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Review of Denise Gigante, “Book Madness” | Inside Higher Ed


Bibliomania is such a judgmental word, and imprecise to boot: a label applied to such distinct phenomena as the constant reader’s stockpiling of provisions, the specialized collector’s drive to completeness, and a completely indiscriminate piling-up of volumes without interest in their contents or provenance. Behavior of the first two varieties would be better classed as bibliophilia, with -mania reserved for the more obsessive-compulsive sort of accumulation.

But the distinction does not always hold—and anyway, insisting on it too much comes off as defensive. A number of the book-besotted figures Denise Gigante portrays in Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale University Press) were fine with being called bibliomaniacs, though few were hoarders. They were, in effect, nodes in a network of ardent readers in the 19th century United States who shared a fascination with “association copies”: books from the libraries of well-known individuals. Often an association copy came bearing annotations by the distinguished previous owner. It could also be marked by the circumstances in which it was read — looking worse for wear from candle drippings, splashes of drink, or crumbs. For devotees, these were not blemishes but links to the person who left them. An association copy was uniquely rare, hence likely to accrue in value; but acquiring one was as much an emotional as a financial investment.

The author, a professor of English at Stanford University, describes her project as “a narrative experiment in associational literary history that views literature (in the manner of the bibliophiles who comprise it) as a lived phenomenon.” Her thick description of the bibliomaniac subculture takes in the lives and struggles of early 19th century American rare-book hunters, who had to cultivate a sixth sense for the choice volumes in an estate sale while remaining nonchalant enough to purchase them as cheaply as possible. It was a precarious enterprise — a good way to lose money fast. The letters of a gifted scout begging his employer to reimburse him for the books he’s sent are almost Dickensian.

A wider U.S. literary culture was emerging that included merchants and middle-class pen-pushers who devoted their free hours to reading. They formed an important element in the large American audience for the British author Charles Lamb (1775–1834), who made his living as an accountant while publishing literary and personal essays, written in a familiar and genial voice, under the pen-name Elia. Gigante’s “associational literary history” takes as its definitive moment the auctioning of Lamb’s personal library in New York in 1848.

Many of the books were in rough shape, some with chopped-off margins and hand-sewn bindings that were likely the work of his sister (and sometime co-author) Mary Lamb. But that only increased their interest as relics of a beloved author, while others were imbued with still more significance: Lamb sometimes lent books to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and volumes the poet actually got around to returning often contained extensive notes. One American devotee managed to copy out the marginalia into a notebook; a few years later, they appeared in a U.S. edition of Coleridge’s works. It’s almost a parody of the Romantic adoration of the inspired artist: the irritating and inconsiderate behavior of a genius, transmuted into literature.

The sale of Lamb’s personal library was more than a commercial event; it shored up the American literary milieu’s sense of itself as having its own unique, or at least distinctively passionate, relationship to a larger cultural heritage. Likewise with the phenomenon of Bardolotry: the worship of Shakespeare, characterized by a collecting compulsion beyond the limits of mere bibliomania. “Bardomaniacs,” as Gigante calls them, “collected not only books, tracts, and manuscripts related to the bard but other relics that bore the aura of his life and times. A coin that once passed through his hands, a pair of old leather gloves worn through at the fingers, a piece of black mulberry tree he planted …”

Bardolatry and Lamb fandom overlapped at one obvious point: The volume of Tales from Shakespeare that Charles wrote with his sister Mary (1807) was likely the childhood reading of many a future Bardomaniac. (Lamb also published other essays on the plays, and his library contained editions of them.) But Gigante pursues another line of connection within associational cultural history.

Among the Lambs’ friends was Mary Cowden Clarke, whose book The Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (1845) established her as the cynosure of international Bardolatry. She was made an honorary member of the American Shakespeare Society; her autograph was much prized by fellow Bardomaniacs; and some 250 of her most socially eminent admirers in the U.S. raised funds for an ornate armchair to be crafted in her honor. The chair incorporated a portrait of Shakespeare in ivory as well as wood from the tree he was said to have planted. Its arrival in London, where it was presented to Cowden Clarke in 1852, was celebrated as a testimonial to British and American comity as well as Bardomaniacal gratitude for the concordance-maker’s dedicated labors over a dozen years.

When the Lamb volumes came on the market, book auctions in New York were, Gigante writes, “a species of theater … [that] attracted mixed crowds” — with penniless students and shabby bookworms attending, along with the newly made millionaires looking to adorn their walls. An analogy to the Bard’s audience is not hard to draw.

As Book Madness unfolds, a sorting of publics is evident. The connections among her “protagonists” (as Gigante frequently call them) seem less and less a function of an idiosyncratic passion for association copies, with their aura linking individual readers to individual authors. The links become more orderly, not to say bureaucratic. Antiquarian societies, schools, and libraries develop out of reader networks. All necessary institutions, of course, but there’s something to be said for imagining them as born from unruly passions.



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Review of Denise Gigante, "Book Madness" | Inside Higher Ed
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