Diagnosis of the Bacillus Librorum

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

Gladstone For a good many years I was deeply interested in British politics.  I was converted to Liberalism, so-called, by an incident which I deem well worth relating.  One afternoon I entered a book-shop in High Holborn, and found that the Hon. William E. Gladstone had preceded me thither.  I had never seen Mr. Gladstone before.  I recognized him now by his resemblance to the caricatures, and by his unlikeness to the portraits which the newspapers had printed.

As I entered the shop I heard the bookseller ask:  “What books shall I send?”

To this, with a very magnificent sweep of his arms indicating every point of the compass, Gladstone made answer:  “Send me THOSE!”

With these words he left the place, and I stepped forward to claim a volume which had attracted my favorable attention several days previous.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the bookseller, politely, “but that book is sold.”

“Sold?” I cried.

“Yes, sir,” replied the bookseller, smiling with evident pride; “Mr. Gladstone just bought it; I haven’t a book for sale—Mr. Gladstone just bought them ALL!”

The bookseller then proceeded to tell me that whenever Gladstone entered a bookshop he made a practice of buying everything in sight.  That magnificent, sweeping gesture of his comprehended everything—theology, history, social science, folk-lore, medicine, travel, biography—everything that came to his net was fish!

“This is the third time Mr. Gladstone has visited me,” said the bookseller, “and this is the third time he has cleaned me out.”

“This man is a good man,” says I to myself.  “So notable a lover of books surely cannot err.  The cause of home rule must be a just one after all.”

From others intimately acquainted with him I learned that Gladstone was an omnivorous reader; that he ordered his books by the cart-load, and that his home in Hawarden literally overflowed with books.  He made a practice, I was told, of overhauling his library once in so often and of weeding out such volumes as he did not care to keep.  These discarded books were sent to the second-hand dealers, and it is said that the dealers not infrequently took advantage of Gladstone by reselling him over and over again (and at advanced prices, too) the very lots of books he had culled out and rejected.

Every book-lover has his own way of buying; so there are as many ways of buying as there are purchasers.  However, Judge Methuen and I have agreed that all buyers may be classed in these following specified grand divisions:

The reckless buyer.

The shrewd buyer.

The timid buyer.

Of these three classes the third is least worthy of our consideration, although it includes very many lovers of books, and consequently very many friends of mine.  I have actually known men to hesitate, to ponder, to dodder for weeks, nay, months over the purchase of a book; not because they did not want it, nor because they deemed the price exorbitant, nor yet because they were not abundantly able to pay that price.  Their hesitancy was due to an innate, congenital lack of determination—that same hideous curse of vacillation which is responsible for so much misery in human life.

I have made a study of these people, and I find that most of them are bachelors whose state of singleness is due to the fact that the same hesitancy which has deprived them of many a coveted volume has operated to their discomfiture in the matrimonial sphere.  While they deliberated, another bolder than they came along and walked off with the prize.

One of the gamest buyers I know of was the late John A. Rice of Chicago.  As a competitor at the great auction sales he was invincible; and why?  Because, having determined to buy a book, he put no limit to the amount of his bid.  His instructions to his agent were in these words:  “I must have those books, no matter what they cost.”

An English collector found in Rice’s library a set of rare volumes he had been searching for for years.

“How did you happen to get them?” he asked.  “You bought them at the Spencer sale and against my bid.  Do you know, I told my buyer to bid a thousand pounds for them, if necessary!”

“That was where I had the advantage of you,” said Rice, quietly.  “I specified no limit; I simply told my man to buy the books.”

The spirit of the collector cropped out early in Rice.  I remember to have heard him tell how one time, when he was a young man, he was shuffling over a lot of tracts in a bin in front of a Boston bookstall.  His eye suddenly fell upon a little pamphlet entitled “The Cow-Chace.”  He picked it up and read it.  It was a poem founded upon the defeat of Generals Wayne, Irving, and Proctor.  The last stanza ran in this wise:

And now I’ve closed my epic strain,
I tremble as I show it,
Lest this same warrior-drover, Wayne,
Should ever catch the poet. 

Rice noticed that the pamphlet bore the imprint of James Rivington, New York, 1780.  It occurred to him that some time this modest tract of eighteen pages might be valuable; at any rate, he paid the fifteen cents demanded for it, and at the same time he purchased for ten cents another pamphlet entitled “The American Tories, a Satire.”

Twenty years later, having learned the value of these exceedingly rare tracts, Mr. Rice sent them to London and had them bound in Francis Bedford’s best style--“crimson crushed levant morocco, finished to a Grolier pattern.”  Bedford’s charges amounted to seventy-five dollars, which with the original cost of the pamphlets represented an expenditure of seventy-five dollars and twenty-five cents upon Mr. Rice’s part.  At the sale of the Rice library in 1870, however, this curious, rare, and beautiful little book brought the extraordinary sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars!

The Rice library contained about five thousand volumes, and it realized at auction sale somewhat more than seventy-two thousand dollars.  Rice has often told me that for a long time he could not make up his mind to part with his books; yet his health was so poor that he found it imperative to retire from business, and to devote a long period of time to travel; these were the considerations that induced him finally to part with his treasures.  “I have never regretted having sold them,” he said.  “Two years after the sale the Chicago fire came along.  Had I retained those books, every one of them would have been lost.”

Mrs. Rice shared her husband’s enthusiasm for books.  Whenever a new invoice arrived, the two would lock themselves in their room, get down upon their knees on the floor, open the box, take out the treasures and gloat over them, together!  Noble lady! she was such a wife as any good man might be proud of.  They were very happy in their companionship on earth, were my dear old friends.  He was the first to go; their separation was short; together once more and forever they share the illimitable joys which await all lovers of good books when virtue hath mournfully writ the colophon to their human careers.

Although Mr. Rice survived the sale of his remarkable library a period of twenty-six years, he did not get together again a collection of books that he was willing to call a library.  His first collection was so remarkable that he preferred to have his fame rest wholly upon it.  Perhaps he was wise; yet how few collectors there are who would have done as he did.

As for myself, I verily believe that, if by fire or by water my library should be destroyed this night, I should start in again to-morrow upon the collection of another library.  Or if I did not do this, I should lay myself down to die, for how could I live without the companionships to which I have ever been accustomed, and which have grown as dear to me as life itself?

Whenever Judge Methuen is in a jocular mood and wishes to tease me, he asks me whether I have forgotten the time when I was possessed of a spirit of reform and registered a solemn vow in high heaven to buy no more books.  Teasing, says Victor Hugo, is the malice of good men; Judge Methuen means no evil when he recalls that weakness—the one weakness in all my career.

No, I have not forgotten that time; I look back upon it with a shudder of horror, for wretched indeed would have been my existence had I carried into effect the project I devised at that remote period!

Dr. O’Rell has an interesting theory which you will find recorded in the published proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. xxxiv., p. 216).  Or, if you cannot procure copies of that work, it may serve your purpose to know that the doctor’s theory is to this effect—viz., that bibliomania does not deserve the name of bibliomania until it is exhibited in the second stage.  For secondary bibliomania there is no known cure; the few cases reported as having been cured were doubtless not bibliomania at all, or, at least, were what we of the faculty call false or chicken bibliomania.

“In false bibliomania, which,” says Dr. O’Rell, “is the primary stage of the grand passion—the vestibule to the main edifice—the usual symptoms are flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes, a bounding pulse, and quick respiration.  This period of exaltation is not infrequently followed by a condition of collapse in which we find the victim pale, pulseless, and dejected.  He is pursued and tormented of imaginary horrors, he reproaches himself for imaginary crimes, and he implores piteously for relief from fancied dangers.  The sufferer now stands in a slippery place; unless his case is treated intelligently he will issue from that period of gloom cured of the sweetest of madnesses, and doomed to a life of singular uselessness.

“But properly treated,” continues Dr. O’Rell, “and particularly if his spiritual needs be ministered to, he can be brought safely through this period of collapse into a condition of reenforced exaltation, which is the true, or secondary stage of, bibliomania, and for which there is no cure known to humanity.”

I should trust Dr. O’Rell’s judgment in this matter, even if I did not know from experience that it was true.  For Dr. O’Rell is the most famous authority we have in bibliomania and kindred maladies.  It is he (I make the information known at the risk of offending the ethics of the profession)--it is he who discovered the bacillus librorum, and, what is still more important and still more to his glory, it is he who invented that subtle lymph which is now everywhere employed by the profession as a diagnostic where the presence of the germs of bibliomania (in other words, bacilli librorum) is suspected.

I once got this learned scientist to inject a milligram of the lymph into the femoral artery of Miss Susan’s cat.  Within an hour the precocious beast surreptitiously entered my library for the first time in her life, and ate the covers of my pet edition of Rabelais.  This demonstrated to Dr. O’Rell’s satisfaction the efficacy of his diagnostic, and it proved to Judge Methuen’s satisfaction what the Judge has always maintained—viz., that Rabelais was an old rat.





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