Saturday, January 28, 2017
Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying
When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough, with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.
I realise now that my “jokes” were, in fact, humblebrags. I did love books, always had, but I also took a certain arrogant pleasure from owning so many. It was also when my first “To Be Read” (TBR) pile started – all those volumes I had bought with the intention of reading them. And while years later, adult economics has forced me to stop shopping every time I step into a bookstore, my work as a reviewer now means that an average of five new titles arrive on my doorstep each week. My TBR pile is ceiling-high, and while I’m not going into debt, the visceral pleasure that I get from being surrounded by books remains the same.
In the 19th century, book collecting became common among gentlemen, mostly in Britain, and grew into an obsession that one of its participants called “bibliomania”. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer, wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance, which was a gentle satire of those he saw as afflicted with this “neurosis”. Dibdin medicalised the condition, going so far as to provide a list of symptoms manifested in the particular types of books that they obsessively sought: “First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder’s tools; illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and copies printed on vellum.”