Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.
Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.
Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.
He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.
Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.
One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.
In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.
He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.
Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.
If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.
It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.
This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”
Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.
I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.
I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.
If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:
1.Tartars in the Library
To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.
Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.
It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.
The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.
The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.
The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.
In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.
This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.
2.1812 All Over Again
There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.
Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.
Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.
He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.
This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.
The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.
As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.
Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.
Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case. When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.
3.What does Montaigne know?
Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”
Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.
One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.
Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.
For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.
4.Accio Rare Book!
The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.
The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.
This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…
The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.
About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.
The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.
When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.
I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.
At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!
There are two kinds of bookstores in the world: regular ones, and second-hand bookstores. Each of these has its own aesthetic, its own special smell, its own type of bookseller, and, to a large extent, its own clientele. When you are searching for a book, you will easily know which of the two kinds of bookstore to visit. If the book came out in the last 5-10 years or so, you will go to a regular bookstore; otherwise, it’ll be the second-hand one. There are some businesses that dabble in both, especially if they combine second-hand books with remaindered ones, but these stores are rare enough for the binary division to remain valid. After a certain period of time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, a book will not be sold by regular bookstores anymore. This was not always so.
In this particular case, an obscure and seemingly unrelated legal decision is to blame for massive changes that occurred in the bookselling world. In Thor Power Tool Co. v. Commissioner in 1979, the US Supreme Court ruled that a business is only allowed to depreciate its inventory for tax purposes if it proceeds to actually offer the goods for a reduced price. In more accessible English, this means that if a publisher continues to sell a book at the initial price, they must also pay a correspondingly high tax for each year that they keep the book in storage.
Previously, the publishers had been able to reduce the accounting value of unsold books, and hence the tax they paid, every year, simply due to the fact that with each subsequent year, the remaining books in storage were less likely to sell. After 1979, all this changed and it suddenly became unprofitable to store books for more than a couple of years after they were published. Huge amounts of books suddenly found themselves remaindered, or more likely, pulped, soon after release. Knowingly or not, the US Supreme Court thus managed to destroy more books than did many of the great tyrants of history.
Of course, the world isn’t just America. However, the Justices’ decision affected every bookseller who imported books from the USA and who would suddenly find the previous decade’s titles unprocurable. More importantly, other countries passed similar regulations over the years, increasing the taxes that publishers had to pay for unsold stock. During the course of the 20th century, it thus became increasingly less common to find old books still in stock with the publisher.
The Guinness Book of Records includes the record for “slowest-selling book”, which is currently held by the 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins, published by the Oxford University Press. The book remained in stock for 191 years, with the last copy eventually being sold in 1907. It is easy to understand why this particular record hasn’t been broken in over a century. By the time the daring publisher were finally presented with a Guinness Record certificate for their slow-selling book title, the publisher in question would have paid dozens of times the retail value of the books just in taxes.
Fortunately, some countries are friendlier towards publishers. However, even when taxes on unsold books are low, storage costs mean that publishers need to pay for each extra year that they keep an old title in stock. As a consequence, you will tend to still find very old titles in stock mostly at government-owned institutions which have their own – free – warehouses. Let’s have a look at some of the oldest titles still in stock with publishers from Slovenia and the nearby area.
The Slovenska Matica publishing house is one of the country’s largest academic publishers and the second oldest publisher in Slovenia – indeed, it’s the oldest one to still occupy the same headquarters, and never to change its name. Fittingly, Slovenska Matica is also known for never letting go of its stock. Apart from new titles, they also regularly offer unsold books from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s at book fairs at reduced prices. At the time of writing, they still have a special offer of older editions for 2 euros apiece – from this selection, I bought a new copy of Lavo Čermelj’s Between the First and the Second Trieste Tribunal, printed in 1972.
Čermelj’s memoir of the Fascist era devotes considerable attention to the travails of Slovenian-language publishers between both world wars in Italian-occupied western Slovenia. He also describes his personal experience with libricide – he probably holds the Slovenian record for the number of separate occasions on which his books were burned – which means that I’ll probably return to this memoir in one of my coming posts. Slovenian speakers are advised to use the opportunity and check out not just Čermelj, but the entire discounted selection.
A few minutes’ walk from Slovenska Matica is the National Museum of Slovenia, which has also been in the publishing business since the 19th century. The oldest title still in the museum store is a 1957 volume in Serbo-Croatian, discussing a set of medieval remains in modern-day Croatia. While I don’t have a copy of this book myself, I do have a copy of the oldest Slovenian-language book still on offer: Brezje by Karl Kromer, brought out in 1959. To be more precise, the book is a bilingual German-Slovenian edition, a catalogue of Iron Age finds from the Slovenian village of Brezje.
Reading the catalogue has a rather melancholy feeling to it, as none of the finds discussed inside are in Slovenia anymore. The excavations took place before WWI, in Austro-Hungarian times, and even though the excavators were Slovenian, the unearthed items quickly found themselves carted off to Vienna, where they reside to the present day. If we can’t behold the ancient helmets in Ljubljana anymore, we can at least check out their depictions in this book; it continues to be available both at the museum shop and by mail order.
Older still is the stock at the Technical Museum of Slovenia, an amazing institution that is located within the building of a former monastery in the village of Bistra. The museum was founded in 1951 and began publishing books the following year. Most of the early titles are sold out, but the museum shop still has some copies of Idrija’s “Kamšt”, a 1954 booklet by Albert Struna. The booklet is a short guide to the water supply system which was used to provide power for Idrija’s mercury mines; despite its brevity, it remains the most extensive treatment of the subject so far.
Even though the booklet isn’t technically for sale anymore, I’m including it in the list, as the museum shop still has a few copies set aside for researchers who can’t find the book anywhere else. Unfortunately, they’ve run out entirely of their beautiful 1956 book Vigenjc, illustrating the history of nail production in NW Slovenia. However, I managed to get myself a copy during a visit some years ago, a mere 50 years after the book’s publication.
Slovenians might not like this very much, but this time it’s the Croatian publishers who take the cake. The winner is the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, which still has copies of its 1945 book The Fortress Vučedol in stock. This book itself suffices for a story of its own, albeit more of an archaeological than a bibliophile story. The book discusses the Vučedol culture, which is nowadays recognized as one of the major Copper Age cultures in the Balkans, with some viewing it as an early Indo-European society.
The remains at Vučedol village were first excavated in the late 1930s by a team of German and Yugoslav archaeologists, which of course produced tensions concerning the distribution of the finds. After the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Himmler stepped in and demanded that the most impressive finds, including the famous “Vučedol dove,” be located, packed up, and sent to Germany. Interestingly, the local Croatian fascists managed to get Himmler to change his mind – being the only other country in Europe with its own death camps for Jews, Croatia was a very valuable ally. The local authorities instead mustered funding for a German-language monograph about the investigations at Vučedol, and brought the book out just before liberation in 1945.
Die Burg Vučedol, as the book is titled, is still for sale 75 years after its publication. The price is a relatively hefty 200 HRK, which is about 30 euros. This is a bit much for me, given that the book wouldn’t really be a key element of my collection, but I don’t despair. Sometime in the next 50 years, the museum is bound to have a sale and offer the book for a reduced price – and then I’ll snatch it!
I’m a bit indecisive about what the take-home message of today’s post should be. On one hand, I appreciate that the above publishers have kept their books in stock for 50 years and more, and never succumbed to the temptation of emptying their warehouses to make room for new merchandise. Hence, I am rewarding them with the free promotion above. On the other hand, I don’t really want to see all the books that I just mentioned become suddenly sold out. If you’re reading this, and are thinking of buying one of the above-mentioned books, go ahead, but please make sure that it’s not the last copy in stock. If we all exercise some restraint and refrain from buying the last available copies of these books, then maybe, just maybe, one of these Slovenian/Croatian publishers might eventually manage to break David Wilkins’ 191-year record.
Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.
His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.
To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.
He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.
Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.
When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.
Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.
Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.
In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.
Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.
Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.
For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.
This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.
Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.
Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.
Ambrožič, Vid. “Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami.” Kamnik: Gordan Ambrožič, 1998.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and communist regimes started falling all over Eastern Europe, one of the targets of people’s anger at communism were books and libraries. The fate of books in post-communist Europe is a large topic and definitely deserves more than one blog post, so in this one I’ll focus on East Germany. For now, let’s just say that communist-era books had it rough pretty much everywhere after the regimes that printed them went down.
1. The Land of Reading
Publishing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a combination of high intellectual standards, government meddling, and technological limitations. As a result of shortages, it is not uncommon to see relatively prestigious books printed on surprisingly low-quality paper, and in some cases the industry resorted to wartime solutions for decades after 1945. An example is a cheap type of paper that was common in Germany during WWII but remained in use in the GDR at least until the 1970s – one side of the paper would yellow much more quickly than the other, so that when you read these books today, one pair of pages is always white and the next pair yellow, and so on, which is quite a strain on the eyes.
Unsurprisingly, books were also a major channel for propagating official ideology. Apart from highly technical publications, most books had a Marxist tint; however, once the editors had paid their lip service to Marxism in the introduction, the remainder of the text was usually of high quality. I recently came across an essay by the New Yorker columnist Richard Brody in which he discusses the lure of book collecting. One of the bibliophile mementoes he singled out was “from my 1983 visit to East Berlin, where I changed more money than was required for entry in order to purchase several orange clothbound Leipzig Teubner classical editions.” He is referring to the GDR’s clever way to acquire foreign currency: every visitor would have to exchange a minimum amount of money into GDR Marks. To spend this money, two types of commodities were a popular choice among Westerners: cameras and books, especially editions of classics, brought out by publishing houses like Teubner and Reclam.
These same books were of course also much-read in their land of origin. In a country where travel was limited and many luxuries expensive, books served both as a popular pastime and as a substitute for visiting foreign lands in person. The state did its part and supported reading by instituting a very wide net of libraries which were free for everyone. At the same time, books were often the first medium through which sensitive topics like homosexuality, abortion, or envy of the Western lifestyle, were breached and discussed in public. Because the authorities sometimes did an about-face and banned a controversial book after it had already been published, it was common for such books to be grabbed up immediately after release, just in case. A commonly used phrase was that the GDR is a “Leseland”, a “land of reading.”
2. The Cemetery of Unwanted Books
Fast forward to 1993, when the New York Times published a long article about East German literature’s status within the unified country, titled “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” This summarizes well the radical change that occurred as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. After forty years of being denied bananas, jeans and Volkswagens, East Germans craved for everything Western and tried to shed everything that smacked of communism. Not just political or ideological books, but pretty much the entire domestic production suddenly found itself unsellable. Entire print runs were abandoned by publishers before they had even been sent out to bookstores. In his novel Himmelfarb, which takes place in the early nineties, Michael Krüger’s protagonist is a grumpy old professor who lives on the outskirts of Munich. He comments as he browses through a newly acquired copy of the selected works of Alexander Humboldt:
“[a] beautiful, intelligently edited book, sent to me by the publisher, as the eastern states, which had apparently banned reading after unification with the land of plenty, were either selling it below price or sending it to the paper mill, and in Leipzig of all places.”
Leipzig had been the first major centre of German publishing, and in 1991, it made headlines with another first – probably the world’s first book dump. Initially, unwanted books from the main East German warehouse for literature were sent to paper mills, and when the latter reached capacity, the books were burned as fuel in power stations. At last, whatever remained was transported to a waste deposit site at the town of Espenhain, where on May 1, 1991, a group of students uncovered around 500 tons (!) of books and other printed material deposited under a layer of construction and municipal waste. Among the few organizations to raise their voice in protest was the Union of German Writers, in whose name the poet Dieter Mucke reminded the German public of Heine’s dictum, “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people too.”
Altogether, it is estimated that about three million new books were sent directly to the scrap heaps immediately after reunification, which alone would make this one of the largest single episodes of book destruction in world history. Even more was to come during the 1990s, when the network of public libraries, which had been maintained by the East German state, was mostly dismantled. About 8000 libraries, or more than half of the total, were closed, and most of their books were sent to the dump. It is estimated that around 80 million (!!) books were destroyed in the process. This is such a huge number that I find it hard to really wrap my head around it. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine it as roughly 1600 km of books, enough to fill up a bookshelf stretching from Germany’s southern border to the North Sea – and back again. I have never come across such a huge number in any other episode of book destruction that I ever read of.
3. The Book Pastor
Fortunately, at least a few of these books survived. Among their saviours, pride of place goes to the pastor Martin Weskott from the West German village of Katlenburg, just next to the former border between the two Germanies. Weskott’s life changed in 1991 when a friend showed him a picture in a local newspaper, depicting the “book cemetery” at Plottendorf in Saxony. Weskott was amazed that this could be going on in a civilized country, and since it wasn’t clear from the picture what kind of books were being dumped, he drove down to Saxony with two of his friends to see more precisely what was going on.
Having arrived to Plottendorf, the three friends found a hole in the wire fence and climbed inside the dump. They quickly found themselves standing on enough reading material for several lifetimes. Among the titles dumped, there were the staples of Western culture: world classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, German ones such as Heinrich Mann and Stefan Heym, books by the Latin American revolutionary Eduardo Galeano were lying alongside the King of Prussia Frederick II, the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslaw Seifert, several of the Reclam classics editions, as well as children’s books, maps and books on history and architecture.
Weskott’s next step was to rent out a truck, make a number of return trips to the dump and transport as many of the books as he could back to his parish. He was lucky to have ample space at the parish to store them all, and soon afterwards he founded the Katlenburg Bücherburg, a non-profit where visitors could browse through his rescued books and take them home in exchange for a contribution to charity. After one year, Weskott estimated that he had already saved about 80,000 books, and he had made it a habit to travel down the East German countryside once a month, poking around for discarded and unwanted books.
Eventually, Weskott became known as the Book Pastor, a title which he has carried to the present day. In the nineties, the Bücherburg became a site of literary evenings, pointedly titled “The Garbage Writers are Reading,” where East German writers would present their work to a both cis- and transmural audience. As the destruction of GDR heritage subsided during the nineties, Weskott expanded his focus. He now also gathers Western books, as well as books that pre-and postdate the German division, and foreign books. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to climb around scrap heaps any longer, as most of the books now come directly from libraries, from individuals cleaning their attics, and from publishers’ unsold stock. After almost 30 years and several hundred book-gathering trips, the Bücherburg remains a must-visit for German-speaking bibliomaniacs.
4. A Library in Banana Boxes
Another approach to saving East German printed heritage was taken by Peter Sodann, a politician and actor who became famous for his role in the TV-series Tatort. Like Weskott, Sodann is also an unlikely candidate to fight for preserving the communist past. He spent time in GDR jails himself for counterrevolutionary behaviour, after having staged an irreverent play as a student. Nonetheless, Sodann had been an avid reader his entire life, and in the beginning of the nineties, he had a formative experience similar to that of Weskott. The library in Halle had dumped a huge amount of GDR-produced books soon after reunification, among them Goethe, Thomas Mann and Max Frisch. By the time Sodann heard of this, it was too late to save the books, but he pledged to save others which were about to be disposed of, and to bring them together into a library of his own.
Sodann began a drive to gather East German books, and with the help of around 250 donors, among them libraries, publishers and individuals, he ended up amassing more than half a million books. With intended irony, these were first stored in banana boxes: before 1989, bananas were a rare luxury item. When Western visitors are guided around the library by Sodann today, however, he likes to tease them that by storing Eastern literature in Western cardboard boxes, he is combining the best of both worlds.
It took a long time to find a space to properly house and present the books, since Sodann could offer a library but no money. During two decades of wandering, he had to sell his parents’ home to finance storage costs, part of the book collection became a victim of arson, and the others were endangered by the damp conditions in which they were often stored. Finally, Sodann’s pleas were heard by the mayor of the small town of Stauchitz in Saxony, and in 2011 they struck a deal to open one of the largest private libraries in Europe to the public.
In 2012, the Peter-Sodann-Library was officially opened inside a local mansion. The library includes a small movie theatre and a second-hand store, where duplicates are sold, while still more books are being stored in several warehouses around the country. There is also a nearby hotel which caters to visitors, and a number of buses continue bringing them to Stauchitz. Sodann likes to brag about requests he gets for books: libraries looking for missing copies, academics who need specific editions, publishers who don’t have some of their own books in their archive.
While there are several museums of communism scattered around Eastern Europe, this is the only specialized library I am aware of, and we definitely need more of them. The main excuse why nobody wanted to host Sodann was that all the GDR books were already in the national library in Leipzig, and thus his library was unnecessary. However, there is a difference between a national library and the kind of institution Sodann is building. A national library is a repository of texts, and the texts aren’t really meant to be accessed too often. In Stauchnitz, on the other hand, visitors can roam around the stacks, leaf through the books at will, and buy a few for themselves on the way out. It’s closer to a museum, or even a theme park, and much better equipped to give visitors a wholesome view of literature and culture in the former GDR.
In other Eastern European countries, the downfall of communism was accompanied by public bonfires of books, the torching of entire libraries, or official orders to purge the stacks. By contrast, the East German libricide was both quiet and spontaneous, and left very few traces in the national memory compared to the book burnings of half a century earlier. Nonetheless, it was a major event that deserves a mention in every history of the reunification. Germans tend to be good at learning from their own history; I hope they learn something from this too.
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.