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

  • <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. Carolina Parrot. Plate 26. Hand-colored aquatint and engraved plate from Audubon's <i>Birds of America.</i> $80,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Francisco Henrique Carls. [Album de Pernambuco e seus Arrabaldes]. Fifty-three chromolithographed plates of landscape, town views and more of the state of Pernambuco, northeast Brazil. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Captain Thomas Davies, after. Group of 5 engraved topographical scenes of North American waterfalls. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> William R. Morley. Morley's Map of New Mexico. Large lithographed pocket map with original hand-color in outline. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Frederick William Beechey, et al. <i>The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage; Compiled from the Collections and Notes Made by Captain Beechey…</i> $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> ZUDA ROKASHI (Priest Hotan.) Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka No Zu. Woodblock wall map of the world on 16 sheets joined. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> Latin Book of Hours, Langres around 1490. Est: €50,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>T. Livius, <i>Römische Historien,</i> 1533. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>G. Mendel, <i>Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden,</i> 1865-66. Est: €30,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Verard, Book of Hours, around 1488. Est: €30,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Ortelius, <i>Theatrum orbis terrarum,</i> 1601. Est: €80,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br><i>Der Sturm,</i> 1910-1916. Est: €16,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Cronica van der hilliger Stat Coellen,</i> 1499. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>M. Catesby, <i>Piscium serpentum insectorum,</i> 1777. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>W. Grohmann, <i>Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners,</i> 1926. Est: €20,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>P. Borgo, <i>Aritmetica mercantile,</i> 1491. Est: €16,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>D. Roberts, <i>Egypt and Nubia,</i> 1846-49. Est: €8,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Estampes,</i> with the suite by P. Picasso, 1950. Est: €15,000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Zang Tumb Tuuum:<br>la révolution futuriste<br>Online Auction<br>30 November – 7 December</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 18:</b> The "Official Edition" of the United States Constitution and the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution, 1787. $15,000,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. I Paroliberi Futuristi. 1914-1915. 8 p. Unique corrected proofs, for an anthology that remained unpublished. €40,000 to €60,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Studenti in Lettere. Università. 1915. Seminal work, featured in 3 historical futurist exhibitions. €20,000 to €30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Chiaro di luna. Circa 1915. Collage and gouache on paper. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manicure. Faire les ongles à l'Italie. Circa 1915. A fantastic parody of an advertising poster. €20,000 to €30,000.
  • <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 47. Roosevelt, Theodore. Photograph inscribed to Morris J. Hirsch. May 7th 1918. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 178. Whitman, Walt. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York: [Printed for the author], 1955. First edition in the first issue binding. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 38. Mather, Cotton. <i>Magnalia Christi Americana; or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England.</i> London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst, 1702. First edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 55. Taylor, Zachary. Autograph letter signed as President-Elect. Baton Rouge: January 15, 1849. $5,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 203. Picasso, Pablo. <i>Verve</i> Vol. V, Nos. 19-20. Paris: Editions Verve, 1948. Inscribed on the title page by Picasso. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 211. Domergue, Jean-Gabriel. L'Ete a Monte Carlo. Lithographed poster, Lucien Serre & Cie, Paris, circa 1937. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 105. Manuscript Illumination attr. to Neri da Rimini. Large excised initial "N" from a choirbook, extensively historiated. [Likely Rimini: first quarter of the 14th century]. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 40. McKenney, Thomas L. and Hall, James. <i>History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.</i> Philadelphia: Rice, Rutter & Co., 1870. $3,00
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 222. Searle, Ronald. [Pets--a dog, cats and a parrot-- surrounded by books, and inspecting a globe, perhaps planning global domination]. Original drawing, 17 3/8 x 13 1/2 inches. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 98. Faden, William; Scull, Nicholas and George Heap. A Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia, Survey'd by N. Scull and G. Heap. London: William Faden, 12 March 1777. $3,000 to $5,000.
  • <i>Der Sturm.</i> 1922. Sold October 2021 for € 13,000.
    Diophantus Alexandrinus, <i>Arithmeticorum libri sex.</i> 1670. Sold October 2021 for € 18,000.
    <i>Cozzani Ettore e altri, l’Eroica. Tutto il pubblicato.</i> Sold October 2021 for € 11,000.
    Newton Isaac, <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> 1714. Sold October 2021 for € 7,500.
    Manetti Saverio, <i>Storia naturale degli uccelli.</i> 1767-1776. Sold April 2021 for € 26,000.

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