Robert Cotner

Patience & Fortitude – A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. Nicholas A. Basbanes. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. 600 pages. $35.


rom almost the first page, one gets the sense that Nicholas Basbanes has done for books in Patience & Fortitude what Kenneth Clark did for Western Civilization in 1969, with the publication of his monumental work, Civilisation.

By any measure — his interviews, his travels to sites around the world, his comprehensive scholarship, or his inspired writing — Basbanes has given us a full history of the book, its importance, its collection, and its future. Taking his title from the names of the two lions standing at the entrance to the New York Public Library, he makes the theme of this “book on books,” the “transmission and preservation of knowledge, sweeping changes in the way information is amassed and stored, and above all, an abiding reverence for reading and the printed word.”

Marvelously structured, the book begins and ends with Alexandria, Egypt. It begins with the “Overture,” the history of the greatest of early libraries and the devotion that inspired people to create, preserve, and cherish the book during the Classical and early Christian eras. We discover immediately that Basbanes’ book was created from first-hand visits to all the sites about which he writes. He takes us on a personal tour of the site where the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, founded “on the daring assumption that all of human knowledge could be gathered in one place, creating what in essence was the world’s first university with its own college of scholars.”

He then takes us up the steep and rugged hill, “on a narrow promontory in the Aegean Sea known as Mount Athos,” where the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi stands remote and ancient. Its bookish treasures are kept “in a library that has remained intact since 1141.” He then takes us to Italy and “its dazzling assortment of book repositories vital in any grand tour of literary landmarks.” Master storyteller that he is, Basbanes acquaints us with the Renaissance as we’ve never before been acquainted.

This overture prepares us for the rest of his book, which details people and places of the book in more recent times. He revisits the theme of his earlier book, A Gentle Madness, introducing us to people of our age whose passion for books distinguishes them as collectors, scholars, and bibliophiles. We meet Jay Fliegelmann of California, Carol Fitzgerald of Florida, Rolland Comstock of Missouri, and, among others, our own Abel Berland, whose collection of Renaissance books, incunabula, and manuscripts to Basbanes is “breathtaking,” an “enduring literary treasure.”

Basbanes is treated, as many Caxtonians have been, to the thoughtful, loving tour of the Berland library, beginning with “some things from the fifteenth century,” to Berland’s “dearest friends,” the Four Folios of the Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of William Shakespeare, to his exquisite copies of Milton, Blake, and Bunyan. Importantly, Basbanes captures the intimacy between Berland and his books, understanding that he came to collecting because he loved the people who created the masterpieces and continues in his pursuit of their intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual legacies throughout his own .life. “The most important thing I can say to you about these books,” Berland tells Basbanes, “is that I never take them for granted. I am nothing more than their temporary keeper. It is my privilege to visit with them every day, and to be in their company.”

Basbanes next takes us to some of the great bookstores of the world, and we meet the men and women who make a living buying and selling books. We meet, for example, booksellers in London and Paris, in Switzerland, and the Netherlands. And he gives us an insightful view of American booksellers, including William Reese, John Fleming, Lucien Goldschmidt, and the “scholar-booksellers,” Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern.

No review, I fear, will capture the thoroughness of Basbanes’ study of books. He knows and uses well the literature; he makes it a point to meet and interview the people – more than 130 individuals were interviewed, most in person, around the world.

In the final section of the book, we visit with him the great modern libraries, some created by that Scottish-born industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who constructed “1,689 libraries in 1,419 communities throughout the United States between 1893 and 1919.”

Basbanes shares with us a complete and thoroughly balanced view of the San Francisco Public Library, where controversy has swirled in recent years over the future of libraries in the electronic age. The library must never become simply an “entertainment mall,” he is told by California state Librarian Kevin Starr.

Whatever is done in and through libraries must be done “in a library way, with books, manuscripts, and archives attached,” Starr reminds him. Every librarian and every library board member should read this book, for Basbanes has, perhaps, the most comprehensive view of books and the book-culture of anyone writing today.

As in the earlier years, Basbanes reminds us, the “finest colleges and universities continue be judged by the strength of the libraries and the depth of their research collections. In that regard, he cites the acquisition in 1891 of the Berlin Collection by William Rainey Harper, founding president of the University of Chicago. Quoting a monograph by the late Robert Rosenthal, longtime Caxtonian, he reports, “The combination of great treasures and row upon row of standard texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries placed the University Library in the noble company of the great seats of European learning” overnight.

Basbanes finally takes us to the greatest libraries of our day, including the largest university libraries of America, as well as the Library of Congress and the National Libraries of England and France. He touches on a crucial issue for our time. This related to the hiring of poet Archibald MacLeish as the first Librarian of Congress in 1939, by President Franklin Roosevelt. The American Library Association “urged the president to consider an appointee of their choosing.” Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was consulted by the president, argued that education was more important than training — he can be trained on the job, Frankfurter said.

Frankfurter then wrote what may be the best explanation of the current dreadful circumstances of death and destruction in New York City and Washington: “To many men and many governments the life of the human mind is a danger to be feared more than any other danger, and the Word which cannot be purchased, cannot be falsified, and cannot be killed is the enemy most hunted for and hated.”

In the “Epilogue,” Basbanes returns to Alexandria, Egypt, “near the hallowed grounds of the great repository from antiquity.” Here the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is being rebuilt. Mohsen Zahran, project director for the new international library, told Basbanes, “It is that fine curve that is represented in the design of the library, and in its mission. What gives the design a sense of timelessness is its emphasis on the circle. As long as there is the sun, as long as there is the earth, this symbol of the human will to prosper from intellectual inquiry will remain fresh and alive.” This is a fitting tribute for all libraries, everywhere.

No book does for civilization, for humanity, and for learning what Patience & Fortitude does, in cataloging the necessary patience and fortitude it takes individuals and societies to build over the years the sustaining repositories of learning — whether public or private — that characterize the greatest achievements of Western Civilization. This book is not just superb — it is, as I have said, monumental! v

Nicholas Basbanes

Nicholas Basbanes

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