An erudite, often lively analysis of the disappearance of texts thanks to time, weather, worms, warriors, decay, poor judgment, and the computer.
When does this author find time to read? As in his other work (Among the Gently Mad, 2002, etc.), Basbanes comprises records of his Marco Polo–esque travels, myriad quotations from his countless interviews, and a familiarity with ancient texts (and culture and history) that is at times daunting. Here, peripatetic bibliophile Basbanes examines several issues of enormous importance in BiblioLand. First, the silent thinning of collections by libraries looking for additional space and concerned with a book’s failure to circulate (or be consulted). The author is alarmed that unique and/or rare titles are disappearing in this fashion at a growing rate. Basbanes also tells the stories of some of the most famous fragments in literary history—e.g., Gilgamesh (about a third is missing) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He examines how armies have assailed libraries with particular relish (the Romans sacked Carthage, the Serbs blasted the National Library in Sarajevo in the 1990s, Iraqi looters picked clean the National Library of Iraq earlier this year). Most touching is the story of a library in Belgium, burned in WWI, rebuilt, burned again in WWII, and once again rebuilt. The author discusses the odious practice of “book-breaking” (removing pages, usually illustrations, for separate sale) and explores the nettlesome issue of multiple versions of single texts (Leaves of Grass, for instance). But most distressing is the chapter about time’s ravages. That intoxicating odor of libraries, he reminds us, is the smell of decaying paper. The last third deals with the complications of electronic storage and the controversies of e-books.
Basbanes’s profound passion never falls into pedantry: readers will emerge with new knowledge, new worries, and enormous respect.