With an updated version and an e-book, Nicholas Basbanes talks about why he chose to delve into a popular history of bibliomania.
A new, updated edition of Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness — that modern classic on bibliomania and book collecting — is just out from Fine Books Press. For the first time, it’s also available as an e-book. (As a $9.99 Kindle book on Amazon, it’s a steal). I spoke with Basbanes to find out what first set him off on this project of writing a popular history of bibliomania, what prompted this edition, and to learn more about his next book project, a cultural history of paper.
“My original intention for A Gentle Madness was to attempt something that hadn’t been done before, which was to look not just at the historical sweep of book collecting, but far more interesting, in my view, at the here and the now. Nobody had done a contemporary evaluation of this phenomenon before, particularly in context with an earlier history. My argument then was that this was a book about human nature and obsession, that the stories were fabulous, and that what I was doing would go well beyond book collecting.”
What was it like to work on something as monumental and groundbreaking as this?
To be perfectly honest, I became rather obsessed with the project myself; I certainly wasn’t doing it for the money, since my advance on this was truly miniscule, and all of the work was done at my own expense and at great sacrifice to my family. I was pretty pleased a couple of years ago when the Wall Street Journal named A Gentle Madness the most important book of the genre of the 20th century.
What did you have in mind for this new edition?
The idea was to make sure the book is available to a new generation of readers. Not only did I want to get a new edition of the printed book published, but just as importantly, I was also eager to have an electronic edition made available. So it was those two factors — making sure the book remains in print, since it is taught in quite a few history of the book courses, and getting an e-book out there — that carried the day. A Gentle Madness evokes a period of time — the 1980s and early 1990s — that represented something of a watershed in the history of book collecting. I tapped into that rather effectively, I believe, and the idea with this new edition was to preserve as much of that as I could.
The jacket blurb says not only new but the definitive edition. How so?
It is definitive in the sense that it is a solid, clean representation of my original intent, and that I am content to let it stand on its own now as a completed work. I don’t plan to tinker with it again; so it's as “definitive” as it’s ever going to get. The one addition that is particularly noteworthy is the new preface, which reflects on the period I wrote about, and which does bring a lot of the original stories (on book collectors, rare book librarians, antiquarian booksellers and bibliomanes) up to date but only there, in the context of the new preface.
The idea, really, was to retain as much of the original flavour of the book as I could while making it more reader-friendly. As I say in the new preface, the people who were alive when the book was first published remain alive in the new edition, even though 25 of the people I wrote about are no longer with us. I do make note of these things in the new preface — there is a roll call of sorts of the departed — but I was pretty adamant about maintaining the original integrity of the book.
You have been researching and writing a book on the history of paper for eight years now. Can you say something more about it?
I made my first research trip for what has become the paper book in 2003 — to Fabriano and Amalfi in Italy — but didn’t really get started in earnest on it until 2005. I have done a few other things too, so I can’t say I have worked on the paper book to the exclusion of everything else, but I did do a great deal of field research, and I am pleased to say that it is now in production, and that I am can say with a great deal of confidence that it will be published in July of next year by Alfred A. Knopf. The title has changed several times, but my editor prefers “On Paper,” so “On Paper” is what it will be. (I like that title too, in fact it was my first title, but I also liked “Common Bond.” I will now use “Common Bond” as the title of the first chapter.) I should point out that this is not a formal history of papermaking; that would be impossible, and has been told elsewhere by other people more qualified than I in bits and pieces though I do present in Part I (of a three-part book) a kind of selective history of the subject. I am far more interested in the cultural aspects of paper, something I don’t believe has been done before; at least not in the way I’m doing it.
Did you, perhaps, find out some interesting titbit in the process about the history of paper in India/South Asia?
I do have a very interesting segment about the Sepoy Mutiny in India of 1857; the flash point was the refusal of Hindu and Muslim troops in the employ of the British East India Company to bite open paper cartridges that had been greased with animal fat. I also spent some time in China along the Burma Road visiting hand-papermaking mills, and spent a day in Japan with a Living National Treasure papermaker. Paper began in China about 2000 years ago, so that really is where I felt the book had to begin. My model for this book, in terms of the narrative approach, is A Gentle Madness. If On Paper can do for paper what that book did for bibliomania, then I will consider it a great success.”