‘The Bibliomaniac’s Progress’: Bill Zachs’s Reflections on Scholarly Book Collecting

The second instalment of the Centre for the History of the Book’s lunchtime seminar series for this term, titled The Bibliomaniac’s Progress, began with the speaker, Dr William Zachs, showing us an old clip from The Twilight Zone. The clip was a scene from the episode ‘Time Enough as Last’, during which the protagonist frantically stumbles through a post-apocalyptic cityscape, gathering books and organizing them into monthly piles that he intends to read with all his newfound time. ‘Books, books! All the books I’ll ever need, all the books I’ll ever want!’ he cries. Perhaps nothing could have been more apt in preparing the audience for the talk that followed: an origin story to rival that of any comic book hero, but one that could even be said to be superior to those other tales, because this was a tale of books.

Bill Zachs’ tale of books began with a book entitled Without Regard to Good Manners: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart 1743-1786, his first published work. Though it would not sell that well, and face the threat of being pulped, it represented a major milestone in his academic and bibliomaniacal life. Gilbert Stuart was an Edinburgh born, raised, and educated writer who first worked in London but eventually returned to Scotland to begin work on the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, a periodical with a somewhat hostile editorial line that would eventually lead to its end. Bill Zachs led the audience through an abridged but thorough biography of Gilbert Stuart. A highlight was the story of the three-day pub crawl Stuart undertook to console himself for the failure of his History of Scotland. Stuart ended up in Musselburgh and sought refuge in the house of a friend, only to mistake it for a brothel when he awoke disoriented in the night.

The next major literary figure that Bill discussed was John Murray I, the central individual in Bill’s next published work, The First John Murray and the Late Eighteenth-Century Book Trade. Bill quoted Murray as saying ‘If you are able to please the ladies, your business is done.’ This quote got a good laugh from the audience, and Bill went on to explain that his books did not always please one lady in particular – his grandmother. She critiqued his first publication on the basis that there weren’t enough pictures, and his second publication with the remark: ‘Footnotes kill a story.’ At this point, Bill’s humorous demeanour became noticeably more muted as he took a moment to remember his grandmother.

As Bill himself stated during the lecture, ‘Book collecting, at its best, is a humanistic and sometimes sentimental, endeavour’, and his presentation of his life as a student and a book collector was a testament to this personal maxim. The sensory experience of handling thousands of books is such a rich experience, and it is an experience that Bill Zachs has been pursuing since his days as a student at the University of Edinburgh. When he began collecting, Bill put a rule in place for himself: that he would only collect only one book at a time. The first book he ever purchased as part of his collection was William Robertson’s History of Ancient India. The book was one of two copies that were available at the time, and although now Bill asserts that he would purchase both copies, the copy he chose became the first rare book in his collection, making it one of those that must bear a tremendous amount of sentimental value, not just humanistic value. One guiding principle of Bill’s collection has been to re-create what must have been the library of an eighteenth century Scottish gentleman. Just like any collector, he does have certain weaknessnes: fine bindings and big names (Walter Scott and David Hume), but Bill takes an undeniable pride in his collection, and an equal measure of joy in sharing it with fellow bibliomaniacs, students, and researchers.

The lecture concluded with a bit of music that was the result of the collaboration of two European enlightenment giants, Beethoven and Burns. The piece was a selection from Beethoven’s Twenty-Five Scottish Songs, a rousing and undeniably cheerful piece that ended the lunchtime lecture on a wonderful note. A lecture that begins with The Twilight Zone and ends with Beethoven has moved from the comic to the sublime. The progress of this bibliomaniac was a pleasure to behold, and the applause from other audience members reassures me of the fact that we all hope that Bill Zachs can acquire all the books he’ll ever want and all the books he’ll ever need.

Report by Julia Morales, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *