Books about Books

A Personal Journey

Of the making of books, Ecclesiastes cautions us, there is no end, and with something like one hundred thousand new titles being released each year in the United States alone, I see nothing on the immediate horizon to reverse that timeless caveat. I would, however, like to add a corollary about the making of books about books, an exercise that has become something of a cottage industry in its own right and a literary exercise of which I confess a certain knowledge, having written four such efforts since 1995, with a fifth now in progress, and a sixth in the wings.

To say that book culture is my field of expertise would be something of an understatement, and this is undoubtedly why I have been asked to come here today and talk about my own contributions to the genre. Everything I have written as a professional author has been a celebration of the book, a predilection I confess to quite readily in the preface to my most recent effort, A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (HarperCollins, 2003), where I admit to being “obsessed with books in every imaginable sense and nuance of the word.” As I go on to say, “I am fascinated by their history and composition, by the many shapes and forms they have assumed over time. I want to know everything I can about the people who write them, make them, preserve them, sell them, covet them, collect them, fear them, ban them, destroy them, and most of all, about those who are moved, entertained, instructed, awed, and inspired by them.”

My first effort to appear behind hard covers was eight years in the making, a book I decided to title, in what I immodestly believe was a moment of pure inspiration, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (Henry Holt, 1995). Whenever a writer sets out to probe the quirks and mysteries of human nature—in this case, the incessant zeal to gather and possess books over a period of twenty-five hundred years—there is the likelihood of finding great stories that will appeal to a broad readership. Let it also be said that narrative is at the heart of everything I do as a writer. I take my cue in this regard from the great Duke Ellington, who famously declared, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Driving my research in that project was a conviction that so much of what we treasure of our history, our literature, and our common heritage would have been lost forever if not for the dedicated zeal of the collector. That was my premise, at least, and what I needed were engaging examples. Reading the literature, I learned, for instance, about James Logan, an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania polymath who once confessed that “books are my disease” and who was a mentor of Benjamin Franklin. A consequence of Logan’s “disease” was the donation of what in 1735 became the core collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Another example—the one, in fact, that gave me the title of my book—involved the American patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas. When Thomas died in 1831, a grandson eulogized him as having been “touched early by the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania.” His infirmity—the passionate pursuit of every printed artifact produced in what is now the United States of America—became the inspiration for the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Both of these men—and the dozens of other men and women I would discover in my reading and my research in the field—were afflicted by what the nineteenth-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton in The Book-Hunter (1862) called a “disposition to possess books,” an exquisite facility that enabled them to perceive “in the midst of a heap of rubbish . . . those things which have in them the latent capacity to become valuable and curious.”

So if there was one element that would tie all of these stories from the past together, it was that for all the peculiarities and eccentric behavior, there was in the end a payoff, and driving it all was this uniquely human condition known as bibliomania. This, of course, is something I determined well after I had decided to embark on what would become A Gentle Madness. My initial intent, as I said earlier, was to write a work of nonfiction about an exercise that had made a contribution to cultural preservation, and to do it through storytelling. Like anyone who undertakes such a project, I was obliged to research the field, and when people ask me why I spent eight years on this book, part of the answer, as I have already indicated, is that I had to learn the literature.

As a bibliophile myself—ownership of favored books is important to me—my research followed two parallel courses. Roughly half of what I like to call my “book work” was done in libraries, most notably the Widener Library of Harvard University, the Boston Athenæum, the Grolier Club in New York City, the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, and in Worcester, Massachusetts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Robert S. Goddard Library at Clark University, and the Joseph N. Dinand Library at the College of the Holy Cross. The other half of my book research was conducted in secondhand bookstores, junk shops, antique stores, flea markets, and through solid relationships developed with a number of dealers who specialize in bibliography and collecting— Robert Fleck of Oak Knoll Books in New Castle, Delaware, and Robert and Christine Liska of Colophon Books in Exeter, New Hampshire, in particular—relying on serendipity and the discovery of works previously unknown to me, along with the determined search to acquire books that I had fallen in love with in the libraries. You see, one of my personal oddities is that I want to own copies of the books I use in my writing, and thus the most valued books in my home library are the ones that I use in my writing.

A Gentle Madness is written in two parts: the first a selective history of the pastime, the second a detailed look at the contemporary scene. It was this second part that represented a true departure in the literature of bibliophilia. Based on my reading of the literature, I had determined that while numerous histories had been written of the pastime, none, so far as I could see, had brought the exercise into the present, and it was here, I felt, that I could make a meaningful contribution to the field and, quite frankly, avail myself of the opportunity to produce a book that would hold its own with the standards in the field. I like to think that the stories I told in that book—the extraordinary book thefts of the bibliokleptomaniac Stephen Blumberg, the investigation into the true identity of a mystery collector calling himself Haven O’More, the development by Harry Ransom of the great Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin in a chapter I called “Instant Ivy”—hold their own among some of the great book stories of recent years.

Because writing is how I make my living, I had to make a case for who I thought my readership for such a book would be. I knew there was a core group of confirmed bibliophiles for this kind of book, so reaching a specialized audience was not my immediate concern. They would come to my book, of that I had no doubt, because they had supported similar efforts in the past, and from what I could determine, nobody had gone near the subject for decades. Great stories were out there, thick on the ground, waiting to be gathered up and told, a good many of them never told before. These new stories, of course, would be my primary goal, and for these I would draw on skills I had developed as an investigative reporter, and also as a literary journalist who had conducted hundreds of interviews over the years.

Significantly, my model for the structure of A Gentle Madness was not another book about books, but C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars (Knopf, 1951), an international best-seller that took a theretofore arcane subject—archaeology—and enlivened it with wonderful stories of exploration, discovery, and obsession for the chase. My feeling was that if I could do for book-collecting what Ceram did for archaeology, I stood a very good chance of attracting the cross-over audience I dearly wanted to reach.

Just as important to me as finding the new stories was the responsibility I felt to compile a first-rate bibliography, and it pleases me no end, I must say, when educators who assign my books in their courses tell me they regard my thirty-seven-page compilation as the standard bibliography in the field—that one as well as the bibliography in my second book, Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture (HarperCollins, 2001), which I wrote as a companion work that included a chapter called “Madness Redux” but focused primarily on the activities of librarians, curators, and booksellers.

My hope, from the very beginning of my investigations into the book world, was to join a fraternity of authors who have written about this subject over the generations. The two nouns I emphasize in my subtitle for Gentle Madness “bibliophilia,” the love of books, and “bibliomania,” the maniacal pursuit of them—have been the focus of several works over the centuries that can be described as iconic. In 1345, Richard de Bury, the bishop of Durham, wrote a paean to his lifelong passion he called The Philobiblion, a coinage that combined the Greek words for love and book; in 1809, during what has sometimes been called the Heroic Age of Book Collecting, another man of the cloth, Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin, introduced another word to common usage with The Bibliomania, or Book-Madness; Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms, and Cure of This Fatal Disease.

Though many other tributes to this curious exercise had been written before the appearance of these two—there is a wonderful essay from the second century a.d., for instance, by Lucian of Samosata addressed “To an Illiterate Book-Fancier” that is well worth your attention—it can fairly be said that The Philobiblon and The Bibliomania are the foundation texts of the genre. Others I would regard as canonical include a highly entertaining series of books written for a popular audience in the early years of the twentieth century by A. Edward Newton, most notably The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections (1918) and A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book-Collector (1921), important primarily, I think, because they established a general readership.

Great fun, too, are Vincent Starrett’s Penny Wise and Book Foolish (1929) and Chrisopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels (1917) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919). A personal favorite of mine is Holbrook Jackson’s two-volume tour-de-force of anecdotes, Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930 and 1932), and what would have to be regarded as the most consequential bibliographical exposé to be written in the first half of the twentieth century, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Manuscripts (1934), in which John Carter and Graham Pollard documented an embarrassing series of forgeries perpetrated by Thomas J. Wise, at that time one of the most respected booksellers in the world.

A number of important biographies of important book people have been written over the years. At the top of my short list of outstanding examples is Rosenbach: A Biography (1960), a life of Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, arguably the outstanding bookseller of the twentieth century, written by Edwin Wolf II with the help of another important bookseller, John Fleming. Five volumes of what are collectively known as Phillipps Studies, prepared by the British scholar A. N. L. Mumby and published by Cambridge University Press between 1951 and 1960, are in a class by themselves as bibliographical essays that provide biographical insight into their subject, in this instance the greatest manuscript collector of all time, Sir Thomas Phillipps. There are dozens of other books I would like to mention, but lists can be tedious, so what I suggest is that if you are interested in my favorites, take a look at my bibliographies—they’re all there.

My recent books have explored a number of book issues—biblioclasm, the calculated destruction of books through history, to cite just one example, is the subject of two chapters in A Splendor of Letters. As I said at the outset, every book I have written has been a celebration of the book as artifact. Thus it seemed logical that my next book, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World (HarperCollins, 2005), would take the exercise to the next logical step,
which is the reception. In all of these efforts, what has gone before—other books about books—has been an essential element in my work. They have all guided the way, or as Shakespeare would have it: “What is past is prologue.” It is all one great continuum, and I am delighted to be a part of it.