A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
By Nicholas Basbanes
Paper back: ISBN: 0-06-008287-9 Price: $29.99
The arrival of the last volume in Nicholas Basbanes’ trilogy of books about books is cause for celebration. Basbanes’ trilogy is actually a quartet: in addition to A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude, he also wrote Among the Gently Mad, a kind of foreword to the series, even though it arrived third in the chronology. This book quartet serves three purposes. It is a concise history and survey of book culture. It’s a current snapshot of the state of books, and the people who love and work with them. And it offers insights from the world’s leading authorities on trends, past and present, in the book world.
Mr. Basbanes combines a scholar’s research with a reporter’s crisp style and skills for investigation, interview and observation. No new ground is broken in these works, but an amazing amount of existing ground is covered, gathered and presented in a coherent fashion. This is good reportage, encompassing the known biblio-universe, and it makes engaging reading for anyone with even a passing interest in books.
The first half of Splendor covers how written records (in stone inscriptions, papyrus and silk scrolls, codexes, paper and books) contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the past. If these records hadn’t been preserved, our knowledge of history, and of ourselves, would be riddled with gaps. Despots and madmen have sought to create such lacunae, to bias posterity and alter the future in their favor, by annihilating whole stratums of written records. Even stone inscriptions and steles, which seem imperishable, can be censored and expurgated from the historical record just like a book printed on paper.
Basbanes recounts the history of biblioclasms, and no culture or age is exempt: Rome annihilated Carthage and its culture; China, where paper was invented, saw successive emperors burn records of their predecessor; in Mexico, Spanish conquistadores destroyed Mayan codices to eliminate the indigenous “pagan” religion. The comparatively civilized 20th century is a nightmare alley of book destruction: World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, the totalitarian purges in Soviet Russia and China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Balkan civil wars, all resulted in widespread destruction of books. Resisting such onslaughts are people like the members of the Oneg Shabbos, a group of scholars and ordinary citizens interred in the Warsaw Ghetto, that created a secret archive of books, documents and artifacts that would survive their extermination at the hands of the Nazis. They imbue the word conservator with gravity and heroism.
In the latter part of the book, Basbanes surveys contemporary issues, including the impact of digital technology on scholarship, the durability of computers and digital media and the costs and problems of preserving printed material. He offers an update on Nicholson Baker’s enduring ire at library deaccessions and his progress in saving old American newspapers (which Baker chronicled in his controversial book Double Fold). Nobody yet has developed an adequate solution to the triple-headed library hydra: lack of money, lack of storage space and cross-purposes (to be an archive or to provide access to information?). These are just a few questions inspired by Splendor, which should have collectors, librarians, authors and lovers of books debating the crucial issues we’re facing at the dawn of the 21st century.
Pasco Gasbarro is a librarian, information architect, writer and book collector. He lives in Boston with his wife Jean and works at Houghton Mifflin Company. He regularly reviews books for OP.