- Bibliomania and the Folly of Reading
Libri quosdam ad scientiam, quosdam ad insaniam deduxere.
(Books have led some to knowledge and some to madness.)
Francesco Petrarca, De remediis utriusque fortunae, ‘De librorum copia’
Antiquity was a relaxed period in terms of reading. With only a few texts around, there was a small number of well-known authors, and one knew them well or even by heart. It was paradise compared to our modern world of millions of new releases each year and the burden of all the historic books, with never enough time to take notice, let alone to read them all. But as every reader of Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading or other works on this topic will know, the complaint over too many books and too little time is as old as the history of the written book or even the book-scroll.1 Literacy once promised to save time, but the opposite happened.
In his Epistulae ad Lucilium Seneca gives the dietetic advice to read less instead of reading everything and to choose carefully: ‘Illud autem vide, ne ista lectio auctorum multorum et omnis generis voluminum habeat aliquid vagum et instabile. [. . .] Distringit librorum multitudo. Itaque cum legere non possis, quantum habueris, satis est habere, quantum legas.’2 This is the problem which is at stake here – but there are solutions to it. The bibliomaniac or book fool, as he is named since Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1492), breaks Seneca’s rule of Satis est habere, quantum legas. He possesses more books than he is able to read – as all of us do – and often he doesn’t read them at all, since shopping, collecting and possessing are already too demanding and time-consuming; hopefully this is not true for any of us. The book fool unifies many key aspects related to reading, print culture, and scholarship. He stands for the distinction between using vs. collecting books or reading vs. not reading at all. All bibliomaniacs have tremendous libraries, yet they don’t use them. At least not in a philologically accepted way: by exact, intense, and attentive reading and writing about the reading. The bibliomaniac is the counterpart of the scholar; he is the [End Page 249] oppressed and excluded other of scholarship. He embodies our bad conscience – so many books, so little time. He is perfectly trained in all types of speed and fast reading, which results in not reading at all. He embodies an unacknowledged desire and a bad habit we normally try to avoid but often simply cannot control. The book fool doesn’t care too much about correctness and gets excluded, as Jackson Holbrook’s Anatomy of Bibliomania shows: ‘They [the bibliomaniacs] amass books not for use but for the lust of possession. Or, in the other extreme, for inordinate consumption [. . .]. Bibliomania is perverted bibliophily. [. . .] Bibliomania is [. . .] inordinate or corrupt book-love’.3 Why such a harsh judgement? Consider Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930), this well-known but rarely completely read novel. General Stumm von Bordwehr tells Ulrich about his talk with a librarian and unveils the arcana imperii of the Wiener Hofbibliothek:
‘Sie wollen wissen, wieso ich jedes Buch kenne? Das kann ich Ihnen nun allerdings sagen: Weil ich keines lese!’ [. . .] Es ist das Geheimnis aller guten Bibliothekare, daß sie von der ihnen anvertrauten Literatur niemals mehr als die Büchertitel und das Inhaltsverzeichnis lesen. ‘Wer sich auf den Inhalt einläßt, ist als Bibliothekar verloren!’ hat er mich belehrt. ‘Er wird niemals einen Überblick gewinnen!’
Ich frage ihn atemlos: ‘Sie lesen also niemals eines von den Büchern?’
‘Nie; mit Ausnahme der Kataloge.’
‘Aber Sie sind doch Doktor?’
‘Gewiß. Sogar Universitätsdozent; Privatdozent für Bibliothekswesen. Die Bibliothekswissenschaft ist eine Wissenschaft auch allein und für sich’, erklärte er.4
Bibliomaniacs (and sometimes librarians, book-sellers, and bibliographers) don’t read any longer. And when they do, they only read titles, names and places of printer’s shops and other bibliographically relevant information. They are interested in the core data instead of the actual content of the book. Otherwise they ‘lose perspective’ and can’t keep an overview. Unlike Musil...