Denise Gigante, "Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America" (Yale UP, 2022)


In February 1848, a book auction took place in Astor House, No. 7, on the corner of Broadway and Vesey in lower Manhattan, New York. By all accounts, the books were shabby and books like them were discarded every day from private and public libraries: one observer described some of the books as “beyond a certain investure of raggedness and dilapidation, backs without covers, mutilated title pages, and missing colophons, on ordinary occasions.” Another observer writes, “They were so positively wretched that they really became fascinating in that very account—as your halfway beggars are despised by every body, while your thoroughgoing pestiferous, rag and filth accumulation sits to Murillo and the Masters.” Despite their ragged and pestiferous condition, these books drew the attention of booklovers throughout the United States. In some ways, the point was in the discontinuity between their deeper significance and their condition—and in the rare discernment of a true bibliomaniac which could see through to their real quality.

The afterlife of this collection is, in part, the subject of Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America (Yale UP, 2022), by today’s guest, Denise Gigante. Denise is the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor in the Humanities. She is the author of the previous books, The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (Harvard UP, 2011), Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (Yale UP, 2009), Taste: A Literary History (Yale UP, 2005), and two anthologies: The Great Age of the English Essay (Yale UP, 2008) and Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy (Routledge, 2005).

This book follows the sixty books in Charles Lamb’s collection as they flowed through the hands of collectors and eventually became the foundation of modern collections such as the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library. The dramatis personae of Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America includes Robert Balmanno (1780-1861), the secretary of the American Shakespeare Society of New York; the actor and theater manager William Evans Burton (1804-1860); and Joseph Green Cogswell (1786-1871), the first superintendent of the Astor Library in New York.

John Yargo is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. He earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specializing in the environmental humanities and early modern culture. In 2023, his dissertation won the J. Leeds Barroll Prize, given by the Shakespeare Association of America. His peer-reviewed articles have been published or are forthcoming in the Journal for Early Modern Culture Studies, Early Theatre, Studies in Philology, and Shakespeare Studies.

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John Yargo

John Yargo is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His specializations are early modern literature, the environmental humanities, and critical race studies. His dissertation explores early modern representations of environmental catastrophe, including William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. He has published in Early Theatre, Studies in Philology, The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and Shakespeare Studies.

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