Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century by Nicholas Basbanes

7 September 2008

More books about books, as I continue to work through my review backlog. I’ve come up with a schedule for the books that’ll be posted here in the next few months, so perhaps I’ll be able to keep a bit more on top of things for a while.

Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas Basbanes

Nicholas Basbanes’ first few books were mostly about the people he met and places he visited in his travels as a writer of books about books. Whereas books like A Gentle Madness dealt primarily with the bibliophiles and Patience and Fortitude focused mainly on the historical and contemporary repositories of books in the Western world, this book takes a slightly different turn. In it, Basbanes talks about the actual process of collecting books and how to go about it, with plenty of hints and tips mixed in with anecdotes of the book trade.

As a guide to book-hunting, Among the Gently Mad gives sound advice on how to go about building one’s own book collection. Basbanes sensibly advises his readers to collect something that truly interests them, rather than buying a bunch of random books on the off-chance that their value might appreciate over time. He compares the person who wants only pristine signed copies of books to those who prefer to have more personalised inscriptions, though he doesn’t say that one is superior or inferior to the other. (Some people can be very particular about autographed copies: the actor Stephen Fry once spoke of a person who asked him to sign a book, ‘Just “with every good wish” and then your name, please’.) He describes the good and bad aspects of book-buying off the Internet and eBay compared to browsing through actual used bookstores — for one thing, the online search engine, no matter how thorough, is not a real replacement for a real-life relationship with a reputable bookseller. He also evaluates the relative importance of the things that matter to book collectors, such as the value of dust jackets, and explores the many venues at which books are sold, from the noisy chaos of a flea market to the anxious hush of an auction house.

Most of Basbanes’ advice is pitched at more ‘serious’ collectors, or those who would wish to describe themselves as such. As a result, it might go a bit over the head of the person whose primary exposure to the rare-book trade is reading about the latest mind-boggling price for a first-edition signed copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (more than £20,000 at one 2007 auction). Basbanes also provides a good deal of information about his own collections and the stories behind the books he has acquired over the years — often in detail that can become a little tedious at times. Yet much of the details are there to show precisely how one can build a book collection that is truly able to reflect the spirit of its collector, can be shared with one’s closest friends and relatives, and one day may even be given to a library or museum to preserve the time, diligence, and loving effort that went in to assembling that collection in the first place.

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