IMG_0341Seneca adjudged that owning more books than you could read was the last refuge of an ignoble mind; but then he was a bit of a kill-joy. “Everything that is carried to excess is wrong”. Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s Bibliomania (1809) provided practical instruction for these ignoble minds. One is inclined to lean towards Seneca’s side when studying the 1812 sale at auction of John Ker, third Duke of Roxburghe’s huge library, which the fifth duke had to sell of to pay for the costs of his defending his right to the title. The sale lasted 42 days and reached its pinnacle on 17 June in the bidding war over a 1471 copy of The Decameron, printed by Christopherus Valdarfer in Venice. The Earl of Spencer and George Spencer-Churchill, fourth marquess of Blandford, between them bid the price up to £2,240 (about $208,000 in modern money). Spencer won. Roxburghe had bought the book around 1740 for 100 guineas. On the last day of the sale 18 bibliophiles met together for dinner and formed the Roxburghe Club with Dibdin as Secretary and Spencer as Chairman. A pretty exclusive club, still in existence: each of the forty members is expected to print or have printed a handsomely-bound volume for the club members. Surprisingly you are allowed to run on 300 copies for sale to the public.

John Ferriar’s The Bibliomania, 1809, An Epistle addressed to collector Richard Heber, Esq., provided warning which the competing aristocrats seem to have ignored.

“What wild desires, what restless torments seize,
The hapless man, who feels the book disease,
If niggard Fortune cramp his gen’rous mind,
And Prudence quench the Spark by heaven assign’d!
With wistful glance his aching eyes behold
The Princeps-copy, clad in blue and gold,
Where the tall Book-case, with partition thin,
Displays, yet guards the tempting charms within.”

Wikipedia claims “Bibliomania can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged.” Well, OK, I guess it can be, But that seems a rather excessive statement to start off your discussion of the topic. Lots of people collect things without becoming manic about it. It may be noted that serious book collecting originated in the second half of the eighteenth century at the time when books were becoming plentiful enough to cease to be so much a shared household resource and more an expression of the interests of their owner. Under such conditions it’s not surprising that old and rare books began to seem notable simply for being old and rare.

While there must obviously have been all sorts of collector, it would seem to me that many of them were interested in the content of their volumes not at all. I always wince upon seeing an old book, rebound in a handsome leather, gold-tooled case whose margins have been trimmed down so as to leave the type almost bleeding. Clearly owners who did this were interested primarily in the external look of their libraries, rather than in the books themselves. If you really loved the book you would rebind it without trimming the edges, leaving the top, bottom and sides rough and uneven; untidy but at least complete.