10/21/2012 07:47 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2012

Buy Books by the Foot

We accumulate books over a lifetime. Some favorite titles we read once a year, or certain passages once a day. Other books we neglect on the shelf, unread for years, reduced to mere decoration, gathering dust, their authors' sweat and blood and toil left unacknowledged and wasted...

Ahem, yes. Anyway. The one thing that unifies intellectuals across time and cultures, aside from the thirst for knowledge and the occasional eccentricity, is the library in their abodes and offices. The next time your local church or school hosts a book sale, swing by and watch for any customers shuffling for the register with a tower of books in their trembling arms. Those people have stumbled on the secret for rapidly building a collection for the ages: buying in bulk, cheaply. If you're an intellectual, you need a substantial book collection, preferably at a cost that will leave you with a few extra dollars for food. Here's how to build one:

Putting This Theory Into Practice

In addition to school and church sales, where you can sometimes purchase books for pennies on the dollar, the other best venue is used bookstores, which sell their wares at a significant discount. Scour these hunting grounds early and often: the intellectual on the prowl for texts is a coyote or hyena, a scavenger genetically incapable of giving up.

There's just one little drawback: Despite its best efforts, some nights the scavenging animal can find little better than a small bone with some dry gristle on it. Used bookstores and garage sales offer books by the ton, true, but most of them are titles nobody wants to read anymore: yesteryear's bestsellers, nonfiction books rendered hopelessly out-of-date by subsequent editions, how-to books that obviously didn't how-to enough. These scuffed, dog-eared orphans await your judgment. Do you really need a Tom Clancy novel from 1988, or a third copy of Merriam-Webster's Pocket Dictionary?

Unless you own a bar with wall-to-wall bookshelves that need filling, the answer is "No." A more efficient solution, as with so many things, is often found online: Websites like and that deal in printed knowledge for as low as 99 cents per volume. If you're willing to pay the shipping, you can find and order a specific book within three or four mouse-clicks. Such are the glories of the Internet, where everything you desire is always for sale: the hardcover of Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses, a lightly soiled futon, or a dude who'll do anything for ten bucks.

And the Inevitable Footnote...

There are books worth buying in their pristine, original condition. A first edition of something great, signed by the author? As an investment, it might not be worth the equivalent of a Porsche in twenty years (in fact, making rare books a significant part of your retirement plan is a mistake on par with depositing your cash with Bernie Madoff), but think of the bragging rights when you show off that inside flap on which Norman Mailer, with infinite care and precision, wrote your name followed by "Up yours, punk."

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.