Sunday, November 6, 2022

Extreme Book Collecting

Sir Thomas Phillipps' idea of a family photo

Extremism is trending nowadays -- weather, politics, sports, food portions.  Even travel, an area with a historically wide latitude for adventure, is trending extreme.  At least it appears so on those ubiquitous, addictive YouTube videos where an armchair traveler may lose themselves for hours.  I’m readying for an actual trip to Colorado, real mountains, breath-taking vistas, cascading waters, and a modest bit of hiking and jeeping.  But do I want to hang precariously over a plunging precipice, my life attached to a thin cable as I dangle in the air like a circus performer, my well-paid guide, conditioned as an Olympian, encouraging me, his (or her) can-do attitude quickly wearing thin like my cheap pair of hiking boots?  Do I need this kind of adrenaline rush / confidence boost?  You can guess the answer.   For I’m a book collector and the betting odds find me seated at a craft brewery simply enjoying the mountain air, thumbing through an old-school travel guide, and admittedly googling to see if there are any bookstores close by.
            Yet is book collecting really a staid and pleasant past-time, intellectually rewarding, but free of extremes compared to the whirl of the world we live in today?  I have a one-word answer to the uninitiated – bibliomania.  Physical demise may not be at stake, but in any other form book collecting ranks high on the extremism scale.
            Take my own case, for example.  I realize self-analysis is dangerous waters but let’s wade in for a moment.  I’ve been told  by family and friends over the years that perhaps my book collecting has reached extreme levels at times.  I read this as positive feedback, reflecting many years of effort and yes, obsessiveness (let’s call it focus), in creating a collection that brings pride, joy, and an ever-elevating quest for storage space.  I’ve surrounded myself with bibliophilic friends with the same traits, thus confirming it as the norm more than an extreme.  But let me confess a few things.  I admit in retrospect that a number of my escapades could be construed as somewhat extreme.   There was the time I unexpectedly acquired fifty boxes of material at a book sale and I was, honestly, afraid to come home.  This resulted in calling my parents and asking if I could stash the boxes temporarily at their house until I could muster some sort of excuse to my wife.  I haven’t lived that one down.
            But any extremism on my part as a collector is quite modest on the larger scale.  To bolster this statement, let me provide some examples.
            Two English bibliophiles set a bar that has been providing cover for the rest of us for almost two centuries.  Richard Heber (1773-1833) developed an inordinate taste for book collecting during his undergraduate years at Oxford, much to the dissatisfaction of his wealthy father who wished him to concentrate on more academic concerns.  No matter, the bug had bitten and there was no cure.  He inherited substantial money and land holdings upon the death of his father in 1804.  Fuel to the fire.  Heber then went on a rare book acquisition spree until his death that remains almost unmatched in the annals of the venerable avocation.  Heber was not just an accumulator, but a highly skilled collector, and the quality and quantity of his library was astounding.  Heber, one of the founders of the Roxburghe Club, an exclusive English book collecting group, was a friend of Thomas Dibdin and inspired Dibdin’s famous work Bibliomania first published in 1809.  Heber is remembered for his remark, "No gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use, and one for borrowers."   Upon Heber’s death, he left eight houses in England and on the Continent overflowing with books.  The auction of his collection took 216 days, flooding the rare book market, and providing opportunities for other notable bibliophiles to enhance their own libraries.
            Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) was one of those bibliophiles.  His bibliophilic flame burned even brighter than Heber’s, and he acquired books and manuscripts at a pace unmatched by contemporaries, buying in bulk from dealers and bidding aggressively at auctions, seemingly always in debt to the booksellers as he dissipated his substantial wealth.  His early goal was to own a copy of every book in the world.  He did not achieve that, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.  His early manuscript holdings, often on vellum, numbered approximately 60,000 volumes, many being rare and important.  Despite his irascible nature and single-minded focus, it must be admitted he saved unique items from possible destruction.  His long-suffering wife and daughters were literally squeezed tighter and tighter into their home as acquisitions poured in.  Sir Frederic Madden, keeper of manuscripts for the British Library, wrote of a visit, “The house looks more miserable and dilapidated every time I visit it, and there is not a room now that is not crowded with large boxes full of manuscripts. The state of things is really inconceivable. Lady P is absent, and were I in her place, I would never return to so wretched an abode. . . Every room is filled with heaps of papers, manuscripts, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders etc. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes! It is quite sickening. . . The windows of the house are never opened, and the close confined air & smell of the paper & manuscripts is almost unbearable.”
            Phillipps desired to convey his collection to the English nation, but negotiations broke down with the cantankerous bibliophile.  After Phillipps’ death, it took over 100 years to disperse the collection via private sales, auctions, and dealers.
            These two classic biblio-extremists had the advantage of wealth to fund their book collecting.  A modern-day example of extreme book collecting shows what can be accomplished when a single-minded bibliophile of modest means risks economic annihilation in the pursuit of his subject.  Collector Roger Wendlick gives a first-hand account of his passion in Shotgun on My Chest: Memoirs of a Lewis and Clark Book Collector (2009).  Wendlick’s Horatio Alger story of collecting Lewis & Clark material over a quarter of a century began in 1980.  It is the best memoir I’ve encountered of a book collector immersed in the world of rare books in the 1980s and 1990s with much detail about the book trade, booksellers, and fellow collectors.  
            Wendlick writes, quoting Lewis & Clark scholar, James Ronda, “Books change lives.”  For Wendlick this certainly was the case.  With only a high school education, construction foreman job, and a growing enthusiasm, he began collecting Lewis & Clark memorabilia related to the 1905 Portland World’s Fair.  This eventually evolved into the relentless pursuit of rare books related to Lewis & Clark, guided by early mentors and booksellers, George Tweney and Preston McMann.  With a goal to form the best Lewis & Clark collection in private hands, Wendlick juggled as many as eleven credit cards and multiple home refinances in a feat of precarious financing worthy of a Wall Street gambler, buying rarities where he found them with the particular help of dealers William Reese and Michael Ginsburg.  After a decade-long binge, some luck, and growing knowledge, he was leveraged to the absolute hilt but had accomplished his goal.  Serendipitously, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon bought the collection for $750,000, saving him from bankruptcy.
            These examples of extreme collecting certainly caused stress at times for the participants and played havoc with loved ones and friends, but in the end their efforts nourished scholarship and preservation. 
            Yet let us finish with a cautionary tale.  For extremism in any form – even bibliophilic -- can foster chaos and conjure the shaded side of human nature.
            Stephen Blumberg, the most notorious book thief in U.S. history, stole approximately 23,600 books from over 268 universities and institutions during a nearly two-decade spree during the 1970s-80s.  Many were rare books and the estimated value of the items exceeded five million dollars.  He was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison.  (Nicholas Basbanes profiled Blumberg in-depth in A Gentle Madness.)  Blumberg had the skills of a cat burglar and used all sorts of deceptive schemes to access the rare book libraries.  But a primary reason he eluded capture for so long was that he collected these books with no intention of selling them.  In his fractured mind, he stole to preserve the books from perceived neglect and gather them for his personal library.  He even removed bookplates representing the various pilfered institutions and saved them in an album to memorialize his twisted conquests.  Blumberg stands out as the sordid example of biblio-extremism taking a nefarious turn.
This writing has become a catharsis for me.  I’m feeling better already.  I’ve no urge to join the dark side of the Force, my wife still finds me palatable, there is food in the pantry and a roof overhead, and book space is getting tight but that is a relatively minor infraction.  My biblio-extremism is well in check. Perhaps before we leave on our trip to Colorado, Nicole and I should go out for a fine send-off meal.  But it is a passing thought -- I order instead a good book that just appeared in one of my want matches.  I’d been looking for a copy for a long time.

This essay recently appeared in my new column "Kurt's Biblio Wanderings" in the latest issue of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies [FABS] Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Fall 2022. There are many other biblio essays in the journal that are well-worth perusing.   Here is a link:  FABS Journal. Fall 2022

I also recommend signing up for the FABS e-newsletter to keep up with latest events and happenings.  The link for a free subscription is here:  FABS E-Newsletter Sign-Up


  1. A fine justification for the extensive collection I had the pleasure of seeing (for the third time) the other day. When we left, Nicole immediately turned to me and told me in no uncertain terms that I could not get "that bad" in my own bibliomania. I have just sent her this article as my own justification - thanks for the excuse!

    1. I'm glad I could be of assistance. Come visit again anytime.

  2. Thanks for linking to the FABS newsletter sign up, Kurt! I love the Phillipps "family" photo. I happen to have a large extended "family" myself and they are the ones whose company never gets tedious around the holidays!

    1. You are welcome. I'm thinking all serious collectors should have a photo taken like this to distribute to family and friends.

  3. Hi -- in quoting "James Rhoda" in the context of Lewis & Clark, I suspect you intent to cite "James Ronda", now retired at the University of Tulsa, whose book, _Lewis and Clark among the Indians_ (1984) was a revolutionary look at the expedition -- from the point of view of the Indians through whose lands the "explorers" passed.

    1. Nice spot, Sid! Update has been made. Thanks for reading.