Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2003 Issue

Book Lust and the Cultural Erotics of Fine Printing

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Popular Victorian cartoon, entitled


By Megan Benton

A talk delivered to the Roxburghe Club, 16 September 2003
Copyright 2003

Near the end of the nineteenth century, American essayist and avid book collector Eugene Field published a book entitled The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac. In it he tells one tale after another, all with the same theme—that if forced to choose between a woman and a beloved book, a sensible man would be better off with the book. He even wryly speculates that if a woman works hard and behaves well, she just might be lucky enough to come back in another life as a book, “to be petted, fondled, beloved and cherished by some good man.” Clearly his tongue is in his cheek here, but the joke says more than Field maybe realized about his appraisal of the relative merits of women and books.

Quaintly bizarre as they may strike us today, Field’s attitudes were not unusual at the time. They are part of an unprecedented culture of book love, or bibliophilia, that flourished throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both Europe and America. Bibliophiles formed a small but prominent international community of generally prosperous, genteel, and well-educated men. On the face of it, that they were all men is not surprising. Thanks to traditional advantages of wealth, leisure, and especially higher education—men had always been in a better position than women to develop and enjoy an affinity for books. Book ownership and literacy, particularly in the classical languages that signaled social and cultural rank, had always been a masculine enclave.

Those Victorian gentlemen were not shy about proclaiming their love for books. They wrote voluminously about their feelings, making two things clear. First, they declared book love strictly men-only territory. Women might love reading, they conceded, but only men could truly love books. British writer Holbrook Jackson put it bluntly: “it would be as easy to teach a cow to dance as even the average intelligent woman to love books as a man does. . . . Book love is as masculine . . . as growing a beard.” Second, bibliophiles expressed their passion in increasingly romantic, sensual, and even erotic terms. They seemed to be always—in their own words—fondling, caressing, stroking, and petting their books. French novelist Anatole France claimed that a true bibliophile’s hand cannot help but “voluptuously pass a tender palm over [a book’s] back, its sides, and its edges.” Bibliophiles frequently referred to books not as mere friends but as mistresses, sweethearts, darlings, even Delilahs. The rhetoric, and there’s a lot of it, is pretty hard to ignore.

Why? What prompted these men to go gaga over books? And why did it seem to be so strangely tangled up with sex and gender? Very roughly, the answers grow out of two major developments in the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution and the growing friction, even crisis, over women’s roles in society. Books and reading were intimately involved in both changes.

By the second half of the nineteenth century basic reading literacy levels approached 80-90 percent among adults in Western Europe and the US. An essential part of that rise was linked to a tremendous growth in the manufacture and distribution of books, spurred by industrialization. While a skilled printer with a hand press could produce about 250 impressions an hour, 8-10,000 or more soon flew from the jaws of mechanized, steam-powered presses. Even though books still weren’t cheap, and they were far outnumbered by magazines and newspapers, books were more accessible, to more people, than ever before. Thriving new chains of lending libraries only further ensured that almost anyone might read a book, anywhere, at any time. While this might sound great to folks like us, to many Victorians this sounded like social mayhem. Some feared the new readers—who were mainly women and the working classes—might be easy prey for ideas they wouldn’t understand properly. Others complained that their reading was a pointless distraction or worse, a waste of time better spent keeping the family, household, shops, and factories running smoothly.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Exodus 10:10 to 16:15. Complete Biblical scroll sheet in Hebrew, a Torah scroll panel. Middle East, ca. 10th or 11th century.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Copernicus Refuted. (Astronomy.). Scientific manuscript of a course of studies at Collège de la Trinité, Lyon. 1660s.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Israel’s War of Independence and the Early Days of the IDF. 58 photographs presented to Israel Ber, IDF officer and later convicted spy.
    <b>19th Century Shop’s Catalog 170 Great Books and Photos. Please inquire for a copy.</b>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Early Unpublished Darwin letter on the races of man. Autograph Letter Signed [to Henry Denny]. Down, Kent, June 1, [1844].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Classic Image of American Slavery. Kimball, M. H. <i>Emancipated Slaves</i>. New York: George Hanks, 1863.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> (Underground Railroad.) Scaggs, Isaac. Important Runaway Slave Poster: $500 Reward Ran away, or decoyed from the subscriber…
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>Keep Calm and Carry On</i>, designer unknown, 1939. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, <i>Le Journal / La Traite des Blanches</i>, 1899. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>"Let Us Go Forward Together,"</i> designer unknown, 1940. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, <i>Babylone d'Allemagne</i>, 1894. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Frank Beatty, <i>Out of the Running</i>, 1929. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Wake Up America Day</i>, 1917. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> <i>Danté / Sim • Sala • Bim!</i>, designer unknown. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>[Zodiac]</i>, 1900. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Rick Griffin, <i>Jimi Hendrix Experience / John Mayall</i>, 1968. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Abram Games, <i>Join the ATS</i>, 1941. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Aldo Mazza, <i>Torino / Esposizione Internazionale</i>, 1911. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 2:</b> Robert Motherwell, <i>Julliard School / Dedication - Lincoln Center</i>, 1969. $3,000 to $4,000
  • <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Newton. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica</i>. London, 1687.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Josephus. <i>De antiquitate Judaica.</i> Lubeck, 1475-76.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Carlerius. <i>Sporta fragmentorum, Sportula fragmentorum</i>. Brussels, 1478-79.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Fridolin. <i>Der Schatzbehalter</i>. Nuremberg, 1491.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Pinder. <i>Der beschlossen gart des rosenkrantz marie</i>. Nuremberg, 1505.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Isidorus Hispalensis. <i>Synonyma de Homine</i>. Nuremberg, 1470-71.
    <b>Bonhams, inviting consignments for Sep 27:</b> Durer. Sammelband including <i>Underweysung der messing</i>. Nuremberg, 1525-29.
  • <b>Booth & Williams: NO RESERVE Rare Book Auction, now through July 23, 7:15PM EDT</b>
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> John Muir. <i>My First Summer in the Sierra</i>, Boston, 1911.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Ernest Hemingway. <i>For Whom the Bell Tolls</i>, New York, 1940. First edition later printing.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Upton Sinclair. <i>The Jungle</i>, New York, 1906. First edition.
    <b>Booth & Williams: NO RESERVE Rare Book Auction, now through July 23, 7:15PM EDT</b>
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> George Orwell. <i>Nineteen Eighty-Four</i>, 1949. First American edition.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Harper Lee. <i>To Kill a Mocking Bird</i>, 1960. Early printing.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Richard Wright. <i>Native Son</i>, New York, 1940. First edition.
    <b>Booth & Williams: NO RESERVE Rare Book Auction, now through July 23, 7:15PM EDT</b>
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Dryden, Congreve, and others. <i>Ovid’s Art of Love</i>, London, 1764. English translation of Ovid’s work.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> S. E. Hinton. <i>The Outsiders</i>, New York, 1967. First edition.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> J. D. Salinger. <i>The Catcher in the Rye</i>, Boston, 1951. Book club edition.
    <b>Booth & Williams: NO RESERVE Rare Book Auction, now through July 23, 7:15PM EDT</b>
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Ayn Rand. <i>Atlas Shrugged</i>, New York, 1957. Early printing.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> J. D. Salinger. <i>Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters</i> and <i>Seymour: An Introduction</i>, Boston, 1963. First [book] edition, third state.
    <b>Booth & Williams No Reserve Sale until Jul 23:</b> Tennessee Williams. <i>Sweet Bird of Youth</i>, 1959. First edition.
  • <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>
    <b>TO AKABA! T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Books, manuscripts and pictures. On exhibition 16 to 24th July at Maggs' new premises 48 Bedford Square.</b>

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