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.
- Berry, Lorraine. “Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.” The Guardian, 26 January 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/26/bibliomania-the-strange-history-of-compulsive-book-buying
- “Bibliomania.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bibliomania
- “Bibliomania.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliomania
- Pohlin, Marko. “Kraynska grammatika; Bibliotheca Carnioliae.” Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU, 2003.