Review: A Gentle Madness

A Gentle Madness, Nicholas A Basbanes. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Summary: An entertaining journey through the history and contemporary world of book collecting, and the “bibliomanes” whose passion for books formed amazing collections.

I think it is obvious that I love books. More precisely, I love reading books and talking about them. I do have a number of books in my home (and have donated or sold large numbers). I am a bibliophile, but not a bibliomane. This is the “gentle madness” Nicholas Basbanes writes about in this thick, delightful book you just don’t want to end because of the interesting stories of bibliomanes. The title comes from a description of Isaiah Thomas as being stricken with “the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania.”

The most interesting difference between bibliophiles and bibliomanes, is that the former love reading books, while the latter collect them. The collectors usually have some focus in their collecting, from first editions of great books, to everything coming from the hand of a particular author or set of authors. I love finding books at the lowest price. Collectors pay attention to price but will spare no expense for something they want. At the very beginning, we meet a chef and restaurateur, Louis Szathmary, whose collection of cookbooks and artifacts filled sixteen semi-trailers and went to half a dozen institutions. And this is the fascinating part of the story. So often the collecting efforts of individuals accomplished what great libraries could not–forming distinctive collections that eventually enhanced these libraries’ holdings, whether Samuel Pepys, whose holdings went to Cambridge, John Harvard’s library that formed the core of the university named after him or the Huntington Library formed out of the personal collection of Henry Huntington. For that matter, Thomas Jefferson’s substantial library became the core of the Library of Congress.

Basbanes takes us through the fascinating world of booksellers, agents of buyers, and auctions of rare books. We are introduced to the high priced world of incunabula, early printed books, usually those printed before 1501. He describes a sale of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a collection of 36 plays for $2.1 million in 1989 (recently Christie’s auctioned a copy for $10 million). We learn of Ruth Baldwin who collected children’s books, eventually installing this collection at the University of Florida. Then there is Harry Hunt Ransom, who became the driving force behind the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Ransom cozied up to Texas politicos awash in funds from the Texas oil industry.

One of the unavoidable realities of collecting was the death (or sometimes the insolvency) of the collector. The efforts and funds to build up a collection then required the organizing, curating, and protecting of these rare resources. Inevitably, the question arises of the disposition of the collection. We learn both about auctions that form the inheritance of future generations, and the intentional donation or sale of libraries to other institutions. In some cases, the donor came along with the library during their life as did Ruth Baldwin who oversaw the installation of her children’s books and continued to curate the collection until shortly before her death.

Perhaps the strangest story is that of the collector who stole rather than bought his collection. Stephen Carrie Blumberg amassed a collection of Americana in his home in Ottumwa, Iowa valued at roughly $20 million. It consisted of stolen materials from libraries from all over the country. His thefts involved everything from stolen or duplicated keys to crawling through ventilation systems. Eventually he was caught. Basbanes interviewed him during his trial, during which he recounted his drive to build “his” collection and how he obtained it.

This book has become something of a “classic” among book lovers. If nothing else, it is comfort to most of us who may be berated for how many books we have. If nothing else, we can point to people even more eccentric than we are. They are each uniquely eccentric, yet also incredibly focused to assemble their collections. We learn about this gentle madness that has existed as long as there were books, and even become acquainted with some through the author’s travels and discussions with them. And since this book is out of print (though listed on Amazon and other sites), you can have a taste of the fun of collecting in finding a copy. If you love books about books and those who collect them, this is a treasure trove for your own collection.

One thought on “Review: A Gentle Madness

  1. I deeply remember the day I saw this book on the shelf. Emptied my pockets and bought it. I have every one of Basbanes books, including his newest, the biography for Longfellow. He is one of the few authors whose books I purchase in advance of publication.

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