A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes1 September 2007
Switching topics away from political history for the moment (it’s not as if I’m going to run out of THOSE books any time soon) to one of my other favourite subjects — books themselves.
A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes
This is the first book in Nicholas Basbanes’ series of books about books and those who love books, and the title gives an indication of the type of people that Basbanes intends to examine in this particular volume. Several centuries ago, a noted scholar once referred to bibliophilia as a ‘gentle madness’ — and gentle it may be, but the love of books and the desire to possess them is a passion that is often all-consuming. The freakishly high amounts of money bid for certain rare books at auctions illustrates just how far people are willing to go to obtain, say, a well-preserved copy of a 42-line Gutenberg Bible, and naturally many book collectors consider themselves to be a world apart from someone who collects fine art or old wines or even something like Pez dispensers. Books have a certain pull that many people (yours truly included) often find difficult to resist, and through the centuries this pull has given rise to a number of bizarre situations — of people being murdered for their books, of collectors outbidding their own book dealers in a fast-paced auction, and one story of a man who spent the better part of a decade stealing books from university libraries and collections all over the United States. Again, gentle it may be, but a madness nonetheless.
The subject matter aside, it is fairly easy to tell that this is Basbanes’ first foray into his subject. I’ve read Patience and Fortitude and Among the Gently Mad, two of his other books in this particular series, and in comparison A Gentle Madness suffers a bit from a marked lack of organisation. The tale he tells of the history of book collecting tends to meander, and in parts it reads like little more than an auctioneer’s account book of the final prices paid for certain rare books in big-name auctions. It’s all well and good to know what books have been universally popular through the ages, but after a while it reads like a laundry list — or, to use a more poetic allusion, a paen to conspicuous consumption.
Interestingly enough, the other problem I found in A Gentle Madness was not something that the author could really control: The fact is, most of the bibliomaniacs he mentions in this book are not very nice people. Basbanes talks about an elderly woman (I hesitate to use the word ‘spinster’, but it fits her all too well) who spent decades building up a collection of children’s books…but she refused to let a co-worker’s eight-year-old daughter come into the library where she kept her books, and according to friends seemed to lose all interest in a book once she had acquired it. That sort of book collecting makes me feel vaguely ill — you might as well walk along the beach and pick up seashells for free, if you have that kind of attitude toward book-collecting. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, what is more wretched than a collector of first editions who has lost the power to read them?
Basbanes’ book almost serves as a warning about the dangers of the bibliophile’s relentless drive to build the biggest and best collection of books that has ever existed before or since. If nothing else, A Gentle Madness acts as a not-so-gentle reminder that there is really no difference between a rabid collector of books and a rabid collector of shot glasses or Star Wars figures or limited-edition dinner plates with pictures of fluffy kittens on them. The former only thinks his collection is superior because of its intellectual nature — in reality, both kinds of collectors would do well to step back and examine their overall collecting habits once in a while.