A New Edition of A Gentle Madness
Catching up with Nick Basbanes By Rebecca Rego Barry Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of this magazine.
Fine Books Press has just published a newly updated edition of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. Ask any book collector about his favorite classic of collecting, and this book, written by Nick Basbanes and first published in 1995, will be undoubtedly at the top of the list. I asked Nick about the book, how it affected his career, and what he’s currently working on.
RRB: How did you first hit upon the idea of writing about book collectors? Were/are you a collector?
NB: I wrote a freelance piece in 1988 for Bostonia magazine, the general premise of which was 1,200 years of collecting in Boston—350 years at Harvard, 200 at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 175 or so at the Boston Athenæum, a hundred at the BPL, just under 200 at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, a few other places—I did the math and that’s what it came out to, and it was a very favorably received, since in each instance the story of the individual collections was the story of a particularly obsessed person who had put it together. Thomas Prince, Jeremy Belknap, Isaiah Thomas—it was the quotation about Thomas by a grandson that gave me the idea for the title—really fun stuff, and the stories were out there, waiting to be mined. Once I got started, there was a natural progression, from the historical stories to the contemporary ones. The person who came up with the idea to expand on the concept and do a book was my wife Connie. I was indeed a collector at the time, so I had knowledge of the subject. My day job back then was literary editor for the Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette. I’ve written a bit about this in the introductions to Editions & Impressions and About the Author. In fact that first story I wrote for Bostonia is included in E&I.
RRB: How did this book change your life?
NB: Oh, remarkably, since it represented an entirely new career for me, one I dare say has been infinitely more satisfying and rewarding than anything I could ever have possibly imagined. I had always been a journalist, of course, but this was really an amping up of my game, no disrespect intended to my prior career, but since my driving ambition in life had always been to be a published author, it was sort of like going from triple-A Pawtucket to Fenway Park in a heartbeat. It helps too, of course, that I truly love what I do, and that there is no shortage of good material out there to keep me fully engaged with the task at hand.
RRB: Did you think it odd at the time that a book about book collecting would be so widely and well received?
NB: I certainly never thought it odd, but that was the perception in New York when I was trying to sell the idea. I’m fairly old school when it comes to this sort of thing. I feel that if the stories are good, and if you tell them well, then people are likely to respond favorably. I knew the stories I was turning up were fabulous, and I was confident in my ability to share them. What I mean to say to this is yes, it is a book about book collecting, but more to the point, it is a book about book collectors and their distinctive obsession. It helped in this regard, too, that I had a killer of a title; I had to have been inspired, I must say, when I came up with A Gentle Madness. And the dust jacket illustration—Albrecht Dürer’s Book Fool from Das Narrenschiff—was nothing less than magical.