Review of a gentle Madness

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Samantha Losben


December 1, 2009

Final Essay - Book Review

The Overlapping of Bibliophiles and Preservation:

A Book Review of A Gentle Madness

Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, examines the history of bibliomania and how book collecting took a serious turn beyond just a hobby. The object of the book is to chronicle the history of bibliomania, and some of the famous cases of extreme bibliophiles. However, Basbanes also raises an interesting connection between bibliomania and preservation. While the book examines various cases of bibliomania and the bibliophiles behind them, it mostly illustrates the fine line between an ardent hobby and madness. Though, Basbanes falls short on truly conveying what bibliomania is, he does depict the connection between bibliophiles and preservation, and uses cases throughout history, particularly the 19th and 20th centuries, to prove his argument. A Gentle Madness in rich in examples and does a nice job of chronicling bibliophiles throughout history. It’s a great book for those interested in learning about the presence of bibliomania and what it does to the bibliophiles who have succumbed to this “gentle madness.”

Basbanes begins his novel with the then recent case of notorious book thief, Stephen Blumberg1. During the time that Basbanes was researching for his book, Blumberg was convicted of stealing more than 20,000 rare books and over 10,000 manuscripts from hundreds of different libraries, museums and universities across the United States and Canada, which valued at approximately $20 million2. However, the question was not whether he had stolen the items, but rather if he stole them on the account of being insane. Basbanes uses this dilemma of bibliomania being an illness as the main focus of the book. In stating the origination for the title A Gentle Madness, Basbanes writes,

I had even found a title for my work-in-progress, one based on a description once used by Benjamin Franklin Thomas to characterize his grandfather Isaiah Thomas as a person “touched early by the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania.” To provide a context for this “gentlest of infirmities,” I wanted to weave the material I had gathered into a series of related narratives. As a connecting theme, I wanted to show that however bizarre and zealous collectors have been through the ages, so much of what we know about history, literature, and culture would be lost forever if not for the passion and dedication of these driven souls.3
Not only does Basbanes explain the book’s title, he also hints at his main argument.

His underlying argument revolves around the concept that a passion for books can drive a person to become insane or mad, and how it is a “gentle” sickness because it does not physically harm the person and in turn, he or she helps preserve history. Basbanes most frequently uses words and actions of others to help express his point.

Wilmarth Lewis wrote about his obsession, […] “The loyalty of collectors draws them to each other; they are a fraternity joined by bonds stronger than their vows, the bonds of shared vanity and the ridicule of non-collectors. Collectors appear to non-collectors as selfish, rapacious, and half-mad, which is what collectors frequently are, but they may also be enlightened, generous, and benefactors of society, which is the way they like to see themselves. Mad or sane, they salvage civilization.”4
By quoting Lewis, a bibliophile, Basbanes uses his words to convey the point that though most avid book collectors come across as insane, their work or their illness, helps preserve history. Basbanes uses various sources, such as an essay from a psychiatric journal, to express that bibliomania is a mental illness. He uses the notion that bibliomania drives people to commit crimes, like in the case of Stephen Blumberg. This passion for books becomes ingrained into a person’s character. Basbanes quotes two different sources that help illustrate this point. The first is from a letter written by

Philip Dormer Stanhope—a nobleman, a famous statesman and orator in the 18th century, who is credited for being the first to use the term bibliomania. In a letter dated March 19, 1750, Stanhope writes to his son in response to learning that the son was developing a taste for rare books. “He instructed his son [to] ‘buy good books, and read them; the best books are the commonest, and the last editions are always the best {…}. Beware of Bibliomanie.’5” Stanhope encourages his son in book collecting, but warns him of taking it too far and not to succumb to “bibliomanie.” The use of this quote in A Gentle Madness shows that even in the 18th century, bibliomania was a real concern because it could take over a person’s life and drive them to madness. Another example of the dangers of this “madness,” comes from a 1943 essay written by Max Sander for professional criminologists. “With the development of bibliomania, “the friendly, warming flame of a hobby becomes a devastating, raging wildfire, a tempest of loosened and vehement passions,” the writer Max Sander wrote in a 1943 essay for professional criminologists. He characterized bibliomaniacs as people who suffer from a “pathological, irresistible mental compulsion,” an inexplicable urging “which has produced more than one crime interesting enough to be remembered6.” These examples, along with the title of the book, establish the idea that excessive book collecting can drive a person towards madness because there is no stopping point.

A Gentle Madness also addresses several other key points such as the vast range of people that identify as bibliophiles, the attitudes of these book collectors and the outcome of their collecting. The idea of a bibliophile has been around for centuries and Basbanes does a nice job of incorporating people from throughout history. However, a fair amount of the cases cited are predominately from 19th and 20th century America. Also, many of the examples cited throughout the book are of men, but Basbanes does a nice job of trying to include women bibliophiles and use their words to explain the reason for the low presence of women. Basbanes quotes Mary Hyde Eccles who stated,

The fascinating question raised by all this is why, in five centuries […], do there seem to have been so few women book collectors? The answer is obvious: a serious collector on any scale must have three advantages: considerable resources, education, and freedom. Until recently, only a handful of women have had all three, but times are changing!7

Many of the more notable women book collectors that are cited in A Gentle Madness are female nobility such as Catherine de’ Medici; King Gustavus II’s daughter Christina, who became queen of Sweden from 1644-1654; and companions of several French monarchs such as Diane de Poitiers—mistress of Henri II. Despite the fact that history tends to remember the men’s stories more prominently, Basbanes includes a fair amount of women bibliophiles throughout the book. A Gentle Madness also addresses some of the various attitudes of book collectors in terms of the legacy of the collections. “After years spent in determined pursuit, a moment arrives when the precious volumes must pass to other shelves. Some accept the parting with calm and foresight; others ignore it entirely8.” Those who have succumbed to bibliomania may not like to think of the fate of their precious collection, but it is a critical concern that all book collectors have to think about, especially those who have made their books their life and do not have anyone to pass their books to. Basbanes claims there are three main fates for many of these collections, depending on the attitudes and beliefs of the collector. The three outcomes are generally either one of the following: the collection becomes a special library or collection, is donated to a museum and placed on display, or sent to the auctioneer and sold individually. No matter the end result, Basbanes uses different cases to illustrate that despite the passion of pursuing the books, the collector must also think about the future of the collection.

The focus of A Gentle Madness is to chronicle the vast history of book collecting; however, the book also raises important issues of preservation. The main object of many of these “bibliophiles” is usually to collect for themselves. They strive to collect and maintain these rare and valuable books and manuscripts to feed their own passion. Yet, the “madness” that draws these men and women to collect in turns help preserve the items which are sought after, making sure they are not thrown into oblivion. Though these books are being kept by the individual, it is allowing these works to still exist and society as a whole can benefit from them, especially after the collector dies. Many cases help keep the books in existence, and some even go so far as to preserve and conserve the books. Basbanes cites an important example of preservation that came out of bibliomania.

When [Hubert Howe] Bancroft was writing Literary Industries in 1890, his Pacific Coast Library exceeded fifty thousand volumes, which he proudly declared to be the ‘largest collection in the world of books, maps, and manuscripts relating to a special territory, time, or subject.’ He did, however, confess one lingering anxiety. ‘I trembled for its safety through fear of fire,’ Bancroft wrote, ‘well knowing that once lost no power on earth could reproduce it.’ As a result, he moved the books from his warehouse on Market Street to a fireproof building on Valencia Street, a decision that proved farsighted.9
This act was important because the new building, which housed the books, was one of the few buildings that survived the 1905 earthquake that devastated much of San Francisco. If Bancroft had not been so concerned for his books, they would not still be in existence today. It is this point that makes A Gentle Madness relate to the principals of Conservation and Preservation. Though the preservation and conservation of these works are predominately being done based on the individual’s will, they are still protecting theses books from being forgotten or destroyed. A Gentle Madness also illustrates that not all book collecting, and its subsequent preservation, is done for the individual’s own personal use. An important example of this is the National Yiddish Book Center. The center—whose mission it is to rescue works written in the Yiddish language, and other modern Jewish books, and celebrate the culture they contain—was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, and has collected over 1.5 million print materials10. While Lansky was working on his thesis, he had received a letter from a friend telling him that a recently deceased rabbi had left over nine hundred Yiddish books, which wound up being sent to a paper shredder11. It was this incident in which the necessity of preserving Yiddish books was brought to his attention. Basbanes quotes Lansky recounting the start of his book collecting after visiting the rabbi from his home synagogue.

I walked into his office and on the floor was a fruit basket filled with a lot of old Yiddish books, and among them was the collected works of Mendele Moykher Sforim. […]. The books were going to be buried with some tattered Hebrew prayer books in a funeral service. “They were going to bury them with prayer books that were no longer usable. This is a very old Jewish tradition, that you give worn-out books that can no longer be used a proper burial. He said he didn’t know what else do with them.” So I put the fruit basket on my shoulder, and I said ‘Rabbi, if you have more books, I know dozens of people who can read them.”12

Lansky soon had hundreds of books because he feared what would happen to these unwanted books. Thus the National Yiddish Book Center was founded. From Lansky’s passion for saving these books, language, and culture, the National Yiddish Book Center was able to grow and preserve over a million works written in Yiddish. Without the passion and commitment of many bibliophiles, millions of works would have perished. Though their tendencies may seem eccentric, they have helped preserve our culture for future generations.

One criticism of the book is that it does not dive into the development of the bibliomania. Basbanes mentions that the term bibliomania is credited to 18th century statesman, Phillip Stanhope, but doesn’t explain the progression of the terminology associated with this “gentle madness.” However, Basbanes does a nice job of illustrating how the presence of book collecting has appeared throughout history. For example, Basbanes states that the idea of bibliomania has been around since ancient Greece.

With the secularization of books came the craving to possess them, a passion that by classical times was fully developed. […] For all the value they placed on moderation and restraint, ancient Greeks gathered rarities just as obsessively as collectors of today. Competition was keen, the hunt relentless, and the qualities so coveted now—good condition, scarcity, and significance—were equally prized twenty-five centuries ago. Book madness was so common, in fact, that collectors became the butt of jokes for philosophers, dramatists, and social satirists. 13
Despite the narrow scope of the book, Basbanes does incorporate many examples, which help the reader gain a sense of what bibliomania is truly about.

A Gentle Madness concludes with Raymond Epstein, a bibliophile, selling the books he had spent his life collecting. It is a fitting ending as it shows the end or rather new beginning, of one person’s bibliomania. The numerous examples that fill the six-hundred-page book demonstrates that Basbanes truly did his research. The various cases of the bibliophiles help illustrate bibliomania and give the reader a sense of what a bibliophile goes through. Though some interpret bibliomania as an illness, this “madness” helps our culture by preserving the books and materials, which are sought after. It the passion for these books that has kept them accessible for society.
Basbanes, Nicholas. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal

Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
McCrady, Ellen, Editor. “Stephen Blumberg and His Stolen Books.” Abbey Newsletter.

November 1991. Accessed online on November 29, 2009.

“Published Works.” Nicholas Basbanes Online. Accessed on November 28, 2009.

“Rescuing a Literature.” National Yiddish Book Center: Rescuing Books, Inspiring

Readers. Accessed online on November 21, 2009.

1 A Gentle Madness was originally published in 1995, when the 1991 case of Stephen Blumberg and the stolen 20,000 books would still have been in the public consciousness.

2 Ellen McCrady, ed. “Stephen Blumberg and His Stolen Books.” Abbey Newsletter.

November 1991. Access online November 29, 2009.


3 Nicholas Basbanes. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal

Passion for Books. (Henry Holt and Company: New York), 1995. 3.

4 Ibid, 23.

5 Ibid. 27

6 Ibid. 33

7 Ibid. 31

8 Ibid. 9

9 Ibid. 172

10 “Rescuing a Literature.” National Yiddish Book Center: Rescuing Books, Inspiring

Readers. Accessed Online. November 21, 2009.

11 Basbanes, A Gentle Madness. 386

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid. 59

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