Just finished: Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book PLaces, and Book Culture by Nicholas A. Basbanes. This is the follow-up to Basbanes’s earlier book about book collecting, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books which has become something of a classic work about the phenomenon of book collecting and the lengths to which people will go to fuel their passion. In Patience and Fortitude, the focus moves from the “gentle madness” that formed the theme of the earlier volume to a more general overview of the entire culture that has evolved around the book world.
Basbanes first takes us on a tour of some of the oldest libraries in the world, some of which are still functioning in their original locations and serving the same purpose. He gives us a fine sense of what the libraries of the world used to be like, and how the lack of artifical lighting shaped the day led by the monks who worked in those libraries to create the very books that are now the core of the most valuable collections in the world. From there Basbanes gives a few more profiles of book collectors, the most notable being the Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco. The portraits of the ancient libraries and the collectors of today are fascinating; Basbanes has a gift for pictorial detail in his writing.
The best part of the book, though, comes when Basbanes delves into the “infrastructure” of the book world: booksellers and the great libraries of today. He profiles a number of prominent booksellers, many of whom have tracked down very rare volumes at the behest of private collectors and bought entire collections en bloc. In so doing, Basbanes also notes with sadness the passing of what was perhaps the Golden Age of bookselling, when the large number of active booksellers active in New York City at midcentury have dwindled down to a precious few. Admirably, Basbanes does not merely blame this phenomenon on the rise of “supergiant” stores like Borders and Barnes&Noble; in fact, to do so would be fallacious since the type of customer served by these kinds of stores are not entirely the same as those served by the legendary booksellers of the past.
The next section of the book deals with the libraries of today. Here Basbanes’s theme begins to unfold: the viability of books in a digital age, and the problems faced by libraries as they are confronted with increasing costs for materials, space considerations for storage, how to deal with materials that are seldom (or in some cases never) used, and a sadly increasing view of libraries as luxuries that are not essential to the life of a vibrant community. Most telling is the chapter on the newly-built San Francisco Public Library, opened in 1996 with insufficient room to shelve the entire collection as it existed at that point. Librarians there tell of patrons walking into the new building and asking, “Where are the books?”, and stories are circulated — and later confirmed — of truckloads of books taken quietly from the collection and put in the landfill. Issues like these are far from resolved, but Basbanes shows how a number of other facilities have attempted to avoid these pitfalls and retain their sense of cultural importance.
“Content” has become a buzzword as the World Wide Web has gained prominence; this book by Nicholas Basbanes reminds us, as his earlier volume did, that the physical artifact of the book is important in itself. Patience and Fortitude is highly recommended.
(The title refers to the unofficial names given to the two marble lions that guard the main entrance of the New York Public Library.)