Book Hoarders: Thomas Jefferson Meets Marie Kondo

“I cannot live without books.” – Thomas Jefferson

In recent months, I have seen the above quote splashed on posters, postcards, tote bags, and t-shirts. Last week, I passed a rack of mugs emblazoned with this declaration of book love. In my favorite use of the quote, Colonial Williamsburg jumped onto the Jefferson book train with a cute video of the Founding Father channeling his inner Marie Kondo (see here).  

I’m not quite sure why all of a sudden I see it… a lot. Maybe it has been there all the time and I simply never noticed. Or maybe reading and Thomas Jefferson are becoming cool. Or maybe being a book hoarder ain’t all that bad.

Yes, sorry to say, Thomas Jefferson was a book hoarder. But putting it into context, collecting books in the 18th century was a little different than buying books today. Book binders bound them by hand, they were expensive, and were meant to be owned, not simply read. Unlike the disposable paperback novels of today, a person had to have some money to own even a few books. If not, maybe a generous friend could lend you one or you could borrow a book from the public libraries just starting to pop up, if you were lucky enough to live near one. But Thomas Jefferson, bless his heart, was a true bibliophile and his extensive collection was the origin of the Library of Congress.

Someone once asked me, “If it’s books, is it really hoarding?” and that led to a conversation on how books are used and collected. We were both so enamored with books and reading that neither of us could imagine them in the same light as Mickey Mouse shot glasses or an episode of Hoarders. We finally decided that the difference between book collecting and book hoarding is a matter of degree.

Books that you read and place on the bookshelf is collecting, even if you never read them again. Buying books for the sake of having them and not reading them is hoarding.

And, of course, if your books are in tottering stacks around your house and you need a map to find your way to the kitchen, you are probably a hoarder.

Karl Lagerfeld library

Literary Hub published an article on 10 famous book hoarders, complete with photographs of their libraries. So on which side of the line do these libraries fall? Karl Lagerfeld had a jaw-dropping 300,000+ books. By comparison, George Lucas has a mere 27,000+ and Ernest Hemingway only 9,000+. Thomas Jefferson clocked in at number seven with a measly collection of 6487 books (to be fair, it was the largest collection in the United States at the time). Are these book collectors or book hoarders?

I love books. I love reading. But my goal is to not let my books take over my house. I will channel my inner Marie Kondo, wake up my books, and see if they spark joy. If I don’t get a boom of fireworks or at least an impressive sparkler, I will pack them up and donate them to my local library. The library gets inventory to shelve or sell, and I get more space for my latest purchases. It’s a win-win.

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