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A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World

Nicholas A. Basbanes, Author
Nicholas A. Basbanes, Author . HarperCollins $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-008287-1
Reviewed on: 09/15/2003
Release date: 12/01/2003
Paperback - 464 pages - 978-0-06-058080-3
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The final volume in an acclaimed trilogy for bibliophiles (after A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude) focuses on efforts to preserve books and other printed matter from the ravages of deterioration, destruction and obsolescence. The historical range here is expansive, encompassing texts by classical authors known today only through secondhand descriptions, William Blake's self-published illustrated volumes and used book sales at modern libraries. Even the most ancillary data have the power to fascinate: who knew, for example, that the Roman emperor Claudius was also probably the last scholar fluent in the language of the ancient Etruscans? But the research skills Basbanes displays are matched by the lively quality of his interviews, like an extended conversation with a Sarajevo librarian who saved thousands of Croatian volumes from the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign. Other chapters, which describe how American libraries are regularly pruned of old books by less violent means, owe a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, with minor updates to recap new trends in preservation. A final section elaborates on the potential threat of the e-book, but remains optimistic that love of the physical act of reading will enable the printed page to prevail. Even those who find the evidence unconvincing should find themselves compelled by story after story on the salvation of books. Basbanes's longtime fans will rejoice at more of the same, while new readers will no doubt be swiftly caught up in the book-loving spirit. (Nov. 28)

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