A detail from the Book of Kells (circa 800 AD)
Barry Humphries was a comic genius of our times and though his character Sir Leslie Colin Patterson is best forgotten, Dame Edna Everage delighted us with her lilac coloured hair and cat eye glasses for well over sixty years. Underneath all of the frivolity and silliness was a deeply thoughtful man with a razor-sharp intellect. Barry had a conventionally happy childhood. He grew up in the pleasant suburbs of Melbourne and he was so resolutely cheerful that he was nicknamed Sunny Sam. Indeed, the only real trauma of his childhood was returning home one day to find that his mother had donated all of his books to the Salvation Army. “But you’ve read them, Barry”, his mother patiently explained. Thus began Barry’s lifelong obsession with collecting books. At the time of his death, he had over 50,000 books housed in homes in England and Australia.
Barry was much more than a bibliophile; he was a bona fide bibliomaniac. Bibliomaniacs (the term was coined by John Ferrier who was a physician at Manchester Royal Infirmary) have a compulsion to collect and hoard books to the point where social relations or health are damaged. Some bibliomaniacs are drawn towards criminality. In 1990, Stephen Blunmberg of Minnesota was found guilty of stealing 23,600 books with a value of $5.3 million. Blumberg explained that he had ‘liberated’ volumes from what he feared would be their imminent destruction. A conspiracy theorist, he believed that the US government was trying to keep books from the people. Soon after being released from his four and a half year sentence he returned to his thieving ways.
Of course, some book thefts are driven by monetary gain. Dr Dirk Obbink stole thirteen ancient biblical papyrus fragments which he sold to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC for personal profit. However, the desire to possess or own books is older than the printing press itself. In the Middle Ages, libraries tended to keep books chained to the desk so that patrons could not abscond with them. Scribes often penned diabolical curses to ward off any potential thief. The 12th Century Arnstein Bible in the British Museum carries the following warning:
If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel and hanged. Amen
I love books but I dare to believe that I am more of a bibliophile than a hapless bibliomaniac. I do not think my desire to collect books is obsessive although my wife would probably disagree. Emotionally, it is almost impossible for me to part with a book even if it is unlikely that I will ever reread it. My collection of books feels like an essential part of my intellectual and cultural identity. Empty bookshelves upset me and though, periodically, I do donate books to local charity shops, any such cull is usually pretty feeble. A carrier bag or half-filled box of books is not going to make a serious dent in my collection.
The tangible feel and dusty smell of an old book is incredibly comforting. My grandparents’ front room in Kenton had a beautiful old cabinet crammed with volumes that dated back to the mid-seventeenth century. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end as I explored its riches. I love libraries, archives and reading rooms for to be surrounded by books is to enter a world that manages to be both calming and stimulating. The absence of books feels like the absence of soul. Minimalism holds no attraction for the bibliophile. For me, a Kindle is a boring abomination that reduces the breathtaking beauty of a book into bits and bytes.
I would grudgingly concede that a waterproof Kindle has some merit!
One of my favourite books of all time is John Sutherland’s childhood memoir entitled, ‘The Boy Who Loved Books’. John grew up in my hometown of Colchester and attended the same school as me – Colchester Royal Grammar School. He has had a glittering literary career and is now the Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London. He has had an eventful life and a bout of alcoholism, drug addiction and his eventual return to sobriety is chronicled in the memoir ‘Last Drink in LA’. His childhood was not easy. In 1942, his father died on a training mission with the RAF in South Africa and, shortly after, his widowed mother disappeared to Argentina with a new man and he was left in the care of various relatives – some more suitable than others. Home was in a chaotic and crumbling house in Colchester’s Dutch Quarter – once home to a community of Flemish Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in the sixteenth century. Of course, the cultural and geographical reference points resonate with me due to the north Essex location. My mother was at the Girls’ High School a couple of years behind John. Consequently some of the names of teachers and pupils are familiar. Moreover, the buildings and streets of this memoir form the landscape of much of my own childhood.
Sutherland’s writing sparkles with brilliance. This is not a memoir about growing up in post-war Colchester so much as the celebration of his love affair with literature. Intellectually brilliant but incredibly modest, Sutherland describes himself as a slow learner who graduated from a third rate university. At Colchester Royal Grammar School he claims that he learned to be ‘a bad timekeeper, a bookworm and a stale chip eater’. He was an only child who found solace in the world beyond school and home. Many of those who go on to achieve excellence in their later lives have immersed themselves in literature during their youth. A well-stocked bookshelf and comfy bean bag will probably inspire, comfort and entertain our children much more than a smartphone or playstation. For some, a lifelong love affair with books will sometimes stray into an obsession and 50,000 books later, Barry Humphries’ mother must have wondered about the wisdom of donating his entire library to the Salvation Army. Still, there is a definite virtue in dumping TikTok and Snapchat and opening a volume of Dickens. Social media amplifies the world we already know whereas outstanding works of literature transport us to entirely new worlds.
Headmaster of Rossall School