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How Many Books Does a Person Need?

“The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself.” – Walter Benjamin


Suggesting that people might want to reduce the number of books they have is a surefire way to anger bibliophiles, offend amateur librarians, stir up people who enjoy getting riled up over advice not really meant for them, and frighten bookstore owners. Regardless of what the real contents of the original suggestion may have been, or the context in which this advice was couched, to suggest that people may have more books than they really need is seen by some as a declaration of war. And yet, it may well be that such a controversy is reflective of one of the great existential quandaries that has plagued humankind since Gutenberg’s day, namely: just how large a library does a person need? Ten books? Thirty books? One hundred books? Five hundred books? A thousand books? More?

Thus, in the hopes of assisting those wading through this quagmire (or navigating between mountains of books), what follows are the positives and negatives relating to keeping various quantities of books. This assessment is based on a painstaking analysis of the scholarly literature, and careful field work, conducted by an expert team of librarians, book hoarders, and ne’er do wells – all of whom wish to assure you that they aren’t getting kickbacks from bookstores, book publishers, or shelf makers. It should be recognized from the outset that “book” is bound to be an unsatisfactory unit of measurement seeing as some books are quite small while others are quite large, and thus the reader is encouraged to think of “book” as being a stand-in for the average sized volume in their own personal library.

What follows is an analysis based on a range of books in a particular collection.


0 Books

Positives: light weight, takes up no space, easy to pack

Negatives: no books to read, over reliance on other media formats

Further comments: Lest there be any confusion, this represents an absolute lack of books. it does not include books that you have purchased (or borrowed) but which you will be rid of as soon as you finish with them. After all, if you have five books that you’ve borrowed from the library you don’t have zero books, you have five. Similarly, if you buy a book, read it, and then get rid of it before you get your next book – the only time during which you have zero books is in the brief moments between getting rid of the one and buying the other. Having absolutely no books is a strategy taken by austere ascetics, but tends to be pretty rare. There are certainly some benefits, but most scholars seem to agree that this is minimalism taken to the extreme. Indeed, even religious hermits (and hotel rooms) usually have at least one book, just to be safe. To go completely without books (even ones borrowed from the library/a friend, or bought and swiftly discarded) is to miss out on the rich cultural history of humanity. Furthermore, experimental physicists have concluded that black holes don’t have any books, meaning that if your home doesn’t have any books it could at any moment turn into a black hole, which would destroy the Earth. Thus, though this guide is not meant to be judgmental, it is the assessment of the creators of this guide that having more than zero books is advisable.


0* Books (e-books)

Positives: light weight, takes up very little space, easy to pack,

Negatives: you don’t really “own” these books, Internet access required, e-readers break, surveillance capitalism, power required,

Further comments: One of the popular ways to provide a snappy answer to the question of “how many books should I own?” is to cheat. And what better way to cheat than by availing yourself of e-books. After all, e-books allow a person to have numerous books (or borrow them from a library that offers e-books) without having to devote space to accommodate them. Granted, there are downsides to this, as the e-reader maker could go out of business or a book that was supposedly downloaded could simply disappear, or you could drop your e-reader and break it. Furthermore, to read a book on an e-reader is to know that your reading is constantly being watched by the device (and the device maker) – which, to be frank, can be a bit creepy. The larger problematic with this tack (which, to be clear, represents an e-reader and only an e-reader) is that it makes a person highly reliant on having access to power with which to keep the e-reader charged. After civilization crumbles, how will the proud e-reader owner access their books? While reliance on an e-reader allows an individual to have a thousand books in the amount of space of a single slim volume, an e-reader can too easily become little more than a glorified paperweight. Nevertheless, for those who are very space conscious, an e-reader can be a useful device.


1 to 30 books

Positives: easy to pack, allows for variety, aesthetically pleasing

Negatives: allows for limited variety, requires regular weeding, can easily be dominated by a series

Further Comments: The expert team behind this guide has concluded that 25 to 30 books represents a safe average estimate for how many books can fit on a single 31 inch shelf. Or, to put it more obviously, you can conceive of 1 to 30 books as the number that can easily fit on a single shelf. Such a quantity requires diligence and commitment. After all, books are a lot like rabbits – not because they can only count to four, but because if left to their own devices they tend to reproduce quickly. The danger of the collection capped at 30 is that it can easily become a collection of 31 which can easily become a collection of 300. Though it is not advisable to store your books on a slippery slope, accumulating books can quickly become such a thing. Indeed, many a collection that winds up at 28 volumes began as a collection that was supposed to be capped at 10. Therefore, keeping a collection in this range requires constant vigilance, and necessitates regular assessments of which books should be kept and which should be discarded. Relationship therapists consulted in the creation of this guide have also noted that the single shelf can be a matter of conflict for many couples as it can result in tension if one person is dominating the shelf space.


31 – 50 books

Positives: avoid couple’s therapy, relatively easy to pack, allows you to have the “complete works” of a moderately prolific writer

Negatives: things are starting to get out of hand, careful weeding still required,

Further Comments: With this range a single bookshelf has proved insufficient (unless the books are very thin). And yet a collection in this range does not yet suggest that a given person is moving into the book hoarder territory (far from it) – especially if this range represents a compromise that will allow two people to each have a bookshelf. With this many books it can be expected that they can still be neatly confined to shelves, without needing to tightly squeeze books in or lay extra volumes horizontally on top of the vertically arranged books. Granted, the true danger that materializes at this point is that two full bookshelves encourages a person to stand back and ponder whether it would look nice for there to be three full shelves, or even more. A collection of 30 books or under allows for a few volumes to be scattered here and there, but once you move beyond 31 it becomes necessary to consider investing in an actual bookshelf – and a careful analysis of furniture catalogs shows that most bookshelves have space for more than 31 to 50 books. While 31 to 50 books does not necessarily represent a failure to carefully weed a collection, it does suggest that the weeding is not being done with an iron fist. At this point it may be necessary to carefully consider attempting to get back down to 30, or to commit to a day dawning when there are 51 books in your home.


42 Books

Positives: It is the perfect answer to every mathematical question

Negatives: Is it really?

Further Comments: When faced with the question of “how many books should a person have?” some people right away know that there is really only one answer to this question, and that is 42. These people will carefully keep their collection to this number as they are driven by a deep philosophical commitment to this number. They are also likely to always carry a towel with them. Of course, this does not answer the question of which 42 books to keep (well, 41 really, seeing as their devotion to this number suggests a devotion to a particular book), but there are stranger reasons to keep your personal library to a particular number. That being said, it’s hard to carry 42 books with you while you’re hitchhiking.


51 to 99 books

Positives: Allows you to have many books without crossing the hundred mark,

Negatives: At this point you can’t really claim that you are keeping your collection to a minimum

Further Comments: This quantity represents a dangerous liminal space. Indeed, careful analysis of the statistical data has revealed that the number of people who manage to maintain a collection at this number is very low. The reason? With this quantity of books, it is not so much that a person is making a commitment to a certain quantity as that they are teetering between two options: to enact a significant weeding which will reduce the collection significantly, or take the plunge into acquiring even more books. Thus, when a person finds their personal library at this stage it should be a moment of careful personal reflection – which way does a person want to go? There are many serious implications here, notably that as a person approaches the more numerous side of this range additional spatial considerations come into play. After all, one can usually find relatively easy ways to fit fewer than fifty books in a home, but once you hit fifty-one it becomes harder and harder to avoid the need for a bonafide bookshelf. True, this is a rather wide range and it may seem at first that there is a big difference between 52 books and 98 books, but that is exactly the type of thinking that has led someone to shrug at their acquisition of their 52nd book. Nevertheless, to put things in perspective, this is the number of books that some civil defense manuals suggested a person should have in their fallout shelter which suggests that this is an appropriate quantity to get a person through a nuclear war and the following nuclear winter – make of that information what you will.


100 to 150 books

Positives: You can keep a wide assortment of books, single additions are easily absorbed, aesthetically pleasing, somehow you seem to have gotten a cat

Negatives: You’re going to need a real bookshelf, no longer quite so easy to box up and move, aesthetically pleasing, somehow you seem to have gotten a cat

Further Comments: What often goes unsaid about books is that they are a gateway to more books. Sometimes this gets phrased in a less sinister way that highlights that a love of reading is a good thing – and, in fairness, one can get books from the library or maintain an iron clad commitment to keeping your total collection low. However, once you start accumulating a large quantity of books, it is hard to stop the momentum. In the follow up surveys conducted a year after the initial round of research, a staggering 94% of those who had reported their collections were in this range reported that they were on course (if not already at) the next quantity of books. Once the 100 books threshold has been crossed there is rarely any turning back. Certainly, there is the occasional tale of the person who gives up all of their earthly possessions in order to be a monk, hermit, cult leader, or arctic explorer – but at this point the books have won. They have. Stop trying to pretend otherwise. Really. They won, you lost. Whereas it was earlier explained that 30 books can be considered a solid estimate as to how many books can fit on an average shelf, once you hit this range you are moving into the territory where you won’t require a shelf but a standard six-shelved bookshelf. Luckily for you such shelves are relatively affordable (depending on what they’re made out of), and fairly easy to come by. And this is a quantity of books that a person can have in their home without really appearing like a book hoarder. At this range one can still avoid questions about why so many books are being kept, which is an excellent question to be able to dodge. What’s more at this range it may be difficult to really weed back down to under 50, but there should be enough variety that it isn’t impossible to do some occasional shifting – getting rid of old books to make room for new ones. Of course, once you have one full bookshelf it is easy to develop positive emotions towards the sight of it. One can easily begin thinking that it would look very nice to have an entire wall of bookshelves. If the 51 to 99 range represented balancing precariously at the top of a slippery slope, the decision to get that hundredth book marks the point at which one has really started sliding down.


151 to 300 books

Positives: You have a wide assortment of books to lend to people, you can genuinely begin referring to it as your “library”

Negatives: You’re no longer fooling anyone, you catch yourself referring to your books as “my precious”

Further Comments: Some cryptozoologists have suggested that once a collection of books crosses the 150 books mark it actually ceases to simply be a collection of books. Rather, at this point the books achieve a sort of self-awareness of themselves as a book and as a library. Thus, this is no longer just a bunch of books, but a cryptid that it is committed to its own survival and to its own growth. What’s more this is not some mindless gibbering eldritch horror, but a clever and composed entity that carefully conceals its existence. Yet late at night it whispers in the darkness, encouraging the person who has brought this creature to consciousness to accumulate more books. The person may decide that they like books, they might even refer to themselves as a book lover, but as they peruse book stores and steadily bring more and more books home they are actually in thrall to a mysterious creature that wishes to extend the reach of its papery tendrils into every single room in the house. According to occultists and those who work in the restricted stacks of libraries there are references to these ancient creatures in many old texts, but the will of the library tends to hide these texts from view, thus making it difficult to know how to combat this creature. Indeed, most people choose not to even try. And, in fairness, as far as cryptids go, this is a pretty easy one with which to cohabitate. Of course, much more can and should be said about this, but that is a topic for another time and place. But for now it is enough to know that once your collection exceeds 150 volumes, it is no longer just a stack of books. Consider yourself warned!


301 to 600 books  

Positives: Your home will faintly smell of books, easy to hide additions to the collection from those you cohabitate with

Negatives: You’ll probably need to hire movers to transport them all, your home will faintly smell of books, you are accumulating books more quickly than you can read them

Further Comments: Look, we all know how this happened. You read a book loaded with references to other books and decided to go out and read those others books which in turn were also filled with references to still other books which you went and read only to discover that they too were filled with references to other books and at this point how can you not get those too so you got them and these were filled with references to books that sounded really interesting so of course you had to go out and get them only to find that they contain comments on books that at this point you’re ashamed of yourself for not owning so you’d really better go and get them too and when you do get them which at this point probably required a serious amount of effort on your part you find yourself no longer dismayed but actively pleased to see all of the references to even more books and at this point it occurs to you that you are starting to see references to books in other languages and even though you don’t read those languages you decide that you’re going to start to learn those languages and as you work on your language skills you begin buying books in those languages but at the same time you’ve still been reading books with references to other books that your collection definitely needs and by now you’re actually writing a book yourself and you know that you’re going to really need to demonstrate that you did all of the research necessary so you’d better go out and get some more books and….and…and…the point is that your loved ones are starting to worry about you.


613 books

Positives: Those who understand will understand

Negatives: It is difficult to maintain a collection at a specific number

Further Comments: In conducting the research that is here compiled, many of those consulted spoke to there being a particular reason behind their desire to maintain their collection at an exact number. Numerous individuals responded in that matter; however, 613 is one of the numbers that was mentioned by multiple individuals. (36, to be specific). When pressed for an explanation, these respondents tended to make vague references to commandments, though they were quick to clarify that no one had specifically commanded them to have a collection of this many books. Still others suggested that this was a “righteous” number. When pressed that such an emphasis on commandments would seem to suggest a collection of 10 books instead of 613 books, one respondent smiled knowingly, but refused to clarify. It seems that there is something of a small community – but a community nevertheless – amongst book hoarders that seek to maintain their collections at 613 volumes. Though it is worth noting that well-placed sources within this community noted that there are some within it who argue that in modern times the number needs to be raised to 614. For those in this group, achieving a collection of this many volumes is of very particular significance, but what that significance is happens to be something of a secret.


601 to 999 books

Positives: When somebody asks “do you have a copy of…” there’s a good chance your answer will be “yes,” your dream of living in a library has come true, a collection of this size is somewhat easier to weed, you’re probably spending a lot of time looking for out of print books

Negatives: You will have to hire movers and they will not be pleased (so tip well), you will require many book shelves, some will accuse you of being like a goldfish but with books, you will probably wind up with multiple copies of the same book by accident, your paycheck is directly deposited at the bookshop, you’re probably spending a lot of time looking for out of print books

Further Comments: Who is it that truly needs in excess of 600 books but fewer than 1,000? If one asks this question, the person with that many books is likely to respond “I do.” Rare is the person who has accidentally accumulated this many books. While it is easy to accrue a collection of 50 books or so without much thought, once a person has found their collection in this range it is a definite sign of some genuine thought having gone into planning it. And, it should be noted, this thought (in addition to the aforementioned cryptid) provides the collection with its reason for existence. At this level a person (or persons) have genuinely decided that they are building up a personal library, and the shelves demonstrate a commitment to certain areas of specialization, even as the broader collection touches upon many other areas. Far from being out of control, a collection of this size tends to be one that is controlled by the particular needs of the collection: several more books are needed to finish the utopianism section, more secondary literature on post-colonial studies is needed, how can this collection not have {insert title} the classic work by {insert author name}? Given the logic undergirding the collection it is easy to maintain it in this range, even as the breadth of this range demonstrates how easily books can be added to such a collection in ones and twos. Of course, the very size also means that it can be a bit easier to weed down this collection if necessary, as at this size individual attachment to specific volumes tends to decrease somewhat. While such a collection certainly has a person on track to qualifying as a legitimate book hoarder, there does seem to be something psychologically significant about being able to say that your collection remains under 1,000 volumes. Granted, every collection of over 1,000 books was at one time a collection in the range of 601 to 999 books.


1,000 books and beyond

Positives: This is a lot of books – but is it enough?

Negatives: This is a lot of books – but is it too many?

Further Comments: In an 1880 lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, William Morris advised his listeners to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” And such is the ethos that many a serious book collector will point to as they proudly comment on the fact that their collection has exceeded 1,000 volumes. To such a person books are useful, beautiful, or both – and they justify their collection accordingly. Granted, there will be some who point out that in a collection of such a size it’s hard for everything to really be useful, and there will be others who point out that mass-market paperbacks aren’t particularly beautiful…but it matters not. For the person with a thousand books or more, their collection has become an important part of their personal identity, and thus they are likely to react harshly to those who suggest they have too many books. Of course, it can be a challenge to accumulate this many books. Books are not inexpensive, after all. Furthermore, the majority of those who have this many books find it unseemly to simply leave all of their books piled about on the floor, and thus lots of shelves (which take up lots of space) are needed. At this point a person may dream of one day donating their collection to some august institution, which (let’s be honest) might not be all that interested. And one’s heirs may anxiously survey the packed shelves in anticipation of the day when finding a new home for this collection will be their responsibility. But once a collection crosses the thousand mark, it is rare to see it fall back below that number. Granted, if you have decided to accumulate such a collection…that’s probably what you planned.


By way of conclusion, let us present something of an executive summary culled from our careful research: every individual knows how many books they need. For some people this is very many, for some people this is quite few. Some people can benefit from assistance in reducing the number of books they have, while others might benefit from devising some sort of actual collecting strategy. But be careful: once you start accumulating books, chances are you’ll wind up accumulating more. Which, depending on your perspective, may not be such a bad thing.


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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

14 comments on “How Many Books Does a Person Need?

  1. dysfunctional literacy
    January 23, 2019

    This blog post is a keeper!

    Whenever I start cutting down on my book collection (it happens a lot and will continue to happen), I’ll refer back to this.

  2. NW Filbert
    January 23, 2019

    Awesome! I’ve recently barreled past 6,000…& all beautiful, essential, & so on… but many no longer have shelf-homes… 😞

  3. Sadie-Kay
    January 23, 2019

    Yikes! I did a rough count and seem to have a thousand books.
    I have no intention of stopping there.
    I’ll keep acquiring books till I die.
    I’m proud of my collection.
    And, no. I do not have a cat.
    I dare say I also have a husband with a thousand books.
    Oh, we do indeed have a full library.
    We’re a bookish pair.
    No book shaming allowed!

  4. Lady Trish
    January 24, 2019

    Oh My Goodness! I finally read a document that can confirm that I am not absolutely crazy! If I had my way (if my husband did not have a fist every time a new book comes in) I would be living in a library! I love the smell and the feel of holding a book and I am even more excited by used books knowing that someone has already held and read this book but thought it was a great idea to sell it for $2 . I’m in NY so needless to say I have no space so I carve out some space from under « my side of the bed » and my closet. I got rid of some clothes to make space for my books lol . I tell my husband once we buy a home I need an office cause I plan to teach online but really in my mind I already know that office is going to be my dream library ! Thank you for this article .

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  6. J.W. Martin
    January 31, 2019

    What a great post! How many books before you are unofficially a used book store??

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  8. Lisa Hill
    June 22, 2020

    Love it.
    And yes, I have 1000+.
    I think The Spouse does too…

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  11. Kathleen
    July 18, 2021

    The answer, of course, is N+1. N being the number of books one currently owns.

  12. Pingback: How Many Books Have Been Written? – Chilkibo Publishing

  13. Felicis
    May 15, 2022

    I may have over a thousand books, but it is only one collection… That has to count for something!

  14. Pingback: How to Pick a Book for the Beach | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2019 by in Books, Humor and tagged , , , , , , .

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