Nicholas Basbanes has built a solid professional life around a passionate dedication to books—those who write them, read them, collect them, look after them and treasure them. And after a rocky start—losing several editors in the course of seeing his debut book into publication—he has now parlayed his passion into five books about books in 10 years.
The latest, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, due next month from HarperCollins, is a paean to the impact of books on history and on the people, very often dedicated readers, who help make it; it also includes extended interviews with a range of omnivorous readers, critics and philosophers who have based illustrious careers on their intake, including Harold Bloom (said to be able to read, and digest, at the rate of 15 pages a minute), David McCullough, Helen Vendler, Robert Coles, Matthew Bruccoli, Perri Klass, Elaine Pagels and Daniel Aaron.
Basbanes is hardly anyone's vision of a bookish soul; he's a compact whirlwind of a man who talks rapidly and eloquently, gestures energetically and has polished his specialty to a fare-thee-well. These days he spends a great deal of time flying around the country lecturing and appearing on panels about book collecting and its associated traumas and addictions. (Within a few days of his PWinterview, he was making appearances in places as far-flung as Hawaii, Miami and Saskatchewan.) He thinks of himself as a book journalist. "I nurture my sources," he says proudly. "Any book story that comes along, I'll know about it." As an example, he cites a hugely rich collector known to be on the lookout for one of the handful of Gutenberg Bibles in the world. "I know where he could get one," he says darkly, though adding that he would never seek to profit from such knowledge as an intermediary.
He is, however, seeking to make a more profitable life out of his peripatetic lecturing (he's been told, he says, that his fees have often been set too low), and now that Harper has hired a lecture agent to handle some of its authors, he expects to elevate his take. He will, however, continue to do a quantity of public speaking pro bono. "I talk a lot at libraries, and they just can't afford the fees."
Such a career began (as did many of those enumerated in his new book) with an avid childhood love of reading. He had always wanted to be a writer, took an English major in college and earned his first paychecks from editorial summer jobs. After a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War he returned to his native Massachusetts and joined the evening edition of the Worcester Telegramas a reporter. When the paper's veteran Sunday books editor Ivan Sandrof (who helped launch the National Book Critics Circle) retired in 1978, Basbanes beat out 100 other applicants for the job. "There were hardly any full-time book editors, and it seemed like the perfect place for me." Basbanes stayed in that spot for 17 years, continues to write a book column for the paper and syndicates it himself to a number of other papers. He also syndicates his own book reviews, and with his wife, Constance, does a monthly syndicated column on children's books.
His birth as a published book author did not come until he was 52, though he has been making up for lost time ever since. That book, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books,grew out of a magazine piece Basbanes had written about the history of Boston book collecting. As always, the author read it aloud to Constance, and they decided it could be expanded into a book about bibliomania through the ages. Agent Glen Hartley quickly sold the notion to Becky Saletan and Marty Asher at Random, then when Saletan left, Joe Fox took it over. The book, eight years in the making, was actually in production when Fox, who had been line-editing it, suddenly withdrew Random's support without adequate explanation (it happened during the same week of turmoil in which Joni Evans's operation was abruptly closed down) and it was on the loose once more. "It was one of the most painful moments of my life," says Basbanes. As the book made the rounds again, "Everyone loved it, but they all asked 'What's wrong with it, that Random let it go?' " After 15 months, Allen Peacock, then at Holt, took a chance with a small advance ($15,000) and a small first printing of 5,800 copies. Basbanes recalls, "They did a fine job with it; it sold out its first printing in three days, got a nomination as an NBCC finalist and a New York Times Notable, and eventually went on to sell nearly 60,000 copies in hardcover and many more as an Owl paperback." Basbanes, as an avid collector himself, is pleased to note that a first edition of the hefty book now fetches over $100.
But Basbanes's career at Holt was not to last. After Peacock quit, Ray Roberts took him over and was then fired; a brief period with Jack Macrae was followed by a move to Paul McCarthy at Harper. His firing took Basbanes to veteran Hugh Van Dusen, with whom he has been happily housed ever since. His next four books have all grown out of his ever-expanding knowledge of book collectors and the broader world of books. "I'm always looking for great stories; with enough of them you can write about anything and get people to read you." Among many such stories, he likes to pick out his detailing of the remarkable saga of Stephen Blumberg, jailed for stealing 20,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts, valued at $20 million, from dozens of universities and libraries; and the struggles between wealthy Los Angeles collector Lloyd Cotsen and Princeton University over his efforts to donate to it a vast and unwieldy library of children's books.
Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Centurywas a spin-off from his first book, put together in nine weeks to satisfy his Holt contract so he could move on. Next, at Harper, came Patience and Fortitude(named for the two lions that guard the New York Public Library), a study of how librarians and collectors have through history set about guarding and housing their precious legacies. His fourth book, A Splendor of Letters, was a major expansion of what was originally a section of Patience, examining how books are preserved for posterity and sometimes lost to it; it was published under a separate contract. Now, in Every Book Its Reader,Basbanes feels he has done his best work since A Gentle Madness. It offered him a welcome opportunity, researching and writing at the same time, to use all his material (for Madness,he made lots of interview tapes he never even listened to).
Basbanes has always been a keen interviewer, talking to hundreds of authors in his years at the newspaper; and in fact it was his interviews that first got him hooked on book collecting (his own collection has grown to about 35,000 books). He would always ask his subjects to inscribe their books, soon realized this would be more effective if their signatures were in first or early editions, and so began to haunt rare book dealers to buy them. This came to fruition (another "great story") when he offered Joseph Heller a valuable first edition of Catch-22to sign and the author admitted ruefully he didn't even own one himself.
He is a briskly efficient worker, who is often looking at daily deadlines whenever he is not on the lecture circuit; "I require a net of 1,000 publishable words a day." His next effort is not for Harper, but is a book commissioned by Yale University Press director John Donatich: a centennial history of the Press, due a year from now (which Basbanes, working busily away, regards as much too lenient a deadline). As usual, he has found some "great stories"—the saga behind the press's publication of Eugene O'Neill's magisterial Long Day's Journey into Night; the founding and growth of the Yale Younger Poets series. Basbanes has a temporary office at the press, has been given a graduate student to assist him, and is going great guns.
"I'm certain it will do better than they expect. That's what I told them at Holt, too. I have a readership—people fascinated with book culture—and there are far more of them than publishers imagine."