“Bibliomania.” “Bibliomaniac.” These two words are thought to have first been coined in the English language by Dr. John Ferriar (1761-1815), a physician at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, as long ago as 1809. They were and are still used to describe a person who suffers from the “craze for collecting rare books.”
These words are related to, albeit ought to be distinguished from, the “bibliophile” or “bibliophilist,” which refer to a person or collector who “loves or admires books, especially for their style of binding, printing &c.” But we must also consider the case of the “bibliolater,” or “bibliolatrist,” a person who suffers from “bibliolatry” or the “worship of books.” Undoubtedly anyone who suffers from a combination of the above mentioned states of mind is likely to be encountered in the premises of a “bibliopolist” or “bibliopole,” ie, a “bookseller.” These collectors apparently stand in sharp contrast to those unfortunate sufferers of “bibliophobia,” who possess a “fear or dread of books.” These poor creatures are to be truly pitied. Perhaps the root cause (among various factors) contributing to their antipathy and aversion to learned tomes, may be their reliance upon electronic, hand-held devices such as “tablets” and the various “readers” which now proliferate in our age of mass, instant communication and the world wide web.
In extreme cases, some bibliomaniacs might also be considered to be “bibliotaphists,” or those readers who jealously secret away their books and are unwilling to share them with others. Indeed, this raises the puzzling question: can book collecting really be diagnosed as a “mania?” It is apparently not considered to be a psychological disorder, although some experts have referred to it as being a form of “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” The only “bibliographer” (or “writer of books,” a word so defined by Nathan Bailey in his “Universal Etymological Dictionary” of 1757) who described “bibliomania” as a “fatal disease” was Thomas Frognall Dibdin in his work which was entitled, appropriately enough, “Bibliomania.”
As a book collector, I will now coin a new word; I will proudly “come out of the closet,” and proclaim myself to the world as being a “bibliophilistomaniac.” Or, in other words, I suffer from an affliction which has combined the best (and no doubt the worse!) elements of the psychological traits noted above. And yet, if madness it be, surely it can only be described as a “gentle madness” at best. It harms no one, (except perchance when shelving collapses or topples over under the accumulated weight of antiquarian knowledge and scholarship). This “mania” permits one to share in the collective thoughts, ideas, and experiences of scores of writers and intellectuals who have set pen to paper during the past millennia, and which has been made available for the betterment of mankind thanks to the genius of Herr Gutenberg.
Most people readily recall their “firsts:” their first kiss, their first car, or their first wide screen television. Similarly, a true “bibliophilistomaniac” will be able to vividly describe their first antiquarian book purchase with little or no hesitation.
My very first acquisitions came about as a chance discovery made in 1975, in a shop on Queenston Street a few doors east of Calvin. The place was then known as “Cook’s Curiosity Shop.” This business, despite its “Dickensian” sounding namesake, was a bona fide second hand goods shop owned and operated by Mr. Bernard Cook (1904-1985), affectionately known to his customers as “Cookie.” The stock in his store (which was permeated by that stale, musty scent familiar to anyone who has been in similar shops), was piled high on tables, on shelves and in boxes, with no apparent system of organisation. Yet “Cookie” could locate any item with ease— although part of the joy of visiting there was the act of browsing, and the thrill of the chase. If an item could not be found somewhere in the “Curiosity Shop,” then chances were good that it never existed.
And it was on a shelf, near the cash, that I spotted a few rather ancient looking books. Three volumes (part of a broken set) of “Plutarch’s Lives” printed in 1808, and a rather fine copy of Tobias Smollett’s “History of England, “printed in 1827. I was astonished to find myself holding books of that age in my hands. With some trepidation, I asked Cookie what price he was asking for them. Sizing me up, Cookie said (in his inimitable fashion): “They’re very rare, and very expensive, and you couldn’t afford them. But for you, my young friend, I will make a sacrifice and sell them to you for $5.00.” I was about to put them back, sadly thinking that he meant $5.00 a piece, which exceeded my then weekly allowance of $10. Cookie then quickly clarified matters, “No, no…$5.00… for the lot.” That price was still money to me, since it represented half my allowance, but I paid it without a second thought.
For those of you who are curious, those books bring back fond memories for me and they still retain a place on one of the shelves in my private collection. And there you have the origins of my… “bibliophilistomania.”
Written by Guest Collector Brian Narhi, St. Catharines. Published by Julia McLaren, (julia@LDRB.ca) LDR editor