Do you collect things? I don’t. Some people, among them some of the crazeee rich people profiled in Nicholas Basbane’s A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, believe that the urge to collect things is innate. I’m not so sure. In my family, for example (a statistically exhaustive sample of, say, 12 people or so) there seem to be two types of people: those who collect and those who pitch. My sister, my father–they’re collectors. My sister had a collection of department/clothing store paper bags that dated from junior high. They were in a stack in her closet. Brown, green, blue, patterned. I’m sure she meant to use them for something. She was finally forced to deaccession them when she married her husband and moved out of my mom’s house in Nebraska to an apartment in California. When we went to clean out my father’s house after his funeral, the piles of books and cds were truly overwhelming. Well, those and the garbage he apparently also had difficulty separating himself from. My maternal grandma is the pitcher. She has an established track record of throwing away things that others in the family feel some sort of sentimental attachment towards. I base this on two anecdotes, but there you go. My DNA appears to be of the pitcher variety. Nothing makes me happier than a huge garbage bag full of stuff going to the Salvation Army. That is Accomplishment writ large for me.
But back to this book about book collectors. I think Mr. Basbane could have benefited from a more. . . stringent editor. Someone certainly could have helped him tighten up his lengthy tome a bit. But Basbane has a lot of material to cover. He traces the history and the pathology of bibliomaniacs through the centuries in Europe and America. The book amounts to a series of episodes chronicling famous book collectors and magnificent book collections. And it is a fascinating read. (More pictures would have been nice.)
There are a few delightful stories about men (and, yes, historically it has been men, with their independent wealth and means for independent travel, who have had the stuff to become major book collectors) on the brink (or over the brink) of mental illness. Men who have risked the structural foundations of their homes to support, literally, their huge libraries. Men driven to bankruptcy by $2million book purchases (but my collection wouldn’t be complete without that Shakespeare folio!). A man who, under a fake name and with someone else’s money, amassed one of the most impressive private libraries in the twentieth century. A man who is just plain barking mad and systematically robbed university libraries of thousands and thousands of books in order to “rescue” and “preserve” them.
As a scholar and user of libraries (some of them pretty cool, most of them rather utilitarian), what struck me most about the stories in this book are the two philosophical camps to which major book collectors belong. There are those who spend a lifetime and several fortunes collecting major works of literary art and then, when they are done with it or feel it is complete, they give it to a library or found a research institution for the collection. The Folger Shakespeare Library is a prime example of this type of collector. This collector is interested primarily in gathering a significant body of related work in one spot and then making that work available to researchers. This is the kind of collector I am hardwired to love. You buy the books and get to enjoy the thrill of purchase and the joy of ownership. I read the books. Everyone’s happy.
The other kind of collector might be less interested in giving me access to the books. Upon his death, or when he finds himself temporarily short of funds, he will sell his massive library and realize, he hopes, a tidy profit. Having had so much joy from collecting and owning, he figures it is only right that his books go into circulation again, to bring joy to the next generation of collectors. I respect the blatant capitalist spirit on display here, as well as the realization that not every book needs to be in a library. Arguably, unless a scholar is interested in the history of printing, researchers rarely need access to incanabula. A facsimile that a reader can touch and work with is likely to be far more “useful” to a library. Why not let oil barons, advertising executives, and the like own the real thing?
Some of my “favorite” collectors in the book were those men and women driven to collect things that didn’t regularly appear in auction catalogs at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. A woman who collected American children’s literature, for example, or the former college football player who turned down a contract with the NY Giants to build a library that showcased the history of African Americans. Each of these people amassed collections of things deemed “uninteresting” by serious collectors. Each of these collectors has given their books to university research libraries where they serve as invaluable resources for scholars. Without their singular passions, it is unlikely that such comprehensive collections would ever have come together. These collectors serve history and scholarship in real, concrete ways by pursuing their individual interests. If I grow up to be a collector, I wanna be like them.
But, chances of that happening are slim. I live with a librarian. He refuses to permit the use of bookshelves as a primary interior decorating motif in our home. (I guess he gets enough of that at work?) And if I had crazy unlimited funds for pursuing a collection—it would be shoes. And purses.
But, I do have a wee collection of nineteenth-century German literature: historical novels for girls, biographies of Queen Luise, the works of Gabriele Reuter. They’re useful. They’re pretty. Maybe I should post a picture.