An uneven but entertaining exploration of the world of books.
Like his bestselling A Gentle Madness (1995), Basbanes’s new tome takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the Western world’s great libraries, bookstores, and museums, with side visits to a few illustrious collectors and scholars. Little ties these darting trips together save for the nostalgic sense that there is a parallel culture far superior to our own in which books reign supreme, a bibliophilic universe populated by the likes of Callimachus, Thomas Carlyle, and Jorge Luis Borges and free of intrusions from the unwashed, unlettered masses. Filing reports along the way, Basbanes travels widely but never deeply in that parallel world. He spends time, for instance, with the Italian scholar, popular writer, and fanatical collector Umberto Eco, poking around in Eco’s 30,000-volume library while never quite getting around to asking what drives him, or other bibliomaniacs, to devote extraordinary efforts to chasing down rare first editions and incunabula. Though superficial, Basbanes’s anecdotes will bring considerable pleasure to those who value books and learning; through them, we’re treated to behind-the-curtains views of little-visited places such as the monastic library at Mount Athos, Greece, where one brother “is creating a digital archive of eleven hundred manuscripts . . . quite a turnaround for a way of life that almost did not make it to the twenty-first century,” and allowed to leaf, at least by proxy, through books over which Founding Fathers, scholars, and saints once pored. Basbanes spends a little too much time on ground already well trod by others (in particular, Nicholson Baker, who has more effectively protested barbarisms committed by libraries [Double Fold, p. 155] in the interest of making space for new acquisitions), but even there his enthusiasm for books and their makers is overwhelming.
Of much interest to readers who, like the author, nurse a passion for books, and for books about books.