High Anxiety: American Bibliophobia

Book sales may be up overall this year due to the introduction of e-readers (see the New York Times report here).  But strange fears about the demise of the book still abound (read the New York Times on old-fashioned book covers and e-readers here). Are Americans simply afraid to buy books, or afraid that we’re, at heart, bibliophobic?

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first official use of the word “bibliophobia” to Thomas Dibdin, renowned author of Bibliomania; or Book Madness; Containing Some Account of the History, Symptoms and Cure of This Fatal Disease (London, 1809). The OED indicates that the word “bibliophobia” first appeared in Dibdin’s 1832 pamphlet Bibliophobia, remarks on the present languid and depressed state of Literature, which detailed the depressed London book business and assuaged fears about its recovery.

A quick search in America’s Historical Newspapers reveals that “bibliophobia” actually appeared in an American context long before the publication of Dibdin’s pamphlet. In a November 18, 1793, issue of New York’s Daily Advertiser, an “obscure citizen” addressed Citizen Genêt, French ambassador to the U.S. Troubled over Genet’s attempt to recruit privateers in Charleston and, more specifically, Vice-consul Anthony Duplaine’s consorting with French privateers in Boston harbor, the article’s author declares:

“Let us call persons and things by their appropriate names—Citizen Duplaine was no Minister, he was a simple Vice Consul, and tho’ the sublimity of your genius has filled you with a horror for books, yet the Citizen Consul has been too long in habits of intimacy with them, to possess the Bibliophobia, (if I may be allowed the term); before he entered on the execution of his office, he ought to have informed himself of its extents and privileges, and of his relative connexion, with the Laws of this Country.”

Subject to constitutional distinctions between ambassadors and consuls, Duplaine overstepped his bounds in his refusal to familiarize himself with American legal principles—literally, the books.

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