
But these unread books aren't merely there to make a good Zoom background. They are, as the Lebanese-American author/thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “a powerful reminder of your limitations – the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realise you’re wrong about.”
That's the power of books: they make you a better person... even when you don't read them.
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