Friday, March 3, 2017
Book Collecting Mania
From Lorraine Berry with The Guardian
When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my
willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough,
with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and
meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and
joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive
clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.
I realise now that my "jokes" were, in fact, humblebrags. I did love books,
always had, but I also took a certain arrogant pleasure from owning so many.
It was also when my first "To Be Read" (TBR) pile started all those
volumes I had bought with the intention of reading them. And while years
later, adult economics has forced me to stop shopping every time I step into
a bookstore, my work as a reviewer now means that an average of five new
titles arrive on my doorstep each week. My TBR pile is ceiling-high, and
while I'm not going into debt, the visceral pleasure that I get from being
surrounded by books remains the same.
In the 19th century, book collecting became common among gentlemen, mostly
in Britain, and grew into an obsession that one of its participants called
"bibliomania". Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer,
wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance, which was a
gentle satire of those he saw as afflicted with this "neurosis". Dibdin
medicalised the condition, going so far as to provide a list of symptoms
manifested in the particular types of books that they obsessively sought:
"First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper
copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder¹s tools;
illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and
copies printed on vellum."
But Dibdin himself was obsessed with the physical aspects of books, and in
his descriptions paid an intense attention to the details of their bindings
and printings (rather than the content) that betrayed his own love. In a
letter published in an 1815 journal, he beseeched subscribers to bulk up
their subscriptions to help complete a set of volumes called The
Bibliographical Decameron more beautiful than they could imagine. "I
should be loth to promise what is not likely to be performed, or to incur
the censure of vanity or presumption in asserting that the materials already
collected, in this department of the work, are more numerous, more
beautiful, and more faithful, than any which, to my knowledge, have come
under the eye of the publick."
While Dibdin was having new materials created to satisfy the hunger of those
who sought books, the auctions for existing items brought staggering prices.
The bloody end of so many French nobles in the revolution saw an influx of
collectibles arrive on the market as private libraries were posthumously
emptied. In 1812, the auction that released the library of John Ker, third
duke of Roxburghe, represented a watershed moment, according to Michael
Robinson, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. In his
forthcoming book Ornamental Gentlemen, Robinson says interest in the
Roxburghe auction was stirred by advertising, as well as the wartime
shortage of books. Many wealthy Englishmen and a representative of
Napoleon showed up for the auction, which lasted 42 days, and included a
tremendous selection of incunabula (books printed prior to 1500). An edition
of Boccaccio went for £2,260 (around $190,000 in today¹s US dollars), the
highest single price paid for a book up to that point. Dibdin himself
witnessed the auction, recalling the event as having been full of "courage,
slaughter, devastation, and phrensy".
The obsessive pursuit of books did not take place apart from the wider
culture, however. Recent studies have revealed tensions between a nascent
republican Britain and these bibliomaniacs. Even Thomas De Quincey, author
of the addiction memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater, described the
literary addicts he had observed at the Roxburghe auction as irrational, and
governed by "caprice" and "feelings" rather than reason. De Quincey uses the
term pretium affectionus "fancy price" to describe how prices were
decided, transforming the book collector into a dandy ruled by his emotions.
While it may be too early to speak of a "gay" subculture, Robinson writes of
the "uncanny queerness of the stereotypical representation of 19th-century
bibliophiles". Men who collected books were often portrayed as effeminate.
In 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous
attack implying that one of the prominent members of Dibdin's club was
Dibdin¹s language, which has been noted for its sensuality, is full of
double entendres and descriptions of book collecting in sexualised language;
from his Bibliographical Decameron, some characteristic dialogue:
"Can you indulge us with a sip of this cream?"
"Fortunately it is in my power to gratify you with a pretty good taste of
As Robinson told me: "Dibdin¹s mock-heroic discourse about books and
collectors contains language that is hard to read as anything other than
sexual innuendo. The sexiness of this stuff is quite surprising, actually
to the point where it can¹t really be called innuendo. These facets of the
subculture suggest the possibility that men who might today identify as gay
or queer were drawn to collecting."
One of the concerns in the early 19th century regarding book collecting was
the fear that by hoarding books, buyers were denying their fellow countrymen
their patrimony. The image of the rich dilettante was one of the conspicuous
consumer of books that would never be read the old TBR pile therefore
keeping books out of an intellectual commons. The collector was often
portrayed as having a kind of antisocial disease that kept him from
contributing to the greater good by sharing his printed riches. But the
origin for many literary anthologies lay in the libraries of these private
collectors who were, in their own way, establishing a national literary
As colonial-era explorers would help themselves to other countries'
archaeological treasures or artworks, book collectors were arguably guilty
of similar cultural theft. But a search of the academic literature of
bibliomania failed to turn up such charges. I did, on the other hand, find a
curious book review from 1855 that discussed the "Arab domination" of Spain
prior to the Reconquista. In the review, a critique of Muslim bibliomania is
offered: while lauding the Moors' preservation of western culture during the
period pejoratively known as the dark ages, "few of their works, however,
are of value to the modern scholar". In full Orientalist language, the book
collectors of the Islamic world are dismissed with the same terms used by
earlier critics of British collectors: "We cannot sympathise with their
ecstatic vagaries of passion, or discover much merit in their over-sensuous
images and descriptions, and their verbose and stilted euphemism." It was
seemingly OK for the Arabs to have saved Aristotle and the mathematicians
but their choice to preserve books containing passionate language made
By the turn of the century, as evidenced by a 1906 Metropolitan Museum of
Art article, book collecting was no longer disparaged. Skill was required to
separate the gold from the dross; book collecting was now a "whole science"
and readers were told that they, too, could score a find, as long as they
possessed "keen judgment, faultless taste, inexhaustible patience and
contempt for ridicule". As the author points out, it takes special knowledge
to know that Franklin Evans's The Story of an Inebriate a book many would
throw away was actually Walt Whitman's "first published work, and that it
is rare and valuable". Bibliomania was now a bragging right.
I chose my graduate school based on its library collection: Cornell, in
Ithaca, New York, was cofounded by historian and bibliomaniac Andrew Dickson
White, who spent his life travelling the world and collecting books, and
donated more than 34,000 rare tomes to establish Cornell's library. In that,
his bibliomania was useful to a common cause, despite the fears of previous
critics: to this day, scholars journey to Ithaca to use what would have once
been privately admired on White's shelves. The first time I sat in that
library, holding a book published before 1500, I felt something akin to the
way I have felt next to oceans: tiny, and in right proportion to the world.
Handling books from centuries before is a poignant reminder that, not only
have people loved books for as long as they have existed, they will continue
to do so long into the future. Perhaps today, bibliomania does not feel like
an irrational behaviour, as books have become less venerated and libraries
rarer. Rather, as it was for others before us, it is a careful act of
preservation for those who come after.
With thanks to Don Gilling