Nicholas Basbanes and the world of bibliomania.
May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Every Book Its Reader
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.
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.