My One-Hundred-Book Library

The challenge of creating a zero-sum book collection

100 PageIf you own a copy of Will Schwable’s Books for Living, please turn to page 183 where you will find a chapter entitled ‘Song of Solomon: Admiring Greatness’. Here the author writes of a close friend who “loved books passionately” and “amassed a great collection” during his life. Upon reaching the age of 80, however, he decided to “keep exactly one hundred books” and no more. He proceeded to give away most of his voluminous library and remained true to his resolution for the rest of his days, He hung on only to those that held meaning for him and the rest were rehomed.

Schwable describes the one hundred books his friend left behind after his death as a “remarkable portrait of his life: an autobiography composed not of sentences but of books.”

As an inveterate book squirrel, I tried to imagine myself retaining a set number of published works while ousting the rest. I’m not being melodramatic when I tell you the thought induced in me the need for a strong cup of tea. I was nevertheless keen to see if I could at least create such a library in my head: one consisting of books which, for a variety of reasons, meant a great deal to me. It turned out that I could, although I suspect there may already be changes afoot as I cling to old favourites in a most disgraceful manner.


Should any of you wish to attempt this challenge, there are a few rules (well, suggestions):

a) You may add up to 100 books (fiction or non-fiction) to your figmental collection.

b) Titles may be added or removed at any point, but the number of individual books on your virtual shelf must never exceed 100, i.e. one in, one out. Alternatively, you may set the size of your library at (for instance) 50 or 30. The choice is entirely your own.

c) You can include an author’s collected works (or a series) on your shelf provided it has at some point genuinely been published in a single volume.

d) This isn’t meant to be a list of great titles or the most highbrow books you have read. Indeed, your choices don’t have to be particularly well-known. Please include only published works (it doesn’t matter if they are out of print) that have been significant to you in some way during your life. Books holding your most powerful memories.

e) Please include a link back to this post (I would love to know who, if anyone, takes on this challenge).


My Virtual Book Stash (in alphabetical order):

1. 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
2. The 101 Dalmatians – Dodie Smith
3. A Few Figs from Thistles – Edna St. Vincent Millay
4. A Land – Jacquetta Hawkes
5. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
6. A Room With a View – E.M. Forster
7. A Sketchbook of Birds – C.F. Tunnicliffe
8. Aesop’s Fables – Aesop
9. After Every War: Twentieth-Century Women Poets – Eavan Boland
10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
11. All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
12. Animal Farm – George Orwell
13. Ariel – Sylvia Plath
14. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee
15. At Your Own Risk – Derek Jarman
16. Bad Blood – Lorna Sage
17. La Bâtarde – Violette Leduc
18. The Berlin Stories – Christopher Isherwood
19. Before Night Falls – Reinaldo Arenas
20. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
21. Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood
22. The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt
23. The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman
24. Corfu Trilogy – Gerald Durrell
25. The Country Under My Skin – Gioconda Belli
26. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber
27. Deaths and Entrances – Dylan Thomas
28. The Diary of Samuel Pepys
29. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
30. Doctor Glas – Hjalmar Söderberg
31. Good-bye to All That – Robert Graves
32. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer
33. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
34. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
35. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
36. The Hours – Michael Cunningham
37. I, Claudius – Robert Graves
38. I Know My Own Heart – Anne Lister
39. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino
40. If This is a Man – Primo Levi
41. If This is a Woman – Sarah Helm
42. The Iliad – Homer
43. The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature – Margaret E. Martignoni
44. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
45. The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
46. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez
47. Matilda – Roald Dahl
48. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter – Simone de Beauvoir
49. The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
50. Moominland Midwinter – Tove Jansson
51. Moominsummer Madness – Tove Jansson
52. The Naked Civil Servant – Quentin Crisp
53. Neurotribes – Steve Silberman
54. The Night Watch – Sarah Waters
55. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
56. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
57. Not Waving But Drowning – Stevie Smith
58. The Old Possum Book of Practical Cats – T.S. Eliot
59. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
60. The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
61. Orlando – Virginia Woolf
62. The Orton Diaries – Joe Orton
63. The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
64. Passion – Jude Morgan
65. Perfume – Patrick Suskind
66. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
67. A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary – Voltaire
68. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog – Dylan Thomas
69. Possession – A.S. Byatt
70. The Postman of Nagasaki – Peter Townsend
71. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
72. Reuben Sachs – Amy Levy
73. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
74. Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi
75. The Regeneration Trilogy – Pat Barker
76. Resistance – Agnes Hume
77. Rimbaud: Poems – Arthur Rimbaud
78. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
79. Rubyfruit Jungle – Rita Mae Brown
80. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ – Sue Townsend
81. Seven Roads to Happiness – Desmond Marwood
82. The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau
83. Silly Verse for Kids – Spike Milligan
84. Solo’s Journey – Joy Smith Aiken
85. Sophie’s Choice – William Styron
86. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
87. The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter
88. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
89. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters
90. Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – Boel Westin
91. The Truce – Primo Levi
92. Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas
93. Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
94. The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley
95. Whale Nation – Heathcote Williams
96. The Woman’s Room – Marilyn French
97. Women in Love – D.H. Lawrence
98. Writing Home – Alan Bennett
99. Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
100. Yentl the Yeshiva Boy – Isaac Bashevis Singer

Other Bloggers Taking Part:

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77 replies

  1. This is a fascinating idea! I was just thinking earlier today that as a book squirrel my bookshelves are my diary. I can see that trying to come up with a list myself would be an ongoing project.

    There are so many wonderful books on your list. Will you be updating the post as you change you mind about any?

  2. What an excellent idea! How long did it take you to compile your list?

    • I just couldn’t resist having a go. I’ve been tinkering about with it for the last few days, but decided to post and be damned. I will undoubtedly keep making alterations. I can’t help myself!

  3. What an exciting idea… a bit scary and daunting too, even if just figurative. Lol
    Although, I do like the idea of limiting my book collection to just one number…. hmmm…

  4. Wow – I don’t think I could do that without having some kind of conniption fit. I’ve read 38 of yours and love your list but argghhhhh. Sends me all funny!

  5. What an interesting list (and several on there I might agree with) But I’m still having palpitations at the thought of having so few books. I mean, the complete works of Agatha ?Christie (which I own) would create a problem to start with…

    • I know, Karen. I kept changing my mind. In the end I just pressed post because I can alter it in the future. It’s not something I would ever attempt in real life. Is there a Complete Works of Agatha Christie in one volume? If so, that would be fine. So long as something has genuinely been published in that format, it’s good to go. If it was published in two volumes, then that would count as two books and so on.

  6. Paula, this is so impressive! I have anxiety just thinking about it, but wow, am I ever impressed. And I’m taking note. 100 books there that I need to make sure I read!

  7. I’m not familiar with a lot of the books in your hundred (I’m ashamed to say), but I do think Bad Blood is a genuine triumph. I met Lorna Sage very briefly a very long time ago, and it was an interesting experience to put it mildly. It’s a bit of a shame she didn’t live longer and write more stuff.

    • No need to be ashamed, my list has quite a few oddities included. Wow, you met Lorna Sage. Amazing! Yes, very sad her life was cut so short. Quite a character, wasn’t she? I know the village where she grew up very well.

      • I think that kind of local knowledge you have is so interesting and valuable- when a book is rooted in a place then having a personal relationship with that space gives someone a real insight into where an author is coming from. I was obliged to discuss Yeats with the formidable Lorna Sage, who seemed to think I should have known more of the poetry by heart. I was young, and a bit distracted, and it was only later I grew to appreciate her genius.

      • I would have been completely terrified if I’d been in your shoes, John. No doubt I would have sat before her mute, unable to remember my own name, let alone the poetry of Yeats!

  8. I love this – and might try to do it if I can find the time. I love that you have Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and, of course, Northanger Abbey. I think mine would include the Complete works of Austen, Cry the Beloved Country (Paton), Beloved (Morrison), Old Possum …., and the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Also Edith Wharton’s The house of mirth, and Camus’ The plague. And several Aussies …

    BTW I probably wouldn’t have The night watch on my list, but I did enjoy it rather a lot.

    My Mum, 89 this year, downsized her books last year for her move into a retirement village. It’s been a point of ongoing pain, as she feels she kept the wrong ones. I’ll tell her about Schwable’s friend.

    • That’s great, Sue. I really hope you have a go at creating a 100 book library. It has the makings of being absolutely fascinating. I can well understand how your mum must feel, especially after doing this challenge. It’s incredibly difficult for a book lover to part with a single volume, let alone the best part of a life-time’s collection!

  9. I actually try to regularly donate books I didn’t like or am no longer interested in, but cutting my list down to only 100 books still makes me anxious!

  10. I think I’m correct in saying that Sherlock Holmes only ever had one book in his library and that was Bradshaw’s railway timetable: he could get all the other books he might need to consult from the public library (did he read much fiction though?). He might find that option difficult in today’s austere climate, but then a phone in his pocket or a tablet might be all he required.

    My problem is less to do with fiction (and I recognise a good many of your titles on my own shelves) than with non-fiction and obscure reference books, most of which I’ve built up over the years and struggle to see even referenced on Amazon or search engines. Certainly the county library service is unlikely to stock a good proportion of them.

    Nevertheless, I do like this concept, Paula, and your choices of course! I shall be mulling over adapting this for my purposes I think…

    • The reference books were an issue for me, too. I decided in the end not to include any at all and use the internet for all fact finding – though it isn’t the same, I know. I really hope you have a bash at this, Chris. I would be intrigued to see your list.

      • I have various historical atlases, perhaps a bit vintage now, but I can’t imagine the info they contain (and especially the relationship between history and geography) being as accessible online. And that’s only one example!

        OK, I accept the gauntlet you’ve thrown down, I’ll start a list now! But I may prevaricate a little

      • Good man, Chris! If it helps at all, it’s worth keeping the words ‘memorable’ and ‘significant’ in the forefront of your mind when creating this list. I found it useful in the selection process.

  11. I would have to have some Agatha Christie- and Dickens too since I do enjoy his stories but in neither case is a complete works possible is there? I would have to have my complete Sherlock Holmes as well.

    Interesting that you picked Northanger Abbey of the Austens- I might have picked Emma or perhaps the Complete Works in this case makes more sense.

    • Well, it’s all about picking books that invoke particular memories and emotions, or ones that were significant at a certain point in life – for all kinds of different reasons. I have a soft spot for Northanger Abbey because it was my first Austen. I chose collected works only when all the books in the set were of significance, such as Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy, because they were all so important to me as a young person. Every book reminds me of a person, event, great happiness, sadness etc. in life. I suppose it’s almost library as diary or biography.

      • I like NA too. I must get to the rest of the Corfu Trilogy- I’ve only read My Family and Other Animals which I loved.

        I would still have to have Dickens on my list (because in some ways, it was the his storytelling that really got me hooked onto the classics), Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes of course, Jane Eyre (its amazing how I love that one more and more with each read), Wodehouse (though its hard to pick one- Spring Fever, Full Moon, A Pelican at Blandings, may be). May be I should try this challenge. It will take some doing for sure but should be fun 🙂

      • That’s brill! So glad you’re going to have a go. 😊

  12. Your list is really interesting – I’ve not read that many on it though. I might just have to have a go at this… 🙂

  13. What a wonderful idea, and how fun – and what a list! I’m definitely going to have to do this. Did you go exploring your shelves, or just work from your memory?

  14. LOL I’m having palpitations at the idea of doing this even virtually… but I like your list:)
    I especially like the unforgettable children’s books you have there: Peter Rabbit, The Water Babies, Alice, (of course) and 101 Dalmations – how I loved that book! (Now that I’m supposed to be a grown-up, I fantasise about having 101 Silky Terriers!) At the risk of squeezing out some other well-loved adult book, I would also add The Wind in the Willows, I used to read to my classes that scene where Mole sobs to Ratty about wanting to go home, and there would be surreptitious tears every time!

    • Thanks Lisa. Beatrix Potter wrote: “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.” I loved that line as a child and never forgot it, or her wonderful books. There were so many children’s titles I could have included on my list but I had to draw the line somewhere!

      • Yes, I remember that line, and the nonsensical objection to it as too hard for little children from some (American?) publishers who wanted to publish a child-friendly version of the book as a ‘reader’. I used to do a ‘Beatrix Potter’ author study with my Prep classes, and when we came to soporific, I would mime falling asleep after eating lettuce, and then the kids would all ‘fall asleep’ on the floor after ‘eating lettuce’ and I have no doubt that every one of them remembers what that word means forever!

      • What a great way to teach kids a new word!

  15. I would LOVE to do this! Virtually of course! But it will take me a while. Having read your wonderful and eclectic list, I’m now imagining how each one fitted into your life. And thinking (somewhat alarmingly) that if I ever manage to create my virtual 100 I’d need to write myself at least a paragraph to justify the inclusion of each one. Hours of fun!

  16. I love your mix of books. It really tells a lot about a person do a list like this. I have been physically culling books for a few months…to make room for more. Yikes, I don’t think I can do even a figmental list at the moment!

  17. Wow! I’m really impressed with not only your willingness to even attempt such a challenge (Albeit virtually), but to limit yourself to such a diverse range of 100 books! How long did it take you to put this together?

    I like the challenge involved here, honestly. But I feel like my own library would be much smaller. I am at a point in my life where physical books are more a burden than a blessing. I try to only keep certain books in a physical copy. The question is– does this still apply in a virtually-dominated book world?!

    • Thank you, Jackie. I was compiling the list on and off for several days. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be applied to ebooks, too – they’re still books, after all. A book, is a book, is a book…

      • I don’t disagree that a book, is a book, is a book. But, how much of honing this library has to do with physical space rather than selective book ownership? Personally, I find physical space is most often a deciding factor than the need to be selective with my books. I feel like a consolidated 100 book physical collection would provide me a lot of power. However, I feel strange limiting my ownership of eBooks and eAudiobooks. They don’t really have a “shelf” they occupy. I use search functionality to find them. And, I can sort in all sorts of different ways (genre, author, narrator, acquisition date) as I see fit. I don’t feel like they clutter my bookshelves. Does that make sense?

      • Yes, that makes perfect sense, Jackie. Excellent point. Having given this more thought, I would say that it’s fine to keep as many ebooks and Audiobooks as you like. After all, this challenge is all about taking control of your physical library.

  18. Oh my gosh I so want to do this. What a genius idea and I love where it came from too. I fear I could spend a very long time mulling this over – how long did it take you??

  19. I love this idea, although it also terrifies me. I am messy, struggle to keep my book collecting under control and yet aspire to minimalism, so the idea of downsizing to the bare essentials is appealing. I might give it a go!

  20. I love this! I actually went through a similar thing about 15 years ago, after one too many moves. I decided to keep only the books I really loved. I’m pretty sure it’s less than 100, but maybe I should count and see!

  21. This is a fantastic idea. I might make a static page at wordpress based on this idea. I’ll be sure to link here once it happens, maybe later this year.

  22. Thanks for this. Thanks also for liking my blog

  23. I don’t think I could ever do it! : )

  24. This is a fun idea, but the thought of physically taking on the task is terrifying – a “figmental library” is so much better! 🙂
    Your list of books is interesting – there aren’t many here that I have read, but quite I few that I would like to!

  25. I love this idea! I’d have to put some serious thought into this if I were going to come up with a list, but maybe at some point I’ll attempt this. 🙂


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