When Karl Lagerfeld died at the age of 85 a few days ago, the world knew him as a fashion designer. He had been creating fashion designs since the 1950s and his reputation was second to none. Since the 1980s, he headed up the House of Chanel, while having his own brand under his name. Lagerfeld was known for his dark sunglasses, ponytail, and iconoclastic ways. He was quoted as saying, "I don't know what normal means." For those of us who do know what it means, we can say that Lagerfeld was not "normal." However, that is not because of his ponytail, sunglasses, or fashion designs. It is because of his book collection. That was not normal.
The most legendary of abnormal book collectors was the eccentric 19th century collector Thomas Phillipps. He supposedly wanted one of everything. He was said to own 100,000 books and manuscripts. They filled up every room of his house, floor to ceiling, leaving barely enough space to move around. Lagerfeld bettered Phillipps threefold. His library contained 300,000 books. At least that was the number he gave. I don't know whether anyone ever counted them. Unlike Phillipps, who tried to collect a copy of everything on a limited budget, Lagerfeld made enough money to build a collection this large, so we will accept his estimate as reasonable.
Karl Lagerfeld was quoted as saying of his collection, "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." Yes, it is. It sounds like an obsession. It also sounds like tsundoku. That is an adopted Japanese word because there is no English equivalent. It means acquiring a whole lot of books or other reading material but never reading it. Lagerfeld was said to be a voracious reader, but I doubt he read 300,000 books. That would require reading almost ten books a day from the day he was born.
Lagerfeld's library came complete with rolling ladders and spiral staircases. It is not easy to store 300,000 books. When you look at the picture of Lagerfeld in his library, you will notice something else distinctive about it besides size. The books are shelved horizontally rather than vertically. I have seen two explanations. One is that they take up less space that way, which makes absolutely no sense since they take up the same number of square feet no matter how you stack them. The other was that it is easier to read the titles that way. You don't have to crick your neck sideways. That sounds like a practical answer, but Lagerfeld was not noted for being a practical man. My guess is it was artistic, a fashion statement. Recently, those who design homes by installing "books by the foot" for homeowners who practice tsundoku have started stacking them horizontally, believing that looks better. Lagerfeld was always ahead of others in his fashion sense, so that seems the more logical explanation for his unusual method of stacking books.
Has there ever been a larger private book collector? If Lagerfeld possessed a collection three times the size of Phillipps, it is hard to imagine there being such a person. However, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Lagerfeld was small time. It says that John Q. Benham of Avoca, Indiana, has a collection of over 1.5 million books. Guinness claims they fill up his house, a six-car garage, and a two-story building, while others are kept under tarpaulins outside. Guinness supposedly is diligent in fact-checking the record claims they publish, but it is hard to imagine they sent someone out to Avoca to count the books.
As to what becomes of Lagerfeld's collection now that he is gone, that is not known. Nor have I seen any numbers as to what the value of his books would be. Phillipps' material was sold over a series of auctions that did not conclude until almost a century later. It will be a challenge.