Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byromania: A Reflection on Collecting Byron Books

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byromania: A Reflection on Collecting Byron Books

Article excerpt

Young people of today seem to be growing up with technology whereas I grew up with books and think I was very fortunate to have done so. I read voraciously from my earliest days; I had a grandfather who had collected books (unfortunately not the poet Byron) and I spent many happy days in his small library. Rather like Byron's comments recalling his days at Harrow School, 'The truth is that I read eating-read in bed-read when no one else read-and had read all sorts of reading since I was five years old'.1 It was not only that I enjoyed reading books, but I loved the tactility and the aroma of grandfather's leather-bound antiquarian volumes, so perhaps I became a 'bibliomaniac' at that time.

I developed an urge to collect and happily in my younger days, second hand bookshops were much more common than today, particularly antiquarian book shops. As a young man in my late teens on visiting London in the Charing Cross Road area, I could visit at least ten established antiquarian book dealers. Most have now disappeared. I am often asked why I collect, as I collect things other than books, for instance eighteenth-century Derby porcelain. I think the answer has to be because I can't help it! The genus collecteana has done much for the world: many of our great museum collections were donated by collectors. I have not collected to make money and agree with what one famous collector said: 'think nothing about values; still less about fashion; buy what you love, pay the price that things are worth to you and to you alone.' As it happens, particularly with Byron first editions, many I bought years ago now have amazing values. In addition to my books, I have collected material relating to the poet: pictures, prints, busts, even a lock of his hair!2

Susan Pearce wrote an erudite work published in 1995 entitled On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. Pearce records that the accumulation of material is a standard human preoccupation here, as elsewhere, and our relationship to this world's goods is one of the major themes of European nineteenthcentury fiction in general as it was of nineteenth-century society. For example, Balzac's Cousin Pons and, in the twentieth century, Bruce Chatwin's Utz. Utz was the owner of a spectacular collection of Meissen porcelain and obsessive about it, spending hours in museums looking at porcelain: '"What" Utz's mother asked the family physician, "is this mania of Caspar's for porcelain?". "A perversion," he answered'.3 I have never considered my collecting porcelain to be a perversion! I prefer a definition written by Walter Benjamin in the Arcades Project (1927-40) when he said, 'perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against its dispersion'.4

The one thing I hate contemplating is getting rid of any of my books, I feel comforted by them, I enjoy looking at them, I even enjoy smelling them and certainly reading them. Why should a first edition first issue of a volume of Byron's poems be any different to a twenty-first-century copy of the same work? It is a difficult question to answer. The fact is that it is extremely enjoyable to read Byron's poetry in a book printed at the genesis of the work.

When I was young, collecting birds' eggs-something that is illegal today-there was the thrill of the search and the discovery of the find. Similarly, having sought a book for a long time, and pursued many avenues that ended with disappointment, to find that book is a great thrill. Let me give you an example. A great rarity in the Byron canon is a first edition 1813 of a satirical poem by Byron entitled Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn, by Horace Hornem Esq, printed by S. Godnell, London for Sherwood Neely & Jones, Paternoster Row, price in 1814-3 shillings (15p). The book has been described by one of my antiquarian book friends as being as 'rare as hens' teeth'. Very few copies are known in the world, although one does come across a later edition published by W. …

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