Days of Bibliomania

Posted by Wally O Neill on

“My father’s sister kept an everything shop at Crediton & there I read thru all the gilt-covered little books that could be had at that time& likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, etc., etc., etc., etc. And I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly; and in a flood of them I was accustomed to race up and down the churchyard and act over all I had been reading, on the docks…and the rank grass.
At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarll; and then I found the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings), that I was haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark: and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay, and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced, and burnt them.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter to Thomas Poole, 9th October 1797

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Bibliomania can be a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged.

We aren’t talking about a passing love for books here. We aren’t talking about a great desire to read or a plan to collect fine bindings.

We’re talking about madness. Book madness.

Sir Thomas Phillipps amassed the largest collection of manuscripts and books in then history in the Nineteenth Century. Phillipps invested his entire inheritance and, after it was spent, huge lines of unpaid credit, in building up a library of 100,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts. It took over a century to auction off his book estate after his death.

And why?

Phillipps claimed a very noble pursuit early on. He recorded in an early catalogue that his collection was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts.

Was it simply a desire to save rare books and manuscripts that drove his crusade? Or a sickness every bit as destructive as any addiction?

I wonder can books incite such high emotions that his heart is forever entrapped by their otherworldly allure?

“Wally’s going through his Stalin phase,” Flash tells two tourist browsers.

“I am not going through my bloody Stalin phase.”

Flash exchanges knowing nods with the bewildered tourists and the Cyclist, who is propped over a tower of banana boxes crammed with new arrivals, his tight lycra cycling shirt leaving little if anything to the imagination.

“That’s exactly what someone going through a Stalin phase would say,” Flash smiles. “It’s the definition of a Stalin phase. Paranoia, megalomania, impulsiveness. I’ve studied these things.”

Flash is referring no doubt to our decision to extend the bookshop in the coming month, doubling its size, and its costs.

“May I give you some prudent business advice old boy?” the cyclist cries, pulling lycra out of his arse and mashing banana boxes as he slowly stands.

“Can I stop you?”

“As you know, I have a lot of experience in the business world.”

“I’ve never known you to be either employer or employed,” I say.

“A minor detail. My family were prominent business people.”

“That’s why they excommunicated you cyclist?” Flash asks.

The Cyclist ignores this and continues unabated. “I think it’s a bad move to extend any small retail business during a time of growing inflation and unrest such as this, particularly one as precarious as a bookshop. I mean, no offence dear boy, but who even bothers reading anymore? Its such a chore when you could just get Netflix.”

“Firstly, I refuse to believe that Netflix can replace two thousand years of reading. Secondly, I am not taking business advice from a man who put down ‘travelling minstrel and romantic’ next to employment details on his social welfare form.”

The Cyclist shakes his head sadly and nods to Flash. “Stalin phase for certain.”

Is it madness to want to live among books? Is it a crippling debilitating syndrome to love an object simply because of the feelings it invokes deep inside?

“For from my early reading of fairy tales and genii, etc., etc., my mind had been habituated to the Vast, and I never regarded my senses in any was as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions, not by my sight, even at that age. Should children be permitted to read romances, and relations of giants and magicians and genii? I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative. I know no other way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the Whole.”

The Great and the Whole. Coleridge knew. Unless he was going through a Stalin phase too. Or some other form of bibliomania.

“You know, this involves us too,” the cyclist says, waddling towards my counter. “If you go bust, which is a high likelihood at this stage, what will become of us? Those who gather here to regale you with stories and sage wisdom? Heavens forbid, if you lose the will to live and strangle yourself to death with the electrical cable from your cash register, what’s to become of us? Have you even made any arrangements?”

“I don’t know. Its not high on my list of worries.”

“That’s exactly what Stalin would say.”

“Do you even know who Stalin was Cyclist?”

“I can’t keep up to date with everyone can I?” he mutters. “I have a very busy social life you know.”

In the coming months, we will extend the realm of the bookshop into our neighbouring building, doubling its size, capacity and costs. It’s a gamble, motivated more by the sheer desire for books than the cold calculated precision often attributed to ‘business people.’

Am I just an updated version of Sir Thomas Phillipps, I wonder in fleeting moments of self realisation and cold sweats. Is this a sickness?

“I think it’s a great idea,” Flash says. “Extending the bookshop I mean, not making arrangements for your death.”

“Thanks Flash.”

“I reckon you could open an adult toy store in the back of the extension.”

“An adult…. I am not opening a bloody sex toy enterprise in the back of the bookshop Flash.”

“Suit yourself,” he snorts. “But the cyclist is right. Books are a hard sale. Rampant rabbits, well, they’re all the rage.”

Locking the bookshop up for the evening, I find the ever-affable Pockets sitting on the window sill side-by-side with a demented looking terrier.

“What’s the dogs name?” I ask, not getting too close for the fear of rabies and monkey pox.

Pockets looks at me like I’m an imbecile. “He, ammm, well, doesn’t have a name, ammm, does he? I mean to say, he’s a, well, you know, dog.”

“I think he should have a name. He already looks unhinged. Not having a name makes him worse.”

Pockets seems to consider this carefully as he lights a cigarette, all the time scrutinising the mad terrier with one eye. “Mmmm, I was thinking, I mean to say, maybe, well, I think, amm, his name is Barry Russell.”

“Barry Russell? What sort of name is that for a dog?”

“What sort of name is Wally? I mean to say, his name is, well, Barry Russell, ain’t it?”

I leave Pockets and Barry Russell sitting outside the bookshop, decaying light casting the shadows of books and Barry Russell’s mange out into the square.

“So I became a dreamer, and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity; and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate, and as I could not play at anything, and was slothful, I was despised and hated by the boys; and because I could read and spell and had, I may truly say, a memory and understanding forced into almost an unnatural ripeness, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women.”