No one, on the evidence of this book at least, will accuse Nicholas Basbanes of being a compelling prose stylist. Fortunately, the people, the history and the very milieu documented in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books make up for aesthetic deficiencies. From Cicero to the infamous book thief Stephen Blumberg, Basbanes’ book explores book collectors of every kind and stripe, from the ego-driven corporate-raider style library builders to the equally ego-driven individual obsessives whose passions Basbanes pulls reluctantly from the shadows. Basbanes exposes world of books and collections that I never knew existed.
Despite being a lifelong book accumulator, I knew virtually nothing of the world of book collecting before reading A Gentle Madness. What I learned was compelling, fascinating and depressing. I identify with a passion for books, but as works of art to be enjoyed and explored not objects to be hoarded. The incessant reduction of books to items for investment or to complete or add to a collection is depressingly material…and yet without such people, many books would have long since been lost to time. What was most disturbing to me is the number of books—and the amount of materials—that are locked away in library archives and basements with rules limiting access that are unnecessary. I understand minimizing handling of truly rare books and manuscripts, but most of the systems seem to be simply the product of a casual elitism that goes against something deep in my psyche (and, I must say, my own interests). The world of books as objects of art frustrates me in the same way the world of paintings and illustrations as art frustrates and stymies me.
But there are also many stories here of generosity, of people who devote their lives to creating important and accessible collections and whose commercial activities serve primarily as a means to allow them to continue their zealous pursuits. And there are the madmen (and women) whose desires outstrip their financial and, in some cases, mental and emotional resources, for whom I feel a sympathy equal to my distaste for the rich collectors.
A fascinating volume for book lovers of all kinds that retained its hold one me even when it occasionally devolved into a kind of catalog. Recommended.