There are plenty of books about World War I in my collection, as well as books that were printed during the war years – however, these aren’t what I am referring to in the title of today’s post. Instead, I’m interested in how the war left its mark in books through notes and annotations made by readers. The stories and images printed within our books have the power to move us, but sometimes it’s the little marginalia that can be the most memorable, and even the most moving.
Perhaps this is especially true for the first book on the list, a prayer book titled Kvišku srca! (Rise, Hearts!), which is also one of the smallest items in my collection, and among the rarer ones. Not even the National Library of Slovenia holds a copy of this tiny book, printed in 1906 and luxuriously bound in soft, padded covers. There was even a clasp, but it had fallen off, hence the book’s affordability. Pencilled inside is a signature by Mici Marinko from “Rudnik near Ljubljana” (nowadays very much a part of Ljubljana). We don’t know who Mici was, but given that she came from a smallish village, her prospects in life were probably rather modest.
On the page opposite her signature, there is another, brief inscription: “Vojska se je pričela 27/6 1914.” = “The war began on 27/6 1914.” Nothing else is written anywhere else in the book, which makes the owner’s short comment all the more sinister. Did she write it down to remind herself to pray for her relatives at the front? In any case, the date she wrote down is completely wrong. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, and what Mici had in mind was probably the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which happened on June 28, 1914. This error makes me think of a schoolgirl who was perhaps too young in 1914 to fully register or care about the outbreak of hostilities. As the years dragged on, the population of Ljubljana would be increasingly affected by the war – food shortages, Italian air raids, and a climbing death toll – and might increasingly turn to God to help bring the nightmare to an end.
In the case of the second book, we know a bit more about how the fighting had changed the owner’s life. The book in question is Svetloba in senca (Light and Shadow), a 1916 tale by Fran Detela, a now almost forgotten turn-of-the-century author. Detela was a conservative Catholic, which made him ideally suited to write for the Hermagoras Society (Družba sv. Mohorja) publishing house, by far the largest publisher in pre-WWI Slovenia. This particular copy of one of their books is signed by Ana Rozman on the title page, and on the reverse, there is the following inscription:
Ignaz Volčič / Kriegsgefangener in / Kolonien Gubernie / Hersonski / Russland
Or translated: “Ignaz Volčič, prisoner of war in a colony in Kherson governorate, Russia.” I suppose that when news came of the location of their relative, the closest paper object at hand was this book, and hence the owners wrote down his whereabouts inside. Alternatively, they could have noted his address in order to have it at hand when writing letters and sending parcels. In any case, nothing else is written beneath to indicate whether Ignaz survived the POW camp, or how he fared during the Russian Revolution.
The next book has less of an emotional impact, but it provides us with more of a window on what was actually read during the war. It is a schoolbook, titled Homeri Iliadis Epitome or Excerpts from Homer’s Iliad, and published in Vienna in 1915. “Norbert Dolinschek” signed himself inside, along with noting the school year 1917/18: the last year when he would have to sign himself with a Germanized version of his name. Since he took Greek classes, he apparently went to one of the classical high schools in the Slovenian territory, and between October and January, his class was working through selected passages from Homer. We know this because Norbert wrote dates next to a number of the passages, which probably means that he had to study or memorize them until the specified date.
On October 15, they were making their way through Book VI, The Episode of Hector and Andromache, where Hector rallies the Trojans and saves the defenders of Troy from being routed by the Greeks. A month later, on November 23, the students started book IX, The Embassy to Achilles. At this point in the epic, the tables are turned, the Trojans have chased the Greeks back to their ships, and the Greeks are desperately petitioning their gods for help. There are a bunch of annotations, mostly in Greek, but none of them refer to the world outside of the book.
During the time these students were analysing the siege of Troy, the game-changing Battle of Caporetto (Kobarid) took place to the west of Ljubljana: lasting from October 24 to November 19, it repelled the Italian army from Slovenian territory and pushed them over a hundred kilometres back to the river Piave. After two years of exile, the inhabitants of western Slovenian borderlands, some of whom might have been Norbert’s classmates, could finally start returning home. For a while, the breakthrough on the Italian front, and the capitulation of Russia, even made it seem that victory was imminent for the Central Powers. It’s hard to know whether the students, or their teachers, liked to draw parallels between the fictional war between the covers and the very real war outside their windows.
The last of my selection probably wasn’t annotated during WWI, but it serves as a fitting coda to my post. The book itself, which came out in 1887, is titled Zvončeki (Snowdrops) and it is an anthology of poems suitable for schoolchildren. The selection isn’t too strict, and most major Slovenian poets are represented inside, though didactic ones such as bishop Slomšek receive pride of place. Before I acquired it, the book had spent the previous decade or two in a library, but earlier than that its provenance is unknown, and there are no signatures anywhere.
Whoever the previous owners were, at one point they decided that some of the poems weren’t suitable for young people anymore. With a pencil, they crossed out the first eleven poems, which praise the Habsburg monarchy in general, and several members of the royal family in particular. This could in theory have happened at any point after WWI. It could even have happened during or before it, but most likely it took place just after the monarchy’s collapse, when emotions were still running high and the Habsburg family was personally blamed for all the suffering that had taken place during the war.
A number of books came out immediately after 1918, describing both real and fabricated abuses committed by the Habsburgs. The physical environment of Slovenian towns was also considerably changed, as numerous monuments were taken down and sent to museums or foundries. Within this context, the pencilled defacement of Zvončeki probably happened as well. By the mid-1920s, the anti-Habsburg sentiment had receded, as it became clear that the family wasn’t coming back. In its stead, a number of new threats, such as Italian fascism, Hungarian revanchism, and Serbian centralism, had come to haunt the Slovenian public.
“Bukvarna” is a slightly archaic Slovenian word which could mean either “library”, “bookstore” or “publishing house” at different times. In recent decades it has come to stand for a specific type of non-profit bookstore which is, to my knowledge, a very specific Slovenian phenomenon. A bukvarna is an NGO that gathers unwanted books from the public or discarded books from libraries and then offers them for sale for relatively symbolic prices. Its aim is to preserve books, hence it also accepts and stores less popular books which would be rejected or trashed by regular second-hand bookstores. There are a few bukvarnas currently in operation around the country, including a huge one in Maribor which deserves its own post, but the first one (with a capital B) was the one in Ljubljana.
The story of Bukvarna in Ljubljana is inseparable from the person of Miran Ivan Knez, a larger-than-life figure who set up the book-saving operation and ran it until his death. Knez was a lawyer by profession, but his big passion were books and in 1986, he founded the Slovenian Bibliophile Society (Slovensko bibliofilsko društvo). Although he always spoke in plural, it was clear that the society was his personal project and he ran all the correspondence with the media. I don’t know of any other publicly visible member of the society, though Knez claimed in 1998 that there were around 50 “more active” members, alongside almost 1400 members in total.
Soon after the society’s founding, it opened up their Bukvarna, a brick-and-mortar shop which passed on the books acquired by the society. There was already an advertisement in the Delo newspaper in 1989, inviting booklovers to visit Bukvarna. While I can’t find any information about where the initial stock of books came from, the society got a large publicity boost in November that year. After a major purge in the city’s libraries, about 10 tons of books had been sent to the paper mill, and Knez found about this in time to inform the media and save about 4 tons of the weeded books. Back then, local library policy was first to offer discarded material to other libraries, then to a single nearby second-hand bookstore, and if they didn’t want to buy the books, these were trashed. Offering them to anyone else was not an option. Fortunately, enough people in Slovenia disagreed with such an uncharitable policy, and the dumped books made it to the front page of Delo, with Bukvarna mentioned in the article.
An exchange of letters to the editor followed, with city librarians defending their policy with the usual empty rhetoric (“we’re the experts, so you should always trust us”), and Knez responding in a baroque style that would remain a trademark of the Bibliophile Society. The final score of these exchanges was 0:0, but enough publicity got generated along the way to give Bukvarna a boost. Before the end of the year, the city council allotted them new headquarters at Emonska vrata (“The Gates of Emona”), at the side of Congress Square in Ljubljana.
The Emonska vrata gallery was an amazing location, but just about the worst place to locate a bookstore. Having previously been used as an exhibition space, it was an underground gallery located within the remains of the northern gate of the ancient Roman town of Emona, the predecessor of Ljubljana. The visitor would descend a small staircase into a narrow atrium about 3 metres below ground level, which was divided in half by a well-preserved section of the wall. After climbing through an opening in the wall into the second part of the atrium, one faced a large lattice window. In front of the window, there was a line of boxes filled with free books, and next to them, a door which opened into Bukvarna.
While all of this might sound like a cool place for a lapidarium or a medieval-themed pub, it meant a very damp environment for the books, as well as little natural light for their buyers. The constant hum of ventilation was mixed with an occasional shaking of the ceiling as a bus drove down Slovenska cesta, the main city street which was just above Bukvarna. In addition, since the layout of the space was governed by archaeological constraints, Bukvarna was divided into two halves. Connecting them was a very narrow corridor not more than a meter wide which probably limited access to many an obese visitor, let alone the unfortunate booklovers on wheelchairs. Never once during my visits to Bukvarna did I find myself in this second area with another person, and many visitors probably never even realized that there were more books at the end of this dusky passageway. As a result, the books piled up much more quickly than they were sold, and several of them eventually got damaged by the damp.
I assume that Emonska vrata was simply the only large-enough location that was available to the Bibliophile Society at the time, and this outweighed all other considerations. Indeed, Knez would later fight newspaper wars against archaeologists who wanted to use the space for exhibitions once again. The Bibliophile Society also embraced its new connection with antiquity during their brief venture into publishing in the nineties. One of the books they brought out was a translation of Emona, a work of revisionist history by the 19th century archaeologist Alfons Müllner. Inside, the author claims that the real Roman town of Emona was located to the south of Ljubljana around present-day Ig, whereas the ruins beneath Ljubljana belong to another town whose name was lost to history. Knez always enjoyed playing the contrarian in everything he did, but if he actually believed in Müllner’s thesis, this would mean his own bookstore would also have to change its name – “The Unnamed Gates?”
In 1990, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society launched a campaign which to my knowledge has no parallel anywhere else in the world. To the Slovenian national assembly, which was then still a regional organ within the Yugoslav federation, they proposed a law which would prohibit the destruction of books. Unfortunately, no draft of the proposed law remains publicly available anywhere. All I know is that despite its utopian nature, the law wasn’t dismissed out of hand, and it was actually given a pretty decent hearing.
After an initial rejection in 1990, the proposal was debated again in 1992 at the Committee for Culture within the national assembly of the newly independent Slovenia. The committee ordered the Ministry of Culture to “find a solution to the question of protecting books, based on the principle that books are objects of cultural heritage,” which was pretty close to the Bibliophile Society’s own position. In 1993, this same committee passed a resolution agreeing that books “should be protected against destruction to the greatest possible extent,” and again charged the Ministry of Culture to update the law accordingly.
Later in 1993, the ministry finally produced a response in which they officially recommended that libraries and waste paper companies refrain from pulping books. Instead, books should be donated to organisations willing to take them, for example to the Slovenian Bibliophile Society. However, the ministry rejected a ban on book destruction, as this would infringe on private property. The Bibliophile Society expressed disagreement with this lukewarm response, but pledged to continue its struggle against libricide.
An absolute ban on destroying books probably wouldn’t be feasible, even from my perspective as a booklover, and even if it only applied to libraries and other state-owned institutions. However, there are definitely way too many books pulped daily around the world – and there aren’t many organisations out there that would raise a voice against this as much as the old Slovenian Bibliophile Society did. Just about anywhere else in the world, the idea of banning book destruction would probably have you laughed out of any government institution. It speaks well for Slovenian culture that the proposal was taken at least somewhat seriously.
(If any readers know of any similar initiatives to legally curtail destruction of books, please contact me. I’d love to write about this in the blog.)
By the time I first visited Bukvarna in the early 2000s, it had become a fixture of Ljubljana bookselling. Entering through the door, you were greeted by Knez himself, sitting behind a huge book-covered table, with a collection of busts of famous Slovenians on the shelf above. Just as he was in writing, he was long-winded and florid in his speech, and would assault you with a lecture about all the important functions performed by the Bibliophile Society, and about the benefits of membership. Your best bet was to bring a friend who would bear the brunt of the attack, while you quietly slid away to inspect the shelves.
I don’t think Knez was much of a Marxist, but Bukvarna had a very communist feel to it, with a number of slogans in red paint that lined the walls. “Every unread book is a new book” and “Books are our greatest treasure” would motivate you to be greedy while you rummaged through the stacks and slowly receded into the murky interior. Bukvarna had a policy of paying by weight, so it was smart to focus on paperbacks and pocket editions, and I’m not sure if Knez ever managed to sell an encyclopaedia set. All the while, you were accompanied by the radio playing loud Slovenian folk music, which is just about as far as you can get from the kind of music usually played in bookstores. Having returned to your friend, who was still bogged down in conversation, you then paid whatever small fee the scales indicated, and as you exited ancient Emona’s northern gate, it was hard not to think that there isn’t a bookstore like this anywhere on Earth.
During the 2000s, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society acquired a small website (unfortunately long since taken down) and a few more mentions in the media, but to my knowledge it didn’t get engulfed in any more newspaper battles against libraries. Part of the reason were changing library practices, since public libraries in the Ljubljana region finally took the hint and started donating books instead of trashing them. The weirdest thing that happened during the decade was a burglary in 2005, when an unknown thief broke into the store at night and left with several hundred kilos of mostly unexceptional books, including a selection of Karl May’s adventure novels. Perhaps a librarian wanted revenge for having been called out in the media? Whoever the book-loving thief was, he never struck again.
There had long been plans to revitalize Congress Square, which was being used as a parking lot in the 2000s, but they were suddenly accelerated in 2006 when Zoran Janković became the new mayor of Ljubljana. Janković campaigned with the promise to close the city centre for traffic, which included removing parking areas from the main squares and redirecting the cars into newly-built garages. This was overall a great idea and would contribute to the Ljubljana tourist boom in the 2010s, but for Bukvarna it spelt the beginning of the end. One of the entrances to the planned garage under Congress Square would be located right next to the entrance of Bukvarna. Even though the area of the bookstore itself would not be included in the garage, the planners proposed that Bukvarna should go.
I last visited Bukvarna in 2009. Whatever the negotiations between the Slovenian Bibliophile Society and the city council looked like, they took a heavy toll on Knez, who had become a cartoonish portrait of a grumpy old miser. Usually I had spent an hour or two inside the store, but this time I was almost chased out after 15 minutes, and after having paid the price of a new edition for a very mediocre second-hand book. Bukvarna was obviously in a bad shape, and you could guess that it wouldn’t last much longer. After the reception I got, I never visited again.
I’m unsure how exactly the Bukvarna in Ljubljana came to an end, but apparently the city council got fed up with Knez’s refusal to move the books, and sometime in 2010 or perhaps 2011 they simply barred the entrance to the store. Had the city offered an alternative location, and was Knez just too stubborn to play by someone else’s rules? Or was he indeed fighting for the very existence of Bukvarna? Whatever the answer was, losing the store was a heavy blow for Knez, and he died in the end of 2011. Since he never really had a successor, this also meant the end of the Slovenian Bibliophile Society, which was officially disbanded and deleted from the registry of societies in the following years.
There must have been at least 100,000 books inside Bukvarna, and I have no idea what happened to them. Hopefully they were given over to one of the local second-hand bookstores, or saved from destruction in some other way1. All I know is that they are not inside the former Bukvarna anymore. In 2016, the dilapidated space was finally given over to archaeologists who are working on a new exhibition about Ljubljana’s ancient past. No trace remains of the bookshelves today, but both the exhibition area and the entrance to the garage have kept the name Bukvarna, as the only reminder of the book paradise that used to exist beneath Slovenska cesta.
For a decade now, Ljubljana has been without its own bukvarna. In a twist of fate, a part of its responsibilities has been taken over by the city library. Nowadays, the library accepts any and all donations, includes a small number of the books into its own collection, and donates the rest to the public during special giveaway days a few times per year. Nonetheless, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society will be missed. Miran Ivan Knez was an inveterate campaigner for the preservation of books, and the world needs more people like him. His story deserves to be more widely known outside of Slovenian borders as well.
Bratož, Igor: “Knjižni azil za bibliofobni čas.” Delo, 19. 3. 1998.
Hainz, Damjana: “Knjige na odpadu.” Delo, 22. 11. 1989.
Kaučič, Mojca: “Na stotine knjig komaj rešili pred uničenjem.” Delo, 21. 11. 1989.
1A friendly reader wrote to me about the eventual fate of Bukvarna’s books. Sometime around 2015, they were sold to the bookselling magnate Dušan Cunjak. However, Cunjak seems to have inherited both Knez’s modus operandi and his bad luck. A few years later, after he had failed to comply with several eviction notices, one of his warehouses was torn down with part of the books still inside. The owner of the warehouse, who had ordered Cunjak’s eviction, was the municipality of Ljubljana.
I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?
Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.
At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.
The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.
The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.
As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.
Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.
This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.
At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.
Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.
Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, bibliomania is an “extreme preoccupation with collecting books,” and the Oxford English Dictionary is more judgmental in defining it as “a rage for collecting and possessing books.” In a recent Guardian article, it stands as a synonym for compulsive book buying, and indeed in modern usage, the term is often medicalized. Thus, Wikipedia begins its eponymous article with the explanation that bibliomania “can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” followed by links to articles describing the condition from a medical perspective. In popular usage, though, bibliomania retains a positive or at least a self-ironic connotation, with many a blogger, redditor or instagrammer describing themselves as bibliomaniacs next to a picture of their latest book-haul or their finest shelfie.
Wikipedia attributes the word to the physician John Ferriar, who is supposed to have coined it in 1809. This is misleading; Ferriar might have introduced the present spelling into English, but the word itself had been around for some time. It had been used in French at least since 1734 as bibliomanie, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in English, with the French spelling, in 1750. At the same time, the word was used in Latin as bibliomania already in the 18th century, so Ferriar wouldn’t even have to modify the spelling.
If Ferriar didn’t exactly invent the word, though, he definitely helped to popularize it. In his 1809 work The Bibliomania; An Epistle to Richard Heber, he poked fun at his friend Heber, the most prodigious book collector of the time, who ended up filling eight houses across Europe with a total of more than 100,000 books. Later in 1809, an even more influential book would come out from under the pen of reverend Thomas Frogdall Dibdin. Bibliomania; or Book Madness, a mock-pathology of this strange new condition, helped to cement the term into the English language. Dibdin’s treatise served as an inauguration of the golden age of book collecting, which was embodied by the Roxburghe club of bibliophiles, founded in 1812. Even today, the term bibliomania is often used to refer specifically to this period of high prices and extravagant collectors in early nineteenth century Britain.
While British booklovers received a warning against the excesses of collecting in 1809, the Slovenian public was forewarned six years earlier, with the publication of Bibliotheca Carnioliae or Carniolan Library in 1803. Bibliotheca was written by the Augustinian monk Marko Pohlin, a prolific writer who churned out dozens of religious tracts, primers, historical works and dictionaries in addition to his monastic duties. However, his biggest claim to fame is the Kraynska gramatika or Carniolan Grammar, the first real grammar of the Slovenian language, which came out in 1768. Summarized as a “pretentious oddball” by a later biographer, Pohlin is nonetheless safely established as one of the pioneers of Slovenian culture. A recently published history of Slovenians in the modern era bears a well-chosen title: From Pohlin’s Grammar to an Independent State.
Among Pohlin’s projects was a bibliography of Carniola, something that had never been attempted before. To make himself understood to a wide audience, the author decided to write in Latin this time. Despite the regional title, he made it clear that his focus was the entire Slovenian territory and its people, be they from the heartland region of Carniola or the linguistically mixed regions of Styria, Carinthia, Gorizia, and wherever else Slovenians may live. The books included in the bibliography had been written in Latin, German, Italian, and Slovenian, as well as in other Slavic langauges, and Pohlin also included any translations that had been done by Slovenians, to make the list as complete as possible. The work had a clear agenda: “I want this library to demolish the common reproach aimed at Carniolans by other, more presumptuous nations […], that our homeland bore none or very few scholars, either for lack of talent or capability or patronage…”
To rebuke these foreigners, Pohlin not only lists the numerous Slovenian authors and their books, but indeed proceeds to construct an entire library. The “bibliotheca” in the title is literal, as books are ordered not by letters but by imaginary bookcases, with the first one named Alphitheca, followed by Bethitheca and so on, with the Quitheca and Ypsilontheca unfortunately remaining empty due to lack of Q- and Y-initialled writers. It is hard for a collector to leaf through the pages and not fantasize about assembling the collection in reality. Of course, most of the volumes discussed inside are now vanishingly rare, but a few dozen of the most famous classics were eventually reprinted, including Kraynska Gramatika and the Bibliotheca Carnioliae itself. Perhaps a shelf or two could thus be filled with bits of the Carniolan Library without having to scour through Europe and going bankrupt in the process.
Here is where bibliomania comes in. Pohlin isn’t very excited about collectors using his book as a shopping list for rare volumes which will then remain forever unopened:
“Even if I didn’t want to, I know all too well that Bibliomania is the weakness of the majority of educated people or rather those of them who want in this age to appear educated and learned on account of possessing a large number of books. One who suffers from such a weakness tries to achieve happiness and consolation and glory primarily through the possession of numerous copies of books, not to be used, but rather to be owned, to faithfully serve as decoration of the room and to give the impression of erudition.”
He goes on to chafe at collectors who prioritize rarity over content and who praise curious old volumes that nobody would ever want to actually read. Such enthusiasm is its own punishment, as booksellers dupe their hapless clients into paying high prices for books without any intrinsic worth. For Pohlin, the verdict is clear: a library where most books are seldom or never used is a worthless library.
Pohlin himself died in 1801, before he would have managed to publish his manuscript, and it had to be brought out posthumously in 1803. Any correspondence with readers that might have followed the book’s publication thus did not happen. Consequently, we also don’t know what the local book collectors thought about the author’s pronunciations on collecting. Were his quips aimed at someone specific? Even today, it is joked that everyone in Slovenia knows each other, and in Pohlin’s day that was close to the literal truth. Was there a Slovenian version of Richard Heber, a book-glutton filling out several houses with volumes? It feels unlikely that history would have forgotten such a figure. Then again, someone who merely bought and collected books, and never did or published anything, would easily have been ignored by historians regardless of the size of his/her library. Perhaps there is an interesting story of Slovenian bibliomania still waiting to be written.
Now that I’ve summed them up, how do I answer the good father’s warnings? With my enthusiasm for old and rare editions, uncut and signed copies, and curious works that have been forgotten by history, I appear almost a spitting image of Pohlin’s undesirable bibliomaniac. To this reproach, I suggest two answers. First, Pohlin lived at the dawn of the great age of paper, and in his day, books were still fairly expensive commodities. As a consequence, amassing books and not reading them felt uncharitable, equivalent to taking education from those who need it and hoarding it away. In the meantime, however, the world has been flooded with books. Nowadays there are more than enough books in existence for everyone to own a large and quality library, and since fewer and fewer people desire one, warehouses of second-hand sellers tend to be filled to the brim and tons of books end up recycled daily. In such a world, owning more books than one can hope to read feels like a venial sin at worst.
Second, while a collector will seldom read all their books, there is more than one way in which books can be perused. Pohlin presumably did not read all the books he cites, but by looking them up and noting their bibliographical details, he put them to good use. A collector is similar: by comparing editions, scanning for inscriptions and dedications, and scrutinizing details such as dust jackets and bindings, the collector acquires knowledge which might be orthogonal to the content of the book, but that does not mean that it is irrelevant. By drawing attention to the physical book, the collector also promotes the book as text and prolongs its survival. To quote from Pohlin, when he sought to provide justification for his undertaking: “I want the works of domestic writers, which are becoming increasingly rare […], to be stored with greater care than previously and for them to inspire certain trust in doubters.”
The take-home message from Pohlin’s criticism in Bibliotheca Carniolica is that a good library is one that is put to good use. However, this is not an insurmountable challenge for the collector or even for the bibliomaniac. One way to put books to use is to write about them and thus share a collection with the public. In this way, more people can behold an interesting volume than even in the busiest library. Despite his criticism of bibliomania and its adherents, I trust father Pohlin would approve of my little blog.