Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Bibliomania.

The preceding article is honourable to literature, yet even a passion for collecting books is not always a passion for literature.

The Bibliomania, or the collecting an enormous heap of books without intelligent curiosity, has, since libraries have existed, infected weak minds, who imagine that they themselves acquire knowledge when they keep it on their shelves. Their motley libraries have been called the madhouses of the Human mind; and again, the tomb of books, when the possessor will not communicate them, and coffins them up in the cases of his library. It was facetiously observed, these collections are not without a Lock on the Human Understanding.1

The Bibliomania never raged more violently than in our own times. It is fortunate that literature is in no ways injured by the follies of collectors, since though they preserve the worthless, they necessarily protect the good.2

Some collectors place all their fame on the view of a splendid library, where volumes, arrayed in all the pomp of lettering, silk linings, triple gold bands, and tinted leather, are locked up in wire cases, and secured from the vulgar hands of the mere reader, dazzling our eyes like eastern beauties peering through their jalousies!

La Bruyere has touched on this mania with humour:—“Of such a collector, as soon as I enter his house, I am ready to faint on the staircase, from a strong smell of Morocco leather. In vain he shows me fine editions, gold leaves, Etruscan bindings, and naming them one after another, as if he were showing a gallery of pictures! a gallery, by-the-bye, which he seldom traverses when alone, for he rarely reads; but me he offers to conduct through it! I thank him for his politeness, and as little as himself care to visit the tan-house, which he calls his library.”

Lucian has composed a biting invective against an ignorant possessor of a vast library, like him, who in the present day, after turning over the pages of an old book, chiefly admires the date. Lucian compares him to a pilot, who was never taught the science of navigation; to a rider who cannot keep his seat on a spirited horse; to a man who, not having the use of his feet, would conceal the defect by wearing embroidered shoes; but, alas! he cannot stand in them! He ludicrously compares him to Thersites wearing the armour of Achilles, tottering at every step; leering with his little eyes under his enormous helmet, and his hunchback raising the cuirass above his shoulders. Why do you buy so many books? You have no hair, and you purchase a comb; you are blind, and you will have a grand mirror; you are deaf, and you will have fine musical instruments! Your costly bindings are only a source of vexation, and you are continually discharging your librarians for not preserving them from the silent invasion of the worms, and the nibbling triumphs of the rats!

Such collectors will contemptuously smile at the collection of the amiable Melancthon. He possessed in his library only four authors — Plato, Pliny, Plutarch, and Ptolemy the geographer.

Ancillon was a great collector of curious books, and dexterously defended himself when accused of the Bibliomania. He gave a good reason for buying the most elegant editions; which he did not consider merely as a literary luxury.3 The less the eyes are fatigued in reading a work, the more liberty the mind feels to judge of it: and as we perceive more clearly the excellences and defects of a printed book than when in MS.; so we see them more plainly in good paper and clear type, than when the impression and paper are both bad. He always purchased first editions, and never waited for second ones; though it is the opinion of some that a first edition is only to be considered as an imperfect essay, which the author proposes to finish after he has tried the sentiments of the literary world. Bayle approves of Ancillon’s plan. Those who wait for a book till it is reprinted, show plainly that they prefer the saving of a pistole to the acquisition of knowledge. With one of these persons, who waited for a second edition, which never appeared, a literary man argued, that it was better to have two editions of a book rather than to deprive himself of the advantage which the reading of the first might procure him. It has frequently happened, besides, that in second editions, the author omits, as well as adds, or makes alterations from prudential reasons; the displeasing truths which he corrects, as he might call them, are so many losses incurred by Truth itself. There is an advantage in comparing the first and subsequent editions; among other things, we feel great satisfaction in tracing the variations of a work after its revision. There are also other secrets, well known to the intelligent curious, who are versed in affairs relating to books. Many first editions are not to be purchased for the treble value of later ones. The collector we have noticed frequently said, as is related of Virgil, “I collect gold from Ennius’s dung.” I find, in some neglected authors, particular things, not elsewhere to be found. He read many of these, but not with equal attention —”Sicut canis ad Nilum, bibens et fugiens;” like a dog at the Nile, drinking and running.

Fortunate are those who only consider a book for the utility and pleasure they may derive from its possession. Students, who know much, and still thirst to know more, may require this vast sea of books; yet in that sea they may suffer many shipwrecks.

Great collections of books are subject to certain accidents besides the damp, the worms, and the rats; one not less common is that of the borrowers, not to say a word of the purloiners!

1 An allusion and pun which occasioned the French translator of the present work an unlucky blunder: puzzled, no doubt, by my facetiously, he translates “mettant, comme on l’a trés-judicieusement fait observer, l’entendement humain sous la clef.” The great work and the great author alluded to, having quite escaped him!

2 The earliest satire on the mere book-collector is to be found in Barclay’s translation of Brandt’s “Ship of Fools,” first printed by Wynkyn de Worde, in 1508. He thus announces his true position:—

I am the first fool of the whole navie

To keepe the poupe, the helme, and eke the sayle:

For this is my minde, this one pleasure have I,

Of bookes to have greate plentie and apparayle.

Still I am busy bookes assembling,

For to have plenty it is a pleasaunt thing

In my conceyt, and to have them aye in hande:

But what they meane do I not understande.

But yet I have them in great reverence

And honoure, saving them from filth and ordare,

By often brushing and much diligence;

Full goodly bound in pleasaunt coverture,

Of damas, satten, or else of velvet pure:

I keepe them sure, fearing least they should be lost,

For in them is the cunning wherein I me boast.

3 David Ancillon was born at Metz in 1617. From his earliest years his devotion to study was so great as to call for the interposition of his father, to prevent his health being seriously affected by it; he was described as “intemperately studious.” The Jesuits of Metz gave him the free range of their college library; but his studies led him to Protestantism, and in 1633 he removed to Geneva, and devoted himself to the duties of the Reformed Church. Throughout an honourable life he retained unabated his love of books; and having a fortune by marriage, he gratified himself in constantly collecting them, so that he ultimately possessed one of the finest private libraries in France. For very many years his life passed peaceably and happily amid his books and his duties, when the revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove him from his country. His noble library was scattered at waste-paper prices, “thus in a single day was destroyed the labour, care, and expense of forty-four years.” He died seven years afterwards at Brandenburg.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37