Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicolas A. Basbanes


The passion to possess books has never been more widespread than it is today; indeed obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease named after it.
From the dust jacket.

The disease is called "A Gentle Madness".  People who obsessively and compulsively collect books are said to be Gently Mad, hence the inspiration for the name of my blog.

I stumbled across this book at the library looking for something else.  For fun I checked it out and enjoyed it so much that I ordered a used copy online.

The book is 533 pages long and divided into fourteen chapters.  Basbanes begins 2200 hundred years ago with the libraries of Alexandria.  He works his way through the Middle Ages and ends with book collectors of America.

His story describes two kinds of book collectors the honest and the devious.  Petrarch and Bocaccio collected and preserved thousands of books and libraries before the printing press.  They found many lost writings, such as Ciceros'.  Petrach hunted all over Europe before finding it "buried in an 'unexpected place'.  Other treasures includes Pliny the Elder's Natural History.

Petrarch was of the honest kind.  Bocaccio, author of Decameron, was less than honest.  In his zeal to rescue ancient documents, he apparently helped himself to several manuscripts from the library at Mont Cassino.  At a visit to a monastery, Boccaccio acquired significant portions of both the Annalas and History by Tacitus.

The Medicis also cultivated what they boasted as the greatest library in Florence.  

From the middle ages Basbanes works his way through to Britain and the different book collectors there and then finally to the Puritans in America who were responsible for preserving many books and cunibula.  

Don't you like that word, cunibula?  It's fun to say it fast over and over again.  It is the term for books that were printed the first fifty years after the printing press.

Benjamin Franklin accumulated a great many books that he left to an illegitimate son in England.  The son didn't want the books and it took a while for Franklin's family in America to acquire it.

Basbanes' book shows how books throughout the ages were preserved and we can thank the American millionaires for most of that.  Basbanes gives biographies of the different people who used their wealth to cultivate great libraries, buy original works  of all the writing masters of history.  The libraries of Harvard, Yale, University of Texas and many other college libraries can thank these millionaires who donated a good portion of their collections to them.

Each collector tended to have a focus.  One was bent on collecting all of Shakespeare's original manuscripts, another Lewis Carroll's still another the works of the Puritans.  Twentieth century collectors focused on genres such as original mysteries or children's books.

Even though I would never go into book collecting, it was interesting to read about the dealers and the auctions they went to, how they competed with and connived and outbid or outraced others to achieve their goals.  Many returned to Europe which seemed to be bent on liquidating their collections perhaps due to economic hardship.  

After reading the book I realized that my blog is misnamed.  The great irony of these book collectors is that they weren't interesting in reading the books, only collecting them.  I, on the other hand, am not interested in collecting books but reading them.  The only books I possess are the ones I wish to read over and over again.

This book is written in an engaging and interesting style and I thoroughly enjoyed learning why we have access to the thousands of books created throughout the annals of time.  We have a lot to thank those millionaires.

Even if they didn't read their books. 


  1. This sounds like a book that I would love.

    I enjoy unusual history and if such history relates to books even more so.

    Personally I know a lot of folks afflicted with the Gentle Madness, though most of them also love to read.

    That book also looks to be a beautiful edition.

    1. Hi Brian! It is a very enjoyable book. My edition is a former library one. I'm not sure if you can get a new edition but my older edition is in mint condition. Have a good week!

  2. Wow, Sharon, what a find! And thanks for sharing! After reading a few more reviews on Amazon, I bought it and can't wait to start reading. It sounds like it's exactly something that I'd enjoy.

    It is rather sad that the collectors were only interested in the collecting aspect. It's as if they are appreciating only 20% of what is being offered, much like eating the crust off a piece of pie and leaving the rest. I just don't get it .......

  3. Hi Cleopatra. I'm glad you bought the book. There are lots of interesting stories of the individuals who bought books. It also helps you gain a greater appreciation as to how books have been preserved through the ages.
    I agree with, I don't understand how one can only be interested in purchasing a book but not reading it. Frankly, I don't keep books I don't like. There's not enough room in my house for those. Have a great week!

  4. What an interesting find. Thanks for sharing the highlights.

    1. Hi Joseph! It is a very interesting book. Have a good day!

  5. Hi Sharon,
    I writing to tell you that Ellis Skolfield, author of "The False Prophet" passed away this past Lord's day. A brilliant and witty man, to say the least.....Hope you can read more of his work...Dan

    1. Hi Dan. Thanks for telling me. I didn't realize that he was still around. I will certainly look up his other work. Blessings!

  6. I enjoyed your review of this fascinating book. I love Basbanes' books and his enthusiasm for books and the people who collect them.

  7. Hi James! Thanks for visiting. I've been browsing your site as well. I really like the books you review as well as your comments on them. Is there a way to subscribe to your blog? I like getting e mail alerts.

  8. How on earth have I overlooked this book! Thank you for offering such a splendid enticement. I am now on the way to my library!

    1. Hi Robert! I hope your library contains this book. Any self-respecting library would. Have a great week!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.