Monday 26 September 2011

The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac

This post title could easily be a confessional moment for me, couldn't it?  Well, fear not, we won't be delving into anything too untoward today - rather we'll be turning back the clock to 1896 and discovering that an irrational love of books is nothing new.  For it was over a century ago that Eugene Field's posthumous book The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac was published, and it feels like a century ago (although it is in fact only two years) since my friend Sherry kindly gave me the book.

I should explain, before you wonder how tawdry this Victorian reader was, that the love affairs are strictly of the literary variety.  Mr. Field was a single man up until his death, but his love affairs with books were as lively and happy as many marriages.  

Initially I thought Field and I would have little in common - since he died before the end of the 19th century, he necessarily could not have encountered many of my favourite writers - and, even with the 19th century stretching out behind him, he makes no mention of Jane Austen, and only scant whispers of Hardy and Dickens.  Instead he reserves his fondest passions for Boccaccio and others of that ilk.  He quotes reams in Latin and Greek.  And he cares deeply about fine volumes from centuries ago, beautiful bindings, and the scarcity and value within a library.  I, on the other hand, don't.  I love having books signed by some of my favourite authors (including E.M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, and Dorothy Whipple) but aside from that, I don't care whether a book is a first edition or a scruffy reprint - except for unrelated issues of aesthetics.  I'd rather have an attractive reprint from the 1980s than an ugly 1880s first edition.

So I settled down into Field's company, expecting to enjoy the lust of a collector with the same detached interest that I read Wolf Mankowitz's excellent novella Make Me An Offer about hunting down a valuable antique vase.  But then I found Eugene Field writing things like this:
Books, books, books - give me ever more books, for they are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity - words, the only things that live forever!
and this:

As for myself, I never go away from home that I do not take a trunkful of books with me, for experience has taught me that there is no companionship better than that of these friends, who, however much all things else may vary, always give the same response to my demand upon their solace and cheer.  My sister, Miss Susan, has often inveighed against this practice of mine, and it was only yesterday that she informed me that I was the most exasperating man in the world.

not to mention this:

All men are not as considerate of books as I am; I wish they were.  Many times I have felt the deepest compassion for noble volumes in the possession of persons wholly incapable of appreciating them.  The helpless books seemed to appeal to me to rescue them, and too many times I have been tempted to snatch them from their inhospitable shelves, and march them away to a pleasant refuge beneath my own comfortable roof tree.
A kindred spirit!  A fellow bibliomaniac, indeed!  No matter that the biblios he maniacked were centuries-old copies of Latin poets whilst mine are 1930s novels by middleclass British women, we are singing from the same song-sheet.  This collection of essays is a bit like other Stuck-in-a-Book favourites like Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing and Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, in that it bubbles over with a love for books and reading.  

Field's collection of essays starts off quite generally, with the sort of sentiments quoted above, before getting increasingly specific.  Since our tastes diverge so greatly, it was the more general sections which I truly loved.  I wanted to reach out, across the entire 20th century dividing us, and shake his hand.  The beautiful essays at the beginning of this volume, tastefully over-written in the paradoxical way which so inimitably belongs to the 1890s, touch so closely at the shared love of literature we all have.  They could have been blog posts.  For even if his books are valuable, he does not appreciate them simply as valuable objects, as though books were no different from ornaments or houses or bank vaults.  As he says:
There are very many kinds of book collectors, but I think all may be grouped in three classes, viz.: Those who collect from vanity; those who collect for the benefits of learning; those who collect through a veneration and love for books.  It is not unfrequent that men who begin to collect books merely to gratify their personal vanity find themselves presently so much in love with the pursuit that they become collectors in the better sense.
I doubt many of us have, or want, valuable libraries - but I think many of us can empathise with the assembly of a book-collection which comes from 'veneration and love for books'.  And there is one manner in which Field is simply a blogger ahead of his time.  I, with Project 24 under my belt, did have to laugh at this:
Whenever Judge Methuen is in a jocular mood and wishes to tease me, he asks me whether I have forgotten the time when I was possessed of a spirit of reform and registered a solemn vow in high heaven to buy no more books.  Teasing, says Victor Hugo, is the malice of good men; Judge Methuen means no evil when he recalls that weakness - the one weakness in all my career.
No, I have not forgotten that time; I look back upon it with a shudder of horror, for wretched indeed would have been my existence had I carried into effect the project I devised at that remote period!
Oh, Eugene!  There is a place for you in the blogosphere.  How many of us have had this absurd intention, and how few of us have seen it through?  And even fewer of us regret this decision!

Thank you, Sherry, for sending this book to such an amenable bookshelf, and to so kindred a spirit.  I hope this blog post will send Eugene Field to many other appreciative libraries around the world.

A word of warning.  There are lots of unattractive print-on-demand copies dotted around, and it can be difficult to find the pre-1900 editions on bookselling websites, even though they're actually pretty affordable once you track them down.  To save you some time, they're here on and (cheaper) here on


  1. A trunkful of books whenever he goes away from home! Oh my stars.... a man for whom the ebook-reader was invented, albeit a trifle late.

  2. Hmm, why should love affairs that involve two people rather than objects be tawdry Simon? Glad to see (well I interpret this) that you are recovering. Keep on posting interesting things for us to read about!


  3. I don't think it was 'love affairs that involve two people rather than objects' which were designated 'tawdry' - the expression, as I understood it, referred to quantity. A 'stack em high, sell em cheap' approach to human relationships of any kind reduces the value thereof.
    (Whereas stacking the books high seems to receive a storng defence today!)
    Am I right siab?

  4. Sounds wonderful, Simon. I too enjoyed "Howard's End is on the Landing".

  5. I used the search devise for the first time - to discover you've not mentioned Miss Hargreaves for 6months.

  6. This one sounds like a worthy volume to be tracked down! :) Just saw OV's comment and it cracked me up. :) Hope you are indeed feeling better.

  7. Susan D - good point! Although I think I'd still rather have the trunkful of books...

    DP and Anon - Anon more or less coveed this one! The plural in 'affairs' made this jump for me (as well as the connotations of the word 'affair' itself. Plus the kiss-n-tell element of writing about them!)

    Guy - I think it's wonderful that someone was doing something similar to HEiotL so long ago!

    Dad - horrors! I'll rectify soon... in fact, I'll need to re-read for my upcoming chapter...

    Susan - thanks :) cold almost gone now.

  8. Simon, as always, thank you (and Anon) for helping me understand.

  9. Books about bibliomaniacs are always good - and what a brilliant word!


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