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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In other chapters, translators like Edith Grossman (Cervantes), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Breon Mitchell (Kafka) reflect on their art. Mitchell underscores the need for each generation to retranslate great works by confessing that, given the chance, he could easily produce a second, and very different, version of The Trial. Helen Vendler remembers how she used to memorize Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, and Dylan Thomas while riding the streetcar as a schoolgirl. Despite her own influence as a critic, she also points out that "in the final analysis, it is not critics who create literary canons, it is other writers who create them . . . you have to be doing something that your peers admire."

As for what a literary scholar does, Christopher Ricks explains: "I take it that the close reader's job is to help people notice things they otherwise wouldn't have noticed, and not only noticing things, but noticing relations between things that they have noticed."

As should be evident, Basbanes might have titled this assemblage of pieces about the "power of the printed word" Scholars at Work, recalling the famous "Writers at Work" feature of The Paris Review. There are interesting factoids on every page. Hitler's favorite book was Thomas Carlyle's biography of Frederick the Great (with whom the Führer obviously identified). Queen Elizabeth I set aside three hours a day for reading and knew half-a-dozen languages and translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Isaac Newton would dog-ear the corner of a page so that it pointed directly to the passage that interested him. John Quincy Adams was probably the best read of all our presidents. The wide-ranging Robert Coles decided to become a doctor because his hero, the poet William Carlos Williams, worked as a pediatrician. When Coleridge scholar Heather Jackson took up the study of the marginalia scribbled in books, she initiated a new way to understand how readers interact with what they read. And after the deaths of her child and husband, Elaine Pagels found some solace by plunging more deeply into her studies of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

Then again, perhaps another title for this book might be, slightly modifying Kierkegaard, Pages on Life's Way.

There are occasional errors: Goethe's poems may be transcendent, but they weren't set to music by Bach; "The Past Recaptured" is the last section of Proust's great novel, not an alternative English version of its title. But everyone makes mistakes, and it's hard to fault a man of such obvious goodwill and so much hard work. Appropriately, Basbanes quotes the passage from Virginia Woolf that describes and honors "the common reader" who, says Woolf,

reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole--a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter and argument.

Surely, these last--"affection, laughter and argument"--aptly characterize the work of this great contemporary celebrant of the common, and the uncommon, reader, Nicholas Basbanes.

Michael Dirda, columnist for the Washington Post Book World, is the author of two essay collections, a memoir, and the forthcoming Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.