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V13 2010 INDEX       E-SYLUM ARCHIVE

The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 28, July 11, 2010, Article 16

NICHOLAS BASBANES ON THOMAS JEFFERSON'S 'BIBLIOMANY'

Tony Hine forwarded this article by Nicholas Basbanes, the author of a wonderful book on bibliophilia, A Gentle Madness. -Editor

What better way for bibliophiles to observe the Fourth of July than to reflect a bit on the legendary passion the author of the Declaration of Independence had for his books, and for the care he took not only in selecting them, but in one amusing instance, expressing his regrets to a hopeful bookseller trying to make a sale.

Thomas Jefferson's best known comment on the subject--"I cannot live without books"--was confided in a letter to John Adams in 1815, and has been celebrated on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts. (I used it myself fifteen years ago as one of four epigraphs for A Gentle Madness.) But in another letter written four years earlier Jefferson made clear that while books certainly were essential to his sanity and well-being, he was not about to read everything that might come his way.

Responding to a query submitted to him by his friend Thomas Law to subscribe his name for a translation of a French atlas of the world then in preparation, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter of considerable wit that expressed why such a purchase made little sense for him. It begins thusly:

"I am now entered on my 69th year. The tables of mortality tell me I have 7 years to live. My bibliomany has possessed me of perhaps 20,000 volumes. Of these there are probably 1000 which I would read, of choice, before I should the historical, genealogical, chronological, & geographical Atlas of M. Le Sage. But it is also probable I shall decamp before I get through 50. of them,. Why then add an unit to the 19,950 which I shall never read? To encourage the work?"

To read the complete article, see: Thomas Jefferson's 'Bibliomany' (www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2010/07/
thomas-jeffersons-bibliomany.phtml)

Wayne Homren, Editor

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