Overview:

Books tell the world (and remind you) that you’re smart. That’s why you hoard and collect books. This is an intervention

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve heard you all—in personal conversations and in radio and TV interviews—boasting about how many books you own. “You wouldn’t believe how many books I have piled up in my home.”

Isn’t this a self-congratulatory semaphore-flag-waving announcement that you are smart? 

I’m bookish too, but I was taught that it’s inelegant for bookish people to plume themselves on the number of books they read and own.

Let’s say you boast 1000 books at your home—in floor-to-ceiling, halls-to-walls, alphabetized bookcases. Face it. You have a book hoarder pathology. Get rid of those books, or most of them. Take a photo of their dust jackets and spines if you crave the memory of them.

And remove all the bookcases that cover your walls. Instead of shelves, put up photos—of your kids, your parents, your friends. Hang some art. Paint the hall a new hue. Explore the aesthetic of negative wall space.

There is a public library near you with hundreds of thousands of volumes, all within your drowsy grasp should you choose to wander the stacks. You’ll be deemed no less wise for letting the library purchase and store the books you want to read.

You can save a small fortune over a lifetime by borrowing books from libraries instead of buying books. If I could live anywhere, I would live on 5th Avenue across the street from the New York City Public Library. (I did live for a short time a few steps on Broad Street from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, one of the oldest libraries in all of Europe, dating back several hundred years. Before I gained entry to the Bodleian, I had to sit before a librarian and take an oath and solemn vow to never set a fire in the library).

What else do you hoard and collect that serves to announce your intelligence? Probably nothing else besides books. 

But of course, you like the aesthetic of books—as decorative ornaments. Ok, fine. Save one shelf of books for your living room. These will be books you return to again and again. (I once asked a bookish friend what he was reading next and he replied, “It’s not what I’m reading next; it’s what I’m re-reading next.”)

on the other hand
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

Allen and Patricia Ahearn, Introduction to Book Collecting

This sole bookcase in your living room for all guests to see can house any of the classics, Shakespeare certainly, and any modern authors you light votive candles to. Keep a second small shelf or table of books near your bed, like a pile of current reading projects. And yes, you may set up a little shelf for children’s books in your kids’ bedrooms.

What else do you hoard and collect that serves to announce your intelligence? Probably nothing else besides books. 

You may hoard and collect coasters from various bars you’ve drowned your tonsils in over the years, but coasters don’t proclaim your intelligence. You may hoard and collect old comic books, and though this may highlight a certain eccentricity in you, comic books do not necessarily broadcast your intelligence. You may hoard and collect vinyl records, but this won’t yell, “I’m smart” unless they’re records by old forgotten jazz geniuses. You may even hoard and collect wax statuettes of Phil Silvers, but this won’t speak to your intelligence, and, in fact, it might be direct evidence of the opposite.

It’s books. Books tell the world (and remind you) that you’re smart. That’s why you hoard and collect books.

Can you face the world as a reader of books without people even knowing you’re a book nut? Let people discover your intelligence from their conversation with you. No one needs to know how many books you own.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...