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Confessions of A Bibliolater


ISSUE:  Winter 1988

Scholars in the humanities at least, and perhaps in the social sciences as well, are attracted to the academic life for many reasons, but the one magnet that draws them all is books. If they did not love to read, own, fondle, and, yes, show off books, they probably would not have chosen a career in academe. A love of books per se might send a person into bookselling or librarianship, but a love of reading them, teaching them, and doing research in them is what makes a scholar. That’s certainly what drew me initially to the professorial life.

Oddly enough, books were not a memorable part of my childhood. For someone who can now remember the call numbers of favorite books, I can’t remember a single book that made an indelible impression on me until I was in junior high school. My home simply didn’t have many books when I was growing up. Neither my father nor mother read books or bought them. I’m sure they bought a few dimestore “Golden” books for my younger brother and me, but I don’t recall ever being read to or their titles, characters, pictures, or plots. I didn’t read The Wind in the Willows until I went to college. After my parents were divorced, my stepmother brought a few shelves of books to our new ménage, but they were largely Reader’s Digest condensations and mysteries. Nevertheless, these lightweights were interspersed with some contemporary novels and short stories and a few classics, mostly from the Literary Guild. I do remember being dragooned into reading Booth Tarkington’s Penrod to satisfy a Cub Scout badge requirement by my stepmother, who doubled as resident pedagogue and Den Mother, but nothing about the book itself. Penrod probably would have been more memorable if she had forbidden me to read it.

In junior high I discovered the public library and the self-absorbing genre of teen-age adventures. When I happened upon it, the library occupied a long, high-ceilinged, ill-lit room in the village municipal building. The limp wooden floors creaked and smelled of linseed oil, a smell I still associate with libraries. A couple of round tables and a few hard-backed chairs were crammed into the front of the room, leaving just enough space for patrons to use the miniscule card catalogue, check-out desk, and periodical racks. The books, such as they were, were housed in three or four rows of tall shelves in the back half of the room. The uneven lighting and hushed quiet of that place made the process of culling the week’s reading a special, if not yet sacred, enterprise.

Like many young boys without adult guidance, I gravitated to heroic stories of teen-age woodsmen, hot rodders, and basketball stars, several by Jim Kjelgaard, one of the few authors I recall. Since I was too young to drive even a conventional car and not (yet) interested in the opposite sex, I put most of my imaginative energy into reliving the stoic life of a preternaturally able guide in the Minnesota lake region, who caught giant muskies on irresistible handmade plugs, or in playing out the bounding on-court life of a junior Bob Cousy, whose manic desire to practice even in the snow impressed his coach and elders no end. Of course, neither woodsman nor hoopster had much time for reading books except other imaginary “autobiographies.”

Then in my junior year in high school I suddenly acquired faith in “serious” books and became a self-consciously hyphenated “scholar-athlete.” An excellent English teacher and a small-town dream of attending a big-time university sent me to our sterile new red brick library, across the street from the old one, for “name” authors and “classic” titles. I even began to buy my own books in small doses; Dr. Zhivago was among the first. Somehow these lofty tomes failed to make much permanent impression on me, though they lent my college applications a tone of studied high-mindedness to complement the modest razzmatazz of my sports portfolio. To my new intellectual persona, the letter of acceptance from Yale seemed as much a ticket to the boundless recesses of a great library as a pass to the polished surfaces of a huge gymnasium.

At Yale books ceased to be the arcane totems and talismans of “The Intellectual Life” and became the familiar fundaments of my own. At first textbooks seemed challenge enough. For many years I kept my freshman Introduction to Philosophy in which I had diligently underlined, with ball point and ruler, practically the whole text because it was all so important and so novel. But in several courses the professors sensibly assigned real books—novels, criticism, histories—that did not insult even a greenhorn reader with double columns, inane pictures, and bold-face subheadings every three inches. With ten courses a year, a student’s library was bound to grow, if he resisted, as I largely did, the siren song of “buy-back” week at the college bookstore. When I sold texts I was usually trying to exorcise an unpleasant academic memory or to get enough funds to buy a hardback from the trade or scholarly sections. One of my most ambitious purchases was the three blue volumes of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, which came in very handy as I was writing my second book on education in colonial New England.

Until the summer between my junior and senior years, most of my books were new. I did not discover the dusty pleasures of used bookshops until I went to Oxford to attend a graduate summer school on 17th-century England. For a wide-eyed American Anglo-biblio-phile, Oxford was Paradise Found. Blackwell’s, even before expansion, was truly awesome in its range of titles and ease of credit. Moreover, they didn’t mind if you pulled up a seat or plopped down on the floor to read a book rather than buy it. Another shop on Broad Street was, to my eyes, even more tantalizing. Thornton’s front window was jammed end-to-end with used books of every description, usually of a scholarly nature. It was a liberal education just to read the spines and to contemplate how their subjects might dovetail.

That summer in England I also decided that the academic life was not only appropriate for a budding bibliophile but possible for this one. Learned lectures by Christopher Hill on the English civil wars, Hugo Dyson on Shakespeare, and E.J. Dobson on language had something to do with it, but the Bodleian Library had more. Between preparing essays for tutorials, field trips to Great Houses, and lectures, I haunted the Oxford libraries in search of a senior honors thesis. I found it in the papers of John Locke, recently deposited by Paul Mellon, and in a copy of James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha Non Monarcha (London, 1681), annotated and corrected in the author’s hand. After summer school ended, I rented “digs” for a week and worked daily in the Bodleian to learn how to decipher 17th-century handwriting from Hans Aarsleff, a visiting Locke expert from Princeton, and to transcribe Tyrrell’s notes. Working with that little octavo volume in its original calf, and learning not only that Locke and Tyrrell were close friends and Whig soul mates but that Tyrrell had written his book, which so closely resembled Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in the same house where Locke lived yet unbeknownst to his more famous friend, gave me my first taste of the pleasures of scholarship and a large appetite for more. To this day, I regret that I was never able to purchase my own copy of Tyrrell’s book, which did so much to condemn my soul to everlasting bibliolatry.

My final year at Yale was a veritable holiday of bookish pleasures. It began in the Sterling Memorial Library with collateral research on the Tyrrell thesis. The Sterling is Yale’s cathedral of learning, the Notre Dame of New Haven. Built during the ‘20’s with exquisite craftsmanship and generous funds, Sterling was indeed meant to inspire worship in its communicants. Its plan was very much that of a Gothic cathedral: the check-out desk served as the altar, framed by beautifully carved wooden grilles. The nave and transept featured vaulted ceilings several stories high, carved stonework, and Gothic-looking wrought iron lamps suspended from the ceiling. The main reading room to the left of the altar was a baronial hall, filled with giant oak tables and high-backed leather arm chairs. To the right lay a periodical room and an enclosed archway leading past a grassy courtyard to the rare book room. Raised on the intellectual asperities of small-town Congregationalism, I devoutly paid homage to all these stations of Sterling’s great architectural cross.

My second invitation to bibliolatry came with election to the somewhat effete Elizabethan Club, which occupied a diminutive white frame house in the midst of larger and uglier academic piles. In addition to afternoon tea, deep easy chairs, and current copies of Punch, the “Lizzie” (as it was affectionately known) offered a weekly ramble through its bank-size vault containing a small but exquisite rare book collection. Shakespeare first folios and quartos were much in evidence, but so were numerous other Tudor and Stuart rareties of cultural as well as dramatic interest. I remember being impressed not only by the good taste of the donors of these books but by their personal wealth and peculiar generosity. It seemed rather wonderful then, as it does still, that men—Yale was not yet co-ed—would donate rare and expensive books, the pride of any personal library, to a small literary society where they would be hardly ever used and seen only once a week on ceremonial occasions.

The third redaction of senior year bore the imprint of the Bibliophiles, an informal undergraduate group of bookworms who wished to learn more about the technical side of printing, binding, and bibliography. Our mentors were, respectively, the director and the doyenne of the rare book and manuscript collection, Herman “Fritz” Liebert and Marjory Wynne, who gave us Ronald McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and an infallible recipe for leather binding preservative (half lanolin, half neat’s-foot oil, which when blended on a too-hot stove could produce ghastly odors, particularly if the lanolin was rancid). Every month we were treated to some of the treasures of the Yale trove—medieval manuscripts, incunabula, even the Gutenburg Bible—and shown how to find the colophon in early books, how a book is printed in sheets, sewn in signatures, and bound in boards, and how to cite references to books without page numbers. One memorable afternoon we were invited to tea at the Lieberts’. No one failed to be impressed by Fritz’s incomparable collection of Samuel Johnson, but my eye and fancy were caught by a small collection of books in a downstairs bathroom. In a neat row over the “loo” and in a small wall of shelves in front of it, Fritz had thoughtfully assembled a miscellany of bathroom-related titles, such as Ring of Bright Water, the New York City Plumbing Code, and The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Inspired by great collections like the Lizzie’s and the Lieberts’, a few of the Bibliophiles entered the annual book-collecting contest, which offered a substantial prize for purchases of one’s choice. Between Oxford and the Yale Coop I had begun a modest mélange of titles—I won’t say collection—on 17th-century English politics, philosophy, and history. But it could not touch the range and novelty of the eventual winner: a collection of railroad time-tables gathered by a train buff whose room was festooned with engineer’s caps, lanterns, and zebra-striped crossing bars. Naturally, we sore losers felt morally superior to such childish enthusiasm and not a little disappointed in the august committee for giving way to its own.

To judge by the statistics on national reading habits, graduation from college means for an astounding number of Americans a precipitous decline in their acquaintance with books. I was in little danger of becoming a statistical casualty because I signed on for my post-commencement summer with a rare book dealer, who occupied cramped quarters over one of my favorite men’s stores. C.A. Stonehill & Co. was owned and operated by a father-and-son team of Robert Berrys. Bob Senior was a rotund, cigar-chewing man who looked as if he would be more at home flogging used cars than rare editions. But he was a consummate bookman, and he showed his Princeton-educated son, Bob Junior, all the ropes. Together they successfully stalked the acquisitions librarians of the biggest and best libraries in the world. When I used to drop in during my senior year, they would gladly show me the latest treasures in their vault, most of which would end up in the likes of the Bodleian, the Houghton, and Yale.

Before I became an employee, however, I was a customer, albeit very small potatoes indeed (so small that the Berrys laughingly forwent their usual commission). As commencement neared, with the prospect of congratulatory checks, I began to look through some of their book catalogues from other dealers. In an English catalogue I found an eight-page octavo pamphlet that rang a distinct bell: The Recantation of Daniel Scargill, Publickly made before the University of Cambridge; In Great St. Maries, July 25, 1669, published by the “Printers to the University” upon the event. I had recently seen a reference to it in a book on the opponents of Hobbes’s Leviathan, but the author hadn’t pursued it very far. As a quondam student of Stuart political thought, I had to have it. At the British equivalent of $10, I could hardly go wrong. It was my first rare book and it cost gratifyingly little, but I hadn’t reckoned with how to store such a fragile, thin item. So, in the bullish economy of graduation extravagance, I paid $50 to have a New York bindery (one of whose best customers was the Yale rare book department) make me a handsome quarter-calf slip case for my $10 pamphlet. (This, by the way, proved to be excellent training for a later indulgence in cheap prints, which invariably required frames costing at least ten times as much as the print.)

I have never had any regrets over the expense of that slip case because the pamphlet led to my first publication, a special, even sentimental moment in the life of every scholar. While the rest of Yale’s seniors were becoming Old Blues at commencement, I flew to England with the combined Yale-Harvard track team to challenge Oxford-Cambridge. Ensconced at Cambridge, we were scheduled for practices twice a day. But I was so taken with the Scargill story that I played hooky in the mornings to ferret it out. On a borrowed bicycle with a borrowed research student’s gown billowing in the breeze, I made my way to the archives of Corpus Christi College, from whose fellowship the 22-year-old Scargill had been expelled for being “an Hobbist and an Atheist.” There in the faculty records I traced the short, ill-fated career of the young don who dared to drink and gamble with his students at local pubs and to argue too zealously for the materialistic Hobbist position in the formal disputation “Schools.” For which and other notorieties he was deprived of his degree as well as his fellowship and forced to make public recantation in the Church of St. Mary’s, a stone’s throw from Corpus.

The light but heady wine of English scholarship lost little of its flavor when I returned to Stonehill’s for the summer. One of my jobs was to comb the latest dealers’ catalogues, note the books published before 1700, and enter their prices, a code for the dealer, and the date beside the entries in the firm’s interleaved Short Title and Wing catalogues. This enabled my bosses to buy and sell within sight of current market rates. My other job was to collate new acquisitions and to write catalogue descriptions in standard form à la McKerrow. Counting signatures and noting them in pencil on the back flyleaf was not particularly exciting, but the exact training in bibliographical description served me well when I began my doctoral dissertation in the fall.

My return to Cambridge as a married man was auspicious for at least two other reasons. The first was that, with the Berrys’ blessing, I was allowed to claim professional discounts from European book dealers for being associated with Stonehill’s, a name that opened many doors and cabinets in the next two years. The second was that, having been baptized in the faith at Oxford, I was soon consecrated in the unholy order of bibliolaters, whose principal vow is poverty. For her part, my innocent bride became a blessed martyr to the cause.

On second thought, she shouldn’t have been so innocent, for during our academic-year courtship I had dropped several strong hints of books-to-come. Even my proposal was made by the book. In a copy of Sir Geoffrey Keynes’ handsome blue Bibliography of John Donne, which I gave her sometime before Christmas, I had pasted my own commercial book-plate but with the owners printed in the conjugal plural. When she accepted as readily as had John’s Anne, her wedding present was a journal of blank pages, gilt-edged and hand-bound in full green calf by Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London, one of the world’s premier binderies. Her initials were gold-tooled on the raised spine and her married name before “Her Booke” on the front cover.

Armed with a couple of modest Yale fellowships and the license of a bona fide doctoral student, I resumed the hunt for bibliographical trophies in my spacious specialty—the history and culture of Tudor-Stuart England and early modern Europe. Cambridge had two main preserves—Heffer’s and Bowes and Bowes—and several smaller poacher’s delights. One of the most enjoyable fields was the weekly open-air market in the center of town, which always had at least one stall devoted to cheap books. With a trained eye and some practice, one could snag scholarly and even rare “sleepers” for a couple of shillings, walk across the square to Heffer’s used book department, and resell them for a substantial profit, which could then be spent on the spot.

But because I was after bigger game, I had to range farther afield and to develop greater cunning in the chase. Realizing that I was personally too apolitical to pursue Stuart political thought with any keenness, I had chosen for my dissertation the educational writings of John Locke. This entailed a critical edition of Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London, 1693), which went through a fifth enlarged edition in Locke’s lifetime, with extensive annotations, a long introduction, appendices of other writings, a checklist of printings, and a collation of the five editions. It was the checklist and the collation that sent me plunging into the costly thickets of the rare book world. Of course, I could have used the editions of the Education in Cambridge and in the Bodleian, where I did most of my manuscript work. But then I would have missed the smells and thrills of the hunt—and a valuable lesson in my bibliographical education. This acquisitive appetite I rationalized, as I have done ever since, in good American fashion, as the road to efficiency. By having the books on my own shelves, I said, I could save countless hours in travel to and sitting in far-flung libraries. I could work at all hours, when libraries were closed. And I wouldn’t have to take laborious notes; slips of paper or discrete penciled underlinings and marginalia would suffice. I could go on in this self-serving vein, but the cold truth was that I had been struck dumb by bibliolatry and was about to be ravished by its economic consequences, unless I found means to pay my own way. Wives, even devoted new wives, don’t mind a little sacrifice for their husbands’ pleasures, but they also like to eat and pay the rent.

My task, then, was to collect every edition of Locke’s Education I could get my hands on, without going bankrupt. Fortunately, two godsends and an acquired skill made it possible to indulge my bibliographical fancy and to assemble the largest private collection of the Education in the world, the third largest collection after the Bodleian and the British Library. The first godsend was a listless market for Locke on Education; no one seemed to want it and the prices for all editions but the first were correspondingly low, usually less than $15 (in mid-‘60’s pounds sterling). By using my Stonehill discount in the pricey shops of Pall Mall and turning up fugitive editions on market stalls and in antique shops, I managed to collect all three of the 17th-century editions and 13 editions from the 18th century, including the first Dutch, the first Italian, and the best French edition, the latter a presentation copy from the translator to the woman with whom both he and Locke lived while the book was being translated.

The other godsend was Arnold Muirhead, a former schoolmaster and rare book dealer in St. Alban’s, who resembled an aging Ichabod Crane. Arnold was a close friend and associate of the Berrys, who kindly put me in touch with him. Not long after we arrived in England and many times thereafter, my wife and I went to tea at the Muirheads’ to sample not only Dorothy’s famous scones and cold Scottish pancakes but Arnold’s mouthwatering personal and vendible collections of 17th- and 18th-century books, many of them on education. In the course of those ambling, apparently aimless conversations that bookmen have along the shelves, Arnold taught me a great deal about the state of the bibliographical art and particularly how to recognize true quality at reasonable prices. I will never forget his crusty kindness in knocking down prices, extending credit, tolerating my sophomoric questions, and parting with some of his own Lockes for the sake of my specialized collection. It was he who found the association copy of the French edition and who secretly sold to my wife, at a fraction of its true worth, his own rare first edition of the Education as a first-anniversary present for me.

One of Arnold’s economical suggestions was to buy good editions in poor condition and to learn enough bookbinding to restore them to full value. Always short of shillings, I followed his advice and enrolled in a local adult education class, taught, as it turned out, by two craftsmen from Grey’s of Cambridge, a close rival to Sangorski and Sutcliffe for fine binding. During the course I managed to reback perhaps half a dozen rare books. Three were 18th-century Educations, which I still have; the others were resold at a happy markup to a London firm to purchase more Lockes.

These and similar tactics kept me in Lockeana, but by the second year in Cambridge I was becoming absorbed by Locke’s relationship to Newton and the new science of the century. When I discovered that Locke had published anonymously one of the best and most comprehensive reviews of Newton’s Principia in a French-language periodical in Holland, I felt I had clear warrant to expand my collections in an ambitious new direction. Brief research trips to Amsterdam and Paris provided the opportunity to track down these Saturday Reviews and Nations of the day as well as to begin an extensive collection of Newtonian popularizations for women, children, and other non-mathematical geniuses. If we had been in the land of the IRS, all of these purchases, of course, would have been tax-deductible, for the irrelevant reason that I wrote three or four articles on or from the books at issue.

But rationalizations have their limits, and in the spring of 1965 I nearly exceeded mine. One afternoon I came whistling home to find my wife bent over the bathtub washing the week’s clothes to save a few shillings from the laundromat for some necessity like food. Unfortunately, I was carrying the first volume of the sumptuous new edition of Newton’s Correspondence, which did contain several references to Locke but which had also cost a king’s ransom at Heffer’s, who gladly put it on our tab. I assure you that the tears that fell into that tub did nothing to clean our clothes or whiten my reputation. On the spot, without peine forte or dure, I vowed to sell a book for every book I brought into the house, at least until our economic circumstances improved considerably.

It was hard to keep such a vow after visits to two of the finest personal collections in England. The single greatest library I have ever seen at close range belonged to Sir Geoffrey Keynes, M.D. Through the good offices of a Yale college-mate, who happened to be a Keynesian offshoot, I had a guided tour of his incomparable collections of John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, William Harvey, Sir William Petty, John Evelyn, William Hazlitt, William Blake, Jane Austen, Rupert Brooke, and Siegfried Sassoon, which formed the heart of his definitive bibliographies of all these authors. I know I was too awestruck by the quality and quantity of Sir Geoffrey’s books to ask even remotely sensible questions, and before I could recover my composure it was time to go.

Fortunately, I suffered from no such impediments in the second library because we were house guests there on several occasions. As my interest in the history of science unfolded, we were befriended by Marie (Boas) and (A.) Rupert Hall, who invited us to their dashing new four-story townhouse overlooking the Thames. Until I saw their living room I had never seen rare books in such beautiful condition or displayed under spotlights to such glorious advantage. Well oiled and flawlessly bound, their collection of early modern science, particularly Boyle, Newton, and technology, fueled the engine of my own Newtonian collecting, which continued to putt along on much lower octane.

To my mind, those were halcyon days, just before the aggressive push of Texas, Illinois, and other big-money universities into the British market, when a lot of enthusiasm, a modicum of taste, and only a little money could still bring home bargains and “finds” to one’s heart’s content. For as soon as my dissertation was published in 1968, a small fry like me could no longer afford even late editions of Locke, if they could be found. Ironically, the scholarly attention I had given the Education and the boom mentality of other American buyers ensured that a collection like mine—some 27 editions in six languages—could never be assembled again by an underendowed graduate student.

Today, my life with books is somewhat different. In fact, as soon as we returned to America, started our first jobs and a family, and bought a house, my consuming lust for rare books lost its keen edge, as thoroughly as if I had swallowed a handful of saltpeter. Don’t get me wrong: I am still a card-carrying book-nut. I still go to any lengths of self-rationalization to buy the scholarly books I desperately want but claim to need. I still regret with touching sincerity every book I’ve ever sold to lighten the burden of several academic moves. I remain convinced that book-filled walls are best for keeping out the cold. And I still spend as much time poring over used book catalogues as I do with my dogs or kids. But I have completely sworn off rare books of any sort, only partly because ordinary trade books now cost more than the Lockes and Newtons I used to buy twenty years ago.

The main reason is not that real estate is a better investment than rare books—which is arguable—but that my own sons are turning, slowly but inexorably, into bibliolatrous clones, with budding appetites for books as big as their adolescent hunger for fast food. As I learned long ago in Cambridge from a not-so-innocent spouse, nothing puts a crimp in a bibliolater’s style more than a close relative who loves to buy books as much as he does.

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