A Normal Madness?

Dr Theodore Dalrymple, in The Times of 30 July 2010, writes an interesting ‘Opinion’ on the subject of madness.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is apparently not only a bible for clinicians but also possibly contains ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ cards for defence lawyers: ‘My client, M’Lud, suffers from . . .  as defined in DSM, and is so not responsible for his actions.’

It appears that the new fifth edition of the DSM is greatly expanded, and contains new disorders such as ‘mild anxiety depression’ (‘commonly known as worry’, as Dalrymple observes), and even ‘psychosis risk syndrome’, which appears to be the state you are in if you are concerned that you may be developing one of the other syndromes in the DSM.

Considering his own psyche in the context of this volume, Dalrymple decides that he is suffering from ‘bibliomania’, of which he proceeds to give a list of the diagnostic indicators which will, I imagine, be familiar to the readers of this blog. (We have a touching belief that we do have readers . . . but perhaps this is a form of egomaniac folie à deux?)

The word ‘bibliomania’ was first used, according to the OED, by Thomas Hearne (?1678–1735), librarian and diarist, in his diary entry for 9 November 1734.  Lord Chesterfield apparently advises his son to ‘beware the bibliomanie’ (perhaps a French disease?). But for the full exploration of the illness and its symptoms, we have to thank Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776–1847), lawyer-turned-clergyman, co-founder of the Roxburghe Club and hopeless bibliomaniac.

Dibdin published Bibliomania, or, Book-madness, containing some account of the history, symptoms and cure of this fatal disease in 1809, and its popularity, especially among the aristocracy including his patron, the second Earl Spencer, caused him to write a completely new second edition in 1811, entitled Bibliomania, or Book Madness; a Bibliographical Romance, in Six Parts. This extraordinary production has animated dialogues among a group of leisured and bibliomaniac friends on every topic from the arrangement of libraries (and the marble busts of notable bibliomaniacs to be displayed therein), to the lives of great typographers, the history of printing, the cost of books and the symptoms of the disease itself (there are eight, apparently, one of which is ‘a passion for Uncut Copies’), together with copious erudite footnotes, giving references and expanding arguments.

Twenty years later, and using the pseudonym ‘Mercurius Rusticus’, Didbin published Bibliophobia, or Remarks on the Present Languid and Depressed State of Literature and the Book Trade (1832), a short pamphlet addressed to the author of Bibliomania, in which Mercurius laments the sad demise of bibliomania, and lambasts the wealthy collectors who prefer ‘the gewgaws of jewellery, the tawdryness of furniture, the trickery of horse-dealing, the brittleness of Dresden and Sèvre ware, and “such-like”’, in preference to books. The mock-heroic prose in which these two volumes are written recall Cervantes, whose own great hero was arguably the first of the bibliomaniacs.

Sadly, in 1845 Dibdin suffered a stroke which rendered him powerless, and he died in poverty in 1847, leaving his wife and family (who barely rate a mention in his bibliomaniac autobiography) penniless. Earl Spencer had insured his life for £1000, but it looks as though Dibdin had used it as security for a loan which he could not then repay. It isn’t clear what happened to his books.


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One Response to A Normal Madness?

  1. Pingback: Bibliomania | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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