As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent. I caught the bug as a kid, with the fairly broad-based ambition to collect any book published before 1860, figuring that anything that old must be rare. This first collection mounted to ten or eleven books, two of them Bibles, and starred a spineless tenth printing (1856) of Dream Life by Ik Marvel, which is probably still lying around somewhere. Since then, I’ve gone through several off-and-on phases of bibliophily, sufficient to learn that it isn’t a sport for the impecunious or anyone living in physically confined circumstances. I’ve also learned that, like less innocent obsessions, it can draw you in – seriously.
I’m talking here, you understand, about collecting rare books, not merely accumulating books in general. There is a distinction to be made. The true book collector develops (or is born with) a passionate yearning to possess certain volumes for particular reasons: first editions, copies signed or inscribed, associated documents, manuscripts and so forth. His rationale is often obscure, even to him; but it is intensely, sometimes overwhelmingly, powerful. It can lead him (and it is usually him – there are comparatively few woman book collectors) into some very strange actions.
Consider, for example, the case of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792– 1872). Heir to a fortune based on Manchester textiles, Sir Thomas devoted his life – and, willy-nilly, his family – to book collecting. His mania was so profound that by the time he was 28 he was in debt, and never thereafter out of it. Spending at the rate of four or five thousand pounds a year (at a time when even a gentleman could live on a few hundred), he eventually piled up 50,000 printed books, 60,000 manuscripts and a vast array of other literary flotsam ranging from maps to portraits. At the height of his passion, he declared: ‘I wish to have one Copy of every Book in the World!’ By the ti
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