Anna Knutsson studied history at the University of St Andrews before going on to work in the auction world. Since then she has worked as an editor for the Council of Europe and a library manager. She has lately been working on a publication about early books on geology and have been a regular contributor to the ARCA blog since the summer of 2013. In December 2013 she completed the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Heritage Protection and was awarded with the Outstanding Dissertation Award for her treatment of bibliomania. She is currently working as a freelance writer based in London.
“It’s Beyond My Control” A Historical and Psychiatric Investigation into the Claim of Bibliomania
Book theft has been an on-going problem ever since books first appeared. The list of prominent book thieves includes such illustrious names as King Ptolemaios and Pope Innocent X. However, whilst book thieves have occurred in the popular literature from time to time an academic overview of the phenomenon has been remarkably absent. The fact that they are rarely caught might have contributed to their elusive character. What makes them particularly interesting is that they, as opposed to most other art criminals, are nearly all collectors themselves. This article considers why book thieves willingly risk their own security and reputation to acquire books and exactly how far compulsive collecting might reach into the dark crevasses of the mind. This article strives to give a brief historical overview of the argument that bibliomania is a diagnosable condition. Having established the historic link between bibliomania and the psychiatric discipline article analyses past and current psychoanalyst ideas on bibliomania in order to explore what bibliomania is and how it works. Whilst by the mid twentieth century the scientific concern with bibliomania had all but disappeared this article explores what recent developments in neuroscience might reveal about bibliomania and whether this could affect the treatment and punishment of book thieves.
Looking from the outside, the love of books can seem like a folly. People spending large amounts of money on some dusty old boards and some ink-spotted leaves. From the inside, book collecting can be the most rewarding and mysterious element of their lives. So rewarding and mysterious, in fact, that it might be in danger of taking over their lives. This is what is known as bibliomania, book obsession. Bibliomania occurs when the love of books, bibliophilia, takes a turn down the darker corridors of the human mind. Books suddenly become the ruling passion and nothing is considered that is not in relation to books: where to live, who to marry and so on.
The bibliomaniacs usually find nothing wrong in the affliction, but see book love as the most elevated form of love and whilst they may joke about the ‘book-disease’, they are rarely serious about the adverse effects. Despite this, bibliomania has often been related to bibliokleptomania, the stealing of books.
The theft of books has alternatively been described as the most heinous and the most forgivable of crimes. Some would say that taking a book amounts to taking a part of the possessor’s soul, whilst others would argue that the person who loves the book the most is its ‘natural’ possessor, and the real crime would persist in actually damaging the book. Occasionally, bibliomania, or an ‘uncontrollable passion for books’ has been used as a defense for book theft, and on some rare occasions it has indeed worked in the favor of the accused.
This article investigates whether bibliomania can indeed be considered a disorder. One of the few attempts to diagnose bibliomania in the modern period was conducted in 1966 by Norman D. Weiner in ‘On Bibliomania’. However, his article focuses almost solely on interpreting bibliomania in the light of psychoanalytic literature. In addition to this there are some highly dated articles such as Paul F. Cranefield’s ‘Diagnosis and Treatment of Book Collecting’ from 1964, where bibliomania is linked to cigarette smoking, air pollution and even explained as a viral infection. It seems that what is needed is an updated attempt to consider bibliomania in the light of new psychiatric developments and neuroscientific discoveries.
Although book collectors at large will be passing through these pages the main focus for this investigation is looking at how and why book collecting can turn into a real obsession that takes over the subject’s life. Therefore, book thieves stealing for profit will not be considered as they have different motivations. Rather the intention of this article is to assess the defense of compulsion and whether or not this might viably be used by the chronic book-collecting thief.
It is also important to mention that I am not an educated psychiatrist or neuroscientist but an historian. I do not propose to develop a diagnosis for bibliomania, rather, this investigation intends to evaluate the claims of bibliomania and see whether there could be any scientific backing for them.
You may finish reading this article in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue (#11) of The Journal of Art Crime edited by ARCA founder Noah Charney. The Journal of Art Crime may be accessed through subscription or in paperback from Amazon.com. The Table of Contents is listed on ARCA's website here. The Associate Editors are Marc Balcells (John Jay College of Law) and Christos Tsirogiannis (University of Cambridge). Design and layout (including the front cover illustration) are produced by Urška Charney.