Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

A Bibliognoste.

A startling literary prophecy, recently sent forth from our oracular literature, threatens the annihilation of public libraries, which are one day to moulder away!

Listen to the vaticinator! “As conservatories of mental treasures, their value in times of darkness and barbarity was incalculable; and even in these happier days, when men are incited to explore new regions of thought, they command respect as depots of methodical and well-ordered references for the researches of the curious. But what in one state of society is invaluable, may at another be worthless; and the progress which the world has made within a very few centuries has considerably reduced the estimation which is due to such establishments. We will say more —”1 but enough! This idea of striking into dust “the god of his idolatry,” the Dagon of his devotion, is sufficient to terrify the bibliographer, who views only a blind Samson pulling down the pillars of his temple!

This future universal inundation of books, this superfluity of knowledge, in billions and trillions, overwhelms the imaginnation! It is now about four hundred years since the art of multiplying books has been discovered; and an arithmetician has attempted to calculate the incalculable of these four ages of typography, which he discovers have actually produced 3,641,960 works! Taking each work at three volumes, and reckoning only each impression to consist of three hundred copies, which is too little, the actual amount from the presses of Europe will give to 1816, 3,277,764,000 volumes! each of which being an inch thick, if placed on a line, would cover 6069 leagues! Leibnitz facetiously maintained that such would be the increase of literature, that future generations would find whole cities insufficient to contain their libraries. We are, however, indebted to the patriotic endeavours of our grocers and trunkmakers, alchemists of literature! they annihilate the gross bodies without injuring the finer spirits. We are still more indebted to that neglected race, the bibliographers!

The science of books, for so bibliography is sometimes dignified, may deserve the gratitude of a public, who are yet insensible of the useful zeal of those book-practitioners, the nature of whose labours is yet so imperfectly comprehended. Who is this vaticinator of the uselessness of public libraries? Is he a bibliognoste, or a bibliographe, or a bibliomane, or a bibliophile, or a bibliotaphe? A bibliothecaire, or a bibliopole, the prophet cannot be; for the bibliothecaire is too delightfully busied among his shelves, and the bibliopole is too profitably concerned in furnishing perpetual additions to admit of this hyperbolical terror of annihilation!2

Unawares, we have dropped into that professional jargon which was chiefly forged by one who, though seated in the “scorner’s chair,” was the Thaumaturgus of books and manuscripts. The Abbé Rive had acquired a singular taste and curiosity, not without a fermenting dash of singular charlatanerie, in bibliography: the little volumes he occasionally put forth are things which but few hands have touched. He knew well, that for some books to be noised about, they should not be read: this was one of those recondite mysteries of his, which we may have occasion farther to reveal. This bibliographical hero was librarian to the most magnificent of book-collectors, the Duke de la Vallière. The Abbé Rive was a strong but ungovernable brute, rabid, surly, but très-mordant. His master, whom I have discovered to have been the partner of the cur’s tricks, would often pat him; and when the bibliognostes, and the bibliomanes were in the heat of contest, let his “bull-dog” loose among them, as the duke affectionately called his librarian. The “bull-dog” of bibliography appears, too, to have had the taste and appetite of the tiger of politics, but he hardly lived to join the festival of the guillotine. I judge of this by an expression he used to one complaining of his parish priest, whom he advised to give “une messe dans son ventre!” He had tried to exhaust his genius in La Chasse aux Bibliographes et aux Antiquaires mal avisés, and acted Cain with his brothers! All Europe was to receive from him new ideas concerning books and manuscripts. Yet all his mighty promises fumed away in projects; and though he appeared for ever correcting the blunders of others, this French Ritson left enough of his own to afford them a choice of revenge. His style of criticism was perfectly Ritsonian. He describes one of his rivals as l’insolent et très-insensé auteur de l’Almanach de Gotha, on the simple subject of the origin of playing-cards!

The Abbé Rive was one of those men of letters, of whom there are not a few who pass all their lives in preparations. Dr. Dibdin, since the above was written, has witnessed the confusion of the mind and the gigantic industry of our bibliognoste, which consisted of many trunks full of memoranda. The description will show the reader to what hard hunting these book-hunters voluntarily doom themselves, with little hope of obtaining fame! “In one trunk were about six thousand notices of MSS. of all ages. In another were wedged about twelve thousand descriptions of books in all languages, except those of French and Italian; sometimes with critical notes. In a third trunk was a bundle of papers relating to the History of the Troubadours. In a fourth was a collection of memoranda and literary sketches connected with the invention of arts and sciences, with pieces exclusively bibliographical. A fifth trunk contained between two and three thousand cards, written upon each side, respecting a collection of prints. In a sixth trunk were contained his papers respecting earthquakes, volcanoes, and geographical subjects.”3 This Ajax flagellifer of the bibliographical tribe, who was, as Dr. Dibdin observes, “the terror of his acquaintance, and the pride of his patron,” is said to have been in private a very different man from his public character; all which may be true, without altering a shade of that public character. The French Revolution showed how men, mild and even kind in domestic life, were sanguinary and ferocious in their public.

The rabid Abbé Rive gloried in terrifying, without enlightening his rivals; he exulted that he was devoting to “the rods of criticism and the laughter of Europe the bibliopoles,” or dealers in books, who would not get by heart his “Catechism” of a thousand and one questions and answers: it broke the slumbers of honest De Bure, who had found life was already too short for his own “Bibliographie Instructive.”

The Abbé Rive had contrived to catch the shades of the appellatives necessary to discriminate book amateurs; and of the first term he is acknowledged to be the inventor.

A bibliognoste, from the Greek, is one knowing in title-pages and colophons, and in editions; the place and year when printed; the presses whence issued; and all the minutiæ of a book.

A bibliographe is a describer of books and other literary arrangements.

A bibliomane is an indiscriminate accumulator, who blunders faster than he buys, cock-brained, and purse-heavy!

A bibliophile, the lover of books, is the only one in the class who appears to read them for his own pleasure.

A bibliotaphe buries his books, by keeping them under lock, or framing them in glass cases.

I shall catch our bibliognoste in the hour of book-rapture! It will produce a collection of bibliographical writers, and show to the second-sighted Edinburgher what human contrivances have been raised by the art of more painful writers than himself — either to postpone the day of universal annihilation, or to preserve for our posterity, three centuries hence, the knowledge which now so busily occupies us, and transmit to them something more than what Bacon calls “Inventories” of our literary treasures.

“Histories, and literary bibliothèques (or bibliothecas), will always present to us,” says La Rive, “an immense harvest of errors, till the authors of such catalogues shall be fully impressed by the importance of their art; and, as it were, reading in the most distant ages of the future the literary good and evil which they may produce, force a triumph from the pure devotion to truth, in spite of all the disgusts which their professional tasks involve; still patiently enduring the heavy chains which bind down those who give themselves up to this pursuit, with a passion which resembles heroism.

“The catalogues of bibliothèques fixes (or critical, historical, and classified accounts of writers) have engendered that enormous swarm of bibliographical errors, which have spread their roots, in greater or less quantities, in all our bibliographers.” He has here furnished a long list, which I shall preserve in the note.4

The list, though curious, is by no means complete. Such are the men of whom the Abbé Rive speaks with more respect than his accustomed courtesy. “If such,” says he, “cannot escape from errors, who shall? I have only marked them out to prove the importance of bibliographical history. A writer of this sort must occupy himself with more regard for his reputation than his own profit, and yield himself up entirely to the study of books.”

The mere knowledge of books, which has been called an erudition of title-pages, may be sufficient to occupy the life of some; and while the wits and “the million” are ridiculing these hunters of editions, who force their passage through secluded spots, as well as course in the open fields, it will be found that this art of book-knowledge may turn out to be a very philosophical pursuit, and that men of great name have devoted themselves to labours more frequently contemned than comprehended. Apostolo Zeno, a poet, a critic, and a true man of letters, considered it as no small portion of his glory to have annotated Fontanini, who, himself an eminent prelate, had passed his life in forming his Bibliotheca Italiana. Zeno did not consider that to correct errors and to enrich by information this catalogue of Italian writers was a mean task. The enthusiasm of the Abbé Rive considered bibliography as a sublime pursuit, exclaiming on Zeno’s commentary on Fontanini —“He chained together the knowledge of whole generations for posterity, and he read in future ages.”

There are few things by which we can so well trace the history of the human mind as by a classed catalogue, with dates of the first publication of books; even the relative prices of books at different periods, their decline and then their rise, and again their fall, form a chapter in this history of the human mind; we become critics even by this literary chronology, and this appraisement of auctioneers. The favourite book of every age is a certain picture of the people. The gradual depreciation of a great author marks a change in knowledge or in taste.

But it is imagined that we are not interested in the history of indifferent writers, and scarcely in that of the secondary ones. If none but great originals should claim our attention, in the course of two thousand years we should not count twenty authors! Every book, whatever be its character, may be considered as a new experiment made by the human understanding; and as a book is a sort of individual representation, not a solitary volume exists but may be personified, and described as a human being. Hints start discoveries: they are usually found in very different authors who could go no further; and the historian of obscure books is often preserving for men of genius indications of knowledge, which without his intervention we should not possess! Many secrets we discover in bibliography. Great writers, unskilled in this science of books, have frequently used defective editions, as Hume did the castrated Whitelocke; or, like Robertson, they are ignorant of even the sources of the knowledge they would give the public; or they compose on a subject which too late they discover had been anticipated. Bibliography will show what has been done, and suggest to our invention what is wanted. Many have often protracted their journey in a road which had already been worn out by the wheels which had traversed it: bibliography unrolls the whole map of the country we purpose travelling over — the post-roads and the by-paths.

Every half-century, indeed, the obstructions multiply; and the Edinburgh prediction, should it approximate to the event it has foreseen, may more reasonably terrify a far distant posterity. Mazzuchelli declared, after his laborious researches in Italian literature, that one of his more recent predecessors, who had commenced a similar work, had collected notices of forty thousand writers — and yet, he adds, my work must increase that number to ten thousand more! Mazzuchelli said this in 1753; and the amount of nearly a century must now be added, for the presses of Italy have not been inactive.

But the literature of Germany, of France, and of England has exceeded the multiplicity of the productions of Italy, and an appalling population of authors swarm before the imagination.5 Hail then the peaceful spirit of the literary historian, which sitting amidst the night of time, by the monuments of genius, trims the sepulchral lamps of the human mind! Hail to the literary Reaumur, who by the clearness of his glasses makes even the minute interesting, and reveals to us the world of insects! These are guardian spirits who, at the close of every century standing on its ascent, trace out the old roads we had pursued, and with a lighter line indicate the new ones which are opening, from the imperfect attempts, and even the errors of our predecessors!

1 “Edinburgh Review,” vol. xxxiv, 384.

2 Will this writer pardon me for ranking him, for a moment, among those “generalisers” of the age who excel in what a critical friend has happily discriminated as ambitious writing? that is, writing on any topic, and not least strikingly on that of which they know least; men otherwise of fine taste, and who excel in every charm of composition.

3 The late Wm. Upcott possessed, in a large degree, a similar taste for miscellaneous collections. He never threw an old hat away, but used it as a receptacle for certain “cuttings” from books and periodicals on some peculiar subjects. He had filled a room with hats and trunks thus crammed; but they were sacrificed at his death for want of necessary arrangement.

4 Gessner — Simler — Bellarmin — L’Abbé— Mabillon — Montfaucon — Moreri — Bayle — Baillet — Niceron — Dupin — Cave — Warton — Casimir Oudin — Le Long — Goujet — Wolfius — John Albert Fabricius — Argelati — Tiraboschi — Nicholas Antonio — Walchius — Struvius — Brucker — Scheuchzer — Linnæus — Seguier — Haller — Adamson — Manget — Kestner — Eloy — Douglas — Weidler — Hailbronner — Montucla — Lalande — Bailly — Quadrio — Morhoff — Stollius — Funccius — Schelhorn — Engles — Beyer — Gerdesius — Vogts — Freytag — David Clement — Chevillier — Maittaire — Orlandi — Prosper Marchand — Schoeplin — De Boze — Abbé Sallier — and de Saint Leger.

5 The British Museum Library now numbers more than 500,000 volumes. The catalogue alone forms a small library.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53