Profile of a Book Lover: Richard Heber


I recently came across a fascinating essay of a true bibliophile in a rather obscure out-of-print book: The Bibliotaph and Other People by Leon Vincent published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in 1899. Fortunately, this story came to light because it was excerpted in a recently published book (as in “on-demand”) titled The Book Addict: Stories of Bibliomania edited by David Lane. By way of introduction, Richard Heber (1773-1833), as many students of his time, had a classical education; fascinated by what he studied, Heber began collecting classical works as well as English literature and drama. In 1812, he was one of the founders of the Roxburgh Club of bibliophiles. Over a decade later, in 1824, Heber was one of the founders of the Athenaeum Club, a private members’ club in London for “Literary and Scientific men and followers of the Fine Arts.” Over the course of his intellectual journey, Heber collected more than 146,827 books. Imagine that — he essentially purchased about 3,000 books every year of his life. After he passed away in 1833, it took 216 days to sell his entire collection. So, without further ado, let’s meet Richard Heber, bibliophile extraordinaire:

The name of Heber suggests the thought that all men who buy books are not bibliophiles. He alone is worthy the title who acquires his volumes with something like passion. One may buy books like a gentleman, and that is very well. One may buy books like a gentleman and a scholar, which counts for something more. But to be truly of the elect one must resemble Richard Heber, and buy books like a gentle­man, a scholar, and a madman. 

You may find an account of Heber in an old file of The Gentleman’s Magazine. He began in his youth by making a library of the classics. Then he became interested in rare English books, and collected them con amore for thirty years. He was very rich, and he had never given hostages to fortune; it was therefore pos­sible for him to indulge his fine passion without stint. He bought only the best books, and he bought. them by thousands and by tens of thousands. He would have held as foolishness that saying from the Greek which exhorts one to do nothing too much. According to Heber’s theory, it is impossible to have too many good books. Usually one library is supposed to be enough for one man. Heber was satisfied only with eight libraries, and then he was hardly satisfied. He had a library in his house at Hodnet. “His residence in Pimlico, where he died, was filled, like Magliabecchi’s at Florence, with books from the top to the bottom ; every chair, every table, every passage containing piles of erudition.” He had a house in York Street which was crowded with books. He had a library in Oxford, one at Paris, one at Ant­werp, one at Brussels, and one at Ghent. The most accurate estimate of his collections places the number at 146,827 volumes. Heber is be­lieved to have spent half a million dollars for books. After his death the collections were dis­persed. The catalogue was published in twelve parts, and the sales lasted over three years. 

Heber had a witty way of explaining why be possessed so many copies of the same book. When taxed with the sin of buying duplicates he replied in this manner: “Why, you see, sir, no man can comfortably do without three copies of a book. One he must have for his show copy, and he will probably keep it at his coun­try house ; another he will require for his own use and reference; and unless he is inclined to part with this, which is very inconvenient, or risk the injury of his best copy, he must needs have a third at the service of his friends.”

In the pursuit of a coveted volume Heber was indefatigable. He was not of those Syb­aritic buyers who sit in their offices while agents and dealers do the work. “On hearing of a curious book he has been known to put himself into the mail-coach, and travel three, four, or five hundred miles to obtain it, fearful to trust his commission to a letter.” He knew the solid comfort to be had in reading a book catalogue. Dealers were in the habit of send­ing him the advance sheets of their lists. He ordered books from his death-bed, and for anything we know to the contrary died with a catalogue in his fingers.”

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