A Gentle Madness

“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

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!

charlie & the chocolate factory-01

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

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Phantoms On The Bookshelves

“Any person who owns several tens of thousands of books is faced with an inescapable problem: their classification.  For if the comfortable chaos of a few hundred books does not prevent their owner (and their owner alone!) from finding his or her way around them, the ordering of ten or twenty thousand books requires one to have a retrieval system.” (page 32)

I’ve accumulated a lot of books over the years.  While I certainly don’t have anywhere near tens of thousands of books it is a pretty substantial collection.  I’ve tried several times to put together a catalog but I’ve never made it very far.  In my latest attempt I’ve reached about 200 and that is barely scratching the surface.  While part of the problem is struggling to figure out the best category a particular book should belong in, I think deep down I don’t really want to know how many I actually have.

In the Phantoms On The Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet talks about his issues with categorizing his tens of thousands of books.

Phantoms On The Bookshelves

Just 133 pages, this is a quick read but one that is full of wonderful information.  He gives examples of some of the books and authors that have given him trouble and reviews different types of classification systems.  But like any other good book about books this also about his love for books and reading.

“But what lies behind this disturbing ‘reading fever’?  The primal scene – of which naturally I have no memory – no doubt lies in that magical moment when one learns to read, and the infinite horizon that opens up when you decipher something written down.” (page 28)

There are some great stories about personal libraries and a ton of literary recommendations.  The book I am most interested in checking out after reading about it in Phantoms On The Bookshelves is The Paper House by Carlos Dominguez.

This little book is one I will definitely be reading again!

From The Cover: This enthralling study on the art of living with books considers how our personal libraries reveal our true natures: far more than merely crowded shelves, they are living labyrinths of our innermost feelings.

The author, a lifelong accumulator of books ancient and modern, lives in a house large enough to accommodate his many thousands of volumes, as well as overspill from the libraries of his friends.  While his musings on the habits of collectors from the earliest known libraries are learned, amusing and instructive, his advice on cataloguing may even save lives.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves ranges from classical Greece to contemporary Iceland, from Balzac to Moby-Dick and Google, spiced with anecdotes along the way.  This volume, rich with wit and wisdom, will be a lasting delight to specialist collectors, librarians, bibliophiles and to all those who treasure books.

Just  One More Thing: “Only the wall above my bed has always been spared from bookshelves, as the consequence of an ancient trauma.  I learnt, long ago, the circumstances of the death of the composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, sometimes described as the “Berlioz of the piano”, who was found on 30 March, 1888 crushed to death by his own bookshelves.  Every craft guild used to have its patron saint and martyr, so Alkan the elder, the virtuoso pianist whom Liszt admired, and who inherited Chopin’s pupils from him, must surely be the patron saint of demented book collectors.” (pages 12-13)

This Edition: Hardcover published by MacLehose Press (2010) – Translated by Sian Reynolds

You Might Also Like: The Book On The Bookshelf by Henry Petroski