Even though I can walk to our public library, I rarely check out books. Why? First, I’m a vicious note-taker. I fill my books with notes, underlines, quotes, and thoughts (Adler taught me this). Since libraries chafe when I return dog-eared books splattered with ink, I’m forced to buy my own.
Second, however, I value our home library. I love shelves of books lining the walls of our house. There’s something about books in the home–familiar, favorite books–that completely energizes me. I could spend hours browsing them, reviewing old titles and perusing new ones.
Of course there are several other benefits of a home library. It’s a huge help for writing, speaking, and research. When I’m asked to speak on the Eucharist, I can scoop up several relevant books within seconds.
There’s also the message a home library communicates. To every visitor it says, “This house is grounded on a love for reading and learning. Books are important to this family.” That’s a message I want our kids to imbue.
And there’s also the Hero Argument: most of my writing and intellectual heroes sported large home libraries. When C.S. Lewis’ soul-mate, Joy Davidman, first entered his home, she was shocked by the number of books. In fact, she said if it wasn’t for the bookshelves, the house would collapse. The books were the pillars of Lewis’ own literary cathedral.
Now, I know most people love the public library. It can save a ton of money, and I’m all for that. After all, you’re supporting it with your taxes so why not get your money’s worth? But you can have a solid home library, too. And growing one isn’t as hard or expensive as you think.
Here are six ways I’ve built my home library on the cheap:
1. Amazon Marketplace.
I’ve probably bought about 60% of my books through the Amazon Marketplace, which is Amazon’s used book service. You can get many popular titles for less than a dollar, and even though Amazon charges $3.99 shipping per book, the total still comes in under $5.00. I typically shoot for ‘Very Good’ condition or better in the Marketplace, as I’ve had bad experiences with ‘Good’ and ‘Acceptable’ titles in the past. It’s usually worth the extra pennies to get a nicer copy.
2. Local used bookstores.
In addition to a public library, we’re also blessed with a fantastic used bookstore within walking distance (which means yes, as a bibliophile, I live in perpetual occasion of sin.) I’ve had some great finds there. Most of the books are $3-$7 which often makes them cheaper than Amazon (and more immediate).
Google “used bookstores” and see what’s in your area. You might find some great bargains, but if nothing else you’ll get the catharsis of mindlessly wandering around used bookstores.
I’ve been blessed to have several book-loving friends including authors, scholars, and theologians. Most of them are older, and many are trying to downsize their home libraries. When they encounter a budding book lover, especially a young one, they’re usually thrilled to give their books a new home.
One priest friend in particular has given me over 200 books during the last few years while another gave me his whole 38-volume set of early Church fathers. Most of them say, “I would much rather you take the books than have them collect dust.”
You too probably have friends or family members with large book collections who are looking to trim back. With gentleness and grace, after all you don’t want to sound like the Prodigal Son, inquire about their dust-collecting books. In many cases, they’ll be happy to pass them on.
One final note: consider estate sales and retired teachers, especially theologians.
4. Thrift stores.
Goodwill, Salvation Army, and local thrift stores usually have scores of books and you’d be surprised at what you can find. I’ve found $0.50 theology books at Goodwill that sell for $50 on Amazon. Because thrift store shelves are typically unorganized, you will need more patience and time. But there’s a certain thrill in the chase, and it’s more than worth it when you unearth a gem.
Most of my books are used, and I get them through the first four methods. But when an interesting new book comes out, this is where I turn. Publishers are usually happy to send free copies of new books in exchange for honest reviews. If you’re a blogger or journalist, you might start by reviewing books you already own. But after you have some under your belt, simply go to the publisher’s website, find the Marketing/PR person, and request a review copy. After several quality reviews, publishers will even place you on their reviewer list and send you all the new titles they release.
So that’s how I build my home library without breaking the bank. I’d like to add one caveat, however. Where possible, I try to patronize Catholic book stores and individual authors. When we visit our local Basilica, for instance, I’ll buy a couple books from the gift shop, even if they’re cheaper on Amazon, because I think the store is valuable to our community.
Likewise, I often buy books directly from self-supporting authors like Mark Shea and Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who support their family through writing. You might pay a little more, but you’ll be supporting and sustaining great work.
Do you have your own home library? How have you grown it?