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.