A Gentle Madness
By Nicholas A. Basbanes (1995)
A perfect primer for those unfamiliar with the “gentle madness” that is bibliomania, this meticulous history also offers plenty to enthrall the most knowledgeable of collectors. Nicholas Basbanes takes us from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, when the first libraries were being formed (and competition for books trumped integrity), to New York in 1992, when what shocked wasn’t the means of snagging books but the price. (A limited edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” sold at auction for $55,000.) Bibliomania has gripped statesmen—Thomas Jefferson’s collection was the foundation of the Library of Congress—as well as thieves, forgers and pranksters, whose dark deeds add spice to “A Gentle Madness.” As Basbanes makes clear, bibliomaniacs are preservers of our history, and here he honors their efforts.
Books: A Memoir
By Larry McMurtry (2008)
Larry McMurtry, the author of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show,” grew up in a virtually bookless home. His first encounter with storytelling was listening to the adults in his family gossip on their Texas porch. This was probably to his advantage—certainly to ours: his ear for the seductive rhythm and pace of aural tradition graces this memoir of 50 years of hunting, buying and selling books. While maintaining a substantial used-book business in Archer, Texas, he also added to his own collection—about 28,000 volumes at last report. How he built both is a captivating story populated by legendary bookmen, enterprising scouts and endearing eccentrics. What makes McMurtry different from other book collectors is that his love of acquiring books is matched, maybe even surpassed, by his love of actually reading them.
A Passion for Books
Edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan (1999)
The essays, cartoons, lists, poems, stories and quotations in this volume cover just about everything we do with books, to books, and for books. At one extreme, there’s murder: “Bibliomania,” by Gustave Flaubert, the one work of fiction in this collection, is based on the true story of a 19th-century Spanish monk who literally killed for books. Then there’s just the spirit-killing: A list of the “Ten Best-Selling Books Rejected by Publishers Twenty or More Times.” (James Joyce’s “Dubliners” is at the top.) One of the finest essays here is Clifton Fadiman’s “Pillow Books,” in which he discusses the types of books people read at bedtime—those for staying awake and those for their soporific effects. But Fadiman, who died in 1999 at age 95, held with “neither the Benzedrine nor Seconal school”; he read Trollope simply for pleasure.
By Edwin Wolf II, with John F. Fleming (1960)
For decades, A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952) bought most of the important rare books and manuscripts offered at auction in England and America and later sold them for more money than anyone expected. Called a “baby bibliomaniac” as a child, he acquired his first book at auction, the fable “Reynard the Fox,” at age 11. He went on to become a serious student of literature. To follow the course of his life is to understand a critical time of evolution in the rare-book world, when values skyrocketed, the super-wealthy built grand collections, and then the more fortunate institutions became their beneficiaries. In this biography of Rosenbach, Edwin Wolf describes him as “an apple-cheeked, fun-loving, scholarly, bawdy, ungrammatical, tale-spinning, elephant-memoried, supersalesman of great books.” He knew how to “make a sale look like a favor” and collected wealthy clients like first editions. Tales about Rosenbach are a mix of fact and fiction, yet Wolf is careful to separate the two, leaving plenty of rollicking good—and true—stories, including how he received limericks from James Joyce, dined with President Coolidge and sold rare French erotica to Alfred Kinsey.
By Rick Gekoski (2004)
‘I first saw them at a friend’s, and it was love at first sight.” So begins this history of 20 collectible modern first editions by rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski. He was just 24 when he laid eyes on the object of his affection: a set of Charles Dickens works, bound in brown cloth. It was his gateway drug, and before long he had turned to dealing. In this engrossing mix of history, literary criticism and gossip, he describes how James Joyce expressed surprise when reviewers didn’t find “Ulysses” funny, and how Graham Greene, while drinking vodka in a hotel room with Gekoski, proclaimed that Henry James was funny. Gekoski is blessed with considerable wit and charm, which no doubt helped him capture plenty of fine books.
Ms. Bartlett is the author of “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.”
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