On Collecting Books.

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.)


  1. I hope German humanist theologian Sebastian Brant didn’t write such dreadful doggerel in the German. It’s like rap lyrics written by a white twelve-year-old.

  2. David Marjanović says

    Found it.

    Note: what I’m rendering as üe is u with a little e on top, distinguished from ü because it represents a diphthong (the front equivalent of the back ů, which I can render accurately for Czech reasons). The book was written and printed in Basel.

    Den vordantz hat man mir gelan
    Danñ jch on nutz vil büecher han
    Die jch nit lyß/ vnd nyt verſtan
    [picture of fool with glasses leafing through book]
    Von unnutzẽ buchern [sic]
    Das jch ſytz vornan jn dem ſchyff
    Das hat worlich eyn ſundren gryff
    On vrſach iſt das nit gethan
    Vff myn libry ich mych verlan

    Von büechern hab ich groſſen hort
    Verſtand doch drynn gar wenig wort
    Vnd halt ſie dennacht jn den eren
    Das ich jnn wilder fliegen weren
    Wo man von künſten reden důt
    Sprich jch/ do heym hab jchs faſt gůt
    Do mit loß ich benüegen mich
    Das ich vil büecher vor mir ſych/
    Der künig Ptolomeus bſtelt
    Das er all büecher het der welt
    Vnd hyelt das für eyn groſſen ſchatz
    Doch hat er nit das recht geſatz
    Noch kund dar vß berichten ſich
    Ich hab vil büecher ouch des glich
    Vnd lyſ doch gantz wenig dar jnn
    Worvmb wolt ich brechen myn ſynn
    Vnd mit der ler mich bkümbren faſt
    Wer vil studiert / würt ein fantaſt
    Ich mag doch ſunſt wol ſin eyn here
    Vnd lonen eym der für mich ler
    Ob ich ſchon hab eyn groben ſynn
    Doch ſo ich by gelerten bin
    So kan ich jta ſprechen jo
    Des tütſchen orden bin ich fro
    Danñ jch gar wenig kan latin
    Ich weyß das vinũ heyſſet win
    Gucklus ein gouch/stultus eyn dor
    Vnd das ich heyß domne doctor
    Die oren ſint verborgen mir
    Man ſäh ſunſt bald eins mullers thier

    In short, when Furedi noticed that “rely on my library” didn’t fit the meter, he simply gave up and made his own poem.

  3. Some parts of the translation Furedi gives seem more faithful than the original English translation, which starts

    That in this shyp the chefe place I gouerne
    By this wyde see with folys wanderynge
    The cause is playne, and easy to dyscerne
    Styll am I besy bokes assemblynge
    For to haue plenty it is a plesaunt thynge
    In my conceyt and to haue them ay in honde
    But what they mene do I nat vnderstonde
    But yet I haue them in great reuerence
    And honoure sauynge them from fylth and ordure
    By often brusshynge, and moche dylygence
    Full goodly bounde in pleasaunt couerture
    Of domas, satyn, or els of veluet pure
    I kepe them sure ferynge lyst they sholde be lost
    For in them is the connynge wherin I me bost.

  4. I hope German humanist theologian Sebastian Brant didn’t write such dreadful doggerel in the German.

    My German isn’t good enough to really judge, but to my untutored eye the original doesn’t look much better.

  5. It’s simple popular verse, but with a discernible meter. More or less the same kind of verse is still used for satirizing recitations at carnival.

  6. The bookish fiend thought it clever
    Build more shelves to encyclopediate outre-mesure
    Concavely he muse-eumed
    His dust-ridden tomes
    Master of none, King Nobookendsnever

  7. (claps)

  8. Yes, well done, Hozo.

  9. David Marjanović says

    My German isn’t good enough to really judge

    My 15th-century Alemannic isn’t good enough either. :-þ

  10. I noticed that, interestingly, the article omits the Greek tradition. For instance, in the 2nd c. CE, Lucian wrote a piece on a man who indiscriminately buys books but does not profit from their content [Pros ton apaideuton kai polla biblia onoumenon] which fits the scenario perfectly.
    I also have a feeling the whole thing somehow goes back to Plato and his half-mystical conviction that books are a bane causing people to neglect their memory-faculty.

  11. @D Syrovy: The dislike of books is probably one of Plato’s ideas that really does go back to Socrates. The whole basis of Socrates’s method of teaching was that the only real knowledge is what you figure out for yourself. You can’t read it or be told it. That’s why Socrates didn’t write anything.

  12. Did not the god Thoth invent writing and give it to humans? And did not the god Set (I believe) tell him that he had made a major mistake? that now humans will stop learning and memorizing, to the detriment of their minds?

    And isn’t Set shaking his head again at the invention of computers and the Internet?

    Of course it’s not the inventions that are upsetting, it’s the fact that far too many humans choose to remain ignorant because they believe that learning and memorizing are hard work, and they rationalize that it’s unnecessary.

  13. The generation before Socrates had exhausted what pure naked-sense-organ observational science could tell them, and they just didn’t do experimentation. Naturally Socrates and his people turned inward, trying to find what was the same everywhere anyway. Chomskyite linguistics comes out of that tradition: know your own language, know everyone’s.

    Aristotle would have loved the Internet. All the knowledge of humanity, and an instant way to find out what everyone else in the world knows. (He’d have to get over his prejudices against barbarians, to be sure.)

  14. It seems quite a few people from various backgrounds were not totally convinced of the usefulness of books: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJV)

  15. More denunciation of bibliophilia in Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 9.4-7.

  16. David Marjanović says

    dreadful doggerel

    If by “doggerel” you mean irregularity in rhythm, congratulations! At the time in question, that was the only productive kind of verse that existed in German. (Strenger Knittelvers: 8 or 9 syllables per line, pairwise rhyme, and that’s it.) Following the lengthening of all stressed open syllables and that of all monosyllabic words (as well as, perhaps, further reduction of unstressed syllables), people didn’t understand the Middle High German quantity-based versification anymore, so this was the best they could come up with for three hundred years.

    Fascinating 41-page paper in German without any abstract here. As a lengthy example of what else changed between Middle and New High German, the paper shows that German today has – funnily enough – Classical Latin stress by default.

  17. Nowadays doggerel more usually means ‘incompetently written verse’, based on a misunderstanding of the earlier sense. Skelton is the exponent of doggerel in the older sense in English (spelling modernized):

    Who brought this rhyme about,
    My name is Colin Clout.
    I purpose to shake out
    All my connying bag,
    Like a clerkly hag;
    For though my rhyme be ragged,
    Tattered and jagged,
    Rudely rain beaten,
    Rusty and moth eaten,
    If ye take well therewith,
    It hath in it some pith.

    In fact it is simply a three-stress line with a variable number of slacks.


  1. […] Hat reports on medieval prejudices about collectors of […]

Speak Your Mind