The Malady Called Catalogitis

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

rare book

Judge Methuen tells me that one of the most pleasing delusions he has experienced in his long and active career as a bibliomaniac is that which is born of the catalogue habit.  Presuming that there are among my readers many laymen,--for I preach salvation to the heathen,--I will explain for their information that the catalogue habit, so called, is a practice to which the confirmed lover of books is likely to become addicted.  It is a custom of many publishers and dealers to publish and to disseminate at certain periods lists of their wares, in the hope of thereby enticing readers to buy those wares.

By what means these crafty tradesmen secure the names of their prospective victims I cannot say, but this I know full well—that there seems not to be a book-lover on the face of the earth, I care not how remote or how secret his habitation may be, that these dealers do not presently find him out and overwhelm him with their delightful temptations.

I have been told that among booksellers there exists a secret league which provides for the interchange of confidences; so that when a new customer enters a shop in the Fulham road or in Oxford street or along the quays of Paris, or it matters not where (so long as the object of his inquiry be a book), within the space of a month that man’s name and place of residence are reported to and entered in the address list of every other bookseller in Christendom, and forthwith and forever after the catalogues and price-lists and bulletins of publishers and dealers in every part of the world are pelted at him through the unerring processes of the mails.

Judge Methuen has been a victim (a pleasant victim) to the catalogue habit for the last forty years, and he has declared that if all the catalogues sent to and read by him in that space of time were gathered together in a heap they would make a pile bigger than Pike’s Peak, and a thousandfold more interesting.  I myself have been a famous reader of catalogues, and I can testify that the habit has possessed me of remarkable delusions, the most conspicuous of which is that which produces within me the conviction that a book is as good as mine as soon as I have met with its title in a catalogue, and set an X over against it in pencil.

I recall that on one occasion I was discussing with Judge Methuen and Dr. O’Rell the attempted escapes of Charles I. from Carisbrooke Castle; a point of difference having arisen, I said:

“Gentlemen, I will refer to Hillier’s ‘Narrative,’ and I doubt not that my argument will be sustained by that authority.”

It was vastly easier, however, to cite Hillier than it was to find him.  For three days I searched in my library, and tumbled my books about in that confusion which results from undue eagerness; ‘t was all in vain; neither hide nor hair of the desired volume could I discover.  It finally occurred to me that I must have lent the book to somebody, and then again I felt sure that it had been stolen.

No tidings of the missing volume came to me, and I had almost forgotten the incident when one evening (it was fully two years after my discussion with my cronies) I came upon, in one of the drawers of my oak chest, a Sotheran catalogue of May, 1871.  By the merest chance I opened it, and as luck would have it, I opened it at the very page upon which appeared this item:

“Hillier (G.) ‘Narrative of the Attempted Escapes of Charles the First from Carisbrooke Castle’; cr.  8vo, 1852, cloth, 3/6.”

Against this item appeared a cross in my chirography, and I saw at a glance that this was my long-lost Hillier! I had meant to buy it, and had marked it for purchase; but with the determination and that penciled cross the transaction had ended.  Yet, having resolved to buy it had served me almost as effectively as though I had actually bought it; I thought—aye, I could have sworn—I HAD bought it, simply because I MEANT to buy it.

“The experience is not unique,” said Judge Methuen, when I narrated it to him at our next meeting.  “Speaking for myself, I can say that it is a confirmed habit with me to mark certain items in catalogues which I read, and then to go my way in the pleasing conviction that they are actually mine.”

“I meet with cases of this character continually,” said Dr.  O’Rell.  “The hallucination is one that is recognized as a specific one by pathologists; its cure is quickest effected by means of hypnotism.  Within the last year a lady of beauty and refinement came to me in serious distress.  She confided to me amid a copious effusion of tears that her husband was upon the verge of insanity.  Her testimony was to the effect that the unfortunate man believed himself to be possessed of a large library, the fact being that the number of his books was limited to three hundred or thereabouts.

“Upon inquiry I learned that N. M. (for so I will call the victim of this delusion) made a practice of reading and of marking booksellers’ catalogues; further investigation developed that N. M.’s great-uncle on his mother’s side had invented a flying-machine  that would not fly, and that a half-brother of his was the author of a pamphlet entitled ‘16 to 1; or the Poor Man’s Vade-Mecum.’

“ ‘Madam,’ said I, ‘it is clear to me that your husband is afflicted with catalogitis.’

“At this the poor woman went into hysterics, bewailing that she should have lived to see the object of her affection the victim of a malady so grievous as to require a Greek name.  When she became calmer I explained to her that the malady was by no means fatal, and that it yielded readily to treatment.”

“What, in plain terms,” asked Judge Methuen, “is catalogitis?”

“I will explain briefly,” answered the doctor.  “You must know first that every perfect human being is provided with two sets of bowels; he has physical bowels and intellectual bowels, the brain being the latter.  Hippocrates (since whose time the science of medicine has not advanced even the two stadia, five parasangs of Xenophon)--Hippocrates, I say, discovered that the brain is subject to those very same diseases to which the other and inferior bowels are liable.

“Galen confirmed this discovery and he records a case (Lib. xi., p. 318) wherein there were exhibited in the intellectual bowels symptoms similar to those we find in appendicitis.  The brain is wrought into certain convolutions, just as the alimentary canal is; the fourth layer, so called, contains elongated groups of small cells or nuclei, radiating at right angles to its plane, which groups present a distinctly fanlike structure.  Catalogitis is a stoppage of this fourth layer, whereby the functions of the fanlike structure are suffered no longer to cool the brain, and whereby also continuity of thought is interrupted, just as continuity of digestion is prevented by stoppage of the vermiform appendix.

“The learned Professor Biersteintrinken,” continued Dr. O’Rell, “has advanced in his scholarly work on ‘Raderinderkopf’ the interesting theory that catalogitis is produced by the presence in the brain of a germ which has its origin in the cheap paper used by booksellers for catalogue purposes, and this theory seems to have the approval of M. Marie-Tonsard, the most famous of authorities on inebriety, in his celebrated classic entitled ‘Un Trait sur Jacques-Jacques.’"

“Did you effect a cure in the case of N. M.?” I asked.

“With the greatest of ease,” answered the doctor.  “By means of hypnotism I purged his intellectuals of their hallucination, relieving them of their perception of objects which have no reality and ridding them of sensations which have no corresponding external cause.  The patient made a rapid recovery, and, although three months have elapsed since his discharge, he has had no return of the disease.”

As a class booksellers do not encourage the reading of other booksellers’ catalogues; this is, presumably, because they do not care to encourage buyers to buy of other sellers.  My bookseller, who in all virtues of head and heart excels all other booksellers I ever met with, makes a scrupulous practice of destroying the catalogues that come to his shop, lest some stray copy may fall into the hands of a mousing book-lover and divert his attention to other hunting-grounds.  It is indeed remarkable to what excess the  catalogue habit will carry its victim; the author of “Will Shakespeare, a Comedy,” has frequently confessed to me that it mattered not to him whether a catalogue was twenty years old—so long as it was a catalogue of books he found the keenest delight in its perusal; I have often heard Mr. Hamlin, the theatre manager, say that he preferred old catalogues to new, for the reason that the bargains to be met with in old catalogues expired long ago under the statute of limitations.

Judge Methuen, who is a married man and has therefore had an excellent opportunity to study the sex, tells me that the wives of bibliomaniacs regard catalogues as the most mischievous temptations that can be thrown in the way of their husbands.  I once committed the imprudence of mentioning the subject in Mrs.  Methuen’s presence: that estimable lady gave it as her opinion that there were plenty of ways of spending money foolishly without having recourse to a book-catalogue for suggestion.  I wonder whether Captivity would have had this opinion, had Providence ordained that  we should walk together the quiet pathway of New England life; would Yseult always have retained the exuberance and sweetness of her youth, had she and I realized what might have been?  Would Fanchonette always have sympathized with the whims and vagaries of the restless yet loyal soul that hung enraptured on her singing in the Quartier Latin so long ago that the memory of that song is like the memory of a ghostly echo now?

Away with such reflections!  Bring in the candles, good servitor, and range them at my bed’s head; sweet avocation awaits me, for here I have a goodly parcel of catalogues with which to commune.  They are messages from Methuen, Sotheran, Libbie, Irvine, Hutt, Davey, Baer, Crawford, Bangs, McClurg, Matthews, Francis, Bouton, Scribner, Benjamin, and a score of other friends in every part of Christendom; they deserve and they shall have my respectful—nay, my enthusiastic attention.  Once more I shall seem to be in the old familiar shops where treasures abound and where patient delving bringeth rich rewards.  Egad, what  a spendthrift I shall be this night; pence, shillings, thalers, marks, francs, dollars, sovereigns—they are the same to me!

Then, after I have comprehended all the treasures within reach, how sweet shall be my dreams of shelves overflowing with the wealth of which my fancy has possessed me!

Then shall my library be devote
To the magic of Niddy-Noddy,
Including the volumes which Nobody wrote
And the works of Everybody.




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