Bringing it down to 40

The idea for some kind of Desert Island Books has been with me for years, but I’ve not got round to doing anything about it. Yet. Relax, I’m not going to start now, either.

But as the panic over pruning my library was beginning to slosh around in my brain, someone posted a link to a rather interesting article. Geoffrey Best in History Today mused about his book collecting, and then the reverse; the process where he’s had to get rid of one category after the other.

It makes for sad reading, actually. (Much sadder than the chap in the paper the other day who sold off his wine collection…) On re-reading the article I noticed two things. One was that as this was a collection, Geoffrey had not read all the books. That made me feel less inadequate. I sometimes believe I’m the only one who can’t keep up.

The other was that his potential final goal wasn’t for five books. It was for one.


His first awful ambition was which books to choose for when you can only keep 40 books. He arrived at this figure when visiting someone in a home, where he looked around and worked out that 40 might be the limit.

I reckon 40 might be possible. Hard, but doable. You’d need good criteria for how you pick, and that probably depends on who you are. I’ve always marvelled at the choice of the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs. Obviously they had to become standard issue once almost everyone felt they had to ask for them, whether because they genuinely loved them that much, or felt they wouldn’t be seen on a desert island without them…

Yes. Quite.

While I don’t know what I’d choose, I’m fairly certain it would be neither of those.

And while I thought the end goal was five books, I toyed with the idea of How I Live Now and Code Name Verity. Both favourites, both quite short. So perhaps you can’t do it that way?

Right now I am also having some problems with working out if I’m going to be sitting on an island or in some old people’s home. Would it be more of a blessing if – when the time comes – I am past reading, to save me doing the final prune, or am I better off with any small pile of books?

Will the grandchildren visit the old witch and bring books?

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8 responses to “Bringing it down to 40

  1. I never had the slightest temptation to narrow my choice down to one book, and I’m not going to do it now. I think that if it seems to you that you might end up on a desert island, it would probably be wiser to start memorizing a lot of poetry. Although I’m not going to do that either.

    I was watching some documentary the other night where Michael Feinstein is going around America seeking out lost or rare music. At one point he and his partner head out to his storage shed and his partner is fretting a bit about how he’s run out of ideas of where to put yet more records. And Michael says, “Well, I’m never going to stop.” And I thought, when it comes to books, no, I’m not either.

  2. And on a happier, keep-’em-all note, I heard this week about a teacher (I think) who left a large number of books when he wandered off to the Great Library in the Sky. They fetched £230,000 at auction.

  3. I’m not sure I’ve been collecting the right kind of books for money like that. I’ve gone more for the ‘I like to read this’ approach, than any value.

    Seana, please not the poetry!!

  4. But how can you know? That debut author who signed a first edition for you may be a future Pullman, Pratchett or JKR!

  5. I would like a solar chargeable, sand and waterproof eReader, then I wouldn’t have to leave ANY of my books behind :-P

  6. Linda, how long does one wait? So many deserve to be the new JKR or PP or TP, and in my mind they already are.

    Ape, I see you expect that retirement home to be wet and dirty, and strangely enough, sunny…

  7. I know someone who in the end got it down to two. (Treasure Island and Three Men in a Boat.)

  8. Really? And were they happy?

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