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.

Are Signed Books Worth More?


My signed copy of C.J. Box’s Wolf Pack. Photo by Bob Trube, © 2019.

I’m not a book collector in the sense of trying to acquire books for their monetary value. I buy books for what is written in them. So what I write here is simply the result of some research on the question in the title of this post, and should not be substituted for expert opinion. What got me curious is that one of the books I’m currently reading, Wolf Pack, by crime fiction writer C. J. Box, has a sticker on the cover that reads “Signed Copy” and does bear a signature that reads “C. J. Box.” I did not pay extra for this book, but in fact bought it during Barnes & Noble’s Book Haul a couple months back at a significant discount. I’ve discovered that Barnes & Noble regularly sells signed editions of books, the current ones of which may be found on their website. I suspect this is simply a strategy to sell more books.

So the answer to my question is “it depends.” The critical factor seems to be how popular the author is, and how many books the author has signed. A book signed by a popular author who prolifically signs books is probably not worth anything more than an unsigned copy of the same book, or only very little. That’s probably the case with my C.J. Box. On the other hand, according to Empty Mirror, Jack Kerouac did not sign many copies of his works. If you have an authentic signed copy of a Kerouac work, it might be worth quite a bit (especially this year, the fiftieth since his death in 1969).

The type of signature also affects the worth. There are several, according to The Books Tell You Why blog, which offers one of the best explanations of the different types.

  • The autopen signed book. Presidents often used autopens, and these have no value.
  • The signed copy. It has only the signature, usually on a blank page. Many people prefer these to books with inscriptions.
  • An inscribed copy has the signature and a general notation, such as “with warmest regards.” Often, books signed at book-signings have such inscriptions. Some think inscriptions increase the value, particularly if not to a person. If you are Joe, who wants a book inscribed to Jane (unless Jane is a very important person)? Those who think inscriptions have greater value argue this on the basis of having more material in the author’s hand, which may aid in authentication.
  • A presentation copy is sent by the author signed and inscribed as a gift from the author. If it is dated close to publication and represents a first edition, this adds to the value of the signature. I have several such books, mostly of value because they were signed by good and cherished friends, but alas, not famous ones.
  • An association copy is one signed and inscribed by the author to either to a notable close person or a culturally significant person.
  • The most valuable signed copy is a dedication copy. Usually, a book is dedicated to a single person, so when the author signs the dedication page with an inscription to the person to whom the book is dedicated, this is a one-of-a kind, hence the value.

If you are purchasing signed books with the aim of collecting, the most important thing is to authenticate the signature. There are websites that provide reference signatures, for example, this one, at The Books Tell You Why. This particular site also links to listings of collectible books by each author. About the only sure thing, when it comes to avoiding forgeries is to have seen the author sign the book with your own two eyes.

Who you buy from is important. Reputable antiquarian booksellers are members of either the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), or both. Each organization has rigorous membership requirements. In the ABAA for example, “Before being considered for membership, booksellers must prove that they are established, knowledgeable, and of excellent reputation. Prospective members must be sponsored by current members, and undergo a rigorous screening process. The average ABAA member has been in the antiquarian book business more than twenty years.” The association’s code of ethics includes provisions for the authenticity of materials and full refunds if authenticity is questioned or disproven. Of course people sometimes make great finds from other sources, but equally, they may be greatly duped.

So, it all depends. If your object is investment, caveat emptor. But if you like to read an author and are a fan, it can be a fun extra, the icing on the cake of a good book. I love signed books from author friends as a reminder of our friendship. An inscribed book from an author event where you met and talked to an author you’ve admired can be a cherished possession. And if you are a collector who knows what he or she is doing, and has thought about the focus of what one collects, signed copies of book can be both interesting, and financially profitable. But probably not my C. J. Box. But that’s OK. He’s a good read.

Books on Books

20160601_204859One of the ways you know you are a bibliophile is when your reading includes books on books, or bookish subjects! Margaret Aldrich posted a great list recently on BookRiot of 100 Must-Read Books about BooksWhat particularly impressed me about this list were the number of fiction books that “give books a starring role.” About the only one on the list I had read was Fahrenheit 451, and that in my adolescence! One things bibliophiles always like is finding a whole new treasure trove of books. In this list I think I found one.

The non-fiction list was equally delightful. Roughly, it divided into two kinds of books. One was lists of great books, or the experience of reading them. We have for example, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall. Books like these are a great shortcut to discovering interesting books you’ve not heard of. I discovered there is even a website based on the book where you can go through and check off all the books on the list that you’ve read and compare your reading with that of others.

The other part of the list are books having to do with various aspects of our passion for reading. One that looked intriguing was At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries.  Personally, I am more on the end of being interested in what is between the covers, but there are many people who collect and lovingly display books and a number of books on this list discussed this aspect of our love of books. One that I reviewed not too long ago is about The Man Who Loved Books Too Much describing the search for and character of a book thief, and why he loved stealing and collecting books. There was one book that I thought aptly described my own life as a bibliophile: The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read by Nick Hornby. The title nails it for me, particularly if you add in the books that show up in my mailbox or on my doorstep from publishers to be reviewed.

I was surprised not to find David Denby’s Great Books, describing his decision at forty-eight to enroll in Columbia’s two core courses on the Great Books. In a similar vein, the list did not include the account of the birth of the “Great Books” phenomenon, A Great Idea at the Time (reviewed here). I suspect that this idea has fallen out of favor with the rejection of the idea of a canon of literature and the interest in more diverse books and voices. The World Between Two Covers sounded like a great way to read one’s way around the world.

I also have a couple on my TBR stacks (pictured above) that I did not find here that look interesting. One is Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co, by Lynne Tillman. This is the story of a classic New York City bookstore from its opening to its closing. So many bookstores have a lifecycle like this, and leave behind a legion of fans who loved hanging around them. The other is BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey. I’m intrigued with the whole question of how libraries are defining their mission with the advent of so many new technologies.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Margaret Aldrich’s post is that it part of a whole other genre of writing about books, of which BookRiot and Bob on Books are a part. There are a whole group of us who are not writing books about books per se’, but in the serialized format of blogging are doing what amounts to the same thing. Perhaps we are trying to recover, in the words of another title on Aldrich’s list, The Lost Art of Readingperhaps because we believe the assertion of the subtitle, that “books matter in a distracted time.”