Book Crooks

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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 time of his death he had made a fair stab at it. What this meant to Lady Phillipps can only be conjectured, but she is on record as having complained that she was ‘booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other’.

Apart from sending several hapless book dealers into premature insolvency (one went to debtor’s prison because Sir Thomas failed to pay him), Phillipps does not appear to have resorted to crime to build his collection. The same cannot be said of his son-in-law James Orchard H

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott has been (honestly) involved with books for most of his life – reading them, writing them, editing them (see Slightly Foxed No.9) and even buying them.

The authority on Sir Thomas Phillipps is A. N. L. Munby, whose five volumes of Phillipps Papers were wonderfully mined by Nicholas Barker to produce an engaging biography of the great man, Portrait of an Obsession (1967). The crimes of Thomas J. Wise and Henry Buxton Forman were first revealed in An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets by John Carter and Graham Pollard (1934; second edition 1983) and a sequel by Nicholas Barker and John Collins (1983). Much in these accounts is technical, but anyone bookish will find them irresistibly fascinating.

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