Friday, April 24, 2020

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Too much about sales, not enough about scholarship
More than any other book in recent years, A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes, first published in 1995, grants the outsider a comprehensive look inside the secret world of book collectors, those bibliomanes (as in -maniacs) who hunt and hoard literary treasures, thus aiding in the creation of some of the world’s greatest research libraries. As a lifelong lover of books and libraries, I found much to enjoy in this book collecting exposé, but not without some reservations.

Even for an avid bibliophile like myself, this book is a long haul that sometimes feels more like a chore than a treat. The extensive and often tedious chapters fall into two categories. The first is the chapter comprised of dozens of short anecdotes or profiles of various collectors, each three or four paragraphs long, sometimes arranged chronologically and sometimes not. This rapid-fire format gives Basbanes license to go off on whatever tangents strike his fancy and lead the reader on wild goose chases of digression. The best thing about such chapters is that if you come across a snippet about a collector or library that interests you, you can consult the bibliography to track down the original book or article from whence it came.

The second type of chapter is the kind in which Basbanes focuses on one topic and explores it at great length. These often end up being morasses of details, dates, and dollar amounts. One chapter regards a mysterious book collector named Haven O’More. What’s mysterious about him is that no one knows where he came from or where he gets the money to buy such expensive books. Though Basbanes turns over many stones, by the end of an interesting but lengthy chapter the answers to these questions are still most disappointingly inconclusive. Another hefty chapter focuses on Stephen Blumberg, one of the most rapacious book thieves in American history. Basbanes’s telling of his story is fine, but Blumberg’s library crimes really don’t belong with the rest of the book’s content and should have been a book of its own.

From reading A Gentle Madness, it becomes clear that there are two types of collectors: those who acquire books for their antiquity, rarity, and monetary value, and those who collect books for their content and research value. Most of the 20th-century collectors Basbanes profiles fall into the former category. One gets the feeling that many of them never even open their books. Basbanes himself seems more interested in the wheeling and dealing and the price tags of the books than in their historical, literary, or intellectual importance. He devotes a great deal more ink to booksellers and auctioneers than he does to scholars and librarians. There are exceptions, of course. One of the most inspiring stories is that of Aaron Lansky, who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, thus preserving a language that was headed for extinction. Basbanes interviews a few other collectors who value research and scholarship, but too many of the characters in this narrative are just shopaholics who never peer inside their elaborate bindings.

Despite such complaints, this really is an interesting look into rare book and manuscript collections, particularly the history up to the early 20th century. I admire and appreciate the fact that Basbanes doesn’t dumb this down for the general reader. I have a master’s degree in library science and an avid interest in book history, and at times A Gentle Madness challenged my limits of literary and historical knowledge, but Basbanes’s prose is clear and articulate throughout. I don’t have the bank account to collect rare books like the high rollers that Basbanes profiles, but thanks to digitization one can now “collect” many of the world’s finest books for free. They may not come with fancy bindings, but the intellectual riches are there for the taking.

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