The Mania of Book Collecting Seizes Me


Aesop's Fables[This is taken from Eugene Field’s The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]


Captivity Waite never approved of my fondness for fairy literature. She shared the enthusiasm which I expressed whenever “Robinson Crusoe” was mentioned; there was just enough seriousness in De Foe’s romance, just enough piety to appeal for sympathy to one of Captivity Waite’s religious turn of mind. When it came to fiction involving witches, ogres, and flubdubs, that was too much for Captivity, and the spirit of the little Puritan revolted.

Yet I have the documentary evidence to prove that Captivity’s ancestors (both paternal and maternal) were, in the palmy colonial times, as abject slaves to superstition as could well be imagined. The Waites of Salem were famous persecutors of witches, and Sinai Higginbotham (Captivity’s great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side of the family) was Cotton Mather’s boon companion, and rode around the gallows with that zealous theologian on that memorable occasion when five young women were hanged at Danvers upon the charge of having tormented little children with their damnable arts of witchcraft. Human thought is like a monstrous pendulum: it keeps swinging from one extreme to the other. Within the compass of five generations we find the Puritan first an uncompromising believer in demonology and magic, and then a scoffer at everything involving the play of fancy.

I felt harshly toward Captivity Waite for a time, but I harbor her no ill-will now; on the contrary, I recall with very tender feelings the distant time when our sympathies were the same and when we journeyed the pathway of early youth in a companionship sanctified by the innocence and the loyalty and the truth of childhood. Indeed, I am not sure that that early friendship did not make a lasting impression upon my life; I have thought of Captivity Waite a great many times, and I have not unfrequently wondered what might have been but for that book of fairy tales which my Uncle Cephas sent me.

She was a very pretty child, and she lost none of her comeliness and none of her sweetness of character as she approached maturity. I was impressed with this upon my return from college. She, too, had pursued those studies deemed necessary to the acquirement of a good education; she had taken a four years’ course at South Holyoke and had finished at Mrs. Willard’s seminary at Troy. “You will now,” said her father, and he voiced the New England sentiment regarding young womanhood; “you will now return to the quiet of your home and under the direction of your mother study the performance of those weightier duties which qualify your sex for a realization of the solemn responsibilities of human life.”

Three or four years ago a fine-looking young fellow walked in upon me with a letter of introduction from his mother. He was Captivity Waite’s son! Captivity is a widow now, and she is still living in her native State, within twenty miles of the spot where she was born. Colonel Parker, her husband, left her a good property when he died, and she is famous for her charities. She has founded a village library, and she has written me on several occasions for advice upon proposed purchases of books.

I don’t mind telling you that I had a good deal of malicious pleasure in sending her not long ago a reminder of old times in these words: “My valued friend,” I wrote, “I see by the catalogue recently published that your village library contains, among other volumes representing the modern school of fiction, eleven copies of ‘Trilby’ and six copies of ‘The Heavenly Twins.’ I also note an absence of certain works whose influence upon my earlier life was such that I make bold to send copies of the same to your care in the hope that you will kindly present them to the library with my most cordial compliments. These are a copy each of the ‘New England Primer’ and Grimm’s ‘Household Stories.'”

At the age of twenty-three, having been graduated from college and having read the poems of Villon, the confessions of Rousseau, and Boswell’s life of Johnson, I was convinced that I had comprehended the sum of human wisdom and knew all there was worth knowing. If at the present time—for I am seventy-two—I knew as much as I thought I knew at twenty-three I should undoubtedly be a prodigy of learning and wisdom.

I started out to be a philosopher. My grandmother’s death during my second year at college possessed me of a considerable sum of money and severed every tie and sentimental obligation which had previously held me to my grandmother’s wish that I become a minister of the gospel. When I became convinced that I knew everything I conceived a desire to see something, for I had traveled none and I had met but few people.

Upon the advice of my Uncle Cephas, I made a journey to Europe, and devoted two years to seeing sights and to acquainting myself with the people and the customs abroad. Nine months of this time I spent in Paris, which was then an irregular and unkempt city, but withal quite as evil as at present. I took apartments in the Latin Quarter, and, being of a generous nature, I devoted a large share of my income to the support of certain artists and students whose talents and time were expended almost exclusively in the pursuit of pleasure.

While thus serving as a visible means of support to this horde of parasites, I fell in with the man who has since then been my intimate friend. Judge Methuen was a visitor in Paris, and we became boon companions. It was he who rescued me from the parasites and revived the flames of honorable ambition, which had well-nigh been extinguished by the wretched influence of Villon and Rousseau. The Judge was a year my senior, and a wealthy father provided him with the means for gratifying his wholesome and refined tastes. We two went together to London, and it was during our sojourn in that capital that I began my career as a collector of books. It is simply justice to my benefactor to say that to my dear friend Methuen I am indebted for the inspiration which started me upon a course so full of sweet surprises and precious rewards.

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 infrequent 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.

Just as a man who takes pleasure in the conquest of feminine hearts invariably finds himself at last ensnared by the very passion which he has been using simply for the gratification of his vanity, I am inclined to think that the element of vanity enters, to a degree, into every phase of book collecting; vanity is, I take it, one of the essentials to a well-balanced character—not a prodigious vanity, but a prudent, well-governed one. But for vanity there would be no competition in the world; without competition there would be no progress.

In these later days I often hear this man or that sneered at because, forsooth, he collects books without knowing what the books are about. But for my part, I say that that man bids fair to be all right; he has made a proper start in the right direction, and the likelihood is that, other things being equal, he will eventually become a lover, as well as a buyer, of books. Indeed, I care not what the beginning is, so long as it be a beginning. There are different ways of reaching the goal. Some folk go horseback via the royal road, but very many others are compelled to adopt the more tedious processes, involving rocky pathways and torn shoon and sore feet.

So subtle and so infectious is this grand passion that one is hardly aware of its presence before it has complete possession of him; and I have known instances of men who, after having associated one evening with Judge Methuen and me, have waked up the next morning filled with the incurable enthusiasm of bibliomania. But the development of the passion is not always marked by exhibitions of violence; sometimes, like the measles, it is slow and obstinate about “coming out,” and in such cases applications should be resorted to for the purpose of diverting the malady from the vitals; otherwise serious results may ensue.

Indeed, my learned friend Dr. O’Rell has met with several cases (as he informs me) in which suppressed bibliomania has resulted fatally. Many of these cases have been reported in that excellent publication, the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” which periodical, by the way, is edited by ex-Surgeon-General Hamilton, a famous collector of the literature of ornament and dress.

To make short of a long story, the medical faculty is nearly a unit upon the proposition that wherever suppressed bibliomania is suspected immediate steps should be taken to bring out the disease. It is true that an Ohio physician, named Woodbury, has written much in defence of the theory that bibliomania can be aborted; but a very large majority of his profession are of the opinion that the actual malady must needs run a regular course, and they insist that the cases quoted as cured by Woodbury were not genuine, but were bastard or false phases, of the same class as the chickenpox and the German measles.

My mania exhibited itself first in an affectation for old books; it mattered not what the book itself was—so long as it bore an ancient date upon its title-page or in its colophon I pined to possess it. This was not only a vanity, but a very silly one. In a month’s time I had got together a large number of these old tomes, many of them folios, and nearly all badly worm-eaten, and sadly shaken.

One day I entered a shop kept by a man named Stibbs, and asked if I could procure any volumes of sixteenth-century print.

“Yes,” said Mr. Stibbs, “we have a cellarful of them, and we sell them by the ton or by the cord.”

That very day I dispersed my hoard of antiques, retaining only my Prynne’s “Histrio-Mastix” and my Opera Quinti Horatii Flacci (8vo, Aldus, Venetiis, 1501). And then I became interested in British balladry—a noble subject, for which I have always had a veneration and love, as the well-kept and profusely annotated volumes in cases 3, 6, and 9 in the front room are ready to prove to you at any time you choose to visit my quiet, pleasant home.