As a lifelong book collector, this article from The Guardian is really enjoyable.
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 binder’s 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 today’s 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”.
Even Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, described bibliomaniacs as irrational
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….
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.