“With thought, patience, and discrimination, book passion becomes the signature of a person’s character. When out of control and indulged to excess, it lets loose a fury of bizarre behavior. ‘The bibliophile is the master of his books, the bibliomaniac their slave,’ the German bibliographer Hanns Bohatta steadfastly maintained, though the dividing line can be too blurry to discern.” (page 9)
There is something comforting about reading a book about books. Whether they are focusing on books in general or more specifically about their history or book collectors and their collections, I can’t seem to get enough of them. This is a fairly new area of interest for me though. About 8 years ago someone had given me a gift certificate for Amazon and I was trying to decide which book to buy when I stumbled across several that were about books. After reading the descriptions and reviews for a few of them I remember thinking, “How did I not know about these before?” And the book I ended up buying, my introduction to books about books, was certainly a good place to start!
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomaniacs, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas Basbanes will take you on a wonderful journey through the history of book collecting. The book opens with a story about Stephen Blumberg, “the most enterprising biblioklept of the twentieth century,” who stole over 23,000 books from 268 libraries across North America. (Blumberg’s story is picked up again towards the end of the book.) From there Basbanes highlights collectors throughout history and the lengths they went to in order to build their collections.
“Exactly when a person becomes a book collector has been debated often through the decades, usually without any consensus being reached. One theory holds that the defining moment occurs when a person buys a book with the prior certainty that he will never read it, though other views are less cynical. ‘So subtile [sic] and so infectious is this grand passion that one is hardly aware of its presence before it has complete possession of him,’ Eugene Field explained a century ago, which suggests that he had no idea whatsoever when he crossed the line.” (page 444)
While most of us will never have the money to invest in a collection like some of the ones highlighted in the book, that same passion is what drives us to build our own unique ones. And even if our books are not worth millions of dollars, if they mean something to you they are just as valuable in their own way. That’s what makes A Gentle Madness such an enjoyable read. The desire to own as many books as possible (and maybe even a few more) is something that I can easily relate to and it’s always comforting to know that I am not alone in feeling this way!
I think this is a must read for anyone who really loves books! I bet Charles-Valentin Alkan would give it his stamp of approval!
From The Cover: The passion to possess books has never been more widespread than it is today; indeed, obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease named after it. A Gentle Madness is an adventure among the afflicted. Richly anecdotal and fully documented, it combines the perspective of historical research with immediacy of investigative journalism. Above all, it is a celebration of books and the people who have revered, gathered, and preserved them over the centuries.
Author Nicholas Basbanes, a dedicated bibliophile himself, begins his book 2,200 years ago in Alexandria, when a commitment was made to gather all the world’s knowledge beneath one roof. In a series of lively chapters, the continuum then passes through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on book lore and book culture in Great Britain and North America.
In the second half of A Gentle Madness, Basbanes offers a gallery of revealing profiles of living collectors and presents exclusive examinations of the great contemporary stories – the rare-book thefts of Stephen Blumberg; “institutional bibliomania” at the University of Texas; the mystery man who used $17 million of another person’s money to gain recognition as the greatest book collector alive. These are just a few of the stores detailed for the first time. The book also includes the most comprehensive bibliography on book collecting compiled in more than a quarter century.
Just One More Thing: “Inside, everything was precise and tasteful. Yet somehow, something seemed missing, something that became apparent only after I had followed my host to his impressive book room, an area quite separate from the family library and detached from the living quarters.
There were no pictures on the walls.
‘You noticed,’ Holtzman replied, obviously pleased. ‘Good. I’m glad. If you understand nothing else, you must understand that this is a house of books. We have some wonderful pictures, but they are not framed and hanging on the walls. I’ve thought this through quite thoroughly. There can be no competition in this house between books and art.'” (page 308)
This Edition: Hardcover published by Henry Holt (1995)
Other Books By Nicholas Basbanes: Every Book It’s Reader, Among The Gently Mad, Patience & Fortitude, A Splendor Of Letters, Editions & Impressions, About The Author, A World Of Letters, On Paper
You Might Also Like: Used and Rare: Travels In The Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone