Tossing Lines: Bibliomania concerns cured by a book

I always figured I was a bibliophile, “a person who collects or has a great love of books.” But a recent trip caused me to worry that I was progressing to the next level, a bibliomaniac, “one with an extreme preoccupation with collecting books.”

No matter where I travel, I’m driven to explore used book shops, book sales, and book stalls at flea markets. I’ve done it from Connecticut to California, New York to Florida.

At an Atlanta flea market recently, as vendors were packing up to leave, I bought a New York Times Bestseller I’d long wanted for one dollar. It’s selling on Amazon for fifteen bucks. I almost get too much joy out of such success.

I have almost 500 books. More than some, but less than others. Since I always have a personal reason to buy a book, I obsessively keep every book I buy. My collection is steadily growing.

Some call book collecting an obsession or an addiction. I do fantasize about building a home library someday, a room just for books and reading. Another symptom, perhaps?

Yet there are important existential reasons to read and collect books.

Astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Books permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history.”

Benjamin Franklin, a book lover himself, called book collecting “the gentlest of infirmities.” I can live with that.

But fortunately, my worries were over when I discovered a book called “A Gentle Madness, Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books” by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Basbanes’ tales of bibliomaniacs and biblioklepts (book thieves) assured me I have nothing to worry about.

During the 1830s, after being outbid for rare books at auction, Don Vincente, a Spanish monk, murdered eight of his bidding opponents to acquire the books. Vincente stated in court that “Every man must die sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.”

He was summarily executed sooner, rather than later.

In 1950, city officials in Lincoln, Neb., cited Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick, with violating local building codes due to the weight of his book collection. Every room of his house was crammed with books comprising around 90 tons, more than eight times the load limit for a residence. His love of books was “so cancerous that he could hardly forgo anything with print on it.”

The charges were later dismissed on the grounds that Fitzpatrick’s right of privacy had been violated.

The ultimate book nut and biblioklept, Stephen Blumberg of Ottumwa, Iowa, felt the need to save the world’s best books for the good of mankind. He spent two decades stealing almost 19,000 books from over 300 libraries and museums throughout North America and Canada.

He was caught when a fellow thief turned him in to the Justice Department for the $56,000 finder’s fee.

Blumberg was arrested in 1990, charged with transporting stolen property into Iowa, and sentenced to 71 months in prison. He was ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and released from prison in 1995 after serving 4 1/2 years of his sentence.

These stories (and many more) made me quite comfortable with my book collecting.

Ironically, my worries of bibliomania were cured by a book. Perfect.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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