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A room with books stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling with question: How many books does a book lover need?

How Many Books Does a Book Lover Need?

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Book Lovers and Their Books

A common pastime of readers everywhere is organizing and designing a home library.  These libraries run the gamut from nooks carved out of closets to spaces that mimic a public library, with volumes running into the hundreds or even thousands. 

On the flip side, book lovers across the Internet have famously chastised Marie Kondo for estimating that 30 is the appropriate number of books to have on hand. 

My Actual Experience as a Book Lover in Japan, Marie Kondo’s Home

Many people do not how different Japanese homes are from anywhere else in the world. They are very efficient, but they are also very small. I lived in Tokyo, in Japanese style homes, for six years.

I have to admit that access to books was one of my biggest worries.

How Amazon Nearly Made Me a Book Hoarder

In 2007 I moved to Japan, ironically, and along with me I brought 15 small boxes of books, much of it my to-be-read pile.  When I left, six years later to move to the Middle East, I had one and a half large boxes of books.  What happened?  Did I quit reading?  Haha, no of course not. 

The first thing that happened is the invention of Amazon.com.  I know people love to hate Amazon now (even as they all order from it like mad), but 20 years ago, Amazon started out as a book seller, and Amazon, along with E-bay and a website called Half.com, was a game changer because for the first time ever, you could pretty much get any book you wanted, when you wanted it. 

When Amazon appeared on the scene, in 1998, I was already a graduate student at a major university with extensive library holdings, so I already had access to a lot.  When Amazon came along, what I couldn’t get through the library was suddenly available, if it were in print.  Of course, at first, you have to pay shipping, but the prices were low enough that even with shipping it was cheaper than the bookstore.  And eventually those costs went away.

 Between Amazon and my frequent trips to bookstores, I’m embarrassed to say that maybe nearly half of my books were part of my massive “To Be Read” collection, and the other half were books that I thought would be difficult or expensive to replace, and for which I thought I might have a future use.  I owned quite a few children’s and young adult books as well, which fell under the category of “teaching resources”.

Fears about Living in a Non-English Speaking Country

 When I packed up to move to Japan, about 10 small boxes went into storage. These were books that I wanted long term (expensive or difficult to replace) but probably wouldn’t be needed in Japan.  The books that went were either professional books (as a first language high-school English teacher). 

Moving all of those books was expensive, but my entire life I had worried about running out of things to read…and I thought maybe with limited reading resources, I would finally get through my pile. 

The Reality of Being an English Speaking Book Lover in Japan

Pre-Kindle

Guess what happened in Japan?  I found out that resources really weren’t that limited.  Japan is a reading nation, and there are so many Japanese people who read that there were extensive books available in English.  There was already a Japanese Amazon site in 2007, and since the warehouse was right in Tokyo, where I lived, books came almost overnight.  I also figured out how to use Kinokuniya online (with a lot of help from Google translate), so I could order from there as well.  The books were full price, but full price with free shipping was about the same as the reduced price + shipping for books from the U.S.

 And the school I worked for had a good library, and they placed orders almost weekly. 

I wasn’t making much of a dent in my TBR pile. 

The Age of Kindle

Say what you will about Amazon, they were smart in that Kindles, from the beginning, were usable in foreign markets.  For the first few years, you couldn’t download samples while outside of the U.S., but eventually, if you got an international Kindle, use became seamless. 

 That was a game changer.  Then I could have instant access to any book that I wanted, almost, with the added benefit that downloading samples gave me the feeling of having a book in my TBR pile without actually buying the book.  

Because you know large TBR piles come from a fear of forgetting a book.  Or not being able to find it.  Or running out of things to read. 

Until I got my first Kindle, these fears were all real to me.  

The last few years I was overseas, I started systematically bringing back books that I still owned overseas that were important to me, including, memorably 1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die and 1001 Books you Must Read Before You Grow Up.  Turns out that airport security have all seen The Shawshank Redemption and check large, thick books by hand to ensure that you aren’t hiding anything in them.  Naturally, such heavy weight items went in my carry on luggage.

So now, in 2020, I estimate that I have between 200-300 books in my house: one small bookcase in my office, and another in my bedroom.  Out of those books, I estimate that I would probably keep about 100 the next time I move, and that includes all of my professional books…and reading is an integral part of my profession.

 

Why do I need so few books?

 

Well, ok, I have around 1500 on Kindle.  Out of those 1500, I’ve read all but of few that I paid for…I do have quite a few public domain freebies on there as well.

So one reason I don’t need so many books on my bookshelves is that they are all in my purse.

Which is, my friends, the dream.

Since libraries (Overdrive) and Amazon so seamlessly integrated their interface, I rarely buy Kindle books. Amazon has always been smart about keeping people on their site, whether they are buying or not, so they wisely work with libraries rather than against them. Very smart marketing and a boon for serious readers.

But they also make it easy to be cheap, and ever since I found out I can pay $50 a year to the Brooklyn Public Library as a nonresident to access their amazing digital catalog, I have done that.

Between the BPL and the two local (free) library cards I hold, I can just about anything. Just about.

If I can’t get it from any of my free resources, the next step is to examine the used book offerings online and determine whether a used book or the Kindle edition is a better buy.  

I also, as often as possible, choose the option on my Amazon orders that give me credits toward digital purchases, which include books, when I select a slower shipping option, which brings my costs down even more. 

So my question is, if your book collection goes beyond Marie Kondo’s 30 book “limit”*: Why? 

*Note that Kondo’s main point is that everything in your home should “spark joy”. She mentioned 30 books as a general rule of thumb.

 

 

 

Any discussion of home libraries deserves a mention of Thomas Jefferson. After the original Library of Congress was destroyed by the British/Canadians in the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson sold his home library to Congress as the seed for the new Library of Congress, which is the U.S. National Library. Any resident may get a card.  The current Library of Congress has reconstructed Jefferson’s original home library as a display with as many of the original books as possible.

 

Are you a Librarian or a Book Hoarder?

Think About These Questions

Do you keep books after they have been read?

  • Do you expect to re read them?
  • Do you want physical evidence of all of the books that you have read?

Is your TBR pile out of control?

Are you worried about running out of things to read?

Do you like to shop for books more than you like to read, or in reality do you shop more than you read?

Are you a book hobbyist?

  • Do you collect certain kinds of books? 
  • Are you interested in the books as objects more than their content?

Do you use the books regularly for your work or hobby, or do you reread your books?

 

 

 

This library is organized and neat. I’m sure the owner has help with keeping it clean.  I don’t know why the books are stacked horizontally, which makes me think they are never read. It’s also bad for the books.  I would be terrified of being in this room during an earthquake.  

                has-aspect-ratio

 

Are you a book hoarder?

  • Are you paying extra rent or a too-large mortgage to support your space allocated to books?
  • Are the books safely stored? 
  • Are they organized?
  • Are the shelves regularly dusted, and do you mind doing that?

Is your book collection a health hazard?

  • Are the books in a climate controlled area?
  • (If they aren’t, they are probably turning into a health hazard and becoming unusable. Mold is gross and dangerouse. So is rotten paper and glue.)
  • Is the flooring adequate to support the weight of the books?
  • Are the bookcases stable?
  • Are tall ones bolted to the walls or ceiling in case of an active child or an earthquake?

 

 

 

Click on the image to read a post about how to use these Japanese earthquake stabilizing poles…if you can find them. No tools or holes in the wall needed.

Does your book collection affect your family life?

  • Could someone else put the books taking up space in your house to better use?
  • Do family members seriously complain about your books?

 

 

 

Believe it or not, I like this home library. It’s not too large. There’s a stereo for music but no TV.  There’s room to get out of the way of falling books in an earthquake. The chair looks comfortable and there’s good light. The chair doesn’t face the books either, which is distracting to me.  I would get the books out of the horizontal stack on the floor and get the light source behind the chair, but overall, I’d say a real reader lives here. 

                
          
        
                has-aspect-ratio

Could You Have a Problem? 

I’m not the one to tell you what you should do with your books.  Personally, it suits me for people to buy books because the entire book business makes money. 

But if you aren’t keeping them clean and organized, I have questions.

If your TBR pile is completely out of control, I have questions.

If you are doing damage to your house, or especially throwing rent money away on book storage (come on, do the math), I have questions.

The point is, very few books have intrinsic value and most books are easy to obtain if you should somehow need them.

Access to books without physical books

You no longer need to have the physical books as an information storage systems anymore than you probably need the large filing cabinet you once had.  I personally have been using Librarything since 2003 (who have recently gone free), and many people use Goodreads.  Or you can store your book info privately on a spreadsheet. 

 If you own a Kindle version, Amazon stores it for you, and it’s always available for download. 

Another Spin on Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo says to only keep things around you that “spark joy”.  If physical books spark joy in you, by all means keep a lot around.  However, if the point is the content, you don’t need the books. For example, I know it’s what’s in the books that interest me more than the books themselves.  Don’t get me wrong…I do enjoy picking up old books and looking through them, and I love to brown facsimiles or scans of vintage books online.  But I am also grateful that the digital age has removed many of my book fears so I can worry less and read more.

In what was possibly the worst time book release ever, Marie Kondo released Joy at Work (in the U.S.) the same week that the entire world, including most offices, shut down for the COVID 19 pandemic.

Kondo doesn’t need any more promotion, that’s for sure, but I like her so I thought I remind you about this.

You Tell Us

Or this time, please share your home libraries, and tell us why you like it.

Also read The Lois Level on Kondo here: Ready to tidy up? Or looking for a reason to stall? Try Marie Kondo’s MANGA, which as a bonus, will show you what it’s like to live in a Tokyo apartment.

 

 

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!