Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America by Denise Gigante - review by Charles Elliott

Charles Elliott

A Battery of Bookmen

Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America


Yale University Press 400pp £25

Book collecting, whatever book collectors may plead to the contrary, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Accumulating a vast quantity of printed matter simply for the pleasure of owning it may rightly be called a kind of madness, at least in its extreme form. I am not prepared to call Denise Gigante a bibliomaniac, but it is obvious that she has a strong affection for those of us tempted into the practice. Her sympathies show clearly in this dense, basically amused, scholarly account of book collecting and ‘book madness’ in 19th-century America, in which she links her subject ingeniously to the fate of a particularly significant library, that of the essayist Charles Lamb.

Although he is little read now, at his death in 1834 Lamb was the bookman’s bookman, a popular writer whose love for old volumes helped stimulate an unprecedented interest in collecting on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘True books’ for him were ‘books with a past’. When it came to his own library, this might well include those bearing traces of breadcrumbs and cheese or of having been cut open with a (used) butter knife. Such drawbacks hardly put off collectors. On the contrary, what Gigante calls a ‘sentimental’ taste for copies associated with authors developed during the early part of the 19th century, superseding the desire for the traditional classics and manuscripts puffed by English bibliophiles like Thomas Frognall Dibdin and Richard Heber.

It was at just this time that interest in collecting and in building libraries was growing in America, along with a general enthusiasm for cultural improvement, driven in part by a sense of competition with the Old Country. There was money to spend, especially among prosperous businessmen in the

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