Monday, July 30, 2012

Getting down to the numbers

An e-mail the other day from regular reader (and great writer) Lee Sandlin posed a question that seemed worthy of a quick post: Lee asked which author I had the most books by on my shelves--and, following that, whether that ranking reflected their actual position in my reading life?

I'll leave it to Lee to decide whether he wants to, in comments, reveal his top author, volumes-wise. For myself, I expected it would be Anthony Powell, which would be appropriate: as many of you know, Powell's books--not just the novels, but the volumes of collected reviews and occasional writings and his notebooks and journals as well--are ones I return to again and again, never tiring of his eye for character and appreciation of human oddity.

But Powell's 31 volumes, it turns out, are second . . . to Donald E. Westlake, who under his various writing names accounts for 36 volumes. Westlake is less influential than Powell on my writing and thinking day to day, but nonetheless there's rarely a day that goes by when I don't think about his books at some point. Iris Murdoch and P. G. Wodehouse take third with 28 apiece. The number of Wodehouse books is essentially unimportant: what matters is that they're all in some wonderful way the same and that there's a near-infinite supply of them. As for Murdoch: there was a time when she was easily my favorite writer, and while others have surpassed her, I still feel a thrill when I open one of her novels--the wildly emotional, comic world she creates is unlike anything else. Dickens comes next with a mere 25, yet another reason to curse the unhealthy strain of the reading tours that took him away from his desk for so many months!

And for you? Who leads the count on your shelves? Any surprises?


  1. Librarything is useful for answering this sort of question: turns out for me it's Gertrude Stein at 23, Guy Davenport at 20, Harry Mathews at 20, Donald Barthelme at 19, Samuel Delany at 18. Stein & Davenport it's the book collector impulse; with Barthelme, it's being a completist. Kind of surprised I have that much Harry Mathews, I guess? It's an odd list: I'm not sure that it's really the authors I care most about, though the numbers would claim otherwise.

  2. Not sure of the exact count, but my top three are probably Nelson Algren, Knut Hamsun and William Trevor.

  3. In 2006 Kate S. asked and answered Which Authors Dominate Your Bookshelves? (Her criterion: "arbitrarily defined as those whom I own five or more books by or about.")

    Terry Teachout answered:

    So did Patrick Kurp:

    And Frank Wilson:

    Here's the list I came up with back then:

    Jacques Barzun
    Brand Blanshard
    Anthony Burgess
    Guy Davenport
    Joseph Epstein
    Robert Frost
    Donald Hall
    Eric Hoffer
    Henry James
    Samuel Johnson
    Bill Kauffman
    Hugh Kenner
    Florence King
    Philip Larkin
    C. S. Lewis
    D. Keith Mano
    Vladimir Nabokov
    Albert Jay Nock
    Sam Pickering
    V. S. Pritchett
    Barbara Pym
    Peter Quennell
    Richard Rodriguez (only 3 titles, but more than 5 copies)
    George Santayana
    Alexander Theroux
    John Updike
    Evelyn Waugh
    E. B. White
    Edmund Wilson
    P. G. Wodehouse

  4. Shakespeare, Chekhov, James, Nabokov, Hemingway. More Camus than I remembered having. A surprising number of Agatha Christie novels.

  5. are we also counting books *about* the author? (Critical works, biographies.)

    -an interested party

  6. J. M. Coetzee, John Updike, Nicholson Baker, Henry James.

  7. I counted biographies of the author, in part because I shelve them together and in part because, well, I don't read bios of authors I'm not interested in, so they seem to qualify for the purposes of a count like this one.

    Thanks to everyone who's chimed in thus far--I love the variety. (And thanks, Dave, for pointing out the earlier discussion!)

  8. The winner on our shelves is Philip K Dick, with 57 titles. The runners-up are Dickens and Edmund Wilson, with 37 titles each. There are a whole bunch who'd place with 20+, including Mari Sandoz, John McPhee, WH Auden, William Hazlitt, Elizabeth Bowen...

    But does the number relate to the importance? Most of the PKDick I picked up when his books were way, way out of print, and you never knew if "Our Friends from Frolix 8" would be the only copy you'd ever see. On the other hand, weighted for significance, Bruno Schulz ought to be worth about 75 titles -- instead there's just "Street of Crocodiles."

  9. I wonder if you have read/would like Simon Raven, who wrote a huge long sequence of novels called Alms for Oblivion. They rival, and are sometimes compared to, Powell's sequence in number - both of volumes and characters. They are much more, um, earthy/ribald/vulgar/trashy but hugely entertaining, if sometimes sexually gruesome.

  10. Great question! My 30+ club seems to be Robert Walser (38), John Ashbery (32, counting two books he translated), and Virginia Woolf, although some of hers are in storage so I can't say for sure -- I'd believe anywhere from 25-40.

    The 20+ club is: Thoreau, Rilke, Handke, Tove Jansson, Yasushi Inoue (22), Faulkner, Proust, Nabokov, Uwe Johnson, and Powell if you count the 4-vol Chicago edition as 12. LOA collections of complete novels and complete stories keep Isaac Bashevis Singer (17) and Hawthorne (16) out of 20+. Walser, Rilke, Handke, Inoue, Johnson, and Proust get a leg up from the same books in multiple languages.

    Not quite enough Dante, Bolano, Bernhard, Borges, Walter Benjamin, Carl Jung, Iris Murdoch, Jon Fosse, Anne Carson, L. Frank Baum, Louis Aragon, Kurt Schwitters, Paul Klee, Ingeborg Bachmann.

  11. Barbara Pym first with 24, Dorothy L. Sayers second with 19, and yes, those are two of my favorite authors. The only others with more than 10 are some other mystery writers (PD James, Colin Dexter, Tony Hillerman, Stephen White) and childhood favorites (Maud Hart Lovelace and L.M. Montgomery). I could be missing someone -- most of my fiction is all jumbled together in the bookcases in our spare room. But I think this is right -- with many authors I've got just a couple of their books. Of course plenty of authors have only written a few books...

  12. zmkc,
    Sorry--took a long time to reply: I read a couple of Simon Raven novels, just this spring, on the recommendation of Ed Champion and JRSM. I really enjoyed them, and I've only not gone on because I'm dithering between reading them in chronological order or order of publication.

    Everyone else: thanks for commenting. I'm really entertained and impressed by the breadth of authors named. I don't know about you, but I find it really heartening that we've all got a lot of authors on our lists who aren't on other people's, while also having ones here and there in common. That's the sign, I think, of a good community of readers!