Book Review: Bibliophilia

It would be difficult to contrive a more felicitous title for the Fine Books readership than N. John Hall’s recently published Bibliophilia: An Epistolary Novel of One Man’s Obsession with Book Collecting (David R. Godine, softcover with flaps, $18.95). The novel follows the daily exploits of New Yorker Larry Dickerson, who takes up book collecting late in life. Readers of Hall’s 2011 novel, Correspondence, will recall Larry as the retired bank clerk who bumbled into the world of rare books and manuscripts after inheriting a trove of letters from his ancestor to various important Victorian authors. In Bibliophilia, the same likable if unpolished character again faces a steep learning curve.

Bibliophilia.pngWe jump right into the action on the very first page when Larry emails a friend at Christie’s auction house to announce, “I am going to become a rare book collector.” He begins by making all the rookie mistakes, like buying American first editions of Trollope instead of English first editions, all of which will tickle readers who have even a little collecting experience. As another Christie’s contact warns Larry, “...just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s worth anything.”  

Larry puzzles over bibliographies and inscribed editions, keeping meticulous track of purchases made and prices paid and conveying the information via email to a coterie of correspondents, all fellow bibliophiles--some fictional, some real-life book folk, including NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz and collector Mark Samuels Lasner. Larry sets out to collect Victorians and then dabbles in authors associated with the New Yorker magazine. Being a newbie, some of his missteps will come back to haunt him.  

Bibliophilia is zippy, a consequence of its epistolary form, and amusing. It’s clear that the author is among the ‘gently mad’ himself, as his prose clearly demonstrates his knowledge of the subject. (And, on that note, we’ll be profiling Hall in an upcoming issue’s “How I Got Started.”) 

                                                                                                                                                                                        Image via David R. Godine, Publisher.

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