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Gently Mad

Tiger Tale

Historically, it was through the medium of the pamphlet that a public discussion took place, and was especially evident in times of great contention—the English Civil War of the 1600s and the French Revolution being other notable examples of the practice. Opinions and positions are clearly expressed, with pointed, often heated rejoinders coming forth in quick succession. Thus it happens that there are an equal number of British imprints in the Princeton exhibition as there are American. The sense of immediacy in particular appealed to Lapidus’ collecting instinct. “A dialogue or controversy was created that made the pamphlets as engaging for the reading public then as they are for the historian and collector now,” he writes in a richly informative foreword to the catalog. “Perhaps this can be viewed as a precursor of 21st century blogging.”

‘Reunions at Princeton are taken very seriously. So Sid felt the time was right to do something really special.’

A good number of the historical figures represented in the collection—John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Baron de Montesquieu—have familiar names, but so many others are distinctively of their time, and vary widely in terms of age, gender, and social station.

Lapidus writes that he knew 50 years ago that he wanted to collect, and that after a number of fits and starts, he came gradually to understand precisely what it was that he wanted to acquire. “I became aware that a good deal of my intellectual life was being spent in the 18th century,” he points out, and significantly, the first rare book he ever purchased—in London, shortly after graduating from Princeton—was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which he told me in a recent telephone interview remains his favorite book of them all, not only because it was his first major acquisition, but also because it remains one of the most consequential.

And why has he remained primarily in the 18th century? “I’m not clear in my own mind why, but it just seemed that it was the seminal time for the development of the ideas and the unfolding of the events that interested me. So rather than writing about the period, I collected it.” Elsewhere in the catalog, he writes that because of his “wide-ranging curiosity,” he has become “one of those people who know a little about a lot, and only occasionally a lot about a little.” One of the important ways he learns about the 18th century, he adds, is by devouring the detailed descriptions he finds in booksellers’ catalogs.

An obvious question for me, since bibliomedicine is one of my specialties, was to learn whether or not he has suffered any sense of separation anxiety now that these treasures reside somewhere else. “None whatsoever,” he told me. “Nobody in my family, other than me, has acquired the collecting gene. So I have always known that these books were going to Princeton. And the response, to tell you the truth, has left me pretty much on Cloud Nine. So the books are where they belong, and where they will be used.”

As curator of the Princeton rare books collections, Stephen Ferguson, needless to say, is delighted by the acquisition. “Sid is a trained lawyer who has thought long and hard about political rights, and he’s thoroughly trained in the Anglo American traditions of law. He may have turned to investment banking, but his roots are in law. As a collector, he’s fully aware of the largeness of this story apart from his own personal interests. In that respect, he has very effectively combined the personal impulse with his professional training.” And the materials, of course, are “just wonderful,” Ferguson emphasized. “There is some overlap in our own collections, but surprisingly very little. And what is really exciting is that this is just the harbinger of many great things to come.”

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.