As It Happens

Why this comedian is purging 1,000 unread books from his shelves

Robin Ince, comedian and co-host of the Book Shambles podcast, is culling 1,000 books from his personal library, while encouraging his listeners to submit their top "must read" books that they've never actually got around to reading.

James Joyce's Ulysses ranked as most unread book among listeners of Robin Ince's podcast

Comedian Robin Ince has vowed to purge 1,000 books from his extensive personal library. (Timothy Ginn/The Cosmic Shambles Network)
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We've all done it: bought a shiny, new, classic or just plain important book, in the hopes that we will read it and automatically graduate to the next level of human goodness. 

But for one reason or another — if we ever even crack it open at all — we never finish it.

Robin Ince is an English comedian and bibliophile. He also co-hosts the podcast Book Shambles. Out of fear that his house will collapse under the weight of unread literature, he's vowed to purge one thousand books from his home.

Robin Ince spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from London. Here is some of their conversation.

Robin, what is the first book you decided to chuck out of your life?

Well, the first 100 are easy, 'cause the first 100 are all the ones you've bought two, three, or four copies of — because each time you've gone to a bookshop, you've gone, "I really like the look of that book. Have I bought that before?"

I have eight different books by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. And I have not read any of them. And so seven of them went because I have to realize I've had them for 10 years now. Much as I love the idea that I'm going to become tremendously erudite in mid to late 20th-Century French philosophy in crime and punishment, I haven't put the effort in yet. So I'm not going to start doing it now.

Have you read any Foucault? I'm trying to understand why you're drawn to him.

It's not that I don't want to read it. It's the fact that I can't stop buying books. And therefore I always have seven books on the go, and all these stacks and piles and piles of books in my house. So sometimes I have to go, "I want to keep this book, but it must be sacrificed — for the sanity of the rest of my family, more than me."

Well, you're talking about 1,000 books. Makes me wonder how many you've got in there.

I don't know. But what I can tell you is that, having got rid of 1,000 books, it's made no difference whatsoever.

I was beginning to think I'd end up like a kind of Edward Gorey cartoon of The House That Was Sunk By Books. 

Top 10 titles Book Shambles listeners say they're trying to get around to reading:

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce.
  2. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
  3. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
  4. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
  5. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman.
  6. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
  7. Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter.
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert.
  9. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
  10. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

So you've got the duplicates out — an easy thing to get rid of. What about the other criteria you're using?

If I found out that people are unpleasant, or have a track record of being mean-spirited.

For instance, I have quite a few books about Morrissey. And Morrissey has now said enough politically for me to feel that he's helped kind of grease the shelves that he was on and the books have been slid out and placed in another box.

Is there something really satisfying, purging those particular kinds of books?

It's satisfying when you see the stack of books. But what you must never do is go back. Because I still want all of them.

But there's satisfaction in the fact that sometimes people can be so openly mean-spirited that they help me out. So thank you, Morrissey, for some of your recent interviews.

Are there some books that, no matter what, you could never bear to part with?

Oh, yeah. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those people. Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood.

And there's people you feel who've shaped your life. I mean, even though I don't read much of him now, when I was 17 and read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, the copy I have of that which I bought when I was 17, that can't go.

Some of my old comic books as well. The work of Alan Moore would be another example — he wrote Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I won't be getting rid of those.

Robin Ince (Timothy Ginn/The Cosmic Shambles Network)

As part of this book purge, you ran a competition for listeners in which they would win a book, if they told you which titles had been on their "must read" piles forever and just sat there. What was the one most unread book?

I think the one of this particular time is still Ulysses. James Joyce's Ulysses is a remarkable book. I know I've read the first 100 pages at least three times now. And I think it's a book that people feel they really should read. And they've read excerpts of it, and they know bits of it, and they know it's fascinating and beautiful. But then you actually start to feel the weight in your hands, and that's when it becomes troublesome.

And I think there's also a burden where sometimes when you're reading a book which it's been told to you many times is magnificent — you also worry that what if you complete it and, when you finish reading it, you're not a changed human being? What if it's talismanic qualities — the magic of it —  what if it actually doesn't work

Written by Kevin Ball and Ashley Mak. Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A edited for length & clarity.

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