Herein lies a story English bibliophile Thomas Dibdin himself would be proud of telling. That it involves his book Bibliomania (1811) would certainly make him all the more enthusiastic (a quality he never lacked in abundance). A primary character in my story is a mighty book collector so famous in Dibdin’s lifetime and beyond that he inhabits the rarified biblio-Pantheon as a legendary figure. The story also is footnoted with both English and American auction sales, an early 19th-century American book collector in Savannah, Georgia, a Grolier Club member, ex- library markings, and Ohio booksellers.
Thomas Dibdin (1776-1847), book collector, bibliographer, and enthusiastic chronicler of book collecting, wrote a number of influential works, the most famous being The Bibliomania; or Book Madness; Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms, and Cure of This Fatal Disease. In an Epistle Addressed to Richard Heber, Esq. The first edition appeared in 1809 in a slim volume of eighty-seven pages. Dibdin used a mix of humor, facts, and hyperbole to explore the mysteries of bibliomania. He hurriedly published it in response to John Ferriar’s light-hearted poem The Bibliomania, An Epistle, to Richard Heber (1809). Heber, who served as the inspiration and dedicatee of both works, was a close friend of Dibdin.
E. J. O’Dwyer wrote an insightful biographical essay titled Thomas Frognall Dibdin: Bibliographer & Bibliomaniac Extraordinary (1967). Dwyer explains, “Dibdin was a leading figure in the now fabulous world of early nineteenth –century book collecting, the heroic age of books, when great libraries were being assembled and great discoveries were being made, when the auction rooms and bookshops of Regency London were haunted by the figures of legendary bookmen like Richard Heber and Francis Douce, when Caxtons might be found on back street bookstalls and incunabula could be bought for a few pounds over even shillings. This was his world, and in those interminable footnotes [to his works], he records anecdote after anecdote about the many half-mythical bibliophiles who were his friends, of their personal oddities, their bookish adventures and of the bookselling fraternity which served them. Bibliomania , The Bibliographical Decameron  or Literary Reminiscences  can make fine ‘holiday reading’ for modern bibliophiles desiccated by bloodless Bowersian collations, exhausted by intractable textual problems or perhaps returning depressed from excursions amongst the remainder-and paperback-filled bookshops of today.”
Dibdin was encouraged by the response to his 1809 Bibliomania but unsatisfied by the briefness of the effort. He completely rewrote and expanded the book over the next two years and published it as Bibliomania; Or Book Madness. A Bibliographical Romance (London: 1811), the text now extended to seven hundred and eighty-three pages, almost ten times the length of the first effort. It was essentially a new book. This monument to book collecting would launch him to fame within bibliophilic circles and remains one of the most enduring classics in the field.
Dibdin’s writing style can both inspire and challenge the reader. He is long-winded and circumspect; his asides extend on to a maddening length but are filled with nuggets of interest; his wanderings down bypaths are never-ending. However, he can set a scene. His first-hand recounting of interaction with famous book collectors and their books shines through his turgid style. Bibliomania is better taken in short dips than a lengthy swim. Dibdin was an unreliable bibliographer but he imparts the passion for book collecting as few others have done. Bibliomania and his other writings inspired generations of British and American collectors.
Speaking of inspiration, let us now relieve the relative dryness of this didactic approach by the introduction of a Dramatis Personae—ie. a cast of biblio-characters to which the story may be more favorably expressed.
The worthy Gentlemen, by whom the Drama is conducted, may be called by some, merely wooden machines or pegs to hang notes upon; but I shall not be disposed to quarrel with any criticism which may be passed upon their acting, so long as the greater part of the information, to which the dialogue gives rise, may be thought serviceable to the real interests of Literature and Bibliography.
The characters of the Drama shall include myself as Bibliomagne, and three bibliophilic friends we shall call Forgeron, Ranchenitus, and Nerudius.
And now Benevolent Reader, in promising thee as much amusement and instruction as ever were offered in a single essay, of a nature like to the present, we shall begin.
Twas on a fine autumnal evening, when the sun was setting serenely behind a thick copse upon a distant hill, and his warm tints were lighting up a magnificent and widely-extended landscape, that, sauntering ‘midst the fields, I was meditating upon the various methods of honorably filling up the measure of our existence; when I discovered I had a new text message.
Lo! It was my old college friend Nerudius! He was to come visit me in a fortnight, ready to share tales of biblio-conquests, as he too was of the species called collector. But little did he know of my fresh story that I planned to spring upon him. Indeed, he alone would not be enough audience, so as the sun closed the curtains on another day and my meditation ceased, I reached out to Forgeron and Ranchenitus, simpaticos of a biblio-nature. Their response was positive. This intelligence offered me the liveliest satisfaction.
On the appointed evening all three men arrived. After a hearty shaking of hands, I was seated with them in my library; the group of us admiring the overflowing shelves, and, in consequence, partaking of the common topics of conversation with a greater flow of spirits.
“You are come, my friends,” said I (in the course of conversation) “to make stay with me—indeed, I cannot suffer you to depart without keeping you at least a week . . . . “
A sudden consternation shook my fellows. Forgeron quickly spoke up, “Ah, Bibliomagne, you speak metaphorically, a single evening certainly will make do.” Ranchenitus and Nerudius seconded in agreement. Nerudius then added, “For what would our wives do without us for an entire week?” This was followed by laughter and more spirits. Our general discussions about books went on for a lengthy while.
Before their arrival, I had placed on the coffee table near us my newly-acquired copy of Thomas Dibdin’s Bibliomania, the 1811 edition. I had purposely said nothing of it. Ranchenitus now curious reached for the tome but I stayed his hand.
“Gentlemen, “said I, “There is a story to this book that deserves elucidation and exclamation before the object itself may be circulated amongst you.”
There was a general discontent.
“Here,” exclaimed Nerudius, “here you have Ranchenitus in the toils.”
“I will frankly confess,” rejoined Ranchenitus, “that I am an arrant Bibliomaniac—that I love books dearly—that the very sight, touch, and more, the perusal . . . .”
“Hold , my friend,” again exclaimed Nerudius, “you have renounced your profession—you talk of reading books—do Bibliomaniacs ever read books?”
“Nay,” quoth Ranchenitus, “you shall not banter thus with impunity. We will, if it please you,” said he [turning to me] ”listen to your story.”
“Forgive,” rejoined Nerudius, “my bantering strain. I revoke my speech. You know that, with yourself, I heartily love books; more from their contents than their appearance.”
Ranchenitus returned a gracious smile; and the hectic of irritability on his cheek was dissipated in an instant. Forgeron meanwhile had wandered to the shelves and was recalled with difficulty to his seat.
“Fellow Bibliophiles,” I said, “I will provide the not uninteresting background and set the scene. “
“We are ready,” exclaimed Ranchenitus, as he selected my rarest spirits to quench his thirst. The gentle lowing of cattle in the near distance imbued the atmosphere with a bucolic air.
“Thomas Dibdin and Richard Heber, “I began, “were contemporaries and eventual neighbors. Their shared interest in books fostered a close friendship. Both experienced a childhood where books became central, almost natural, to their existence. But Dibdin, in contrast to Heber, suffered the want of parents—both died when he was very young—and he was raised by various extended family in modest circumstances. This did not diminish his enthusiasm for life however, and he grew industrious and driven, attending various schools, excelling in most subjects including languages and art, and eventually garnering a college admission to Oxford. Dibdin himself recalls in his Reminiscences that around age ten he was allowed to go into his tutor’s private book room whenever he pleased. ‘It was here,’ he says, ‘for the first time I caught, or fancied I caught, the electric spark of Bibliomania. My master was now and then the purchaser of old books by the sack-full; these were tumbled upon the floor, the arm chair, or a table, just as it might happen.’”
Nerudius gently interrupted, “I cannot myself recall a time without books.” The rest of us paused to reflect upon our own maturation in its various forms.
“Richard Heber,” I contrasted, “was raised in wealthy circumstances. His particularly virulent bibliomania developed during his school days and never released itself. Heber’s father shared not the same enthusiasm. He wrote to young Heber after more debts were contracted with booksellers, “I cannot say I rejoice in the importation of the cargo of books you mention from abroad, we had before enough and too many, ten times more than were ever read or even looked into. Of multiplying books ... there is neither end nor use. The cacoethes of collecting books draws men into ruinous extravagancies. It is an itch which grows by indulgence and should be nipped in the bud.”
“An Evil Man!” exclaimed Forgeron, “To stifle his son’s passions!” Nerudius and Ranchenitus nodded vigorously.
“Without success,” I responded, “Heber was not to be deterred. He would go onto Oxford, perhaps first meeting Dibdin there, and earn a reputation as a scholar and literateur. All the while, refining his tastes and collecting books. Heber became well-known for his exceptional library despite his father’s irksome tirades. His father died in 1804 and the estate left to the young man was more than adequate to indulge even his wildest bibliomaniacal fantasies.”
“A cheer to a freed Heber!” proclaimed Forgeron. We raised our glasses.
“Would we all have unlimited means,” ruminated Ranchenitus, “and fall under the same heavy spell?”
No one spoke their true feelings on the matter; in fact there was awkward silence.
So, I continued steadily, “Dibdin had no such inheritance. But his literary learning and bookish ways laid root during his time at Oxford. He met his future wife there and tried his hand at law to make a living. This did not flourish and he tried again as a clergyman, eventually securing a modest position that provided more free time than money. He supplemented his income by preaching at neighboring chapels and delivering lectures on English literature. The book passion never ceased and only grew. ‘My fancy,’ he said, ‘took to run strangely on books . . . of all qualities and conditions. An Editio Princeps, a vellum Aldus, a large paper copy (terms until then unknown and unappreciated) seemed to strike my mind’s eye as something magical and mysterious. I was all upon the look-out. A book stall had irresistible charms—but the catalogues of Payne, Faulder, White and Egerton exhibited so many stars upon which I loved to gaze with indescribable satisfaction.’”
Nerudius laughed, “He had the disease badly,” and we all understood. The sudden clap of thunder and flash of angry bolts of lightning illuminated the library curtains, and the weather turned surly and pelts of rain beat upon the windows.
“As a result,” I continued, “Dibdin collected as he could afford and produced a bibliographical work in 1802 that brought him recognition, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics. Dibdin himself noted with pride, ‘The booksellers used to quote me in their catalogues, and this, at all events, gave publicity to my name.’ But Dibdin’s love of acquiring the more expensive books went unrequited.”
“We have all been there,” sighed Forgeron, and a lengthy toast to unrequited book love was taken. By now, the quickly-formed storm was thrashing my abode quite fiercely and even we bookmen took notice as the lights flickered.
“Heber on the other hand,” I said, “ran into few boundaries in his passionate pursuit of books. His scholarly learning combined with a maniacal desire for rare tomes and money to buy them created a collector that became a legend even in his own day. He was also generous with his books—another uncommon trait – a well-known lender of them to his wide circle of friends.”
Nerudius spoke, “Was not Heber the famous collector who said that no gentleman could be without three copies of a book; one for show, one for use, and one for borrowers?”
“Yes, it was he,” I replied, “and Dibdin wrote about his friend at length in the very book before you. Recall, that the first edition of Dibdin’s Bibliomania in 1809 was quickly published as a rejoinder to Ferriar’s original poem about Heber. Dibdin explains in his Reminiscences, “Ferriar’s epistle was doubtless a smart and clever performance, but was rather to be considered as a sort of dessert after dinner. I thought the subject might be more substantially treated; and so I told my friend, Mr. Heber, in the sale-room of Messrs. Leigh and Sotheby, on the very day which the work came into my hands. As he had accepted a dedication in verse, I presumed he could not object to one in prose. It was accordingly settled that my performance should be addressed to the same individual. . . It was written ‘calamo currentissimo,’ within a lunar month, and had the effect of producing much innocent mirth, and exciting a general curiosity after rare and precious volumes.’”
I had their full attention and continued thus, “Dibdin soon decided to greatly expand and rewrite the book at the urging of an unnamed ‘Book-Auction-loving Bibliomaniac.’ Dibdin toiled through 1810 working on the essentially new book. His task however was a mix of pleasure and sorrow. For his younger son had died and he records ‘the present work was undertaken to relieve, in a great measure, the anguish of mind which arose from severe domestic affliction.’”
Ranchenitus paused me and raised his glass, “A toast to Dibdin for his fortitude and strength under such difficult circumstances. For life is bigger than books even, lest we forget.” Our thoughts on this and the unabating storm cast a temporary pallor over us.
I began anew, “But friendship is a soothing balm and friend Heber was there to comfort and advise him. Dibdin writes, ‘My application was as incessant as severe. The cool summer evenings of 1810 were in part devoted to a reconsideration and correction of the labours of the day. My little study, or boudoir, was rather crammed than well stored with implements of work. There was scarce a reference but what I could verify. Mr. Heber, at that time in the high and palmy state of his celebrity, would be my frequent guest and his breakfasts were given in exchange for my dinners. And more than once, twice, thrice, would I return with him, of moonlit nights, to London; and he go half back again with me to Kensington, discussing many curious points or characters which a fresh proof sheet might involve. At one of these breakfasts I read to him the character of Atticus, intended for himself. I told him, if he would have the courage to hear, I should not lack the courage to read. ‘Go on,’ was his reply, ‘and fear nothing.’ I did so, unhesitatingly; and as I read with as much emphasis as might be, his cheeks were occasionally mantled with a blush –his frame a little agitated—and a ‘bravo!’ at its conclusion, told me that I had hit off my man successfully.’”
Forgeron spoke, “What did Dibdin write about his caring and mighty collecting friend, Heber? My curiosity knows no bounds.”
“This seems to be a particular characteristic of book collectors,” mused Nerudius.
“Ah,” I replied, “I will place the information before you. Dibdin goes on for many pages about Heber. Here is a sampling,” and I took the Bibliomania in my hand and turning to the appropriate passage: “Such a champion as Atticus has perhaps never before appeared within the arena of book-gladiators-- ‘Blest with talents, wealth, and taste’ . . . he darts into the hottest of the fight, and beats down all opposition. . . in vain his competitor shifts his mode of attack—now with dagger, now with broadsword, now in plated, and now in quilted, armor; nought avails him. . . Atticus is gifted with no common powers of general scholarship, he can easily master a knotty passage in Eschylus or Aristotle; and quote Juvenal and Horace. . . moreover, he can enter with equal ardor, into a minute discussion of about the romance literature of the middle ages, and the dry though useful philology of the German school during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the pursuit after rare, curious, and valuable books, nothing daunts or depresses him.”
Forgeron interjected, “A rare knight of books!” and he refilled his glass from my dwindling spirits.
“Yes,” I replied, “Dibdin has more to say about Heber to you fellow warriors whom have tasted the arena. I continued my reading, “With a mental and bodily constitution such as few possess, and with a perpetual succession of new objects rising up before him, he seems hardly ever conscious of the vicissitudes of the seasons, and equally indifferent to petty changes in politics. The cutting blasts of Siberia, or the fainting heat of a Maltese sirocco, would not make him halt, or divert his course, in the pursuit of a favorite volume, whether in the Greek, Latin, Spanish, or Italian language. But as all human efforts, however powerful; if carried on without intermission, must have a period of cessation; and as the most active body cannot be at ‘Thebes and at Athens’ at the same moment; so it follows that Atticus cannot be at every auction and carry away every prize. His rivals narrowly watch, and his enemies closely way-lay him; and his victories are rarely bloodless in consequence. If like Darwin’s whale, which swallows ‘millions at a gulp,’ Atticus should, at one auction, purchase from two to seven hundred volumes, he must retire, like the ‘Boa Constrictor,’ for digestion; and accordingly he does, for a short season, withdraw himself from the ‘busy hum’ of sales rooms, to collate, methodize, and class his newly acquired treasures—to repair what is defective, and to beautify what is deformed.”
Nerudius spoke, “Let it be glad he is not alive today to collect in our areas, although as a biblio-fellow it would be an honor to friend him.” We all agreed.
“Can we not now hold your book ourselves?“ asked the eager Ranchenitus, reaching out.
Said I in response, “It is time for the unveiling.”
At that moment, Zeus, the fickle god of thunder and lightning, unleashed a mighty bolt, and the death bang of a nearby transformer plunged us into sudden and utter darkness.
“Stay your movement, gentlemen,” I ordered, “Do not knock over any stacks of my tomes that rise near you.”
There was a general fumbling in pockets for cellphones. We all attempted to find our flashlight application. Without youth to guide, this endeavor stretched on and darkness prevailed.
Then, illuminating the inky black, my German queen, Hroswitha appeared carrying a lit candle and a real flashlight. No more spouse than this could I have wished for. A bibliophile herself, tall, fair, smart and commanding, she ruled me and I liked it.
“Greetings, Hroswitha!” said my chorus of friends who knew well the glories of her presence.
“Are you boys having a good time?” she replied, placing the candle holder on the table, a safe distance from any book. Her flashlight strobed about from face to face, like a law enforcement inquiry.
“Looks like you’ve been drinking,” she said.
General hemming and hawing that continued under her gaze. Then ---
“Sounds fun, may I join you?”
“Ha!” shouted Ranchenitus, “You are a good and benevolent Queen! Seat yourself next to your unworthy spouse, Bibliomagne, and we will include a glass for you.”
Betwixt candle and flashlight and the clink of glasses even Zeus could not thwart our merriment. General news for the Queen of their families and spouses consumed a trifle of time. Then amidst this jolly crew, thoughts turned once again to Dibdin, Heber and the book I held in my hand.
“Do show us,” said Nerudius, “even by dim light we can tell you have something cunningly good to expose.”
In truth, I was about to burst. I placed the book gently onto the table and opened it, and all leaned forward as Hroswitha shown the light upon the half-title page in a scene most inadvertently theatrical.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” exclaimed Forgeron.
“And I must second that,” said Nerudius.
Ranchenitus was struck momentarily dumb, and could only make incoherent noises. Hroswitha raised an eyebrow and gazed at me.
Upon the page was inscribed, “R. Heber, With the Author’s kind Regards.”
“Yes,” I said triumphantly, “this is the very copy presented from Dibdin to Heber, long-lost and now found!”
For once, all were silent and each touched gently the page and I passed the book amongst them, reverential the atmosphere.
“That is an extraordinary and sentimental find,” said Ranchenitus.
“A true holy relic that connects us across the centuries of bibliophilic fraternity,” added Forgeron.
“Certainly so. And also the later provenance must be of interest,” said Nerudius.
“It is much,” I replied, “but you shall have to read the footnote below for the full exposure*.”
Forgeron spoke, “I am still stunned by the book before us. But what of Heber and Dibdin after? How do they end? A story must have an ending no matter how strong the unveiling.”
The gloom of the dark within and sound of steady, pounding rain without was transformed by our close company into an atmosphere of cozy, clubbable ambience. The candle’s cast and the strongly charged flashlight left no one adrift; the warmth of the spirits provided an easy exchange.
“Dibdin,” I resumed, “had an avowed purpose for his writings, as he states in another work, The Typographical Antiquities (1810), ‘to awaken a love of the literature of past days; to set wealthy and well educated men a-stirring to collect materials, which, but for such occasional excitement, might, in the end, moulder in oblivion.’ And, he had much success doing so with the publication of the 1811 Bibliomania, becoming closely acquainted with a class of men, such as Heber and Earl Spencer, that in his time he could not have mingled save their mutual love of books. Dibdin would serve as de facto librarian for Earl Spencer, who had a magnificent collection, and whom was an important patron of Dibdin.
Forgeron asked, “What about the famed Roxburghe Club of bibliophiles. Was not Dibdin a primary mover in that?”
“Yes,” I said, “The famous auction in 1812 of the library of John Ker, Third Duke of Roxburghe ignited a conflagration of bibliomania that resulted in the formation of the Club. This came at the urging and suggestion of Dibdin, headily seconded by friend Heber and Francis Dounce. Eighteen bibliophiles met on the second day of the Roxburghe sale, June 17th, 1812, at St. Alban’s Tavern. The rare first edition of Boccaccio, printed by Christopher Valdarfer in Venice in 1471, had just been purchased at the auction by the Marquis of Blandford for the then incredible sum of 2,200 pounds, Earl Spencer being the underbidder. Enthusiasm filled the tavern and the Roxburghe Club was inaugurated with Dibdin as vice-president. The Club later expanded to thirty-one members and still meets today. The original members enjoyed a series of toasts. The last being to . . . Raise your glass, my friends —this I said and received no resistance-- “The Cause of Bibliomania all over the World!”
“Here, here!” trumpeted all of us in our tight bond.
I concluded, “Dibdin wrote other famous bibliophilic works over the next two decades, sumptuously printed and bound, utilizing money from wealthy subscribers who funded his typographic extravagances. By the early 1830s an economic recession had set in and book collecting lost its luster. Dibdin would remain enthusiastic but the glory days were over for now and he slowly succumbed to financial troubles and health issues, dying in 1845.”
“And of Heber?” asked Nerudius.
“Ah, Heber. That carries sadness, I’m afraid. Both his collecting and reputation continued to grow for many years until the second became tainted, although the first never slowed. He spent much of his career in politics, and although well-known he did not distinguish himself in that arena. A political enemy accused him of ‘travelling in stage coaches, of living at a brewery, of associating with the opposition, and of being favorably disposed toward Catholics.’”
“What a litany of vices!” Nerudius said gaily.
To this well-meant humor I ignored for once and added, “But that paled in comparison with another scandal that in its time had no name. In 1825, he was accused of making advances to two young men at the London Athenaeum. His perceived ‘moral laxity’ and resulting scandal forced Heber to withdraw from Parliament and flee to Europe. He did not return to England until 1831 and after lived in seclusion at his home at Pimlico. Heber, a reputed heavy drinker, was a shell of his former self. Old friend Dibdin was shocked by ‘the emaciated frame, flurried discourse, and uncertain movements of his later years.’ Richard Heber would die in 1833, among his books, according to fellow collector Alexander Dyce, ‘without a friend to close his eyes, and . . . broken-hearted.’”
Only the heavy rain could be heard, so quiet we became.
I continued after our solemn pause, “Dibdin soon received word of his death and was devastated, ‘It is anything but affection to affirm, that for a brief moment I lost my consciousness of everything around me. My friend perceived my distress; and after the opening of a window had let in air, and restored recollection, I retired abruptly.’
My Queen Hroswitha and others in the dimly lit circle were moved at Heber’s tragedy fully realized. Hroswitha took the Bibliomania from my hands to hold it.
I spoke quietly, “Dibdin was the first bookman to reach Pimlico. Heber had allowed no one—not even Dibdin—into his inner sanctum. Dibdin recalls, ‘And then—the room in which he had breathed his last! It had been that of his birth. The mystic veil, which for twenty-five years had separated me from this chamber, and which the deceased would never allow me, nor anyone else, to enter, was now effectually drawn aside by the iron hand of Death. I looked around me in amazement. I had never seen rooms, cupboards, passages, and corridors, so choked, so suffocated with books. Treble rows were here, double rows up there. Hundreds of slim quartos—several upon each other—were longitudinally placed over thin and stunted duodecimos, reaching from one extremity of a shelf to another. Up to the very ceiling the piles of volumes extended; while the floor was strewn with them, in loose and numerous heaps. When I look on all this, and thought what might be at his Hodnet house, and upon the Continent, it were difficult to describe my emotions.’”
I took a moment to calm my senses and sip the spirit. Everyone was intently focused, “Heber left behind an estimated 150,000 rare books housed in numerous residences in England and Europe. His family could find no will. After weeks of searching various homes by many parties, Dibdin was convinced the lost will was at Pimlico. He writes, ‘I yet persevered; and one morning, when all hope, with those likely to be eventually benefited by its discovery, was about to takes its departure, I found the will! And to reward me, as it were, for my perseverance – as well yet to connect me with my departed friend—I found it lying behind some books within a few inches of my Decameron and Tour.’"
I concluded my story, “The will surprised all by stating nothing specific about the library. Thus the great collection went to auction in 1834 in a sale extending over 216 days. The market was completely saturated with good books and returned only about a third or less of their cost. But Heber’s books went on to nourish many a future bibliophile.”
Ranchenitus stood up in the flicker of candlelight, “A last toast this evening to Dibdin, Heber, and Bibliomania!” We then passed around my tome once more as both relic and inspiration before I set it neatly on a nearby shelf.
Hroswitha spoke, “It is growing late gentlemen and the storm continues. Remain here for the night. A biblio-sleepover is in the cards. We have space for all though a couch may need to serve as bed for one lucky visitor.”