Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


If I Could Only Keep 30 Books

So Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is blowing up on my social media feeds lately. Why? Because I am a book person: I own lots of books, I buy lots of books, I read lots of books, I work in book publishing, and I’m trying to write my own book(s), and because Kondo suggests that “ideally,” people should only keep 30 books. For me and a whole lot of people I know, that goes against every fiber in our being. I’m not against culling the herd; I just did a light purge of my books and records a couple months ago. But am I ever going to get my book collection get down to less than 100 books? Oh hell nah. Right now I’d guess I have somewhere between four and five hundred books, and I won’t lie, I haven’t gotten to at least a quarter of those—but I hope to some day!

This evening I had an interesting thought: what would my book collection look like if it was limited to 30 volumes? Well, I went to my shelves and picked out 30 books that I would keep above all others (this only includes books I’ve read at least significant chunks of, perhaps the results would change once I dive deeper into my collection). The only other rule is that no author could have more than one book on my list (I fudged that rule a couple times). After about a half hour, here’s what I came up with:

“I Love You, for Sentimental Reasons”

Ok, there are several books that I would keep because of a personal attachment of some sort of way. These include:

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends: My parents gave me for Christmas when I was 7. It’s one of the few things I’ve held on to from my childhood. Somewhere along the way I lost the dust jacket.

Inscription of Where the Sidewalk Ends from my parents.

Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift. Sherrie was my dissertation adviser, and besides being one of my favorite people in the whole world, she is an absolutely brilliant scholar.

Elaine Hayes, Queen of Bebop. This is my friend Elaine’s awesome biography of singer Sarah Vaughan. I saw multiple early draft versions of several chunks before it made it to the wider world.

The Land of Make Believe

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language – I read this hilarious send-up/detective caper/alternative history of French critical theory last year. ROFL. Seriously.

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo – I read this for a Theory of Funk course in grad school. I’m not sure I understood all of it, but it is whacky as hell postmodern take on black expression. I should read this again soon.


Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children – This is one of those books I wish I could read for the first time all over again. He came to give a reading when I was living in Portland. I was working, but my girlfriend at the time took my copy and had him sign it. It had his dirty fingerprints all over it, which was cool. And then my girlfriend read it and all the fingerprints got wiped off in the process. Oh well.

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven – If there’s a better speculative fiction dystopian novel out there I dare you to find it. Everyone I know—from a radical member of the armed left to a coworker who reads lots of romance novels—who has read this loves it. And so will you.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow – I don’t care if it’s pretentious to include it on my list. Because it’s my list.

“When it hits you feel no pain”

Naturally there are a whole lot of music books:

Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk – Is there a hipper critic of music and black popular culture than Tate, who is one of the true master stylists out there? I’d say no.

Ralph Ellison, Living with Music – I don’t always agree with Ellison’s takes on jazz, but he’s in the all-time top three of jazz critics.

When I met her in Manchester she signed my copy with an inscription that reads “for the music.” So cool. I was in total fanboy mode.

Val Wilmer, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This – Wilmer is criminally under-acknowledged in the United States for both her writing and her photography. If you’ve ever seen classic photography, you’ve seen her work whether you know it or not. It’s too bad that Mama Said is out of print.

Art Pepper, Straight Life – This is Pepper’s autobiography, and he takes his readers through his wild and at times disturbing life with nothing held back: heroin addiction, being locked up in San Quentin, his comeback in the late 70s. My saxophone teacher in college has a three page section about when he took lessons from Pepper in the 60s.

Miles Davis, The Autobiography of Miles Davis – a stone cold classic

Jason Bivins, Spirit Rejoice – Jason’s a good friend of mine and a musical collaborator; I could put it in the sentimental pile. He named one of his dogs Lopez.

John Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool – John is one of the first scholars I contacted when I was getting into the game, and he’s been a big supporter and teacher to me for a long time; another for the sentimental pile.

Kevin Whitehead, New Dutch Swing – Kevin’s been a good friend and mentor to me for a long time, and there isn’t anybody out there writing about jazz who knows the Amsterdam jazz scene better than him.

“Three for the price of one”

These next ones are kind of cheating: they’re three books in one bound collection:


Nathaniel Mackey, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Emanate – I wrote one of my dissertation chapters on the first book in this collection of three novels: Bedouin Hornbook.

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy – I don’t think scifi gets any more classic than these three books.

Jeff VanderMeer, The Southern Reach Trilogy – I’m a sucker for cool book designs, and this single volume collection checks all the boxes.

“My God, it’s full of stars”

Most of what I’ve read in the years since finishing graduate school is scifi. Things that could have been on this list (if they were all bound together like the previous three books) are Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem trilogy and N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (I’ve only read the first book in that, but it’s stunning).

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles – any of his books could have made this list, what he can do with the English language is remarkable.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Dispossessed – little did I know that my grandma was friends with LeGuin. I didn’t find that out and hadn’t really knew who LeGuin was until my grandma had passed.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars – hard scifi, Leftist political leanings, awesome story and characters, yes yes yes


Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama – this might be the first scifi book I ever read, and I stumbled into this first edition with the super cool mid-century cover design, which is far superior to that of the later editions. Who cares if the dust jacket is a little wrinkly.

The Real World

This is kind of a grab bag, see for yourself:

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day – because we all need to laugh.

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment – because I will finish this one day and I will understand it.

That paragraph on the left side of the back cover of Brian Massumi’s book? I wrote that.

Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy – this was the very first book I worked on when I started at Duke University Press. I wrote the back cover description.

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster – I figured I need one collection of essays, and this is my favorite (not that I’ve read very many).

Amiri Baraka, The Amiri Baraka Reader – I’ve got no words for how brilliant this is.

Jean Baudrillard, America – Baudrillard’s quote about Las Vegas (“it’s the whore of the desert”) and his 2-3 page trashing jogging is reason enough to keep this. It’s strange to say it, but Baudrillard is my comfort reading. But then again, I’m strange.

And concluding my list of 30 keepers: Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 – What I wouldn’t give to have the good doctor with us and chronicling the madness that is the Trump administration. I think if he was still alive he probably would have killed himself on election night, 2016.


Looking at this list I’ve come to realize that it in a way, these books tell the story of my adult life: books I read in school, books I read to recover from school, books by friends and mentors, books that reflect my wide ranging and eclectic interests, books that are strongly tied to people and places and times. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I could tell you a story about each and every one of these books—and really, stories about dozens more. Maybe that’s why I won’t be able to ever get down to a bare bones collection: these books are as much about me as they are the stories and ideas that they contain. And that’s a little too much to give away.




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