A gentle madness : bibliophiles, bibliomanes, and the eternal passion for books

by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Hardcover, 1995




New York : H. Holt and Co., 1995.


The passion to possess books has never been more widespread than it is today; indeed, obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease named after it. A Gentle Madness is an adventure among the afflicted. Author Nicholas Basbanes, a dedicated bibliophile himself, begins his book 2,200 years ago in Alexandria, when a commitment was made to gather all the world's knowledge beneath one roof. In a series of lively chapters, the continuum then passes through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the twentieth century with a special emphasis on book lore and book culture in Great Britain and North America. In the second half of A Gentle Madness, Basbanes offers a gallery of revealing profiles of living collectors and presents exclusive examinations of the great contemporary stories. The book also includes the most comprehensive bibliography on book collecting compiled in more than a quarter century.… (more)

Media reviews

Washington Post Book World
Nicholas A. Basbanes has compiled a wonderful gallery of modern eccentrics, isolates, charmers and visionaries.
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Publishers Weekly
Reading this prodigiously researched, often absorbing tome, one can almost hear the cries of dozens of smaller books begging to be let out...[Basbanes'] constant theme, effectively hammered home, is that collectors, whatever their vanity or skulduggery, have been responsible for the preservation of knowledge that might otherwise have been lost.

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
Oh my God! There are people crazier than me out there!

This is one long book, about people who love books to the point of madness, and the world they've created for themselves to play in. It's a delight to go there with a cicerone as astute and witty as Basbanes.

Dozens and dozens of modern-day biblioholics are here, and squads and fleets of same from the past. All of them, without exception, sound like they would have been fascinating to know, if not always easy or pleasant. One postal worker who flourished in LA was particularly interesting...now we know how our own Mark-a-doodle-do does it, it's all here in the book!

Basbanes clearly enjoyed writing this book, and I suspect had a small case of biblioholism himself. He's just too able to present the upside of the addiction not to be a fellow "sufferer."

Yes, it's a doorstop of a thing, but it's fun and it's funny and it's inspiring (probably shouldn't have said that publicly, who knows WHAT The Divine Miss sees); and it should be yours. It's a worthwhile investment!

Thank you, Stasia, for my copy, which I will *not* be releasing in the catch-and-release program.
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LibraryThing member ElizabethChapman
What a stupendous work of research and scholarship! A Gentle Madness is a dizzyingly erudite romp through the history of books and, most of all, book collecting. There is so much ground to cover that author Basbanes makes you breathless, and occasionally frustrated, at how quickly the ages and collectors parade across the page.

The second half of the book, which focuses on collectors of our day, can drag a bit despite the breakneck pace. Basbanes has gathered so much information he is sometimes seduced into providing a bit too much detail. But these are quibbles. A Gentle Madness is a masterful overview of bibliomania in all its incarnations and will be irresistible to anyone who loves books.
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LibraryThing member csayban
Anything can be taken to the extreme, and book collecting is no exception. From rummaging through dusty bookshops to multi-million dollar auctions to outright theft of nearly priceless works, bibliomania has been the driving force of the assemblage of the greatest caches of literature in the world. Investigative reporter Nicholas Basbanes delves into both the past and the present to provide the most thorough examination of what it is to be a bibliophile.

“A strong and bitter book-sickness floods one's soul. How ignominious to be strapped to this ponderous mass of paper, print, and dead men's sentiments! ”

It is evident in A Gentle Madness that Nicholas Basbanes has a true love of books. Even so, this testament to the highest levels of book collecting – going all the way back to the days of The Great Library of Alexandria – isn’t always a flattering portrait. In fact, it is apparent that most of these collecting extremists have virtually no interest in actually reading the books that they travel the globe paying astronomical sums of money to possess. So why write a book about what at its core appears to be a rather narcissistic pursuit? Mostly because our understanding of history is built from the collections of books and papers that collectors gather up.

Basbanes does a fine job of chronicling the evolution of book collecting, especially the 19th and early 20th centuries when some of the great institutional libraries were born of the collecting efforts of the wealthiest individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. While A Gentle Madness is interesting and historically relevant, at times the stories become repetitive as the efforts to obtain the choicest works look pretty much the same. The books themselves may be different, but reading about one auction after another…well, book collecting isn’t really a spectator sport.

Probably the most disheartening facet of A Gentle Madness is finding out that most of these bibliophiles don’t have any interest in actually reading the books they spend so much effort and money collecting. One woman who amassed one of the largest collections of children’s books in America not only didn’t read them, she didn’t even like children and didn’t want anyone else to touch them. And that was the one theme that I couldn’t quite grasp as a lover of literature – why do it if not for what’s inside those beautiful books?

A Gentle Madness shines a light into the rarified air of extreme book collecting. As a documentary piece, Basbanes does a thorough job. Unfortunately, it is a world that is very difficult to relate to, especially for those of us who value the ideas inside the books more than the object itself. Still, A Gentle Madness does provide some insight into how some of the great libraries of our time were founded and how they continue to grow to this very day.
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LibraryThing member Jinjifore
Possibly the scariest thing about this book is how much I see myself in it. Well, not to the point of licking bookplates off of library books in the dead of night, but I did feel a certain pang of recognition at the remarks about being more concerned about what will happen to my books when I die than any of my other posessions.

Basbanes writes with the sensitivity of the insider who understands the passion for books, but also with the necessary objectivity of the journalist attempting to tell a factual story. It's a difficult balance to maintain, but I felt throughout the book that he managed it quite well. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves books.… (more)
LibraryThing member xenchu
A beautifully-made book, even in paperback. This is a history of the marvels and madness of book-collecting in America. It is in two parts, the first part is a history of collecting and the second part the current status of book-collecting.
I liked the book. The first part was well researched and the second part was derived from interviews with the collectors including time spent with the greatest bookthief of the twentieth century, Stephen Blumberg.
I liked the book. Its author obviously loves books and has made them his life's vocation.
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LibraryThing member Aetatis
Wonderful book detailing the eccentricities of book dealers and librarians.
LibraryThing member DaveFragments
And I am happily, blissfully and completely mad about this book. I have a first edition, too.
LibraryThing member IonaS
Unfortunately, I didn't manage to finish this whopper of a book before I had to return it to the library. But one doesn't have to read the whole book in order to feel and enjoy its absolute readability. Though please note that the five star rating I have awarded the book is not based on the reading of the complete book.

It is a book about bibliophiles and bibliomanes and in itself is a book one could become addicted to.

To my mind it would be an absolute luxury to have had the time to indulge myself in the slow relaxed perusal of this comforting, extremely enjoyable, erudite and perfectly expressed work.The author appears to have acquired detailed knowledge of book collectors and collections throughout the world and throughout world history, and we are regaled with both amusing and more sombre tales of the lives and fates of those suffering from the book collecting passion or mania.

We come to understand that bibliomania is not just a passion and luxury hobby but an illness, an addiction on a par with alcoholism, drug addiction and the gambling habit.Some have even elected to endure a dreary life of poverty and personal neglect, dying of cold and hunger in the midst of a treasure of invaluable books. Some have died and at least one has murdered in order to indulge this addiction.

What can I say? If you lead a leisurely life of relaxstion wheere you can absolutely give yourself over to your reading habits and desires, and there can't be that many of these people in these stressful days, then indulge yourself in the purchase of this book. Highly recommended for the book-lover, if you have time to read it!
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LibraryThing member TheFlamingoReads
What a wonderful book. Just the title alone made me want to read it. Since that first time I have read it 3 more times and I recommend it to everyone who shares my passion for books and reading. You'll read about some of the most voracious book collectors known who spent a lifetime and a fortune gathering books that helped to preserve the written word for generations. You'll also meet a few that resorted to thievery - despicable as that sounds, it speaks volumes (pardon the pun) about the overwhelming obsession to own that certain book or books. I can't recommend this book enough to anyone and everyone who needs to know that they are not alone in their addiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member varielle
This is a lengthy, comprehensive, well-researched litany of just about every book auction, collection, and book fiend that ever existed. Personnally, I ate it up, but unless you are equally obsessed, a reader might find it a bit dry after a while. The distribution of so many book estates, book thefts, and book fights all start to sound the same. It makes you think we are a bunch of lunatics, of course the title does imply that. However, if you are studying certain collections, particularly desired books, histories or biographies of book people, whether sellers or collectors, you will probably find it here.… (more)
LibraryThing member cookierooks
First read in 1996, I have re read this book about once a year since. I heart Basbanes and all his crazy book lovers. Reading this book made me realize there were other crazy book lovers out there, and we had a name!
LibraryThing member Mapguy314
Haven't got far into it yet. Maybe it will tell me why I love buying books when I haven't read the ones I've got.
LibraryThing member Autodafe
Heartfelt and warm. My favourite book on the subject.



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