The Book on Books
March 14, 2004 Any modern book reviewer will vouch for the astuteness of the writer of Ecclesiastes, who observed, "Of the writing of books, there is no end." In the case of Nicholas Basbanes, himself a former newspaper book critic, that might be amended to read, "Of the writing of books about books, there is no end."
No one really expected that Basbanes' first book, A Gentle Madness, would find much of an audience; his publisher printed a first run of only 5,800 copies. And yet this lengthy volume about books and the passions of those who collect them became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995 and—nine printings and 100,000 copies later—remains in print.
"I always wanted to write a book as the next stage of my career," says Basbanes, who was the book critic for the Worcester Sunday Telegram in Massachusetts from 1978 to 1991. "You write what you know, so I wrote a book about book collectors as preservers of history."
Basbanes was well aware that this was not a new idea—there's a shelf of books about books in every bookstore and library—but he thought, correctly as it turns out, that he had a fresh point of view.
"What had not been done before was to take a journalistic approach," says Basbanes, speaking from his home in North Grafton, Mass. "As a lifelong newspaper reporter, I did have confidence I could tell a good story, and I knew the good stories were out there lying thick on the ground."
The startling critical success and popularity of A Gentle Madness has enabled Basbanes to become America's foremost spokesman on books, collecting, and the issues facing the printed word in the 21st century. The latter is the subject of his fourth book about books, A Splendor of Letters, which came out last fall. His other books are Patience and Fortitude (2001) and Among the Gently Mad (2002). Basbanes will be featured this weekend at the 16th annual Night of Literary Feasts and Day of Literary Lectures, sponsored by the Broward County Library Foundation.
"I'm very proud of my roots as a journalist," Basbanes says. "The main reason my books do well is that I tell stories. I measure everything for its story value. If it bores me, it'll bore readers. I'm always looking for story elements—what's my lead, what's my kicker, how do I get into the story, how do I get out?"
Basbanes' stories include those of Aaron Lansky, who devoted himself to saving Yiddish books, and Stephen Blumberg, who stole some 23,600 books from 268 libraries in 45 states. He's interviewed collectors, librarians, bookstore owners and ordinary readers in Florida, Texas, Africa, Israel, Bosnia and many other places around the world, examining not only things that exalt the written word, but also things that threaten it.
As a child growing up in Lowell, Mass. (birthplace of Jack Kerouac, he notes), Basbanes liked to read but was not what he'd now call an obsessive book lover. He frequented the public library, and from a young age he wanted to be a reporter.
Basbanes worked on his high school paper, was the sports editor at Bates College and had been employed by two newspapers by the time he graduated. Now 60, Basbanes notes that he received his first newspaper paycheck in 1964, exactly 40 years ago. After earning a master of arts degree at Penn State, he served a stint as public affairs officer on the aircraft carrier Oriskany in the Tonkin Gulf in 1969-70.
Home from the war, Basbanes spent the early '70s as an investigative reporter before beating out 100 other applicants for his dream job, that of literary editor for the Worcester Sunday Telegram.
"I dearly coveted that job," Basbanes says. "I couldn't believe they were going to pay me to read books and talk to writers. It was just something I loved. I thought if I could do it for five years I'd be the luckiest man in the world. I got to do it for 13 years."
Basbanes was squeezed out when a new owner took over the paper and eliminated his job. But by then he had a house full of books—mostly review copies—and a contract to write a book about books. With the support of his wife, he decided to write full time.
Partly to help pay the bills, but mostly to keep the review copies coming, Basbanes wrote a syndicated book review column that at one time was carried by 30 papers. He still reviews books on his Web site, www.agentlemadness.com.
Originally, Basbanes was supposed to take 18 months to write 90,000 words on book collecting. He wound up needing eight years and 250,000 words to tell the story he uncovered.
"It was like two books in one," Basbanes says. "It was the history of collecting, and what's happening now. I was 52, this was my first book, and I thought I might not get another chance. So I wanted to make the most of it."
Basbanes calls his new book, A Splendor of Letters, a timely collection of essays about book issues. It arrives as people are questioning the role of printed books and libraries in the explosion of information technology.
"Concepts of reading are changing," Basbanes says. "Anyone who has a computer knows that. For the second book, I was able to get information I couldn't get for the first because I discovered Lexis/Nexis. I was able to do searches at the push of a button I couldn't do at all before."
The irony of writing in defense of traditional reading, printed books, and old-fashioned libraries while using the latest information technology is not lost on Basbanes, but he sees no conflict in the two.
"I think the book has a lot of life left in it," Basbanes says. "Publishing houses are not operating in the red. Bookstores and libraries are full of people."
To make his point, Basbanes quotes James Billington, the Librarian of Congress who did as much as anyone to bring American libraries into the computer age. "He said, `Electronics will allow the printed book to achieve its full potential as an artistic medium,'" Basbanes says.
The computer frees the printed book from the encyclopedia, the map, phone book, the dictionary, says Basbanes, who adds that he "Googles" everything, even "silly little things like song titles that I'd never go to the library for." By unhitching the printed book from its reference function, he says, it will be allowed to do what it does best—fiction, poetry, narrative nonfiction.
"I always ask my audiences if anyone has ever read a book all the way through on a computer screen," says Basbanes, who, when he has time, reads crime fiction for pleasure—Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly. "Only one guy has said yes, and he was a computer technician. People still like the tactility of the printed book.
"Maybe that will change in 100 years, but what settled it for me was when Harry Potter came out and kids everywhere abandoned their computers to read the book. You can't take a computer screen to bed with you. The best you can do is adjust your seat. You can't feel it, you can't smell it. Until that time when all reading comes from a screen, there will be a place for printed books."