I have a hard time getting rid of books, and if you’re reading this space, you probably do too. As Summer Brennan put it, “what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” Not anyone I know. But apparently, you only have to own one thousand books to qualify as a book hoarder. Which seems a bit low, to be honest—unless we’re talking about one thousand books in a New York City one-bedroom, in which case, sure.
In general, I’m interested in other people’s book collections. How many books, which ones, how are they kept, where are they kept? So, one rainy afternoon, I started poking around the book collections of famous people, to see which ones happened to be (technical or actual) book hoarders. Some of the results surprised me—though I admit I already knew about Karl Lagerfeld.
N.B. that of course this list is in no way scientific or exhaustive—no doubt there are scores of famous people out there with large libraries (disposable income and lots of space tend to make that possible), but either the actual numbers have never been documented, or I simply couldn’t (or didn’t) dig them up. Notables with high figures who didn’t make the top ten include Marilyn Monroe (400 books), George Washington (1,200 books), Charles Darwin (1,480 books), Oprah (1,500 books), Frederick Douglass (2,000-odd books), and David Markson (2,500 books). If you have any further intel on this score, please add on to the list in the comments as you see fit.
Karl Lagerfeld: 300,000 books
Karl Lagerfeld had more books than pretty much anybody. During a “master class” at the 2015 International Festival of Fashion and Photography, Lagerfeld explained: “Today, I only collect books; there is no room left for something else. If you go to my house, I’ll have you walk around the books. I ended up with a library of 300,000. It’s a lot for an individual.” No kidding. His collection includes books in French, English, and German, and in order to create more space in his home for all the volumes, he stacks his books sideways—that is, horizontally instead of vertically. Oh, and there’s a catwalk to reach the upper levels. This is Lagerfeld, after all.
George Lucas: 27,000 books+
In 1978, George Lucas established the Lucasfilm Research Library—first collecting volumes at his Los Angeles office, and eventually moving the library to the main house at Skywalker Ranch. In addition to the more than 27,000 books, the collection includes over 17,000 films, as well as photographs, periodicals, press clippings, and more. Lucas’s library is not open to the public, but his employees—as well as special guests like Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Steve Martin, Edith Head, and Charlton Heston—are allowed to check things out.
Jay Walker: 20,000 books
So, Jay Walker is only a famous person if you’re a nerd, I guess. He’s an entrepreneur who founded Priceline.com, but to me at least, he’s actually famous because of his personal library: a wing in his Ridgefield, Connecticut home that he calls “the Library of the History of Human Imagination”—which is deeply pretentious, I know, but just look at it. It has three levels, a glass bridge, floating platforms, and yes, lots and lots of books.
Michael Jackson: 10,000 books+
The King of Pop was also the King of Books. During Michael Jackson’s life, he was a regular customer at his local bookstores in Los Angeles, including Book Soup and Skylight. “He loved the poetry section,” Dave Dutton of Dutton’s Books in Brentwood told the L.A. Times. Ralph Waldo Emerson was his favorite. Jackson’s attorney Bob Sanger told L.A. Weekly that the pop star had 10,000 books at the Neverland Ranch, “[a]nd there were places that he liked to sit, and you could see the books with his bookmarks in it, with notes and everything in it where he liked to sit and read. And I can tell you from talking to him that he had a very—especially for someone who was self-taught, as it were, and had his own reading list—he was very well-read.”
Ernest Hemingway: 9,000 books+
According to Debra A. Moddelmog and Suzanne del Gizzo’s Hemingway in Context, the writer carried a library with him wherever he went, and was continually acquiring new books, as many as 150-200 a year. By the time of his death, his Finca Vigía library had some 9,000 volumes—which does not even include the books he left behind in Key West (he moved with about 800 of his books and built from there). Not surprising, perhaps, but still impressive.
William Randolph Hearst: 7,000 books+
Hearst had two libraries in his castle/Ken Dream House—the main library, which held 4,000 volumes, and the Gothic study, which held 3,000, but it seems even that wasn’t enough space for all his books, and he tucked them pretty much wherever he could find room.
Thomas Jefferson: 6,487 books
“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson famously said. According to the Library of Congress, when the British torched the capital in 1814, Jefferson had built the biggest personal library in the United States—which he then sold to Congress for $23,950. After that, he promptly began acquiring books again (and sold that new collection to pay his debts in 1829).
Nigella Lawson: 6,000 books
Food writer, television personality and “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson is pictured above in front of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with thousands of cookbooks in her house in Belgravia, London. It’s not just cookbooks that populate her reading lists, though—she also has a literary bent. Her favorite book is David Copperfield.
Harry Houdini: 5,000 books+
[Insert joke about not escaping from piles of books here.] When Houdini died, he left his private collection—book on magic, theater, and spiritualism—to the Library of Congress. Several sources claim that at that time he probably had the largest collection of books on magic in the world. You can browse almost 4,000 of them here.
Hannah Arendt: 4,000 books
The Hannah Arendt collection at Bard College is made up of some “4,000 volumes, ephemera and pamphlets”—including over 900 featuring her annotations—that come directly from the New York City apartment she lived in until she died in 1975. I hope it was bigger than a one-bedroom. (For some reason, 4,000 seems to be a lucky number for libraries of literary types—other writers who had about that many books in their private collections include Virginia Woolf and Katherine Anne Porter.)
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020.