The Bibliophile is the master of his books. The Bibliomaniac is their slave.
At the close of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the increased availability and circulation of antique and new books led to an explosion of book collecting throughout Europe. Throughout this great age of auctions and bouquinistes, aristocrats used their large libraries as a means to exhibit wealth and prestige. The practice was not, however, confined to this elite group. Many middle-class collectors also became consumed by the desire to build their libraries, even neglecting their need for clothing, food, and lodging. The story of Don Vincent, the Spanish monk and collector who murdered booksellers for their books, inspired Gustave Flaubert to write his first short novel, Bibliomania. Charles Nodier also wrote a fictional essay concerning the plight of his friend Theodore, who succumbed to “bibliomaniacal typhus” after learning that his copy of Virgil was not the large-paper copy of 1676.
A critical examination of bibliomanical behavior began in 1809, when physician John Ferriar coined the term “Bibliomania” in a poem describing the phenomenon where this love of collecting books eventually becomes an obsession. Ever since, the line between Bibliophilia and Bibliomania has been difficult to draw. Bibliophiles and Bibliomaniacs alike devoted themselves to writing detailed bibliographies, manuals on collecting, and social commentary on the effects of the recent craze. Thomas Dibdin, the most prolific author on the subject, was himself an obvious victim of the affliction, suggesting a cure by the means of acquiring and reading even more books. Dibdin’s concerns did little to mitigate the uncontrolled nineteenth-century fashion for book collecting. Nonetheless, in reaction to his attacks on the practice, a multitude of authors rushed to write their own treatises in defense of books.
By the fin-de-siècle, the popular obsession with books had altered but not disappeared. As new technology for the mechanization of print led to an upsurge of cheaply made reading material, many collectors rushed to salvage first editions and rare copies. Other bibliophiles such as William Caxton and Octave Uzanne reacted by promoting the production of luxury books. These ornate illustrated works printed on Japanese paper and bound in Moroccan leather were intended to preserve the art of bookmaking in an age of magazines, newsprint, and yellowing paper. Whether you call them bibliophiles or bilbliomaniacs, these publishers and collectors undoubtedly facilitated a form of interaction with print that amounted to a mode of nearly religious devotion to books.
Excerpt from John Ferriar’s poem, “Bibliomania”:
What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book-disease…
The Bibliomane exclaims, with haggard eye,
“No Margin!” turns in haste, and scorns to buy…
At ev’ry auction, bent on fresh supplies,
He cons his Catalogs with anxious eyes:
Where’er the slim Italics mark the page,
“Curious and rare” his ardent mind engage.