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BookThink's Author Profiles
Celebrating the Book
An Interview With Nicholas Basbanes

by Pamela Palmer

#42, 9 May 2005

When Nicholas Basbanes' new title comes out this fall, it will mark his fifth celebration of the book. His earlier works have all been winners and his latest promises to be the same. The publication of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books in 1995, established his credentials a bookman. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and is now in its 16th printing. Since then he's written four other successful books, each of which takes a different perspective on books and the people who buy, collect, and sell them.

Starting his publishing career as an investigative reporter, Basbanes was literary editor for the Worcester Sunday Telegram from 1978 to 1991 and started a syndicated column on books and authors before he wrote A Gentle Madness. Currently he writes a bi-monthly column for Fine Books and Collections.

BookThink: Were you sure of success when you started writing A Gentle Madness?

Basbanes: Naively I did not have any doubts about writing books when I began. I was a reporter, a journalist, and found the great book stories of our time and told them.

BookThink: Your new book is Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World. How did you decided on that topic?

Basbanes: There have been many books on the subject, to be sure, but this is my take on it. It just seemed, for me, the next logical book. There's a quote in Splendor of Letters that I have on my website, to wit:

"I am obsessed with books in every imaginable sense and nuance of the word. I am fascinated by their history and composition, by the many shapes and forms they have assumed over time. I want to know everything I can about the people who write them, make them, preserve them, sell them, covet them, collect them, fear them, ban them, destroy them, and most of all, about those who are moved, entertained, instructed, awed, and inspired by them."

BookThink: How is this book like and unlike your others?

Basbanes: After having written about the book as object--having attempted to celebrate it in every imaginable facet of its existence--I felt it was time to do something with readers, but to do it my way, which is to tell stories. Structurally, I think it comes closest to A Gentle Madness than anything I have written since, with a lot of anecdotal things from the past balanced with strong profiles of people I interviewed for this book - David McCullough, Robert Fagles, Helen Vendler, Elaine Pagels, Harold Bloom, Robert Coles, Christopher Ricks most notably among them. People I regard as some of the most brilliant "readers" alive, in other words. I also write at length about books that have "made things happen" through history (quite pointedly avoiding the suggestion that these books have "changed the world," a phrase that has become something of a cliche).

BookThink: What was your starting point?

Basbanes: I begin with the Printing and Mind of Man exhibition, held in London in 1963, arguably the greatest exhibition of books ever held, the idea being that these 440 books helped shape Western civilization in significant ways. I then have a couple of really neat chapters on interesting and important people and their libraries, Henry James, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Edward Gibbon, Coleridge, etc., also stuff on marginalia and commonplace books. But all of it, once again, driven by narrative. Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

The chapters on readers do have a pattern: nonfiction, poetry, works in translation, Robert Coles talking about his pioneering work in teaching literature to medical students, the idea being that better, more sensitive readers are better, more sensitive doctors. And there is a terrific profile of Dr. Perri Klass, the pediatrician in Boston who is president and medical director of Reach Out and Read, which makes reading a regular, systematic part of primary health care for kids aged six months to five years old (and focuses on kids from inner city areas, etc.).

BookThink: How many books ahead do you plan?

Basbanes: I have a couple planned now. I've been asked to write a centennial history of Yale University Press and have tentatively accepted. That will be my first book for a university press. I have great affection for Yale University Press and especially for their art books. I think they are the best without exception. And I have another book in mind.

Read more about Nicholas Basbanes and his books on

Brief Market Analysis

Nicholas Basbanes' books are listed at high prices on A signed first edition of A Gentle Madness published by Henry Holt and inscribed by the author tops the list. It is listed for $425 and is described as "Laid in are two ALSs from the author to the recipient of the book's inscription. Fine in fine dust jacket.... Provenance is available on request."

On, four books are listed at or above $400. Three of these are Basbanes' first book, A Gentle Madness, and the fourth is Among the Gently Mad, inscribed by the author for Bill and Hillary Clinton and "very fine with fine dust jacket." Sixteen are listed at or above $100, including at least one of each of this title except Patience and Fortitude. A Gentle Madness appears most often in the highest price ranges. With one exception, those priced at $200 or above are listed as signed/inscribed and in fine/fine or very fine/fine condition.

On eBay, recent auctions show lower prices. Top price was $25 for a signed first edition of Patience and Fortitude, followed by a copy of A Gentle Madness for $15.50.


A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. Henry Holt, 1995; paperback Owl Books, 1999.

Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. HarperCollins, 2001; subtitle varies in paperback Perennial, 2003.

Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century. Henry Holt, 2002; paperback Owl Books, 2003.

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. HarperCollins, 2003; paperback Perennial, 2004.

Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World. HarperCollins, forthcoming in late 2005.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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