Nick Basbanes: He's still among us, writing!

Rober Cotner

Nicholas A. Basbanes, Among the Gently Mad, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002. 250 pages. $25.

Editor’s note: Nick Basbanes, who has spoken at Caxton dinner meetings in the past, will speak at the Newberry Library, July 12, 2003, on “A Gentle Madness: Collectors and Libraries.” This lecture is a part of the series “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes,” which recognizes the remarkable contribution to the Newberry of our own Fred Kittle’s “Kittle Collection of Doyleana.”


n his latest book, we finally meet the real Nick Basbanes. In his first, A Gentle Madness (1995), we met Nick the scholar; in his second, Patience and Fortitude (2001), we met Nick the wandering ambassador of books. In Among the Gently Mad, we meet Nick collector. While I like every dimension of the man so important to bibliophilia in our time, I think I like Nick the collector best of all.

While he shares with us his personal approach to book collecting and many, many intimate stories about the hunt, he never fails to give us sound principles by which to begin and to progress in this “gentle madness” we’re all enjoying. And his principles are sound and need to be known and remembered.

After the necessary background “book-hunting,” Basbanes tells us his purpose is “to offer a general commentary on the relevance of the exercise in a constantly changing world, spicing the narrative from time to time with a few of the views I have gathered along the way, some ‘tips from the pros,’ as it were, that might prove as interesting to the serious collector of rarities as they are instructive for the amateur just starting out.”

He then gives us “First Principles,” and first-among-first is “to know your limits, to work within a budget, and above all else to play with your head, not your heart.” I particularly like his advice given to collectors interested in beginning with contemporary fiction, poetry, history, or other genre: “I suggest getting books you will feel comfortable maturing with, and that you can build around them as you go.”

It is particularly interesting to read reference to and episodes about several Caxtonians whom Basbanes has known and respected. One of these is the late Chef Louis Swarthmary, whom Basbanes recalls saying, “You want to possess books, you want to own them, you want to hold them. Perhaps you even want to read them. But I will say that most of the books I have ever had, I know what is inside.” Basbanes remembers Caxtonian Raymond Epstein’s book auction at Swann Galleries in 1992, when a “mysterious buyer” appeared “unannounced” and, with paddle number 108, “dominated the auction from start to finish.” “People come and go,” Basbanes summarizes, “but books go on forever.”

Another Caxtonian discussed is Abel Berland, who has, without a doubt, nominated more people for membership into The Caxton Club than any other member. The third chapter of Basbanes’ book, “Going with the Flow,” gives the important history of the record-setting sale, October 8-9, 2001, by Christie’s Galleries in Rockefeller Plaza, “just two miles uptown from the still-smoldering rubble of what by then was already being called Ground Zero.” He treats the remarkable collection with due fondness, such as Mr. Berland himself felt for the Renaissance collection, which included, besides the finest example of Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, but the second, third, and fourth Folios, as well. We get details about the thinking regarding permitting the sale to go on only four weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11, and we learn the facts and figures about not only the Shakespeare items but also the remaining, remarkable items of the collection.

Faithful to Mr. Berland’s intent in the sale of his collection, Basbanes says, Abel “had decided it was time to allow a new generation of collectors the same pleasure of ownership that he had enjoyed for so many years, with some of his books representing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

Finally, and most appropriate to Basbanes’ lecturing in Chicago this month, with appropriate kindness, he discusses the development, the generous sharing, and the donation to the Newberry Library of Caxtonian C. Frederick Kittle’s collection of Doyleana, the world’s most important collection of materials by and relating to the family of Arthur Conan Doyle. Basbanes observes this splendid fact this way: “Beyond the comfort this material provides around the house comes the additional pleasure of benefaction,…giving the [Newberry Library], in an instant, a research archive of international stature.”

There are many other dimensions of book collecting — beyond the labors of Caxton Club members — which Basbanes shares with us and which ought to be a part of every collector’s intellection. We meet, for example, his mentor, the late Raymond Morin, and travel with them to auctions and books fairs. We discover with him Henry Thoreau’s copy of Gray’s Botany, used throughout Thoreau’s life in his botanical research. We look over Basbanes’ shoulder in the Library of Congress to view Lincoln’s signed copy of Kirkham’s Grammar, which was the foundation for Lincoln’s mastery of the English language and which he gave to Ann Rutledge to use before her untimely death in 1835. And what Basbanes says about the use of the computer in book searches, buying, and record-keeping is urgent for every collector to know.

This is a rich book, rich in story, in principle, and in language. Basbanes is a master with the English language, and the book is a joy, simply to read.

Dust jacket of Nick Basbanes’ latest book.

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