“I collect books just as others store grain….”

From the Laudator comes something with which I can sympathize:

Yuan Mei (1716–1797), Book Storage, tr. J.D.Schmidt:

I collect books just as others store grain,
And bitterly complain I don’t have enough granaries.
In order to make space for a myriad ancient men,
I end up building three more rooms.
The books then ask the man who stores them:
“When will you have time to read us, sir?”Alyssa Ford, “A Remodel for the Books,” Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 21, 2010):

A St. Louis Park bibliophile and his wife bought the house next door to tear it down and expand their own. Instead, they kept both houses, joined the two structures and turned an entire house into a library.

The Ainsworth house in St. Louis Park was being slowly consumed by books.

Massive bookshelves covered an entire wall in the living room. Another room upstairs had almost no visible wall space. Nearly every room in the house was outfitted with a bookcase, including the kitchen. Still, Louis Ainsworth’s book collection threatened to overrun the property.

“What Louis couldn’t fit on the shelves, he kept in cardboard boxes around the house,” says Sue Ainsworth, the book collector’s ever-patient wife. “I would tell him, ‘Louis, why do you need 500 books on the Middle Ages?'”

When the Ainsworths met their breaking point, they did something even bibliophiles might consider drastic: They bought the house next door, added a two-story atrium to bridge the 15-foot gap between the houses, and converted most of the neighbor’s house into a two-story library with cherry shelves, a mezzanine, fireplace and a rolling library ladder.When Mrs. Laudator read this article in the newspaper, she suggested that we might want to do something similar. But our house doesn’t really have all that many books. Here, by way of comparison, is just a small part of the collection of a friend:


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. jasoncpetty says:

    Is it just me, or do consumerism and hoarding frequently have something to do with stories like this? The part about cardboard boxes all over the house kind of sets off my crazy-dar. Just because the guy collects books–instead of Mickey Mouse memorabilia or chihuahuas–doesn’t necessarily exempt him from some suspicion of hoarding.

  2. wmeyer says:

    Perhaps it is just you, jason. As a teen, I visited a man in our small town whose walls were all filled with bookcases. In his case, I had great confidence that he had read all the books, and many of them, I suspect, several times. His hobby was translating Homer’s Oddyssey from Greek to Gaelic. Another neighbor also had a vast collection of books, also well used. Both these men were teachers of the best sort: they loved teaching, and did it superbly. Granted, they were exceptional, but it would hardly be charitable to assume someone with many books is hoarding.

  3. APX says:

    Hoarding and collecting are two completely different things. Hoarding is a form of OCD, thus linked to mental illness, whereas collecting is not. Hoarders will often hoard useless items, sometimes very disgusting items, and will suffer severe anxiety over having to get rid of them.

  4. jasoncpetty says:


    As in, not always, or even most of the time. I just think sometimes book collectors cross the line into book hoarders. And I disagree that books alone can’t be the subject of a hoarder’s obsession. Some folks’ OCD only manifests itself in particular areas. Finally, I’m not referring to learned men with fantastic libraries, like Austen’s Mr. Bennett holed up in his office, and certainly not like the men wmeyer describes. I’m just suggesting it might be an issue for people who have to buy the neighbor’s house and then still don’t have room for all their books, leaving them all stacked up and uselessly unavailable in cardboard boxes.

    That said, I bet my wife would love for me buy the neighbor’s house and turn it into the library, so long as I moved over there and didn’t connect it to her house. :)

  5. mamajen says:

    I used to be the opposite, but now I hate owning books. Thank goodness for e-readers and libraries.

  6. disco says:

    I’m with Jason. It’s one thing to collect books it’s another to purchase an entire house just to store them. Once read, most books can be safely passed on to some other interested person or donated. It’s only the most dear that need he kept.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    Disco wrote:

    “Once read, most books can be safely passed on to some other interested person or donated. It’s only the most dear that need he kept.”

    I make a distinction between work books and pleasure books. I cannot give away my Handbook of Differential Equations or my Music in the Rennaissance books, since they are professional references. It is not enough to have one book on quantum theory, either. Even though not a Shakespere scholar, I own an edition of the complete works. It’s not going anywhere. Now, if I lose a cooking book, well, that’s another thing (unless you’re a chef).

  8. wmeyer says:

    “Once read, most books can be safely passed on to some other interested person or donated. It’s only the most dear that need he kept.”

    I suppose that may be true, if most books are escape fiction. I would have to disagree, though, for so very many others: Bible(s), catechetical works, commentaries, histories, and of course, technical volumes of all sorts. In my decades of work in electronics, one thing I have learned is that the surest way to ensure the need for any given dated volume is to discard it.

  9. aragonjohn7 says:

    Sometimes when I read all of the books in the house I visit the library read the books I like there and move to the next.

  10. acardnal says:

    Most of the books I read are from Catholic publishers and are not available in the public library. So I must buy them.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    First off, people better be careful what they say about bibliophiles being hoarders. Our Holy Father as a cardinal had two big apartments in Rome, one of which was nothing but books and the other which was living space and books. You will recall that he just recently shoved off his apartments onto someone who could legitimately use his theology and religion library. Umberto Eco bought an entire floor of an apartment building to house his books in comfort, having the wider reading material of a man both an academic and a fiction writer.

    The problem is that anyone with a decent reading speed and an interest in fiction or nonfiction is going to acquire and read a lot of books. And it’s not simple to pass them along (if you need to consult all sorts of things often, or if very few people are interested in the books you appreciate greatly). I have a few thousand books myself, without even trying, and after having restricted my bookbuying severely for the last ten years.

    The other problem is that people who know you collect will give you books, or tell you that you need to take their books if you don’t want them thrown away. This doesn’t happen so much to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others.

    Finally, it is of course reprehensible to store books anywhere that is not reasonably humidity- and temperature-controlled, and free of pests. You can’t just pack up your book boxes and take them to the storage place, for example, because bad things will happen. Bad things can even happen in your garage or attic. (Like the mice that nested and made their bathroom in a box of my books, after my parents insisted that the garage was totally okay to store books in cardboard boxes. Or the humidity that put mildew on another box of books, because the dryer wasn’t working well that winter. I’m still kicking myself for not taking those boxes, or putting them in plastic bins despite my parents’ protests about how that was wasteful. Though the damp may still have gotten in through condensation — just not the field mice.)

    If you sell a collection of books en masse, it’s likely that the bookseller will discard the 80% of your books that he doesn’t want. This is slightly less likely today, with the Internet to sell on, but only slightly. Donating to a library generally means that they will de-accession your books into the dumpster or the library sale, also.

    Nobody else loves your books. That’s just the way it goes. If you want books to survive, you have to keep them under your eye.

  12. q7swallows says:

    Am in total sympathy with this guy. Am presently building full wall bookshelves in my diningroom. Good books have a refuge in my home, especially since our local library expunged a LOT of good old-fashioned children’s books in favor of Harry Potter-style nonsense. We were told by a librarian that any children’s book that contained the words “founding father,” “Indian,” or “patriot” were eradicated, not to be replaced.

    And I am in total distrust of electronic books for their “tamperability.” “Hack-ability.” Sorry, Kindle!

  13. RichardT says:

    For people who are running short of shelf space but cannot afford to buy the house next door, I once saw an ingenious solution.

    It was a house with a narrow stairwell, with walls right up to the upper ceiling immediately on either side of the stairs. The upper parts of these are usually dead space, but these were lined with bookshelves all the way to the ceiling.

    But how did you reach the books that were high up over the lower part of the stairs? This is where the ingenious bit came in; you stood at the top of the stairs and lowered a wooden walkway out over the stairwell, level with the upper floor, and then walked out on that.

    Ingenious, but slightly alarming.

  14. digdigby says:

    As a book scout, I’ve known many a bibliophile over twenty+ years. Many feel guilty- “I would never in ten lifetimes be able to read all the books that I have!” I make them feel better by pointing out that they have the most exquisite of luxuries – when they wish to read they have their own private library to make a choice from – and the better the library the finer the choice – the perfect book for the moment (and what is more precious than time?).

    The greatest personal library that I have ever known was of the long gone Rabbi Irving Levitas. I still get a glow when I come across his familiar sprawling signature on the endpaper. This is a man who had a SHELF of book (all personally annotated) on the Nestorians!

  15. Tom Ryan says:

    My book hoarding is no longer a problem after I installed two of these this week

  16. Norah says:

    I have book-hoarding tendencies so I have to monitor myself. I was happily buying until I realised that I don’t have enough years left in which to read all of the books I have.

    “Our Holy Father as a cardinal had two big apartments in Rome, one of which was nothing but books and the other which was living space and books…Umberto Eco bought …”

    Just because someone is rich and/or holy and collects a lot of books doesn’t mean that the topic of hoarding can’t be discussed; even rich and/or holy people can be hoarders – they are human like the rest of us.

  17. NoraLee9 says:

    Occasionally one of my old students will ask to come by, so that they can have a photo taken in our library. They maintain that these “passport” photos make them look smarter.
    I collect books and hubby collects toys….

  18. VexillaRegis says:

    We have too many books aswell and we have solved the space problem by putting a moratorium on buying books. In stead we borrow them at the public library. The ony books we purchase are children’s books, theology literature and (sheet)music and scores. I have a decent music library that contains music for the organ, piano, song, choir and recorders in all styles. My rule of life is: Never throw any music away – you never know when you’ll need it!

    Both my husband and I are going to inherit substantial libraries. GAAHH! Long live our parents!

  19. Mariana says:

    “Both my husband and I are going to inherit substantial libraries. GAAHH! ”

    Oh, no, so am I, and very good libraries, too, no rubbish AT ALL! I already have my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s libraries, and my husband and I have our own, and have (apart from P.G. Wodehouse) completely different interests!

  20. VexillaRegis says:

    Mariana: no rubbish at all?? Gosh, my sincere condolances :-)! Our parents do have at least some meters of rubbish books. When my father was ill, we managed to sneak some american encyclopedia in X parts from the sixties (which noone had looked in since 1975 or so) into the cellar. Behind the HIFI rack we found forgotten theology magazines from the fifties. They were mercilessly recycled.

  21. feargalmac says:

    The photo reminds me of home. I guess I got my love of books from there, the older the better. Latest being Meditation on the Mysteries of Our Holy Faith by Ven Fr Louis de Ponte. I need a dictionary for some of it.

  22. PomeroyonthePalouse says:

    VexillaRegis But the German organ composers of the early 20th C. Don;t bother keeping them. You won’t play them, your heirs won’t play them. Buxtehude, now, everyone loves him. and rightfully so.

  23. PomeroyonthePalouse says:

    I can see disposing of most fiction (excepting Wodehouse, of course, Bertie and Jeeves can be read every 5 or ten years forever). But non-fiction? What do you dump? I’ve been reading through post WWII US history for a while. Every book comes with a “selected” bibliography, most of which are available from Amazon for $4-5 (including shipping) (sorry, no decent Used bookstores within 100 miles). So every $4 book has a long tail which ends up costing me $25-30 and another 9 inches of shelf space. Many books have at least one passage where I say, “No, that’s wrong.. [someone] says otherwise.” and I’m off to look it up.
    For those fine folks here who are looking at inheriting libraries? I’m “remodeling/renovating” 20,000 sq ft. (a hotel built in the 19th C. that we’re turning into a house/B&B) and have plenty of room for books. Just let me know. I travel!

  24. VexillaRegis says:

    PomeroyonthePalouse: Well, I’ve got Micheelsen, Heiller and Hindemith and bits of this and that. Some of Micheelsens works are woth playing, but Hindemith is not my cup of tea! Buxtehude is one of my favourites. I recently played Nun lob, meib Seel, den Herren (BuxVW 214) for recession. It’s so uplifting and has syncopes in it, very fun to play! Do you also play the organ?

    If you invite Fr.Z for a free stay at your B&B, he might bring you some of his books :-)? I wonder what happend to the Owl lamps he wanted to get rid of. (My mind wanders…. Hotels, owls, Wodehouse….Reminds me of Fatty Owls, an anagram for Fawlty Towers, a TV series about a hotel with a choleric John Cleese and Prunella Scales. Buy it!)


  25. PomeroyonthePalouse says:

    VexillaRegis: Don’t I wish! I don’t play the organ or anything, unfortunately. My daughter has been taking pipe organ lessons for 5 years and starts her new life as a freshman* at the School of Music at Washington State Univ. tomorrow! She is majoring in pipe organ performance. Also keyboard pedagogy. She’s been in a “class of 1” since she was home schooled through her Jr year of high school*. She’s the only pipe organ performance major at WSU, so still the Class of 1.
    (* Her last year of high school, she was in a program called running start where she takes classes at college and they count as both high school and college credit. she finished the year with 30 quarter credits that I think translated to 25 or 27 semester credits.)
    I’ve got an ancient set of VHS tapes of Fawlty Towers that I taped off some PBS station during the late 80’s. Resurrect them every so often. Have the grandkids watch them as they turn teenaged.
    And sure, Fr. Z could come visit any time! Books or no books. He and our pastor could have nice chats on the “fruits of Vat II.” Oh, darn, now i’ve scared him off. (grin)

  26. VexillaRegis says:

    PomeroyonthePalouse: Ah, your daughter is one lucky girl – she will be dating the King of instruments! She will also be sought after by the Church, since fewer people learn how to play these days. Wish her good luck from me, an european MA in pipe organ and church music over all (we have a different education system here.) Who is her favourite composer, by the way?

    To get Fr. Z to come and visit you, you could make special a “Fr. Z’s suite” in your B&B, complete with a birdcage, cigars, a telescope, maybe a nice kitchen and so on. Then you ask him to come and bless it! Of course he would bring books too! You just have to be shrewd. ;-)

  27. Skeinster says:

    We have enough bookcases in the front of the house that little trick-or-treaters ask suspiciously “is this the library?” I’m better at weeding than the spouse, an ex-librarian, who rescued many a donated book bound for the dumpster. After the library got first pick.
    I’m with q7swallow on conserving children’s books. I’m always on the lookout for non-licensed character Little Golden Books, Weekly Reader Book Club editions, any classics that we don’t already own.
    Our worst habit is treating the local Half-Price Books stores as an expensive lending library. The problem is that you don’t know that you want to read something until you see it. Specific books we know we want we usually buy online.
    It’s interesting how the bibliophile streak will run through generations.

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