By Nicholas A. Basbanes
A Gentle Madness is an encyclopedic (638 pages) chronicle of the history of book collecting, and its author is a recognized authority on the topic.
The first chapter, “Touching the Hand,” is a collector’s story about why he bought a particular copy of Paradise Lost. The copy belonged to the daughter who took Milton’s dictation after he went blind. The collector is quoted “…it was like the apostolic succession. I was touching the hand that touched the hand that touched the Hand.” A Gentle Madness is filled with similar tales.
After this beginning, the book is divided into two parts. The first is a history of book collecting and library formation starting with Ancient Greece and continuing up to the mid-twentieth century. The history is told in chronological order and focuses on the Western world’s great literary and book collecting centers, Greece/Egypt/Rome to Great Britain to America. Part Two is a series of stories about collectors active in the second half of the twentieth century, mostly based on interviews. An example describing a collector of Abraham Lincoln’s writings (letters, deeds, certificates, journals, etc.):
Louise Taper’s days are long and intense, but fairly easy to describe. It is Lincoln in the morning, Lincoln in the afternoon, Lincoln at night. ‘Yes, I work at it all the time,’ she acknowledged with a bright smile. ‘But I enjoy it. I love it, actually; I am driven by it.’
Basbanes leaves no stone unturned to come up with an interesting collecting tale. The chapter “The Blumberg Collection” relates how Stephen Blumberg built a 23,000 volume collection, all stolen from libraries across the country. Basbanes traveled to Nebraska to interview Blumberg and the investigating detectives, then returned a second time to attend the trial. All of the Part Two material is composed of extensive original research.
A Gentle Madness is several times longer than other “collecting experiences” books. There are thirty-nine pages of end notes, both reference and discursive. Fifty-five illustrations. The bibliography is thirty-seven pages, and includes the names, places and dates of all the author’s interviews (eight pages, Ackerman to Zinman). The Index is twenty-five pages. There’s little more to be said, or written, about book collecting. This is the whole story.
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Henry Holt, 1999.