Remember when Marie Kondo suggested that adherents to her minimalist lifestyle keep “no more than 30 books” and we all collectively lost our goddamn minds? It wasn’t all that long ago (though it feels like decades, with everything that’s happened since). With my city in lockdown this month, I half-heartedly considered a spring-clean project, but rather than actually do anything like that, I decided to make this list instead. If I had to, under pain of KonMari, could I narrow down my book collection (800+ and counting)? Here’s my Kondo 30.
1. and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock
Ali Whitelock is a poet and a darling friend of mine (she was kind enough to invite me to MC her local poetry night). and my heart crumples like a coke can is her first poetry collection, and even though I’ll admit I’m biased, it’s the one I thrust into people’s hands when they try to tell me that they “don’t like poetry”. This copy that I have is inscribed with a personal message from Ali, and I hold it very close to my heart. It also contains some of the best poetry I’ve ever had the privilege to read, the kind that led local author Mark Tredennick to describe Ali as “Bukowski with a Glaswegian accent”.
2. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
I have developed a bit of an addiction to off-centre literature by Japanese women, and the gateway drug was Convenience Store Woman. I’m still flabbergasted that this was the first of Sayaka Murata’s ten novels to be translated into English. It’s a slim little book, with a gorgeous cover design (the kind that makes you want to fist pump). That in itself is enough to make me want to save it from Kondo’s ravages, but I have another reason: I also read and loved her follow-up novel, Earthlings… and I loved it so much that I made the mistake of lending it to a friend. I’ll never get it back, which makes me all the more determined to hang on to this one. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Yes, Charles Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature (reason enough to want to keep him on the shelves), but for me he’s also inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather. Granddad idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set of David Copperfield (maybe a little worse for wear but still readable) was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally read it, and loved it, and included it here in my Kondo 30. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.
4. Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran
Not to be a basic bitch about it, but John Safran is my celebrity crush. I’m not sure what it is about him: his cheekiness? His wonderful (now defunct) radio show, co-hosted with Father Bob? His willingness to thumb his nose at authority? Whatever it is, it worked! Well enough for me to drag my poor husband along to the launch of Depends What You Mean By Extremist – and make him wait patiently, taking photos, as Safran personally inscribed and signed my copy. I could never bring myself to part with this book, if only for the memories of being so close to a gentleman who makes my heart beat quick.
5. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner
You know the saying “to live in one’s head rent-free”? (You’re forgiven if the answer is “no” and you’re over the age of 30.) Everywhere I Look lives in my head rent-free; rare is the day that I don’t think back to some gem of wisdom that Garner shared with us in this essay collection. Of course, she’s better known for her auto-fiction (like Monkey Grip) and true crime (like This House Of Grief), but for me, this collection of miscellaneous musings will always be the definitive Garner. I refer back to it constantly, and you (ahem, Marie Kondo) couldn’t convince me to part with it for all the money in the world.
6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
It’s impossible for me to have a conversation about The Great Gatsby without bringing up this, its (in my view, perfect) counterpoint: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. No shade if you didn’t realise before now that it was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film – I didn’t realise, either, until I read it! This is the definitive Jazz Age novel, as far as I’m concerned, with all the glitz and glamour you could ask for, plus a heaping side serve of social critique and feminist ideals. I have a hard time convincing some readers that the protagonist, ditzy blonde Lorelai Lee, is a feminist icon – but I’d have an even harder time of it if I didn’t have a copy to hand to quote from! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
7. Good Talk by Mira Jacobs
Graphic novels aren’t “my thing”… or, at least, they weren’t until I read Good Talk and it completely up-ended my expectation of what a graphic novel could be. This is a memoir, of sorts, from Mira Jacobs, a woman of colour who has thoughtfully transcribed and illustrated a series of conversations from her life about racism and how to live with it. It all starts with a seemingly-innocent line of questioning from her son about Michael Jackson, and guides the reader through everything from job interviews to parenting. This graphic novel is so good, I’ve pulled it out at parties to show friends my favourite bits. If I parted with it, I’d risk finding myself at a loss the next time party conversation turned to white privilege. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
8. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Love it or hate it, I Love Dick is a great conversation starter. Even for people who have never read it, never heard of Chris Kraus, have no opinion on autofiction or psychosexual obsession – the title is enough to keep the chat going. Failing that, it will put the bores off enough that you’ll never have to see them again. This is the kind of book I love to read on public transport, just to see how other people react. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it!
9. In My Skin by Kate Holden
I don’t remember where exactly I picked up my copy of In My Skin, or what drew me to it, but I remember how old I was (peak-teen-angst years) and all the dank boarding-school rooms in which I pored over it. I read it again, and again, and again. Holden’s memoir of her years as a heroin addict and sex worker weren’t exactly “relatable” to me in my regional-Queensland teen life, but I found something captivating in those pages, and they opened my eyes to a whole other view of the world we live in. Every time I re-read this book, my heart and mind are captured in the very same way, all over again. I couldn’t possibly part with it.
10. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
There are a lot of great books out there, but very few of them literally change the way you think about what a book can be. In The Dream House is one of those rare gems, a book that completely upended my expectations of all memoirs to follow. Machado unravels the knot of a formative romantic relationship she had with a woman who abused her. Each chapter borrows a well-worn trope – the haunted house, the bildungsroman, the happily ever after – to tell a story that has all-too-often been overlooked in literature. I could no more let go of this book than a religious scholar could let go of a holy text. Read my full review of In The Dream House here.
11. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
This copy of Lolita, if I recall correctly, belonged to my husband before me met… but what’s his is ours, now, so I’m claiming it for my own. It’s a book that tends to elicit a lot of strong opinions, but in my experience those who feel negatively about it are mostly responding to the cultural myth surrounding the story, rather than the book itself. The fact that Nabokov wrote this book – an impeccable masterpiece of madness – in his second language is astounding to me. I’d give anything to have a tenth of his linguistic talent in my native tongue. I suppose that makes the book itself a totem of inspiration, or aspiration, or something. Whatever it is, I love it and I must keep it.
12. Mad About The Boy by Maggie Alderson
I turn to Mad About The Boy every time I need unadulterated, delightful fun – that’s why my copy looks so well-loved, it has been! It surprises me how few people seem to have heard of this brilliant book. For me, it’s up there with the popular-fiction classics – think Lauren Weisberger, Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes. It’s a comedy that stems from tragedy; a British transplant to Sydney finds herself suddenly single when her otherwise-perfect husband comes out of the closet. With the help of a martial arts guru, her indefatigable son, and a fabulous visiting Uncle, she finds herself and a whole lot of fun along the way.
13. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary has been translated into English a bunch of times, but this version is my absolute favourite. I read it and loved it, but when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard on the translation, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. My favourite line – “In certain moods, she needed little encouragement to go quite wild. One day she maintained against her husband that she could drink a tumbler of brandy, and as Charles was foolish enough to dare her to it, she drained it to the last drop.” – doesn’t actually appear in any translation other than this anonymous one. That alone earns it a spot in my Kondo 30.
14. Milkman by Anna Burns
I started reviewing books in earnest, and thus paying attention to who won the Booker Prize, the same year that Anna Burns won for Milkman. On a lark, I entered a competition run by a beloved local bookstore (Better Read Than Dead), a giveaway of the entire 2018 Booker Prize shortlist, including the winner. I actually won, and picking up this stack of brand-new buzzy books was better than Christmas. I felt like the luckiest booklover in the world – still do, to be honest! It would be silly to take up near half of my Kondo 30 with the whole shortlist, but I had to keep just one, if just to hold onto the feeling of winning. So, the winner seemed apt!
15. My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Do I bang on about this book too much? Well, so be it, I bang on about this book too much. I don’t think it’s possible to over-hype My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, though. Moshfegh’s book has it all: a despicable but compelling narrator, a kooky supporting cast, an impossibly intriguing premise (deciding to sleep for a whole year), and a setting that will send chills up your spine (New York, through most of 2001…). I don’t think I could part with this book, purely for the number of times I refer back to it – in conversation, and here on this blog!
16. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four is like the ever-giving tree, the always-alarmingly-resonant dystopia that seems plucked from the day’s headlines, no matter when you read it. I’m particularly attached to this copy, which my father gifted to me at the tender age of thirteen. I credit this book with my political awakening, with my interest in domestic politics, and my personal investment in holding government to account. Sales of this book spiked during the Trump era, and it’s little wonder why; Orwell was disturbingly prescient, and forewarned is forearmed after all. Still, it’s more than a catch-phrase or a collation of clever ideas – it’s also a damn good read!
17. No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
Australia’s treatment of refugees is a source of constant shame (to those of us with a conscience, anyway). Behrouz Boochani is happily and safely settled in New Zealand now, but at the time of writing No Friend But The Mountains (entirely via WhatsApp messages, on a smuggled smart phone, to his translator Omid Tofighian) he was detained on Manus Island, an “offshore detention centre” (i.e., prison) for refugees who come to Australia by boat. It was my immense honour and privilege to hear Boochani and Tofighian speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Boochani by video link), and Tofighian was kind enough to speak with me and sign this book afterwards. My copy of No Friend But The Mountains is a crucial reminder of the best and worst of humanity.
18. On Writing by Stephen King
In my household, which consists of two adults of the literary bent with four-and-a-half university degrees between us, books about writing are a given. We’ve got the swanky Cambridge ones and the stalwarts of James Wood and his ilk, but to my mind, the most wonderfully accessible and re-readable is On Writing by Stephen King. The other books might teach me never to end a sentence with a preposition, and never end a short story with “but it was all a dream”, but it’s King’s memoir-slash-manual that motivates me to actually put my bum in the chair and write. It’s full of advice, insight, and even reading recommendations – a must for my Kondo 30 library.
19. Parenthetical Bodies by Alex Gallagher
Alex Gallagher was one of the first poets I saw read live when I started attending poetry events in Sydney. I still remember the poky little gallery we gathered in (remember gatherings? weren’t they fun??) and I remember their little wry smile as they read surfs up, a poem I later saw them describe on Twitter as a “filler piece” they wrote for the collection Paranthetical Bodies. If their “filler” is good enough to persuade me to purchase their whole collection, just imagine how good their good shit is! These are the poems that will make you laugh and cry and scratch your head, all at the same time.
20. Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
There are few books I gush about as much as I gush about Rabbits For Food. I have thrust it into the hands of just about everyone I know. It was one of my best reads of the shitstorm of a year that was 2020. Kirshenbaum’s sense of humour slots in with mine like two jigsaw pieces: dark, sharp, and (at times) unnerving. You wouldn’t think that a book about a mental collapse and time spent in a psychiatric facility could have me howling with laughter, weeping tears of mirth, but here we are. I’d want to keep this book for two main reasons: so that it’s in reach whenever I need a laugh, and to remind me that even in the shittiest years, you can always find a really great book. Read my full review of Rabbits For Food here.
21. She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
When I first picked up She Said, by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, I thought I already knew the Harvey Weinstein story. I’d followed it on Twitter and the major mastheads like everybody else. I’d scrolled through the names of actresses and assistants who had come forward, and shook my head about how dreadful it all was. This book showed me just how little I actually knew, and how much deeper it all goes. The lengths that Weinstein and his team (let alone the damn patriarchy) went to keep the story under wraps are jaw-dropping. This is the book that, for me, defines the #MeToo movement, and warrants regular re-visiting even as “times change”. Read my full review of She Said here.
22. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Here’s a little-known fun fact: The Bell Jar is almost impossible to find in secondhand bookstores (in my neck of the woods, anyway). You’d think that such stores would be teeming with pre-loved copies of this enduring modern classic, but no – hen’s teeth! It would seem that readers love Plath’s novel so much that they refuse to part with their copies, and I understand the impulse. I certainly wouldn’t part with mine! Not only is it gorgeous (a beautiful Faber hard-back with embossed gold cover), but it was a thank you gift from dear friends of mine for some long-forgotten favour. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.
23. The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum by Kim Izzo & Ceri Marsh
I don’t care if it makes me a basic bitch: The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum has answered (almost) all of my questions about adulting. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a little dated now – written back in the day when text messaging was the peak of the technological communication revolution – but (almost) all of its lessons still ring true. When you crash in someone’s spare room for a night, what’s the polite way to thank them? How much should you tip when you’re in a foreign country? When you accidentally drink too much at the office Christmas party, how can you reassume your dignity and keep your job? Sure, you could probably Google the answers to all of these questions, but I appreciate having them all in one place on my bookshelf, right where I can see ’em.
24. The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)
I’m still wading into the world of really old poems, but even I know about The Odyssey – Homer’s epic tale of war and love, wealth and poverty, travel and homecoming. I’d never read it, but I’d got the gist. Then, I heard an interview with Emily Wilson, and I just knew that I wanted her version to be the one to pop my cherry. In the millennia since it was first written, Wilson’s is the first translation from the original Greek to contemporary English completed and published by a woman. Can you believe that? How could we have let the blokes run the show for so long? I searched long and hard for this particular edition, and eventually treated myself to a brand new copy – and I won’t be parting with it any time soon.
25. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I’ll admit, I didn’t love my last foray into Hemingway’s work, and you’re welcome to take my copy of The Sun Also Rises and do what you will with it. That said, I’m not ready to give up on Papa just yet. I’d been curious about his last novel, The Old Man In The Sea, notoriously short and weird, for a long time, but never found a copy that was pretty enough to feature on my #bookstagram. Then, when I visited my family (remember when we could visit family? how great was that?!), I was charged with looking through my now-passed grandparents’ book collection and picking out anything of interest. There it was, the Hemingway I’d been looking for, a gorgeous vintage hardback that will now stay in the family forever.
26. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Speaking of old men: there’s one who captured my heart a long time ago – Allan Karlsson, the vodka-swilling centenarian Swede from Jonas Jonasson’s The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. This is my ultimate cheer-up read, the book I pass to friends who are having a hard time, the one I pick up myself when things get rough. Never have I encountered a character so endearing, undertaking adventures that are simultaneously unreal and totally believable, as I have in this beautiful book. It would make me cry to part with it, which in turn would make me think I need cheering up and I would automatically reach for it… you get my drift. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
27. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Fredrich Nietzsche
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this book changed my life. It was the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. When we first started dating, we didn’t have a whole lot in common: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I must keep this book, if only to keep the memories of that early courtship fresh when I’m sick of picking up his dirty socks and listening to his shitty music.
28. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sometimes, a book sets the bar so high it seems impossible any other could ever top it. That’s the case with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and plot twists. This was the first book for which I ever offered a proper spoiler warning here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I just couldn’t bring myself to ruin the genuine shock and awe that comes around page 70. It makes it hard to talk about this book, but damn if I don’t give it a red-hot go. I’ve recommended this book every which way I can, and you’ll pry my copy from my cold dead hands. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
29. American Sniper by Chris Kyle
Ugh. I hated American Sniper. One star. If I could give no stars, I would. I cannot recall a single redeeming quality about it. So… why on earth would I keep it? Well, technically, technically, I borrowed it from a friend of mine, about five years ago. He’s never asked for it back, and he lives 870km away (that’s about 540 miles for you American Keeper Upperers), so opportunities to offer to give it back have been slim. Still, if he ever asked for it back, I must have it to hand to give to him. Throwing out your own books is one thing, but throwing out a borrowed book is an unforgivable offence. Read my full review of American Sniper here.
30. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
Alright, one last sappy one to round out my Kondo 30: The Girl On The Train. It was okay, I didn’t love it, but I do love the memory of how I bought it – at a poky little secondhand bookshop I discovered while desperately searching for a public bathroom on my honeymoon. It was one of those wonderful coincidences, stumbling across an English-language secondhand bookshop in the middle of nowhere, that are unlikely to come around more than once or twice in a lifetime. I still remember jiggling my leg in a gotta-pee dance while scanning the shelves for titles of interest, sure that if we left without buying anything we’d never be able to find it again. Ah, memories! Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.
Which books would you keep for your Kondo 30? What do you think of my choices? Let me know in the comments!