BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
With his books on the history of books, Nicholas Basbanes has become the foremost chronicler of bibliomania.
In the early 1990s, Nicholas A. Basbanes, a journalist covering ‘the book beat’ (reporting on rare book auctions and exhibitions, proofing people in the book trade…) for his newspaper signed a deal with Random House to expand his pieces into something more book length. It was to be about 90,000 words and completed in 18 months.
As Basbanes began researching the subject, his journalist’s nose for a deeper story kicked in, and he began following a very different book premise. His trail led him all over Europe and he completed the book seven years later at twice the projected length for Henry Holt, not Random House.
What Basbanes had envisioned as a tidy little book on the antiquarian book trade turned into an obsessive adventure that produced the first comprehensive, popular history on bibliomania.
A new genre
Titled A Gentle Madness, it was also the book that heralded a new non-fiction genre: books on books or books about books. Or, defined more expansively: books that speak of other books, bibliophiles, reading, book collecting, book arts and book culture. Now in its 20tth printing, it has sold more than 120,000 copies. (One of the most prized possessions in my tiny library is a signed, inscribed — alas though, not to me, first edition of this book).
Today, with five more books on the history of the book, he has become the foremost bookman of our times. (However, he is not the most invigorating or insightful bookman: Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading is, and I can’t wait to profile him in a another column titled ‘Bookman II’).
Basbanes’ newest, Editions and Impressions: Twenty Years on the Book Beat (Fine Books Press, 209 pages) is an engaging, warm, subtly humorous anthology of the many interesting things that happened to him in the world of rare books, collectors, dealers, librarians and book thieves.
On one December morning in 1990 Nic Basbanes set off to the famed auction house of Sotheby with great excitement and some nervousness. He would be bidding, that day, for a book dealer acquaintance who couldn’t attend the auction herself and had permission to play around with — if it came to that – half a million dollars. He would be locking horns with “such stalwarts as Quaritch of London, Pierre Beres of Paris, Heritage Book Shop of Los Angeles, and H.P Kraus of New York”.
With a prominent paddle ready, Basbanes, on most lots, shrewdly enters the contest only when it has reached a higher bid of $25,000. And is surprised, each time, to find himself folding very early because the closing bids on most lots were as unimaginably high as $100,000 to $125, 000. What books would command such prices? Not really books, as it turns out, but illuminated manuscripts, aquatints, and woodcuts.
An item that Basbanes captures (for $28,000) is an illuminated Book of Hours in really fine vellum. His total expenditure for the day comes to $59,625. “This wasn’t my money”, the author observes wryly, “but I have to admit, it was a kick.” The Schiff Library — from where these lots came — was thought to bring in 1.4 million, notes Basbanes. But it finally went for a total of $2 million; “evidence that while prices in the paintings market have gone into a tailspin, rare books have held their own.”
A few days later into the week, he attends a small, local auction, bidding with his own money. And gets very lucky. One item being auctioned here was something titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A quick look earlier had told our bookman this was something very scarce and a genuine find. It was, though no one else except Basbanes realised it, a collection of stories by Washington Irving, the father of American literature. Crayon had been one of Irving’s pseudonyms. The Sketch Book actually contained the first ever hardback appearance of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. An item worth thousands; our bookman snaps it up for a cool $20.
The other essays feature a variety of book people: Chip Kidd, the famous book jacket designer; Anne Fadiman, a bookwoman; Robert Sabuda, the paper engineer behind pop-up books; Stephen Blumberg, the infamous book thief; the writer Tom Wolfe, and the Titanic survivor who founded Harvard’s famous Widener library. The rest of the pieces are profiles of high-end book collectors and dealers of rare books.
Basbanes other books are Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture; Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the 21st Century; A Splendour of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, and Every Book it’s Reader.
Later this year, he has another book coming out called A World of Letters, and in 2009, a yet to be titled book that he is working on for Alfred Knopf on paper and papermaking. Basbanes’ joy in being a bookman is contagious, tempting even the common reader to become a serious book collector.
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