Manic Kind

H e was stingy, refusing to adequately support his household or his family, but he was also profligate, forced to flee England twice in order to avoid his creditors. 

He purchased a noble title and was “a bully to almost anyone he thought below him in social station,” but he also promoted heterodox ideas via his own printing press.

He discarded his eldest daughter because he despised her husband, but when it came to the written word, he couldn’t let go, amassing the largest private collection of published materials—more than 60,000 manuscripts and 40,000 books—in European history.

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His name was Thomas Phillipps, and though he was quite a character, his status as a towering literary figure is a fact not of literature but of history—a fact that’s getting a lot of attention right now at Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Phillipps comprises a cornerstone of the new exhibition Bibliomania; or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance.

You might assume, as I at first did, that the word “bibliomania” was constructed for the sake of this four-part exhibition. Not so. According to various internet sources, the term precedes even the historically extreme case of Phillipps, who was born in 1792, and is a widely acknowledged, if perhaps not entirely clinical, affliction. After all, even the vast majority of us who are not bonafide bibliomaniacs have at least experienced a shadow of the obsession: an ineffable attraction to books and manuscripts, especially aged and beautiful ones.

We can experience that attraction many times over while viewing Bibliomania (including during an opening reception tonight). The Phillipps section, titled All the Books in the World! and divided between the long ground-floor cases positioned beyond the Beinecke’s dueling stairways, is mostly comprised of various items that once filled Phillipps’s homestead to bursting. Curated by Raymond Clemens and Diane Ducharme, there’s a “ninth-century copy of royal ordinances issued by the courts of Charlemagne and his descendants” and a 15th-century tome—opened to an especially wonderful page with illustrations and gilded details—on falconry. Also present are some of the quirkier and more personal items he commissioned or directly printed, as well as an inked stone, amazingly well-preserved, to represent Phillipps’s role as an early adopter of lithography in England.

Of course, Phillipps is not the only character in Bibliomania’s plot. Another is Thomas Rawlinson, who lived from 1681 to 1725 and appears in the exhibition’s Collated & Perfect section, curated by Kathryn James and Aaron T. Pratt and located just up the library’s southern stairs. Like Phillipps, Rawlinson’s interest in preserving historical records, especially religious and political ones, led to outright hoarding. His apartment became so full of books that he had to sleep out in the hallway. At some point, his ever-growing collection compelled him to buy a house, which he also filled to the brim with books, until he eventually went bankrupt.

But unlike Phillipps, who generally pursued quantity over quality, Rawlinson embodied a refined, curatorial sort of bibliomania. He would compare different copies of a given work to find what James called the “perfect textual specimen,” which, when determined, he would label “C&P”—“collated and perfect.” Rawlinson’s search for perfection is more or less mirrored in the activities of four other collectors highlighted in this section, each fittingly represented by a text he considered perfect—including, a placard notes, a tantalizing 1604 copy of what “the Yale University Library catalog record” says is “the first authoritative edition” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In comparison, Bibliomania’s third section, titled Habits Ancient and Modern and curated by Andrew S. Brown, seems less obviously about the characters who collected the displayed books than it is about the special character of the books themselves, whose “fore-edges” (opposite the spine) were painted with imagery relevant to their authorship or contents. Between a dozen bindings of various heights, widths and colors, disparate figures of history—the ancient orator Cicero, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus—create a unified tableau when shelved contiguously; one can only imagine the effect produced by the undispersed collection of 172 such books owned for centuries by the Italian Pillone family, who commissioned the fore-edge paintings in the 1580s.

The fourth and final section of Bibliomania is dispersed, in a way, throughout 18 display cases lining the eastern and western edges of the library’s mezzanine. But it could hardly feel more interconnected. Curated by Elizabeth Frengel and titled The Whole Art of Marbling, it really does feel whole: an 18-angle examination of the obscure but enduring art form of paper marbling. Used for centuries to embellish the endpapers inside book covers (among other applications), various schools and styles are examined and, of course, displayed. History is discussed and process too, though it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the gorgeous, mesmerizing patterns.

An early symptom of bibliomania, perhaps?

Bibliomania; or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – 121 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon 10am-7pm, Tues-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through 4/21/19
(203) 432-2977
www.beinecke.library.yale.edu/…

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped very much by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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