Thursday, December 08, 2022

'Shining on the Shelves of His Mind'

“He is a true bibliognost, discussing book collecting, bibliography, and individual works with striking acumen. I have seen him draw from a shelf a fine quarto volume bound in honey-colored leather, caress it, open it, and speak about it as though the letters were printed in gold before him. He is truly the ideal book collector, or rather the collector of the ideal, the titles shining on the shelves of his mind.”

The reader/collector described by Catharine Savage Brosman (b. 1934) in “Four Modes of Book Collecting” (Sewanee Review, Fall 2012) is blind. He and a partner are book dealers in London. His blindness and his trade would seem incompatible until we remember Borges. New to me was bibliognost: “one who knows books and bibliography,” according to the OED. The Dictionary’s only citation is from Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (1823): “A bibliognoste is one knowing in title-pages and colophons . . . and all the minutiæ of a book.” It might be pertinent to know that D’Israeli also went blind.


For those unfamiliar with her: Brosman has published fourteen volumes of poetry, collections of essays and stories, and numerous scholarly works. She was a French scholar at Tulane for almost thirty years and her academic interests include Gide and Camus. In her essay, Brosman looks to place herself on the book collecting spectrum by undertaking an exercise in taxonomy. The blind man comes first – the dealer. Next, her grandfather:


“A nineteenth-century man of learning, he acquired books regularly through mail-order dealers and bookstores in Denver. His library eventually comprised thousands of volumes. They were not valuable in true bibliophilic terms—he did not purchase them as an investment, nor to assemble a specialized library to be donated to an institution—but some appreciated considerably in value.”


Brosman’s third bookish type is her husband, “who cares for books immensely and has accumulated thousands. He rejects the term bibliophile, with its connotations of wealth used to purchase rare editions, nor would bibliolatry be a good label. But there is a bit of bibliomania in him.”


The fourth is Brosman herself, “a more erratic collector.” She rejects sentimentality and happily disposes of long-owned volumes as they fall apart. “Collecting, however,” she writes, “need not mean just adding more or buying valuable books for pleasure through thirst for possession or to insure the future; it also implies caring (in both senses) for one’s collection—curating it. I do so. I know where most items are, notwithstanding the lack of a catalogue.” I endorse her utilitarian approach: “[E]verything is for use, not for show, in contrast to the handsome sets, purchased for clients by interior decorators, that are all binding and nothing else.”


As a book accumulator, I’m closest to Brosman. I’m in permanent culling – “curating” -- mode, frequently giving away or selling volumes I’m unlikely to read or consult again. She concludes her essay like this:


“Six new books, sent by their authors, arrived by mail last week. Whether worth my time or not, I’ll keep them for the moment. Perhaps they or others—including treasures formerly mislaid and forgotten, recently rediscovered—will lead me today to say, with Eugene Field, ‘Let my temptation be a book.’”

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