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October 9, 2012

Stanford scholar studies a time when books reigned

Denise Gigante traces the power of the book in the 19th century and then looks toward the future of the written word. 

By Cynthia Haven

Professor Denise Gigante's forthcoming book talks about the formation of libraries in America, and 19th century 'bibliomania.' (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

What is a book?  A source of wisdom, a cultural artifact, a sacred relic, a text that can be rearranged into a pdf and pasted into a cloud.  But in an earlier era, books were more than that: they were bosom friends.

Denise Gigante, a Stanford English professor, traces the power of the book in the 19th century and then looks forward to the future of the written word.  Her research for her forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, which earned her a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, also recalls the half-forgotten English essayist and "tastemaker" Charles Lamb, a cultural icon as popular in the 19th century as Charles Dickens.

Gigante tells a tale of how movements can flip into their own opposite: how transatlantic book-collecting and literary idolatry morphed into a fuzzy, off-the-page future. Passionate devotion to particular books has yielded to a universally available, disembodied text.

If the past is anything to go by, her new book is likely to make literary waves.  Last year's The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor's Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Gavin Jones, the chair of the Stanford English Department, said, "Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that's also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture."

Gigante's research recalls an era when "bibliomaniacs had a relationship with books – they saw them as companions, friends, mentors, real presences in the world.  A character from Tom Jones could be as real to them as anyone they might meet."

Gigante's newest intellectual adventure began with the Jay Fliegelman Collection of "association copies" now in the Stanford Libraries.  The collection is important not just for the books that it holds, but for the signatures, notes and dedications to and from the era's leading cultural figures contained in them.  English Professor Emeritus Albert Gelpi, describing the Fliegelman Collection, noted how "the books speak to each other."

Gigante found inspiration in the collection. The idea of "association copies" was central to the 19th-century world of letters.  When a book had the pencil marks of an admired literary friend or had been owned by a long-dead colleague, it deepened the conversation between book and reader. 

American collections put together by private collectors abounded in such souvenirs of the literary life – anything associated with authors was hoarded and venerated.  It was the age, Gigante said, of "bibliomania."

In a residual way, the idea of association continues to this day. Think of all the people who line up at the local bookstore for an author signing.  "This is a legacy of the association copy, a commoditized version," said Gigante.  "One can now purchase an autograph connecting the reader to the writer in a sentimental economy."

Amateur book collecting – "amateur" is based on the French word for "lover" – was a very self-conscious way of styling oneself as a person of culture. For bibliomaniacs, taste was "a lived experience," said Gigante, "an art of living."

In the 19th century, such tastemakers were "usually people who had to work a day job, or fit their literary life into a workaday world."

From the beginning, the movement was not about wealthy collectors. Charles Lamb, the son of domestic servants who wrote so lovingly about books, left school to work as a clerk.  His fellow essayists and bibliomaniacs, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, spent their lives fleeing from creditors. Even John Keats, Gigante's former subject, was the son of a hostler who took care of horses at an inn.

"There was a big difference between collectors with money who could buy anything that caught their eye, and people who had to make choices, to exercise judgment, in choosing one book over another."

Book-loving morphed into a kind of bourgeois consumerism, where people stacked shelves with books for display (though old books retained their status as idols).  Book buying, selling and collecting became hallmarks of the age.  Bookstores became the center of social and cultural life.  Libraries became shrines where cultural heritage was preserved. 

Like just about everything else in America, the great libraries born in this era were not created top-down, as were their European counterparts, but rather bottom-up.  While the French royalty housed great collections in palatial structures and the British university libraries descended from the 16th century dissolution of the monasteries, American libraries were formed as "expressions of personality, character and individual genius rather than wealth," said Gigante. 

Compare these libraries to, say, Mr. Darcy's library in Pride and Prejudice.  The books Elizabeth Bennet admired at Pemberley were collected over generations as a mark of a family's cultural prestige – a collection of literary "Golden Oldies."

But the marketplace eventually came to the fore. Thus, the 1848 sale of Charles Lamb's old books, 14 years after his death, was a high-profile event. Sixty of Lamb's dog-eared association copies, his "midnight darlings," were displayed by a bookseller in the Astor House in Manhattan as a "seven-day wonder." The English world of letters lamented the national loss of the iconic collection. 

After the books were scattered at auction, a few were swallowed into John Jacob Astor's collection, which formed the basis for the New York Public Library, and a few went to Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard. The private libraries of other collectors started the great collections at Yale, Princeton, Brown and other universities.

Something essential had fallen by the wayside in the rush for big collections.  The death of "gentle-hearted Charles" marked the end of the romantic quality of book collecting. "The gentility of the belletristic tradition amid the prosaic reality of middle-class life had been a model for many Americans," according to Gigante.

We've turned the page onto a future without pages.  The medium is a computer screen. "The center of association shifts from the self to the commodity that is the computer," Gigante said. "The agency of connection is likewise transferred from the internal space of reflection to larger corporations."

What's missing is a tastemaker's wise words in real time and the presence of a bosom buddy on your bookshelf.  Does it matter? Gigante thinks so: "In the end, we will always be tactile creatures," she said. 

Cynthia Haven is the director of communications for the English Department and its Creative Writing Program.



Cynthia Haven, English Department, (650) 736-3435,

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