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The Strange History of Bibliomania, the Compulsive Buying of Books

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Bibliomania, or the Obsessive Need to Buy and Collect Books
(Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

 

Even though your grandmother probably enjoys her Kindle as much as you do now, the world is still bountiful with paper-bound originals. Just taking a quick look at my own stacks, I’ve got Charles Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes; Philip Roth’s Letting Go; and Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power (Jay-Z is apparently a fan). There are a lot more where those came from. But if a doctor were to look at my library, he would likely not diagnose me with bibliomania.

What is bibliomania? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it is the “extreme preoccupation with collecting books.” It can even spill over into obsessive-compulsive behavior—and even hoarding. Apparently, it has its origins in 19th century England. Per The Guardian, Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Biographical Romance to satirize what he saw as the growing issue of gentlemen obsessed with buying books. He, too, had been stricken with the disease.

Late psychologist Werner Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion tells of one Sir Thomas Phillips, who in the late 19th century set out to own (in his words, written in caps, to a friend) “… ONE COPY OF EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD!!!” His collection included not only books and manuscripts, but also deeds, seals, charts, autographed letters, and a range of other ephemera.

It was viewed as a problem, an addiction—even something close to an affliction. But by the turn of the next century, bibliomania had become closer to what we now see at rare books dealers’ shops: stacks of valuable gems only an expert (not a crazed obsessive) could separate from all the rest of the dreck out there.

For more on bibliomania, read The Guardian‘s full feature here.

—Will Levith for RealClearLife