I’m A. N. L. Munby, I am . . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
Talking of conferences and innovations in typography: here's an unusual view of a bibliophile and sometime TLS contributor, the ingenious A. N. L. Munby, holding court. (More book historians should dress like Henry VIII, I say, or some other monarch.) I'm speaking at a centenary conference to be held in Munby's honour at King's College, Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Librarian, at the end of June. The research has, so far, been nothing but a pleasure.
The conference website explains why Munby is such an important figure for the study of books, his activities ranging from downright collecting, cataloguing and lecturing, to surviving as a POW by writing ghost stories and co-founding the Cambridge Bibliographical Society. He wrote the five definitive volumes of Phillipps Studies, about the nineteenth century's most avid collector of manuscripts, and, just to be sure he'd made his mark, succeeded in persuading the scholarly world that booksellers and auction catalogues could be crucial resources, rather than negligible ephemera.
He himself could claim, in an essay of 1952 – "Floreat Bibliomania", from which the conference takes its name – to own some 1,500 sale catalogues, but counted this as a "very modest" figure: "the late Seymour de Ricci had 30,000 sale catalogues, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale". A postscript added some twenty years later confesses that the 1,500 had by then grown to about 7,000 "and will be a major worry to my executors".
Yet Munby knew the dangers of overdoing a good thing. To quote again from the superb collection Essays and Papers (you don't need to be a bibliomaniac, by the way, to savour Munby's prose):
"The will-power necessary to get rid of books must be maintained at all costs. Even if one buys on a modest scale – say, one book a day on an average . . . . I once visited a house in Blackheath after its owner had died. It was solid books. Shelves had been abandoned years before; in every room narrow lanes ran between books stacked from floor to ceiling, ninety per cent of them utterly inaccessible. In one of the bedrooms there was a narrow space two feet wide round the bed, and there the owner had died, almost entombed in print. . . ."
Bibliophile: consider yourself warned. Again.
Photo copyright the Estate of A. N. L. Munby.