The Bibliomania and its cures
By MICHAEL CAINES
Regular readers of J. C.'s perambulations will know by now that the aim is to buy second-hand "books to be read", rather than books to be treasured, locked in a bank vault, insured for millions, or donated to the nation in lieu of tax. (And for most of us: chance would be a fine thing.)
If you're not so much a reader as a collector, however, a bibliomaniac rather than a bookworm, you have learnt to treasure books not so much for their insides as their outsides; and according to Thomas Dibdin, you have a problem. The TLS cynically feeds your addiction by running occasional pieces on astounding sales at Sotheby's or the vexed history of private collections. But new regulations mean that I'm now bound to offer you at least the standard guidelines for kicking the habit, courtesy of the Revd Dibdin, who inspired the establishment of the Roxburghe Club in 1812.
A few years before that, in 1809, in The Bibliomania; or Book-Madness, Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms, and Cure of This Fatal Disease in an Epistle to Richard Heber, Esq., Dibdin outlined the history (mainly a chronicle of notable British sufferers from the fourteenth century onwards), symptoms and solution to your problem.
The symptoms? A passion for first editions and illustrated editions, books with uncut pages, rare or unique copies, books printed on vellum or in blackletter. (To this list, which is Dibdin's, you might now add the dangerous lust for association copies.)
The consequences? Potentially severe. There was the humanist scholar Roger Ascham, "notorious for the Book-disease", who Dibdin suspects died "in the vigour of life", "in consequence of the BIBLIOMANIA", and was followed by many another man of letters (Dibdin believes women to be immune to the disease). There are the ruinously high prices paid at auctions ("the hammer vibrates, after a bidding of Forty pounds, where formerly it used regularly to fall at Four!"). There is the threat, Dibdin argues, that an epidemic of book-collecting poses to the health of the nation. And Heber himself – Dibdin's dedicatee and the eventual owner of some 100,000 volumes – wrote a poem on the same theme in which he offers a vision of the bibliomaniac confronted by a classic work in which the margin is not wide enough:
In vain might HOMER roll the tide of song,
Or HORACE smile, or TULLY charm the throng . . .
The Bibliomane exclaims, with haggard eye,
"No Margin!" turns in haste, and scorns to buy.
But what's the cure? Dibdin prescribes, among other things, a course of "useful" reading for the individual, compelling them to look beyond the binding and the title-page. He recommended the editing and reprinting of old books, and the "powerful antidote" provided by public libraries (but not circulating libraries, those "vehicles . . . of insuferable [sic] nonsense, and irremediable mischief!").
Forcing myself to consider parting company with a few volumes – with an office move only a couple of weeks away – I found myself wondering if Dibdin's cure could make the process any less painful. Libraries, reading lists and new editions exist and are available to me. The shelves refuse to empty.
Further advice, however, comes from another source, that will be familiar to readers of Harold Love's Penguin Book of Restoration Verse. William Wycherley, best known for his comedy The Country Wife, suggests that all you need to do is think again about the books in your life, and why they're in it:
"Advice to a Young Friend on the Choice of his Library"
Thy Books shou'd, like thy Friends, not many be,
Yet such wherein Men may thy Judgment see.
In Numbers ev'n of Counsellors, the Wise
Maintain, that dangerous Distraction lies.
Then aim not at a Croud, but still confine
Thy Choice to such as do the Croud out-shine.
Such as thy vacant Hours may entertain,
And be thy Pastime, not thy Life constrain;
Not dark, mysterious, crabbed, or morose,
Useless, and void, or stupidly Verbose,
Tho' witty, yet judicious and sincere,
And like true Friends, still faithful, tho' severe;
Books that may prove, in ev'ry Change of Stage,
Guides and Assistants to your shifting Fate:
That may to Virtue form your early Soul,
And the first Thought of unripe Guilt controul.
Friends, whose sage Wit, call'd up at each Extream,
May help you to converse on ev'ry Theme;
And when retir'd from Business, and alone,
Delight you with their Talk, and spare your own.
Make short the Season of the restless Night,
And force dull Hours to mend their ling'ring Flight.
Then, wheresoe'er your wand'ring Steps you guide,
May travel with you, and close up your Side:
Relieve you from the Pageantry of Courts,
Their gawdy Fopp'ries, and their irksome Sports:
Or, if some dire Necessity require,
With you to Dungeons for your Aid retire.
And still, like Friends, your Sadness to prevent
In Prison, Want, Distress, or Banishment.
Like Friends, it matters not how great, but good;
Not how long known, but how well understood:
Imports not, though without they old appear,
If new and just the Thoughts within 'em are:
So that, like old Friends, still they ready be,
Open at Will, and of Instruction free;
Whose faithful Counsel soars above the Art
Of servil Flatt'ry, to seduce the Heart:
But its instructive, honest Dictates lends,
Void of Design, or mercenary Ends.
Unlike most other Friends, less tiresome too,
As with them still you more acquainted grow.
As in Dibdin's Bibliomania, Wycherley's poem seems to have more than book-collecting on its mind. But is it enough to undo years of hoarding books that are "great" rather than "good"?