As the Renaissance world emerged from the dark tapestry of the Middle Ages, the rise of private libraries replaced the public institutions that once had the financial resources to collect books (Dibdin, 2006, p. ix). This gave rise to what some would call an affliction: bibliomania (Robinson, 2011, p. 686). This compulsive book collecting habit created a frenzied atmosphere, a virtual boom in the book buying business for several decades (Robinson, 2011, p. 686; Dibdin, 2006, p.ix).
Thomas Frognall Dibdin was a chronicler and participant in this book buying craze. Librarian to George John, the second Earl Spencer, Dibdin was an accomplished writer and bibliographer (Dibdin, 2006, pp. xxi-xxiii). His lasting claim to fame, however, came as a result of his immensely popular, yet highly-criticized, work entitled Bibliomania or Book Madness published in 1809. As a semi-chronicle of this disease, it is laid out in a series of imaginary conversations with different collectors (Connell, 200, p. 31). While it is a fictional work, many of the characters are modeled after Dibdin’s own friends and acquaintences (Ferris, 2009, p.36). Later editions are “dedicated” to Richard Heber, one of the age’s most incurable bibliophiles (Gawthrop, 2002).
Bibliomania was spreading as private collectors sparred in auction houses like “Book-Knights” (Basbanes, 1995, p.115). One such famous duel was witnessed by Dibdin in 1817 at the Roxburghe sale. This auction lasted for forty-two consecutive days (excluding Sundays) as a trio of collectors vied for choice selections and one unique book, a Valdarfer Boccacio, a book once thought not to exist and wanted even by the Emporer Napoleon himself. Silence filled the room as each of the collectors upped the price in an aristocratic bidding war. Finally it was down to two: Lord Spencer, Dibdin’s employer, and the marquis of Blandford. The price stood at two thousand pounds when Lord Spencer bid an additional £250. As was his strategy throughout the contest, Blandford raised it an addition ten pounds which put the contest to an end. This would be the highest price ever paid for a book until J.P. Morgan purchased Mainz Psalter for $24,750 in 1884. While Lord Spencer may have lost on that day, he would soon have the last laugh when a bankrupt Blandford would be forced to sell Lord Spencer the book for a mere £918 (Basbanes, 1995, 115-116).
(The Book Fool, a woodcut used in Dibdin's 1809 edition of Bibliomania)
Basbanes, N. (1995). A gentle madness. New York: Henry Holt.
Connell, P. (2000). Bibliomania: Book Collecting, Cultural Politics, and the Rise of Literary Heritage in Romantic Britain. Representations, (71), 24. doi:10.2307/2902924
Dibdin, T. (2006). Bibliomania, or, Book-madness; a bibliographical romance. Richmond : Tiger of the Stripe.
Ferris, I. (2009). Book Fancy: Bibliomania and the Literary Word. Keats-Shelley Journal, 33. doi:10.2307/25735166
Gawthrop, H. (2002). Frances-Mary Richardson Currer and Richard Heber: Two Unwearied Bibliophiles on the Fringe of the Brontë World. Brontë Studies: The Journal of The Brontë Society, 27: 225-234.
Robinson, M. (2011). Ornamental Gentlemen: Thomas F. Dibdin, Romantic Bibliomania, and Romantic Sexualities. European Romantic Review, 22(5), 685-706. doi:10.1080/10509585.2011.601684