Roving chronicler of book people

Roving chronicler of book people


LIVING BETWEEN THE PAGES: Basbanes.He’s visited 3000 bookstores across 53 countries — his objective: A world odyssey to explore ‘the known book world’ through bookstore visits at every stop.

Nicholas Basbanes’ profile of Eric Waschke, a bookseller obsessed with far flung bookshops, is one among several other remarkable book people and book places that turn up in a series of books which are, in the author’s own words, “a comprehensive guide to the literature, history, romance, apocrypha, folklore, and the mechanics of book collecting.”

Basbanes is often introduced as a “collector of collectors”, and he confesses that he feels a sense of possession towards all these bibliomanes he has so accurately and lovingly written about. It is from this ‘roving chronicler of book people’ that we learn there were equally great women book collectors from antiquity. Mighty women book hunters.

The Grolier Club, the world’s premium bibliophile club, devoted an entire exhibition once to honour women collectors over five centuries, from Diane de Poitiers to Amy Lowell to Frances Hooper. A modern legend in bookselling is Priscilla Juvelis, who specialises in rare and fine books in the areas of contemporary book arts and women authors. A Gentle Madness, the book that began it all (a deeply researched, lively chronicle about ‘the eternal passion for books’) sets right a common place mistake about the first use of the word bibliomania. Often attributed to either Dr John Ferriar, who published a satirical poem with the same title in 1809, or Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who popularised the word in his book, Bibliomania or Book Madness (also 1809).

Basbanes sets the record straight by noting that the first documented use of the word is from 1750, when Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, “sent a haughty letter to his illegitimate son warning him of book buying as a consuming plague.”  The first time the word crops up in fiction is, interestingly, the first story Flaubert wrote when he was 15. In the 1830s, word of a bibliomaniac Spanish monk murdering rival booksellers to acquire a rare book reached the ears of young Gustav. Flaubert shaped this into a twisty little tale about a bookseller’s homicidal quest to own the only known copy of a book to exist in the world. When Giocomo discovers at the end that there is a second copy, he goes mad, and like the actual monk, Don Vincente, is given to saying over and over again, “My copy is not unique, my copy is not unique, my copy is not unique.”

A great sport
Ah, the dark side of bibliomania. But luckily, Basbanes offers us ample instances of driven but sane bibliophiles, from antiquity to the present, that engagingly illustrates why that legendary bookman, Rosenbach, was once compelled to quip, “Next to love, book collecting is the greatest sport.”

Basbanes’ Patience and Fortitude, is the definitive account of contemporary collectors, booksellers and rare book institutions. My favourite chapter here is his fascinating portrait of Umberto Eco and his library of 30,000 volumes. In Among The Gently Mad, the last in the book collecting trilogy, he offers perspectives and strategies for the 21st century book hunter. The newest manifestation of his ‘gentle madness’ is Editions and Impressions (available in a limited edition and a deluxe edition from ‘Fine Books Press’; both editions are signed), short, entertaining journalistic pieces gathered from 20 years on the book beat as a reporter.

Ties that bind
At the end of a sensational book auction he’s asked on a television show why he thinks someone would pay six and half million dollars for a Shakespeare folio or $ 941,000 for an original of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and he offers one of the best answers I’ve heard for why certain first editions are precious: Blake, as you know, points out Basbanes to the audience, not only wrote the poems but printed them, engraved them and bound them himself — the collector who just bought Songs is handling a copy that the poet once held. Imagine, says Basbanes, the interaction between the owner and such a book on a daily basis — the privilege and pleasure of communing with such a copy every day.
He gives an exciting account of his first time as a high end bidder at a Sotheby auction.
He would be bidding, that day, for a book dealer acquaintance who couldn’t attend the auction herself (in an endnote he reveals who it was: None other than Priscilla Juvelis!) and had permission to play around with — if it came to that — half a million dollars.

He would be locking horns with “such stalwarts as Quaritch of London, Pierre Beres of Paris, Heritage Book Shop of Los Angeles, and H P Kraus of New York.”

With a prominent paddle ready, Basbanes, on most lots, shrewdly enters the contest only when it has reached a higher bid of $25,000. And is surprised, each time, to find himself folding very early because the closing bids on most lots were as unimaginably high as $100,000 to $125, 000. What books would command such prices? Not really books, as it turns out, but illuminated manuscripts, aquatints, and woodcuts.

An item that Basbanes captures (for $28,000) is an illuminated Book of Hours in really fine vellum. His total expenditure for the day comes to $59,625. “This wasn’t my money,” the author observes wryly, “but I have to admit, it was a kick.” The Schiff Library — from where these lots came — was thought to bring in 1.4 million, notes Basbanes. But it finally went for a total of $2 million; “evidence that while prices in the paintings market have gone into a tailspin, rare books have held their own.”

A few days later into the week, he attends a small, local auction, bidding with his own money. And gets very lucky. One item being auctioned here was something titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A quick look earlier had told our bookman this was something very scarce and a genuine find. It was, though no one else except Basbanes realised it, a collection of stories by Washington Irving, the father of American literature. Crayon had been one of Irving’s pseudonyms.

The Sketch Book actually contained the first ever hardback appearance of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. An item worth thousands; our bookman snaps it up for a cool $20.

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