Is there such a thing as too many books?

Some of the 545 books in my living room must go, but I have not found a single one to remove

I own four pairs of shoes, a muttering washing machine, a retired food processor, a DVD player that sticks and, just in my living room, 545 books. It is an insignificant, barely literary drop in an ocean of words. In the Columbia Journalism Review, I read that writer Rebecca Traister's parents had 40,000 books at home. Of course one was an English professor, the other a rare books collector and librarian, and they did not live, I presume, in a small flat in Singapore. Else they would be sleeping on sentences.

"For Nasa," said that erudite heavyweight Dan Quayle, "space is still a priority." So is it for book people. We have too many books in too many places. Books piled on books on shelves; books on tables, floors, cupboards; books behind books; books squeezed into shelves till some are half-popping out like Calcuttans in a bus. This is unremarkable. A friend's wife has slyly used his books to prop up their electricity converter. He has not noticed, she says.

On the Net I see books stored in an unused fireplace which reminds me I have an empty bathtub. Every square inch matters. Shoving them into closets is unsatisfactory for books must be seen; they are a comfort, like old friends lounging in the room. To flip through them is akin to quiet conversation.

But some of my books must go. Old words for newly purchased ones. Marie Kondo, the decluttering despot, once tore out her favourite pages from her books to keep. She is a fine writer of bestsellers yet clearly not a reader. Slightly more help is a visiting friend, a gin-drinking philosopher named Pargo, who says he keeps those books he wishes to re-read, those he hasn't read, those his friends might like to read, and dismisses the rest. He wanders helpfully towards my bookshelf, spies a Jimmy Carter book and says:

"Carter? Toss."

I tell him my son-in-law got it signed by Carter and gave it to me.

No slower journey is known to mankind than this two-inch crawl along a shelf with the intention to discard a novel. Some books are unshiftable. Ejecting a biography of Gandhi is an act of violence and banishing Karen Armstrong is ungodly. J.D. Salinger is best left alone.

"Get rid of your son-in-law," he suggests.

Anyway, I tell myself, trace your finger sideways across a shelf and junkable trash will invariably show up. A book of inspirational quotes, possibly thrust at you by well-meaning friends who shop at Hallmark or, worse, a depressing self-help manual titled The Happiness Project. Yet, on first look, I find nothing but two books from the category known as mid-air diversion: a Lee Child, whose fight scenes are all muscular geometry, and a John Grisham. Throw? What will my friends read on holiday here?

I examine more carefully and stop at Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet which I have never read. Pull out. Consider. Put back. I stole it from my parents' bookshelf and thus it qualifies as a literary heirloom. Next. Jane Eyre. A classic I suffered as a child and so must my granddaughter one day. Keep.

Two copies of my daughter's PhD in book form. Pause. Five seconds of misty-eyedness at genius child. Move on. P.J. O'Rourke's Republican Party Reptile which made me grin as a young man and how do you throw boyhood away? Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which I didn't enjoy, apparently I should enjoy and one day I might enjoy. Sigh. Keep.

No slower journey is known to mankind than this two-inch crawl along a shelf with the intention to discard a novel. Some books are unshiftable. Ejecting a biography of Gandhi is an act of violence and banishing Karen Armstrong is ungodly. J.D. Salinger is best left alone.

Close by is a fellow, who once wrote - as The New York Times recounted in his obituary - that his "dream was to follow in the steps of Hemingway, Elliot Paul and Gertrude Stein. I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world". This was the humorist Art Buchwald and all book shelves are better off with him in it.

You might briefly think I am a middle-aged zealot on the matter of holding onto books, but I am in fact a novice. One friend, Mudar, having filled an attic, has now rented a room for books and magazines, some belonging to his father which go back 60 years. Another pal, Samar, a persistent wanderer, finally settled down and bought a house because he wanted a home for his books.

A colleague, Beatrice, stores "precious" books she has outgrown in a carton while our books reporter, Olivia, has her own tale of attachment. When she returned to Singapore after studying in Scotland she dutifully had her second-hand books boxed and shipped home, even though her freight bill, she drily observes now, was more expensive than the cost of her books.

Book people, who sniff at shoe people and bag collectors, are rather peculiar and pricelessly snobbish and insist that the words on their shelves constitute parts of their fabric. To outsiders, our books offer a peek at our tastes and a hint of what matters to us. To ourselves, books give us a sense of place and time, reminding us of who we were and where we went, like signposts on a long road. They mark the phases and affectations and diversions and discoveries of our lives, charting our growth not via birthdays but through Steinbeck, the Russians, Updike, temporary divorces with fiction, romances with history, dalliances with travel.

All very nice but I still cannot find anything to give away. Politician's biography written by a friend. Keep. Invariably she will ask about it. Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, Timothy Crouse's The Boys On The Bus and Peh Shing Huei's When The Party Ends. Keep. Works by reporters and thus my own tribe.

Finally, opportunity. I can empty an entire shelf if I remove the five-volume Constituent Assembly Debates which contain the discussions from 1948-1950 which led to the framing of the Indian Constitution. One volume is 1,693 pages and I might have read six. But this is reserved for my retirement and cannot be touched.

My reasons are getting flimsier, my excuses pathetic. I need assistance and call a book specialist. Kenny Chan. Store director of Kinokuniya's main store. It is not a good conversation. He has roughly 10,000 books at home, stuffed under his TV, bed, staircase, into cartons and a storeroom in his daughter's bedroom. "Sentimentality", he pleads to explain his dilemma.

I have not found a single book to remove and never has failure been such fun. Pargo, my friend, noticing my brief stress, offers to loan me his book, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A %$$#, but I have a better idea. If you have no space for more books, it is simpler to buy another bookcase. All I need now is to get rid of that washing machine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Is there such a thing as too many books?'. Print Edition | Subscribe