The Magazine

Booked Up

Nicholas Basbanes and the world of bibliomania.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Every Book Its Reader

The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World

by Nicholas Basbanes

HarperCollins, 384 pp., $29.95

READERS, UNLIKE SCHOLARS, tend to be flighty creatures, unsystematic, desultory, downright fickle. They dart from one enthusiasm to the next, sometimes with wild abandon. Taste hardly enters into it. A man who reveres Robert Frost may spend an evening, and a very happy one, with H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu"; a woman who regards Middlemarch as the supreme Victorian novel can also devour Dick Francis mysteries or Diana Gabaldon romances. Great scholars need to be focused and ordered to get their work done; great readers, by contrast, believe only in whim, serendipity, the passing mood.

Bookman Nicholas Basbanes lies somewhere between these two poles. In the past dozen years or so he's published four hefty volumes--hundreds and hundreds of pages--about libraries, collectors, and literary scholarship. In particular, he's chronicled, or rather celebrated, every sort of print-maddened obsessive. Largely made up of profiles, Basbanes's work reflects the brisk thoroughness of a conscientious reporter, as well as the enthusiasm--the "gentle madness" he has called it--of a fellow bibliophile. Flitting from subject to subject, his books are consequently somewhat scrappy in character and not always as deep as one might hope; they are, in other words, good journalism.

For most readers, this makes Basbanes's reportage (in A Splendor of Letters, Patience and Fortitude, A Gentle Madness) all the more welcome. In his pages, literary theory and arcane scholarship are presented as anecdote-driven, human-interest stories.

For example, in Every Book Its Reader, we overhear the feisty, no-nonsense Matthew J. Bruccoli talk about his passion for the physical book. Anyone who's studied American literature probably knows that Bruccoli has spearheaded modern research into the texts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and done important work on Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Thomas Wolfe, John O'Hara, and a good many other eminences of 20th-century American letters. This University of South Carolina professor has steadily edited manuscripts, written biographies, and trained textual scholars. But above all, he has spent his life as an unreconstructed bookman, tracking down every scrap from the pen of Fitzgerald that he can find, and as much by the novelist's friends and followers as he can afford.

He is quite indefatigable. Once, Basbanes tells us, Bruccoli hoped to acquire the young Fitzgerald's contributions to The St. Paul Academy Now and Then:

"There are two sets of these in the world," Bruccoli said. "St. Paul Academy has one, this is the other." How Bruccoli managed to find his set is a story unto itself. "I got hold of a Minneapolis phone book and a St. Paul phone book, and I wrote to every name that had a Fitzgerald connection, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and finally, somebody said, 'Yes, I've got one.'" A similar strategy helped him locate his copies of the college theatrical productions written by Fitzgerald, including Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! "I wrote to every surviving member of the classes of 1917, 1916, 1915, and 1914."

Bruccoli's fabulously valuable library is meant for use, not ostentation. During his interview he shows how even authorial inscriptions can be revelatory: Whenever Fitzgerald inscribed a copy of Tender is the Night, he obsessed about its relative failure in the marketplace. It was obviously something that hurt him greatly. And we know this because Bruccoli has been able to read the very writing on the endpapers. There is, in short, no substitute for the actual book itself.

The simile-mad stylist William Gass tells Basbanes that everything he publishes, whether fiction, philosophy, or essay, grows out of his 12,000-volume personal library. Harold Bloom reminds us that he still spends time every day with Shakespeare--and that his once insane reading speed has begun to slow down. Daniel Aaron, one of the founders of American Studies as a discipline, admits that the most important work he owns is his own commonplace book, the now multi-volume record of favorite passages from a lifetime of reading.