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Charles Lamb and the Bibliographical Relic: An Evening Colloquium on Annotated Association Copies at the NYPL with Dr. Denise Gigante

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November 15, 5:30-7pm In-Person at the New York Public Library

This bibliographical discussion will feature books that found their way from Charles Lamb’s famously dilapidated library in London to the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. The concept of the bibliographical relic was a particular collecting fetish in the transatlantic book world of the nineteenth century, and the occasion for this colloquium is the immediate publication of Professor Denise Gigante’s Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale 2022), an account of the bibliomania that swept across the Atlantic in the 1830s and 1840s, resulting in the rapid rise of independent, private, institutional, and public libraries in America. Among those that figure prominently in the book is the Astor Library, the original name for the New York Public Library.

The volumes from Lamb’s library are “association copies” and they were a particular collecting fetish of nineteenth-century America. One that is now in the Berg Collection reveals the lengths to which bibliophiles would go to own relics of Charles Lamb—the bibliophile’s bibliophile—for it contains a fantastical bookplate by a pseudo-fictional character pronouncing it to be one in a series of “Relics of Charles Lamb.”  Two other volumes, by the poet John Cleveland, raise questions of bibliographical value. One, with its cracked back, torn pages, flaking leather covers, and missing leaves, stands out in all its dilapidated glory against an elegant gilt bookplate by a later owner, an antiquarian bookseller, printer, and bibliomaniac from antebellum Cincinnati. By contrast, the second, probably to suit the Gilded Era tastes of its former owner (a New York millionaire and yachtsman) has been richly reoutfitted in blue Morocco, with ornamental panels, raised bands, and gilt letters that proclaim not only the title and date of publication on its spine, but the fact that it was “CHARLES / LAMB’S / COPY.” Its sentimental, associational value thus trumps any literary value associated with its author. 

The phenomenon of annotating books enriched the bibliographical relic, and that practice became something of an art form in Lamb’s bookish circle. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inventor of the term “marginalia” and its reigning practitioner, added in one association copy from Lamb’s Library now in the Berg Collection a key to his annotations. Colloquium participants will consider (1) the nature of the relation between marginalia and the relics; (2) the association copy as a guide to the social life of books; and (3) association itself as a critical tool and prompt to historically based, bibliographical narrative.

Speaker: Denise Gigante is the Sadie Dernham Professor of Humanities at Stanford University who teaches in the English Department. Her most recent book, Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale, 2022), tells the story of bibliophilia and book collecting in mid-nineteenth-century America when the country’s major libraries were being formed. Research for the book was supported by a “Reese Fellowship for American Bibliography and the History of the Book in the Americas” from the Bibliographical Society of America as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Her next book, The Mental Traveller: A Blakean Pilgrimage through Medieval and Renaissance Iconography (Oxford University Press), derives from her Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University (2020) and is based on the handmade, illuminated books of William Blake in relation to other early visual media from the Papal States.


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