Tag Archives: collecting culture

When Bibliomania Came to America

In 1809, the Englishmen Thomas Frognall Dibdin published a detailed description of a disease that was instantly recognizable in the manifestation of a few key symptoms: a desire for black letter, a passion for luxurious illustrations, and an intense focus on first editions. These were indicators of bibliomania or the book-madness, which Dibdin outlined in his treatise. The bibliomaniac was easily seduced by the physicality of books: fine bindings and elaborate frontispieces were more valuable than content. Bibliomania was described as a feverish passion that could quickly escalate into hoarding. In extreme cases, the bibliophile might not have any intention of actually reading the prized books in his possession. Dibdin followed his original eighty-page tract with a new edition in 1811 that was ten times longer; the swollen second edition literally embodied the concept of the disease with its extensive bibliographic footnotes, supplements, and not one, but three indexes—one chronological, one bibliographical, and one general.[1] Dibdin, a bibliographer and book collector himself, was showing all the signs of being gravely stricken by the disease. Bibliomania was, of course, a mock exposition that treated book collecting as pathology. As the founder of the Roxburghe Club—one of the world’s oldest societies for bibliophiles—Dibdin’s work was a clever satire of the elite English book collecting culture in which he and his friends proudly participated. In jest, he remarked that bibliomania was raging in Europe, with England being disproportionately afflicted. In reality, only a very small subset of the population could afford to fall ill.

By the late nineteenth century, however, American newspapers were reporting that the disease had crossed the Atlantic. Often employed sardonically, bibliomania was also used more earnestly in print social commentary on elite American culture. Employing Dibdin’s rhetoric, newspapers and magazines ran stories that covered the highest selling items at book auctions, described the country’s largest private collections, and detailed the increasing interest in books as pricy commodities. Some Gilded-Age articles also suggested that book collecting was becoming a legitimate social ill. As early as December of 1845, the Boston Evening Transcript described bibliomania as “a complaint formerly of rare occurrence” in the United States, which was prevailing “to an alarming extent.”[2] While Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer defined bibliomania as an amabilis insania, or a pleasing madness, some depictions of book collecting were more scathing; in 1878, The New York Times asked, “When will Bibliomania cease?” and lamented that it had been “predicted over and over again that it must come to an end.”[3] The next year, the Times republished an opinion piece from England’s popular magazine The Fortnightly Review that chided: “Collecting rare books and forgotten authors is perhaps, of all the collecting manias, the most foolish in our day.”[4] Book collecting was comparable to other trivial pursuits, such as a penchant for collecting rare china or “curious beetles,” but the author noted “china is occasionally beautiful; and the beetles, at least, are droll.”[5] Bibliomania, according to the article, “seizes hold of rational beings and so perverts them, that in the sufferer’s mind the human race exists for the sake of the books, and not the books for the sake of the human race.”[6] Dibdin’s work was satire, but these selections from The New York Times reflect a sincere anxiety over book collecting as a form of idolatry.[7]

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Despite its association with extreme materialism, American bibliomania proved to have some social good in the last decades of the century. By the 1870s, most of the country’s original book collectors—men like John Carter Brown, James Lenox, George Brinley—were dead.[8] As a result, their abundant private libraries were auctioned off, initiating a new wave of interest in the purchase and preservation of books, especially those with American content. Many of these books were bought by the first state historical societies and public libraries in the U.S., including the Library of Congress. Some bibliophiles also collected with an explicit intention of leaving a cultural legacy. James Lenox, for example, inherited a fortune from his father, a wealthy merchant and landowner in Manhattan and retired young to collect books. He originally hoarded thousands of rare books behind the locked doors of his New York City mansion, but eventually wanted to establish a library “of unusual character and scope.”[9] Lenox’s wish was fulfilled in 1870, when the doors of the Lenox Library—later incorporated into the New York Public Library—opened.[10] Although characterized as a borderline sin and analogized as an infectious mental disorder, bibliomania in America also resulted in a greater public good, as more books were preserved in the country’s cultural heritage institutions.

[1] Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Bibliomania: Or Book Madness; A Bibliographical Romance, in Six Parts (London: Printed for the Author, by J. M’Creery, and sold by Messrs. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811).

[2] “The First Charter of Massachusetts Bay,” in Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), December 8, 1845.

[3] “Notes on New Books,” Daily National Intelligencer September 23, 1858; “Bibliomania,” The New York Times, October 20 1878, p 4.

[4] F. Harrison, “The Mania For Rare Books,” The New York Times, April 27 1879, p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Nicholas Basbanes also locates a shift in book culture in the mid-nineteenth century, noting that books “had become valuable objects in their own right;” Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1995), 155.

[8] Book collectors were overwhelmingly male in this period the author has had little success in finding examples of female book collectors in the United States and Canada until the 20th century.

[9] Francis J. Bosha, “James Lenox,” in American Book-Collectors and Bibliographers (Detroit: Gale Research, 1994): 114.