Essays on Books and Bibliophiles
Aspects on the History of Books and Book-Collecting in America
By Robert A. Shaddy
Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003
Hard back: ISBN: 0773466428 Price: $99.95
Old Books Are Best” reads the title of Beverly Chew’s poem, one of the many examples of booklore Robert Shaddy collects in Essays on Books and Bibliophiles. Chew, a founding member of the Grolier Club, continues with verse touching on his true love, “What though the prints be not so bright, / The paper dark, the binding slight? / Our author, be he dull or sage, / Returning from that distant age / So lives again, we say of right: / Old Books are best.”
Shaddy, Librarian and Chair of Special and Area Studies Collections at the University of Florida, illustrates his study of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century bookmen with similarly amusing anecdotes; he augments his research on what he calls the Golden Age of Collecting with a profile of Randolph Greenfield Adams and the rise of the bibliophile-librarian, a regional study of three prominent Missouri collectors, and extensive bibliographic resources. As the title suggests, the book is very much an academic study, and true to form, its only weakness is the lack of a strong narrative carrying the reader forward. While this perhaps betrays the likely origins in academic conference papers, the richness of the material he has gathered makes Essays worthwhile and informative.
The book’s most fascinating scholarship concerns the distinction between the “delicious fever” of the bibliophile and the “delirium” of the bibliomaniac. The “malady” of the bibliomaniac, Shaddy writes, “can be likened to the book world’s equivalent of the social drinker turned alcoholic.” The problem for these men (and they are all men here) is their somewhat unnatural attachment to the physical object. Reading Alexander Ireland’s anthology, The Book-Lover’s Enchiridion, Shaddy repeatedly uncovers “the themes of books as friends, as being alive, undying, immortal entities,” as in English essayist and poet Leigh Hunt’s description of “how natural it was for his friend Charles Lamb, who felt as he did about books, ‘to give a kiss to an old folio.’”
Some readers may recognize themselves with embarrassment in these pages, since bibliomania’s symptoms apparently include “an excessive regard for books, an obsession or inordinate passion for a great many books, and an obsession for books as an end in and of itself.” Does any of this sound familiar? “One chose books while the other amassed them,” writes influential French author and Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal librarian Charles Nodier on the distinction between the bibliophile and the bibliomaniac. Unfortunately, sagging shelves and frustrated spouses will usually fail to distinguish between the two. Shaddy’s book may inspire some self-analysis among acquisitive types, but in presenting his insightful research, peppered with original and amusing bits of prominent collectors’ reflections, Essays ultimately justifies continued book love and is a good match for any deliciously fevered or delirious collector.