Among the Gently Mad
From the author of A Gentle Madness—a book with more than seventy thousand copies in print that delighted bibliophiles everywhere—comes a twenty-first-century guide to book collecting that deals with both the traditional methods of acquisition and the electronic tools now available on the Internet.
Reviews

Whether you’re just starting out or are already overwhelmed with stacks of books, Basbanes’ charming guide will provide food for thought. Do you understand those cardinal principles of rarity, scarcity and value? Have you done your research? Do you have a focus? Most of all, do you love what you’re doing? Basbanes is a delightful and informative companion for any booklover, and this book belongs on every bibliophile’s shelf. —Susan Larson, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Book people like to browse through book stores and to read about books almost as much as they like to read. They are fascinated by word choice, derivation and book culture in general. Here [is a book about] book collecting that will delight bibliophiles—fun to read, as well as edifying, and will prompt interesting discussions.

The enthusiastic Nicholas Basbanes has made a name for himself as a book reviewer, a book collector, rare book expert and author about the aforementioned subjects. The ‘Gently Mad” of the title is how he describes those who, like him, are bibliomanes.

Following Basbanes’ books A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude, this volume offers strategies for the book hunter from how to use the Internet to more traditional ways to unearth a desired book. Some of the aspects he discusses include how to build a book collection, how to pick an area of interest and how to spot first editions.

The author discusses some of the interesting collections he has seen and studied and offers amusing and intriguing anecdotes. The book is for all book lovers, collectors or not. —Karin Glendenning, Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press

“The idea of having a focus in book collecting has the weight of gospel, and you will get no murmur from me that it is a flawed admonition. What I am trying to underscore is that a person is well advised to keep an open mind, and to always be receptive to the prospect of encountering things that are interesting, if only because they add weight to material already in your possession.”

To be a book lover is not necessarily the same thing as being a bibliophile. In Among the Gently Mad, Nicholas A. Basbanes appeals to the first category of people by writing about, and as a member of, the second.

Confused?

Bibliophile, noun: A lover of books especially for qualities of format; also: a book collector (Merriam-Webster).

That last part is important. Bibliophiles adore books as artifacts, as things to hold and see and feel, as much or more as they love the texts the books contain. Which is what leads to the collecting of books, often in quantities that boggle the uninitiated mind.

Basbanes himself, who lives in Massachusetts, has a house full of books and is working on filling up an auxiliary storage area, off-site. Every once in a while, he writes here, he grudgingly ships a few boxes off to the local library book sale, mainly as a way of placating his wife.

“The idea of perfectly sane adults “playing’ with an assortment of curiosities might sound a bit odd, but it is, in my considered view, the ultimate reward a collector can receive for a job well done,” writes Basbanes, referring in part to a collector friend who described her massive collection as something to “play” with.

“Admittedly, there is a breed of collector who hoards material indiscriminately and squirrels it away without ever giving it another thought,” he adds thoughtfully. “For this person, the incentive is the chase itself, a thrilling adventure that has its denouement with a successful acquisition, and then the hunt is on for something else.”

These collectors, in Basbanes’ view, are not quite the genuine article; he prefers to refer to them as “accumulators.” True book collecting, he writes, is actually a passion, a commitment and a high art.

In Among the Gently Mad, his third book, Basbanes goes over some territory he has trod before in two previous books about books, book-lore and book collecting called A Gentle Madness, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and, more recently, Patience & Fortitude.

But that’s not necessarily a flaw. Studded with nicely told anecdotes about avid book collectors and their collections—some famous, but many of them not—Basbanes here presents what is essentially a how-to guide and hefty dose of encouragement for people looking to dip their toes into the world of book collecting. This is by no means a serious look at what factors—psychological, financial or otherwise—make book collectors (or collectors of anything, for that matter) tick. Think of this more as a tender love letter to the pursuit itself.

Which, by the way, Basbanes takes great pains to present as a fun and intellectually stimulating hobby for just about anyone. Money doesn’t matter in book collecting, he writes—at least not all that much.

“At the other extreme,” he cautions, “let it also be said that if you become a player with an idea toward securing a substantial return on a wise investment, good for you, but you are on your own as far as I am concerned, because this isn’t about making money, it is about gratifying a passion in a sensible way. At the end of the day, if you have gone about the task prudently, you just may come out ahead, but financial advice is the purview of portfolio advisers, not bibliophiles.”

Well put, Basbanes. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be riveted by his casual tale of finding a copy of an extremely rare first book of poems by Emily Dickinson in a box of books being sold by a Worcester County woman at her yard sale. The book? Basbanes paid $10. It now sells for up to $5,000.

Among the Gently Mad comes complete with a helpful, well-annotated list of books on book collecting, including price guides and such, in the appendix section. —Charity Vogel, Buffalo News

Bibliomania is, as it sounds, a form of madness. A gentle madness, as Nicholas Basbanes explained it in his delightful 1995 book, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books. In his latest, Basbanes, a former book editor in New England, offers some wise and witty asides about book collections and book collectors aimed at both the experienced and the novice.

His tone is just right: knowledgeable but never pushy, informed but not know-it-all. He’s spent a good part of his life engaging some of the world’s great collectors—those he’s interviewed in person and others from earlier centuries he researched in books—and soliciting dealers to share insights with him. He generously invites the rest of us in to learn and profit.

And speaking of profit, don’t start collecting with the expectation of turning a quick profit. Instead, he counsels, start with what you like. And pay attention to the matter of bibliography. Knowledge not only enhances your collections, it might even also save you some money.

“If you’re going to take on a project that involves the nuances of intellectual expression, then it makes sense that you do your homework,” Basbanes writes.

Basbanes is fun to read. But he doesn’t short anyone on the practical side of things. His book is full of valuable reference information, from helpful Web sites to must-read bibliographies to notations on changing book values. And along with Allen and Patricia Ahearn’s two volumes “Book Collecting 2000” and “Collected Books: The Guide to Values,” I can’t think of a better introduction to the lure and art of collecting. —William W. Starr, The State (Columbia, SC)

Every page of this compendium contains real information. Basbanes tells you what you want and need to know after you have fallen in love with an area or a subject and have begun to think about amassing what you love. He explains clearly how to start, how to listen, how to search. He has no patience for those who buy as an investment only, and he is direct about that. He teaches questions to ask in libraries, of dealers, on the Web; he makes good distinctions between how the Web has facilitated some kinds of book buying as well as making clear what’s irreplaceable about book fairs and book dealers. Every librarian should read this book because it illuminates the passion for books from the collector’s perspective, one that parallels our own (it may even intersect it at some point). It is rich in engaging vignettes of book collecting and book collectors. It even makes the madness seem, well, logical. —Grace A. DeCandido, Booklist

Basbanes’s guide to book collecting is a more practical, but no less impassioned, complement to his earlier history of bibliophilia, A Gentle Madness. He presents useful tips illustrated with charming anecdotes about the collecting habits of everyone from Winston Churchill to Umberto Eco. To Basbanes, book collecting isn’t about making money, but “about gratifying a passion in a sensible way.” He urges collectors to buy books that they know and develop specific areas of interest to avoid “buying blind…the most frequently committed transgression in book collecting.” He insists that it is possible to acquire first-rate collections on modest budgets, and extols the virtues of select Internet sites. Particularly intriguing are Basbanes’s descriptions of the most interesting collections he has encountered. Among these are the George Arents Collection at the New York Public Library, which consists of several hundred thousand objects in 20 languages on the history, literature and lore of tobacco, as well as the Jay Miller Aviation History Collection at the Central Arkansas Library, consisting of 6,000 books on flight history and 50,000 aviation journals, along with hundreds of aircraft operation manuals. Basbanes also offers some startling figures. A first issue copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, recently went for $15,000. Though targeted primarily at prospective collectors, this lively book will appeal to any book lover, as Basbanes’s enthusiasm is infectious. Publishers Weekly