Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Bibliomany’

What better way for bibliophiles to observe the Fourth of July than to reflect a bit on the legendary passion the author of the Declaration of Independence had for his books, and for the care he took not only in selecting them, but in one amusing instance, expressing his regrets to a hopeful bookseller trying to make a sale.

Thomas Jefferson’s best known comment on the subject--“I cannot live without books”--was confided in a letter to John Adams in 1815, and has been celebrated on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts. (I used it myself fifteen years ago as one of four epigraphs for A Gentle Madness.) But in another letter written four years earlier Jefferson made clear that while books certainly were essential to his sanity and well-being, he was not about to read everything that might come his way.

Responding to a query submitted to him by his friend Thomas Law to subscribe his name for a translation of a French atlas of the world then in preparation, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter of considerable wit that expressed why such a purchase made little sense for him. It begins thusly:

“I am now entered on my 69th year. The tables of mortality tell me I have 7 years to live. My bibliomany has possessed me of perhaps 20,000 volumes. Of these there are probably 1000 which I would read, of choice, before I should the historical, genealogical, chronological, & geographical Atlas of M. Le Sage. But it is also probable I shall decamp before I get through 50. of them,.Why then add an unit to the 19,950 which I shall never read? To encourage the work?”

The full text of Jefferson’s wonderful response has been edited and published online by The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Retirement Series, based in Monticello, Virginia, and embarked on creating a definitive edition of Jefferson’s  papers for the period from 1809 to 1826. 

Editor of the series is J. Jefferson Looney, who my wife and I had the good fortune to meet a few weeks ago at the Horatio Alger Society annual meeting. Jeff kindly sent this letter along, which I saved for use today. He advises me too that this letter is previously unpublished, so it should be of considerable interest to admirers of Jefferson, especially as it relates to his “bibliomany.” Indeed, two-thirds of Jefferson’s outgoing correspondence--and 80 percent of what he received--edited by the Retirement Series thus far has not been published before.

So check out the Retirement Series site, it’s great fun.

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