What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man. who feels the book-disease….
—John Ferriar, The Bibliomania
bibliomania, n. A rage for collecting and possessing books.
—Oxford English Dictionary
I’ve always been crazy about books — what DPer isn’t? — but I am decidedly not a bibliomaniac. A bibliomaniac isn’t a voracious reader; a bibliomaniac is a voracious collector, an obsessive-compulsive accumulator of books as objects, often without regard to content. The term “bibliomania” was popularized in 1809 by Dr. John Ferriar, a Manchester physician whose satiric poem, The Bibliomania, poked fun at book-hoarders who lived only to haunt book-auctions and spend their entire fortunes expanding their libraries beyond all reason. The poem was dedicated to English collector Richard Heber, who filled eight houses with his collection of over 150,000 books.
Inspired by Dr. Ferriar’s witty verse, Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776-1847), bibliographer of the second Earl Spencer’s magnificent library, made his own playful study of the subject, also dedicated to Heber. Bibliomania; or Book-Madness was first published in 1809 and considerably expanded in 1811. Many editions followed, even after Dibdin’s death. The Project Gutenberg edition was created from a modern reprint of an 1876 edition that was itself a republication of Dibdin’s 1842 revised edition.
The popularity of Bibliomania did not lie in its text, which takes the form of a dialogue among several personable characters, dominated by Lysander (the voice of Dibdin), who expounds on the history of book-collecting mania through the ages. The true value of Bibliomania is, instead, in its extensive footnotes — far longer than the main text — which are filled with fascinating anecdotes about real-life bibliomaniacs, along with comprehensive catalogues of their collections and the prices the books fetched at auction after their owners’ deaths. There are chatty accounts, too, of the lives of noteworthy (and often eccentric) librarians and bibliographers.
Here, for example, we find John Leland, Henry VIII’s “antiquary and library-keeper,” who collected such a large number of manuscripts from the dissolution of the monasteries that he became deranged trying to catalogue them. We find also Antonio Magliabechi, the illiterate Florentine street urchin who rose to become the librarian for the Medici. Here are Thomas Bodley’s letters to the chancellors of Oxford University, proposing to build and stock a new library for his alma mater. And here is a Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, in the collection of one Martin Folkes, Esq., sold in 1756 for just 3l. 3s. — a paltry sum even then for such a priceless volume. In a discussion of Archbishop Cranmer’s English Bible, one can even find an itemized account of how much it cost to burn Cranmer at the stake (a little over 11 shillings).
Bibliomania is a rich and entertaining pageant of books and book-collectors, famous and obscure. DPers will be especially interested to find, in the catalogues, many books that they have worked on. Just be careful: It may not take much to turn a bibliophile into a bibliomaniac.