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Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World by Nicholas Basbanes

16 September 2008

And now for the last of the Nicholas Basbanes books in my queue. I’ve yet to read Editions & Impressions, the book he published earlier this year, but once I do I expect I’ll have a review of it written fairly soon thereafter.

Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World by Nicholas Basbanes

Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond stories, was a book collector who had an interest in works that, as he considered it, ‘made something happen’. The category was deliberately broad and unspecific, which allowed him to amass a collection of books (now held at Indiana University’s Lilly Library) that included works as diverse as Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, Wilhelm Röntgen’s monograph on the discovery of X-rays, and (I suppose this is a given, all things considered) Mein Kampf. A book collection like this provides an good opening for a conversation on this very topic: what does it mean to have a book that makes something happen? And what about the people who write these kinds of books — what kinds of books did they read, and how did these books shape how they thought and wrote later in life? Can we study a particular book based on what its author read, or does that put us into a dangerous position of overly blurring the line between an author and his or her works? Nicholas Basbanes attempts to answer questions like these in his most recent book about books, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World.

Basbanes looks into the reading habits of notable individuals, ranging from literary figures (John Milton, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust) to scientists (Thomas Edison) to politicians (Thomas Jefferson, Adolf Hitler) to criminals (the Unabomber), studying how they interacted with the books they read and owned. The poet Samuel Coleridge heavily annotated his books, to the point where Coleridge scholars have delved into his annotations in search of clues to interpreting his poetry. Other writers kept detailed commonplace books, collecting interesting quotations and passages from the books they read — the practice of keeping a commonplace book was once taught at certain institutes of higher education, such as Oxford and Harvard. Greater awareness of the relationship between authors and the books they read has even spurred the development of a scholarly subfield focused on in the history of reading. But scholars are often divided on the question of how much weight should be given to an author’s reading history, and Basbanes’ interviews with contemporary scholars such as David McCullough and Harold Bloom show the different viewpoints that several modern readers have adopted when evaluating this approach to studying literature.

The nearest approximation to reading Every Book Its Reader is very much like walking through a library, picking books off the shelves at random and flipping through them, reading a passage or a page or a chapter here and there before replacing the book on its shelf and moving on. Someone who enjoys this style might think of it as ‘open’ or ‘free-flowing’; someone who dislikes it might just as readily call it ‘disjointed’ or ‘shallow’. Every Book Its Reader does not quite seem to flow in quite the same vein as A Gentle Madness or A Splendor of Letters. It comes across more as a collection of stream-of-consciousness essays peppered with anecdotes and stories than anything else. As a result, it is difficult to know how to evaluate it — opinions are likely to depend on the reading style and particular interest of the person reading this book. Those who have enjoyed Basbanes’ previous forays into book culture might be disappointed by the looseness of the chapter organisation and the lack of focused attention he seems to give to his chosen topics. As a reader, I think I would have liked a slightly broader range of authors — namely, more on authors and individuals who are not from the Western literary tradition. I also would have preferred a somewhat more organised writing style for a book of this nature, or at least a more in-depth exploration of some of the topics that Basbanes chooses to touch upon only briefly. Nonetheless, it provided me with a few more books to add to my to-read list, which is one of the things that a book about books really ought to do.

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