Basbanes, Nicholas A. 1943–
BASBANES, Nicholas A. 1943–
Born 1943, in Lowell, MA; married; wife's name Constance; children: Barbara, Nicole. Education: Bates College, B.A., 1965; Pennsylvania State University, M.A., 1968.
Home—North Grafton, MA. E-mail—[email protected]
Journalist and writer. Investigative reporter, c. early 1970s; Sunday Telegram, Worcester, MA, book review editor, 1978-91; nationally syndicated columnist, 1991-99. Military service: U.S. Navy; public information officer; served on the aircraft carrier Oriskany, 1969-70.
Friends of the Robert H. Goddard Library of Clark University (former president).
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Notable Book of the Year citation, New York Times, both for A Gentle Madness.
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 2001.
Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book-Hunter in the Twenty-first Century, Holt (New York, NY), 2002.
A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to other periodicals, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian. Contributor of bi-monthly column "Gently Mad" to Fine Books & Collections magazine. With wife, author of a syndicated monthly review of children's books, 1993—.
Nicholas A. Basbanes had been working as a reporter for many years when the management at the Worcester Sunday Telegram decided to cut costs by eliminating the newspaper's book section, costing Basbanes his long-standing job as book review editor. He was forty-seven years old at the time, married, and had two children. Both he and his wife, Constance, had faith in his ability to write, however, so instead of looking for another full-time job, he decided to become a part-time freelance writer and devote the majority of his time and energy to writing a book. "As a lifelong newspaper reporter, I did have confidence I could tell a good story," Basbanes told South Florida Sun-Sentinel interviewer Chauncey Mabe, "and I knew the good stories were out there lying thick on the ground."
Although confident of his skills, he had trouble selling his book concept to a publisher. No one thought that a book about books would ever sell, not even to an academic audience. To everyone's surprise, once Basbanes's first book, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, was published in 1995, it turned out to be a bestseller.
A Gentle Madness is more than a book about books. It is a book about the people who have collected books and the significance of their collections. Basbanes uses his skills as a journalist to keep his readers involved in a story about other people's love of books. He incorporates interesting details of such ancient figures as Alexander the Great and the Italian poet Petrarch, and then moves into contemporary times with stories about characters such as Ruth Baldwin, a woman who collected children's books despite the fact that she disliked children, and Charles L. Blockson, who left his career as a professional football player to collect books on the cultural history of African Americans. One of Basbanes's most interesting stories involves the trial of Stephen C. Blumberg, a man who stole rare books from almost three hundred different libraries from all over the United States. Blumberg pleaded not guilty at his trial by reason of insanity, but he eventually lost his case.
Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Philip Kopper praised Basbanes's collection of stories about people who collect books. "It is a brave writer who attempts a comprehensive study that's fit to read. Nicholas A. Basbanes succeeds on several counts, for A Gentle Madness is an impressive achievement in its compilation of vast information, as well as instructive and interesting." Kopper then recommended the book for anyone "seriously interested in books or curious about the manic nature of collecting." Donna Seaman, writing for Booklist, also noted the manic nature of book collectors as she wrote: "A surprising number of these stories involve nefarious dealings and vicious rivalries, proving that even in our digitized age, books arouse intense emotions, from worship to greed."
In 2001, Basbanes published his second book, Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture, a sort of sequel to his first book. In this volume, Basbanes looks at the great libraries and their librarians through the ages, including the challenges that they have faced in trying to preserve books for posterity. He also relates stories of bookmakers, booksellers, antiquarians, and great authors, as well as book collectors. He tackles the current controversy over print media versus digital media, the problems of storing old books that few people want to read any more, and the ever-rising cost of paper in the production of books and journals. He illustrates these points with anecdotes, pointing out that the Library of Congress receives twenty-five thousand new books each day and introducing readers to a Greek monk who is working to scan and digitize his monastery's library of ancient manuscripts. According to Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman, "Basbanes concludes with an eloquent, knowledgeable, and invaluable argument for maintaining a balance between the traditional and the new."
Patience and Fortitude is "an uneven but entertaining exploration of the world of books," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, that "will bring considerable pleasure to those who value books and learning." A writer for Publishers Weekly concluded: "Basbanes's fund of stories will delight readers who value books for more than just a good story, have a yen for second-hand books plucked from dusty shops or like to look at catalogs for suspense and excitement."
In 2002 Basbanes's third title, Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book-Hunter in the Twenty-first Century, was published, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World followed in 2003. In the latter title, Basbanes continues the story he began in Patience and Fortitude of the destruction of books and of the book-lovers who fight to preserve them. He covers acts of mass book-destruction throughout history, from the Spanish conquerors burning the books of the Mayan Native Americans that they encountered to the Khmer Rouge's attempts to destroy Cambodian literature, as well as slower, less dramatic losses, such as those incurred when well-meaning librarians "weed" their collections of old books to free up space for new ones. As in the former two volumes in Basbane's loose trilogy, Basil Stuart-Stubbs commented in a review of A Splendor of Letters for Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Basbanes illustrates that he "is a gifted story teller and prose stylist possessed of an unflagging curiosity and comprehensive knowledge of books, booksellers, collectors, and libraries." Stuart-Stubbs also praised Basbanes's extensive research for the volume, noting that, judging by his reference lists, Basbanes read 111 newly published books about the book world and interviewed forty additional people between the writing of Patience and Fortitude and A Splendor of Letters. The result, concluded a Kirkus Reviews contributor, is "an erudite, often lively analysis of the disappearance of texts thanks to time, weather, worms, warriors, decay, poor judgment, and the computer."
Among the Gently Mad is a departure from Basbanes's previous works. Instead of a history lesson cum meditation on the written word, this down-to-earth book explains how to join the world of "gently mad" bibliophiles. Basbanes gives advice on how to find and care for rare books, as well as telling stories about his own life as a rare book lover. In "prose that would make the most exacting schoolmaster proud, Basbanes thoroughly explores all aspects of his obscure hobby," explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Though targeted primarily at prospective collectors," added a Publishers Weekly critic, "this lively book will appeal to any book lover."
In Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, Basbanes examines another aspect of the world of books: their ability to inspire people and, through that inspiration, even change the course of history. He examines the reading habits of past American presidents, from John Adams' 3,200-volume library to the much more constricted reading opportunities of the young Abraham Lincoln, and tells readers of the struggles of English poet John Milton's daughters, who, after their father went blind, were forced to read aloud to him out of books written in languages that they did not speak. Less famous modern readers are included as well, including a prisoner who participates in an alternative sentencing program that involves taking a literature class with a University of Massachusetts professor. "A reader's delight, Basbanes' work testifies to all that literature does for the human spirit," Donna Seaman concluded in Booklist.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, p. 1913; September 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture, p. 166; October 1, 2002, GraceAnn A. DeCandido, review of Among the Gently Mad: Perspectives and Strategies for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-first Century, p. 277; December 15, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, p. 708; December 15, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, p. 6.
Harper's, March, 2002, Guy Davenport, review of Patience and Fortitude, p. 60.
Houston Chronicle, November 9, 2001, Earl L. Dachslager, "He Digs the Bookworms,"
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2001, review of Patience and Fortitude, p. 1079; August 15, 2002, review of Among the Gently Mad, p. 1186; September 15, 2003, review of A Splendor of Letters, p. 1161; October 15, 2005, review of Every Book Its Reader, p. 1118.
Library Journal, September 1, 2001, Paul D'Alessandro, review of Patience and Fortitude, p. 176; December, 2003, Peter Dollard, review of A Splendor of Letters, p. 115; March 1, 2006, Martha Stephenson, review of Every Book Its Reader, p. 85.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 3, 1995, David Kipen, "Collecting Myself," p. 18.
New York Review of Books, December 20, 2001, Larry McMurtry, "Mad about the Book," pp. 57-59.
New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1995, Philip Kopper, "Crazy about Books," p. 25; October 14, 2001, Diane Cole, review of Patience and Fortitude, p. 28.
Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL), February 3, 2003, review of Among the Gently Mad; December 19, 2003, Nancy Pate, review of Among the Gently Mad.
Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada, spring, 2004, Basil Stuart-Stubbs, review of A Splendor of Letters, p. 101.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1995, review of A Gentle Madness, p. 45; August 13, 2001, review of Patience and Fortitude, p. 296; September 16, 2002, review of Among the Gently Mad, p. 58; September 15, 2003, review of A Splendor of Letters, p. 52; September 26, 2005, review of Every Book Its Reader, p. 73; November 14, 2005, John Baker, "A Mania for Books," p. 37.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, March 14, 2004, Chauncey Mabe, "The Book on Books."
State (Columbia, SC), November 21, 2002, review of Among the Gently Mad.
Washington Post Book World, December 9, 2001, Henry Wessells, "The Tomes of Their Lives," p. 12.
Weekly Standard, May 8, 2006, Michael Dirda, "Booked Up: Nicholas Basbanes and the World of Bibliomania."
Nicholas A. Basbanes Home Page,http://www.nicholasbasbanes.com (May 19, 2006).
NNDB Online,http://www.nndb.com/ (May 19, 2006), brief biographical and bibliographical information on Nicholas Basbanes.
SC Book Festival Web site,http://www.schumanities.org/ (May 19, 2006), brief biography of Nicholas A. Basbanes.*