Frank Furedi (“a sociologist and social commentator”) writes for Aeon about books as status symbol and object of sometimes obsessive collectors’ lust; he travels from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to today’s smartphones, but the most interesting stuff to me comes in the middle, for instance:
By the 14th and 15th centuries, the pretentious, pompous reader had emerged in full force. Richard de Bury’s essay Philobiblon, written in 1345 but published only in 1473, is said to be the ‘earliest English treatise on the delights of literature’. But Philobiblon says very little about de Bury’s actual experience of reading. He was a classical book fetishist whose real interest was collecting books rather than their study.
His biographer William de Chambre claimed that books surrounded de Bury in all of his residences and that ‘so many books lay about his bed-chamber, that it was hardly possible to stand or move without treading upon them’. De Bury must have anticipated that his avaricious appetite for collecting books could become a target of criticism and sarcasm, for he explicitly defends himself from the charge of excess in the Prologue to Philobiblon, declaring that his ‘ecstatic love’ for books led him to abandon ‘all thoughts of other earthly things’. The purpose of writing Philobiblon was to let posterity understand his intent and ‘for ever stop the perverse tongues of gossipers’; he hoped that his account of his passion would ‘clear the love we have had for books from the charge of excess’.
But the German humanist theologian Sebastian Brant didn’t get the message, at all. His satire Ship of Fools (1494) portrays 112 different types of fool. And the first one to climb aboard the ship was the Bookish Fool, who collected books and read for effect. Brant has him say:
If on this ship I’m number one
For special reasons that was done,
Yes, I’m the first one here you see
Because I like my library.
Of splendid books I own no end,
But few that I can comprehend;
I cherish books of various ages
And keep the flies from off the pages.
Where art and science be professed
I say: At home I’m happiest,
I’m never better satisfied
Than when my books are by my side.
But it’s worth clicking the link just to see the image at the top, of The Bibliophiles, an 1879 painting by Luis Jiménez y Aranda showing a group of men standing around the outdoor table and bookcase of the Librería del Buen Suceso, with more bookcases looming invitingly in the dark interior. I want to go there and spend a day pawing through the offerings. (My thanks to Paul Ogden for sending me the link.)