Nicholas Basbanes: A Love Affair With Books
When you're in love, it usually shows. In Nicholas Basbanes' case, his passion for books exudes everywhere he goes, whether it's Martha's Vineyard, Iraq, or online at AbeBooks. From hard-to-find classics to castoffs headed for the landfill, books find Nicholas irresistible, and the feelings are very much mutual.
“When I arrive in a town, I check into the hotel, make sure the plumbing works, and then visit the nearest used bookstore,” laughed Basbanes, who has written five books about books that have showcased all facets of the written word, including those people devoted to book collecting.
He is best known for A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books – an insight into the world of books and people who love them. Published in 1995, A Gentle Madness has sold over 100,000 copies and is still in print after an initial print of just 5,800.
After the publication of his second book, Patience and Fortitude, in 2001, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough described Nicholas as the “leading authority of books about books.”
His other books are Among the Gently Mad (2002), and A Splendor of Letters (2003). His latest release, Every Book Its Reader, was published last year and looks at writings that have “made things happen” in the world.
For his books, he has interviewed collectors, booksellers, librarians, and readers in many countries and continues to devote himself to the subject of the printed word. Aside from his books, Nicholas is also a regular commentator on NPR’s Book Guys radio show, a columnist for Fine Books & Collections Magazine, and in demand as a public speaker.
Going Places Through Books
Most people would have hesitated before accepting such an offer but Basbanes took the visit in his stride having spent a stint in the US Navy on board an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. The Iraq trip was simply another leg of his odyssey through literature and reading.
“I never thought when I sat down to write A Gentle Madness that years later I would be standing on an airbase in Iraq,” said Nicholas, whose career before publishing A Gentle Madness was hardly dull. He was an investigative reporter in the early 1970s before working as literary editor on the Worcester Sunday Telegram from 1978 to 1991.
“If anyone is ever thinking about writing a book, I say, do it,” he advised. “I was 52 when my first book came out; I now have five in print, and am working on my sixth. For me life really began at 50 when I became an author, and it thrills me now that I am regarded by some as having a measure of authority on this most fascinating of subjects.”
Collect the Right Books
“People often ask me ‘Where do I start?’ The answer is that knowledge is the essential element. Some collectors know more than booksellers in certain areas, and that expertise more often than not is the essential edge.
“Patience is essential, and you are going to need a good eye for a book too. Each collection is basically a narrative of someone’s life. Books say so much about the collector. You can tell 90 per cent of who a person is by the books that person reads. You don’t have to spend a fortune on a collection, either. I’m very impressed when someone shows me a first edition of The Great Gatsby that is worth thousands of dollars, don’t misunderstand me. But I much prefer to see a collection that has originality, perception, and connoisseurship written all over it - not just a fat checkbook that allows for the purchase of high spots.”
Nicholas’ own collection spans 10,000 volumes but it is shrinking rather than expanding. “I was once told by a collector I admire enormously - Toby Holtzman of Detroit - that you reach a certain age when you collect by subtraction, not just addition, that deciding how you are going to part with your books is just as important as how you acquire them,” he said. “I’m at an age now where I am not afraid to sell a few books. I give many hundreds of books away as well. Of course I am still acquiring all the time too. This is a gentle madness, after all.
“My own collection - indeed, I actually regard what I have as a working library - covers a multitude of themes and has come from lifelong accumulation. For instance, archeology is a keen interest of mine, and visiting Iraq fuelled that interest further. Of course, books about books are a strong cultural theme for me. And while it may be true that I am no longer aggressively collecting modern first editions of the novelists that I grew up with, that doesn’t mean I love them any less.”
Know Your Books
“Even when I was a literary editor, I used to assign other people to review various books but I always chose to write about books and authors that I knew I would like,” he said. “Why waste my time on the books I didn’t want to read when I didn’t have to? And I had my pick of every author who was touring through Boston to choose from to boot. So it was really quite a wonderful opportunity for me to have a dialogue with the writers I admired most in the world.”
A devoted customer of AbeBooks, the author combines an admiration of the Internet with a devotion to everyday library sales and traditional used bookstores. “AbeBooks has revolutionized bookselling, it really has,” he said. “For instance, when I was in Iraq I was talking to an army chaplain who had a copy of Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur – an $80 book. When I got back to the States, I went on AbeBooks and there were copies for $15 and $40. I bought them both and will be sending one back to the library in Iraq. It’s fantastic to be able to find these books and then compare prices.
“Of course, I still love used bookstores and I hope they never die out. Some of my favorites are Book Den East on Martha’s Vineyard, the Strand in New York, and Serendipity in Berkeley.
“I am a big fan of ex-libris books. These cast-offs, these orphaned books, from libraries. Sometimes they are five minutes away from the landfill when I come across them. You’d be amazed at what you can find at these sales. I’d go to one today if there was one nearby. I’m distrustful of pristine books that have never been read, to tell you the truth. They’re almost antiseptic - they have no character, no history. I even like to see marginalia - in other words a former reader’s annotations on the page - because it shows how people have interacted with the text. Books, after all, are meant to be read.”