Archive for August 26th, 2008


Patience and Fortitude and A Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbanes

26 August 2008

I recently finished one of Nicholas Basbanes’ more recent books, and upon uploading it to the review I queue realised that with the exception of A Gentle Madness, I had not posted my reviews of any of his other books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll attempt to rectify that.

Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go about the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy by Nicholas Basbanes

Appropriately enough, for a book on the history of libraries, Nicholas Basbanes named his second book-about-books after the twin marble lions who guard the steps of the New York Public Library. Patience and Fortitude received their names from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s as a testament to the strengths that the people of his city would need in the harsh economic climate of the day, but they apply equally to the determination that is required to preserve and maintain a library that will withstand the tests of time.

Patience & Fortitude is a lengthy, fascinating history of libraries and the book collections that end up in libraries, from the great (and now mostly lost) treasures of antiquity in the Library in Alexandria in Egypt to the Library of Congress’s origins in the contents of Thomas Jefferson’s bookshelves — and other libraries and collections of note, housed in universities, monasteries, and private homes. Even examples of great fictional libraries, such as the labyrinthine abbey library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, have a part in this narrative. But along with the stories of libraries come stories of the difficulty of maintaining those libraries, as space and funding restrictions force difficult choices on librarians and administrators. For that matter, catastrophes like the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986 (touched upon by Basbanes, but not nearly delved into enough) also show how successive years of funding cuts and an arsonist’s work destroyed or damaged nearly two million books in a matter of hours.

Basbanes’ focus is mostly on the great libraries, the ones whose collections and resources have built up their well-deserved reputations over the years. Yet of all of the voices heard in Patience & Fortitude, one very small voice seems to be missing — the voice of small, local public libraries, which provide a basic, vital service to their communities, operating on tiny budgets within small spaces. It is the one voice that is seldom heard in an otherwise exceedingly thorough book, but as an example of both patience and fortitude it is somewhat surprising that it does not have a more prominent place.

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World by Nicholas Basbanes

A Splendor of Letters is the third in Basbanes’ triology of connected books about books. Whereas A Gentle Madness focused on those who take their love of books and book-collecting to extremes, and Patience and Fortitude focused on the evolution of libraries through the centures, A Splendor of Letters turns toward specific issues of book preservation and the ways in which people have attempted to save (and in certain situations, destroy) books through the centuries.

Basbanes’ first two books are a little more specific in scope, dealing with a certain kind of person in the first and a certain kind of place in the second. In comparison, the third ranges across a much wider field, jumping from observations on the characters who frequent used book sales at modern public libraries to speculations on the knowledge that must have been lost when the Romans sacked Carthage in the second century BCE. Preservation is often a frustrating subject in the book world, as limitations on funding and technology seem to work hand in hand with poor storage conditions, ignorance, malice, and the general ravages of time as the natural enemies of the book. The rise of digitization has opened a whole new area of debate for preservationists. Thankfully, the sections that look into the effects of new computer technology on books manage to steer clear of the worst of the old book vs e-book debates, though Basbanes (like many) seems fairly convinced that the e-book is not likely to ever replace the physical act of reading words that have been printed on paper and bound together in hardback or paperback form.

One of the most powerful sections in A Splendor of Letters is Basbanes’ account of the efforts taken to restore the libraries, particularly the university libraries, that had been destroyed by the warring factions in Bosnia during the worst of the crisis years. Professors and research students all over the world came together and pooled photocopies of book pages, sections hand-copied out of books and preserved on loose-leaf notes from research trips, whatever scraps of information they could dredge up from their own work, all so that a record could be made of what had been in the libraries before they were destroyed. From these fragments, the collaborators hoped to produce a list of needed books and journals in an effort to obtain reprints or donations of as many of the works that had been lost as they could track down. A very tangible sense of loss permeates even the most thorough account of dedicated preservationists such as these — and A Splendor of Letters is at its best when it highlights these impressive but nonetheless bittersweet moments.