How far-reaching is thy grace, O bibliomania! How good and sweet it is that no distance, no environment, no poverty, no distress can appall or stay thee. Like that grim spectre we call death, thou knockest impartially at the palace portal and at the cottage door. And it seemeth thy especial delight to bring unto the lonely in desert places the companionship that exalteth humanity! (Chapter 14)
A Public Domain book such as The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac is definitely not my regular reading fare. Two specifics drew me in, however: of course the title (which is self-explanatory and awesome) and the fact that I found it available inside the library of my Logos Bible Software. This is one of the rare books I’ve read entirely on my phone (with the Vyrso app, which makes my Logos library much more readily accessible on-the-go), though my reasons are justifiable: The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac has been my “insomnia book” for past three months.
The book having been published in 1895, I suppose I should not be surprised that I couldn’t recognize the names of 85% of the publishers, authors, and books that Field discusses. Normally, this would throw me, and I’d drop the book immediately. But there’s just something about Field’s writing, his passion, his mastery with words that says—“It doesn’t matter who or what I’m talking about: you’re going to want to listen.” If only that gift were mine! People would read my mere “opinions” regarding the hundreds of books I’ve had the joy of reading, and they wouldn’t care a lick about the titles. “Just give me more Elliot!” they’d say, and 100 years from now, the leather-bound volume of this blog would hit the Public Domain (finally!).
Facetiousness aside, this is exactly the excitement with which Field writes every single page of this collection of essays. Whether the man wrote with tongue planted firmly in cheek or not, I cannot say. The flare with which he writes is a multi-chapter nose-flick at everyone who ever once chose a nap over a book or—heaven forbid—folded over a corner of his page to mark his place, when a bookmark was just out of reach. His musings are often over-the-top, yet unerringly couched in seriousness: “A vigilant and active soul invariably compels baldness,” he writes at one point, “so close are the relations between the soul and the brain, and so destructive are the growth and operations of the soul to those vestigial features which humanity has inherited from those grosser animals, our prehistoric ancestors.”
Field’s earthly companions (the human, flesh-and-blood ones) appear to me as fictitious, though not having met any true personalities from the late 19th century, I really don’t know. Judge McCune seems as best the friend a man of Field’s passions could have, though his peculiarities just seem beyond belief (though I can’t recall the exact details, at one point the good Judge traveled the world for 3 full years in search of a single volume to add to his multi-thousand book library). Dr. O’Rell sounds human enough, until he starts diagnosing book-related diseases that couldn’t possibly have been confused with true medical conditions, even in the whacky 1800s (for example, the malady Catalogitis which traumatizes a person’s brain after extended exposure to the low-quality paper in book catalogues; curable only through hypnotism). Miss Susan, the author’s sister, is a charm in her own way, loving objects of antiquity as much as Field loves his books.
It’s in one section about Miss Susan where Field’s cracker-dry humor displays itself, as it does often throughout the memoir. Because many a long-dead bibliophile has been buried with key selections from their libraries, Fields hopes to one day enjoy a similar internment. Then he adds:
My sister, Miss Susan, has provided that after her demise a number of her most prized curios shall be buried with her. The list, as I recall it, includes a mahogany four-post bedstead, an Empire dresser, a brass warming-pan, a pair of brass andirons, a Louis Quinze table, a Mayflower teapot, a Tomb of Washington platter, a pewter tankard, a pair of her grandmother’s candlesticks, a Paul Revere lantern, a tall Dutch clock, a complete suit of armor purchased in Rome, and a collection of Japanese bric-a-brac presented to Miss Susan by a returned missionary. I do not see what Miss Susan can possibly do with all this trumpery in the hereafter, but, if I survive her, I shall certainly insist upon a compliance with her wishes, even though it involve the erection of a tumulus as prodigious as the pyramid of Cheops.
Can anyone take such writing seriously? Probably not, but who really cares. It’s so fun to read.
Perhaps the most striking/convicting aspect of this entire book is the jealousy of which Field writes from a wife towards a husband’s other loves (such as books), though Field himself was unmarried (according to his memoir). I really enjoy books. My wife has implied in times past that I might enjoy them too much, as if I love these paper objects more than her or the kids, because I find some of my most pleasant moments of relaxation in reorganizing my library in some fancy new fashion. Whether or not I should consider this a true danger to my marriage, I’ll leave for further pondering. But Field’s words in Chapter 19 are least some fuel for that possible fire: “It is still one of the few serious questions I have not yet solved, viz.: whether a man can at the same time be true to a wife and to bibliomania. Both are exacting mistresses, and neither will tolerate a rival.”
Overall, this book was a really fun read, reminding me of the countless joys and occasional dangers of loving books as much as I do. I’d recommend it for anyone who loves books as well, though it might help if you’re an insomniac as well.