A Gentle Madness, Nicholas A. Basbanes

Owl Books, 1995 (1999 revision), 638 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-6176-2

I’ve got the sinking feeling that I’m going to justly appreciate this book in a few years, once I’ll qualify for inclusion within its pages.

Yes, I accumulate books. I’m not sure that I can call myself a “collector” yet (collecting usually implies a selective focus, and I don’t have much of one unless it’s “stuff I like”), but I like the feeling of being surrounded by books, I like what they represent and I know far too much about resale value factors to claim a mere casual interest in them. Let’s face it: I love looks. I’m a bibliophile.

But even a three-thousand-book collection is chicken feed compared to the monsters of bibliomania that Nicholas A. Basbanes studies in A Gentle Madness, a lengthy examination of book collecting through the ages.

A book about book-lovers, A Gentle Madness starts a long way back. At the time before the concept of books was invented, as a matter of fact. It won’t surprise anyone to realize that there have been collectors since the days of papyrus scrolls, and that the printing press has only popularized the affliction. A Gentle Madness takes a very long time to get to the twentieth century. Along the way, we get to learn about the Pepys collection, about the earliest book-dealers and about the way a bibliophile gave his name to Harvard. Basbanes has done his research, and this dry section of the book shows it most clearly: Often, the pages blur with an accumulation of names, dates, book titles and monetary figures.

My interest in the book picked up as it came closer to the twentieth century. It helps that many stories get more interesting as we get closer to the nineties. Beyond historical research, Basbanes has turned himself into an investigative reporter to witness high-priced book auctions, interview library representatives or rub shoulders with convicted book criminals. A Gentle Madness gradually turns into a gonzo documentary in which Basbanes himself becomes a small part of the narrative. And there are some seriously fascinating stories around the book world. I defy anyone, for instance, to read the chapter on the mysterious (and curiously well-financed) Haven O’More and not look on-line for more information. It’s not for nothing that he gets a chapter by himself (“To Have and to Have No More”), along with an addendum in the preface tantalizing us with the promise of an unsolved enigma.

As soon as the book lets go of historical time-frames, the writing style is clear and detailed. Basbanes walks a fine line between vulgarizing his subject and including enough information to fascinate. There are numerous digressions on a variety of topics. I was amused by the description of “List Collecting” (being guilty of trying to collect all Hugo Awards winners myself), and got a kick out of a not-so-complimentary description of Forry Ackerman’s sci-fi collectible collection.

But most of all, reading A Gentle Madness often felt like a warm and comfortable bath of similarly-minded ideas. Book collecting has never been more popular, and the variety of collectors interviewed and described by Basbanes is enough to make any book-lover feel a lot more normal for accumulating stacks of printed material. There’s a pernicious aspect to A Gentle Madness, especially when using the extreme examples in the book as a yardstick to say “See, I’m not too bad!”

But I suspect better. Midway through reading A Gentle Madness (and at its length, “midway” can be a looong time), I attended a panel on book collecting and told myself that I should really make an effort to build an electronic index of my stacks of books. Weeks later, I found myself purchasing a special book-collection software, along with no less than two different bar-code readers. The time to say “I’m not a collector” has passed: I’m definitely in the game.

I hope to avoid being featured in any of Basbanes’ follow-up books.

[August 2007: Not an auspicious sign: I’ve just completed an email interview with a writer putting together a “virtual panel” about book collecting for the French-Canadian Solaris magazine. The issue should be available in stores in December 2007.]

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