Editions & Impressions: Twenty Years on the Book Beat,
February 23, 2008 If anyone in the United States is truly a book person, surely it is Nicholas A. Basbanes. For two decades, the literary critic and columnist has cast a fond, even loving eye, on the culture of books, their substance, their wider meaning in society and the people who—in ways similar and markedly different—share his passion. His intense engagement with all things bookish shines from every page of his new collection of journalistic pieces, each one sparkling with insights born of total immersion in his beloved subject.
Basbanes already has written a handful of indispensable books on this topic, but, as he makes clear in his introduction to “Editions & Impressions,” he selected these particular essays “precisely because they are not replicated in any substantial way” in his other published work. The essays are radiant with his joy in discovering and exploring the byways of the book world. And what a world it is, full of fascinating characters and interesting tales, which Basbanes, with his experience covering “every imaginable kind of story as a newspaper reporter,” is perfectly fitted to evoke.
The first part of “Editions & Impressions” consists of chapters with Greek-derived titles, all beginning with the root prefix “biblio,” meaning—what else? book! Two are titled “Bibliophilia,” meaning the love of books, something Basbanes certainly knows all about (having written such books as “A Gentle Madness” and, most recently, “Every Book Its Reader”). Yet he is never sappy, never shows even a hint of “bibliolatry” (the title of another essay), sacerdotal worship of books or a self-congratulatory tone. And when he considers other people’s love for books, particularly among collectors public and private, he tackles the touchy subject of money. Indeed, as a librarian at the Boston Public Library acquisitions department told him, ”[A]fter all these years of collecting, we’d have to be rich, don’t you think?” But a bookseller avers that “if you can’t get a particular book for money, that’s really rare.” That he brings up “filthy lucre” when examining the various factors that feed people’s love for books is part of what makes this book uncommonly refreshing.
There is a fascinating chapter titled “Bibliokleptomania,” which reflects Basbanes’ experience as an investigative reporter in the heady days after the 1972 Watergate break-in. Of “notorious book thief” Stephen C. Blumberg, who was convicted in 1991 of stealing more than 20,000 rare books and 10,000 manuscripts in 45 states and Canada, he cites the defense’s argument that “a severe disillusionment disorder [forced] him to believe he must rescue the past and protect it from an indifferent environment,” as well as the prosecutor’s accusation that “just like any cat burglar…the man is a thief.” A true bibliophile, Basbanes pronounces his own eminently sensible verdict: “Typical collectors, of course, preserve the relics of creativity and shared experience, and though bibliomania certainly involves obsession, it can be productive, so long as it is held reasonably in check.”
Basbanes’ treatment of fellow book lovers are informative and generous. From his personal collection of volumes on his beloved subject, he cites Robert Curzon’s “Visits to Monasteries in the Levant” circa the 1830s as “one of the greatest accounts of bibliographical globe-trotting ever written and recently found lying in a wooden fruit box at a Massachusetts flea market.”
Before he was granted entry to an ancient library in one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos in Greece, Curzon writes, the abbot in charge required him to eat a breakfast of pulverized raw garlic mixed with olive oil, sugar and a shredded cheese that “almost takes the skin off your fingers.” This “savoury mess” left Curzon “sorely troubled in spirit” for years afterward. “Who could have expected so dreadful a martyrdom as this? Was ever an unfortunate bibliomaniac dosed with such medicine before?”
Such is Basbanes’ gusto for books and everything to do with them that there is little doubt he would endure this rite of passage and more for a look at such a library. And, far from emerging “sorely troubled,” Basbanes’ exuberant spirit would be energized, as he so evidently has been in his multifarious book experiences around the world.
Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”