Another sampling of what some will call cultural history, others book chat, from the indefatigably bookish author (A Splendor of Letters, 2005, etc.).
This time, Basbanes considers how books have “made things happen” and their various effects on readers’—and writers’—lives. This book’s organization is a bit haphazard, as we’re offered rehashed literary facts and arguments (e.g., about the Shakespeare authorship controversy, history-making works such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, reading habits of eminent persons, Edmund Wilson’s role in creating the Library of America). Still, Basbanes’s enthusiasm is winning, and he has fresh, valuable things to say about historian Edward Gibbon’s lifelong bibliomania and the habit of annotating one’s books (perfected by Coleridge, the master of marginalia). He does provide a nifty seminar of sorts on appreciating poetry, featuring the razor-sharp minds of critics Helen Vendler and Christopher Ricks. Their observations are drawn from the interviews that are this book’s best feature. Robert Fagles, who has superbly translated both of Homer’s epics, woolgathers incisively about his craft’s perils and pleasures. Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels proves particularly eloquent on a range of topics, including the church’s suppression of “apocryphal” texts and Dan Brown’s iconoclastic bestsellers (and Basbanes adds a gently chastening contrast between American readers’ “biblical ignorance” and the thorough knowledge of the Qur’an possessed by most Muslims). Good words emerge from a lively meeting of minds with that “most ardent of bibliomaniacs,” teacher-writer-editor-collector Matthew J. Bruccoli, and the resident national intellectual Harold Bloom’s plaintive declaration, “I think I have read all the books. So now I reread all the books.”
Like-minded readers may chafe at hearing the story of Johnson and his Boswell for the zillionth time. But we won’t stop turning pages, will we?