Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture

Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture

by Nicholas A. Basbanes

In 1995 Nicholas Basbanes introduced a resonant phrase to describe the obsessive passion people have had over the past twenty-five hundred years to possess books, a condition more commonly known as bibliomania, one he christened in his book A Gentle Madness. Reviewing the work in the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda


In 1995 Nicholas Basbanes introduced a resonant phrase to describe the obsessive passion people have had over the past twenty-five hundred years to possess books, a condition more commonly known as bibliomania, one he christened in his book A Gentle Madness. Reviewing the work in the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda judged it to be a gallery of wonderful characters, "each more appealing than the last."

Now, in Patience & Fortitude, Basbanes continues his discursive adventures among the gently mad, expanding his focus to probe the more comprehensive concept of book culture. Visiting many key "book places" around the world, he talks with a striking variety of kindred spirits, each one a living testament to the unending relevance of these essential artifacts in our lives.

Drawing its title from the unofficial names of the marble lions that guard the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Patience & Fortitude explores the changing form of the book over the centuries and describes the nature of the institutions that have evolved to contain them, including academic, public, private, and national repositories.

Using the same narrative technique that made A Gentle Madness a national bestseller, Basbanes employs a lively balance of scholarly research with investigative journalism to document many pertinent book stories that have not been told before, and offers unprecedented depth to others that have barely scratched the surface. Picking up seamlessly where its predecessor left off, Patience & Fortitude profiles the experiences and thoughts of all kinds of dedicated "book people," be they librarians, readers, writers, bookmakers, booksellers, preservationists, or collectors.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A sequel of sorts to Basbanes's earlier A Gentle Madness (on the manic nature of bookselling and book-collecting), this copious volume takes its title from the formidable lions guarding the entrance to the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. Opening with the great libraries of the past, from Alexandria to Pergamum and Glastonbury, Basbanes, former literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram, segues into such venerable active libraries as those at the Vatican, Wolfenbottel and the universities of Durham, Leiden and Oxford. He visits with shrewd, sometimes eccentric book dealers who happily recount tales of bygone bibliophiles, and illustrates a variety of collections, from illuminated medieval manuscripts to volumes more valuable for who owned them than for binding or content. "I absolutely insist on keeping the same crummy look," a bookshop owner tells him proudly. "Every time I make the place too neat, business goes down." But a pathos pervades the book, for despite the huge increase in readers and book buyers, one dealer observes "a radical dismantling of high culture well under way" since the 1930s. The collector in 1939 who bought a rare book about Native American languages "by selling bottles of his own blood" has no latter-day parallel. Basbanes closes with tales of crusty benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, and interviews with librarians faced with the dilemma of too many old books that no one now wants to read. Basbanes's fund of stories will delight readers who value books for more than just a good story, have a yen for second-hand books plucked from dusty shops or look to book catalogs for suspense and excitement. 32 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.Agents, Glen Hartley and Lynn T. Chu. (Oct.) Forecast: This will undoubtedly garner much attention in the book pages, as did its predecessor, aided by a six-city author tour, a 15-city NPR campaign and print features. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In A Gentle Madness, bibliophile and longtime newspaper literary editor Basbanes explored the obsession of book collecting. Here he widens his focus to view all of book culture. He gives us his unique outlook on the great libraries and great librarians past and present, and he shares his seemingly infinite stock of stories about famous and unknown makers of books, influential booksellers, antiquarians, celebrated writers, and extraordinary readers, bibliographers, conservators, archivists, and collectors. With seemingly little underlying structure, Basbanes's remarkable stories follow one after the other until we are carried away with him on his bookish travels. Along the way, we visit the famed ancient library in Alexandria, as well as the new one now under construction there. We get intimate views of the great public libraries in New York and Boston and of various other libraries. We sit in on interviews with authors (e.g., Umberto Eco, Robert Coover), monks, and countless others. Titled after the unofficial names for the two lion statues that stand outside the New York Public Library, this book will be followed by a sequel, Life Beyond Life: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, in January 2003. Highly recommended. Paul D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An uneven but entertaining exploration of the world of books. Like his bestselling A Gentle Madness (1995), Basbanes's new tome takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the Western world's great libraries, bookstores, and museums, with side visits to a few illustrious collectors and scholars. Little ties these darting trips together save for the nostalgic sense that there is a parallel culture far superior to our own in which books reign supreme, a bibliophilic universe populated by the likes of Callimachus, Thomas Carlyle, and Jorge Luis Borges and free of intrusions from the unwashed, unlettered masses. Filing reports along the way, Basbanes travels widely but never deeply in that parallel world. He spends time, for instance, with the Italian scholar, popular writer, and fanatical collector Umberto Eco, poking around in Eco's 30,000-volume library while never quite getting around to asking what drives him, or other bibliomaniacs, to devote extraordinary efforts to chasing down rare first editions and incunabula. Though superficial, Basbanes's anecdotes will bring considerable pleasure to those who value books and learning; through them, we're treated to behind-the-curtains views of little-visited places such as the monastic library at Mount Athos, Greece, where one brother "is creating a digital archive of eleven hundred manuscripts . . . quite a turnaround for a way of life that almost did not make it to the twenty-first century," and allowed to leaf, at least by proxy, through books over which Founding Fathers, scholars, and saints once pored. Basbanes spends a little too much time on ground already well trod by others (in particular, Nicholson Baker, who has more effectively protestedbarbarisms committed by libraries [Double Fold, p. 155] in the interest of making space for new acquisitions), but even there his enthusiasm for books and their makers is overwhelming. Of much interest to readers who, like the author, nurse a passion for books, and for books about books.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Eternal Life

Almost without exception every great library, from the days of classical Athens to the Age of Reason, has been built on holy ground. The reason is plain. Of all the devices of magic by which a king maintains his sway over his subjects, the magic of the written word is the most potent.

--Raymond Irwin, The Origins of the English Library

While probing the murky bottom of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor for fragments of Queen Cleopatra's sunken palace, French divers came across an ancient stele that had been shielded from the sunlight for sixteen centuries. After making an underwater cast of the stone inscriptions with a silicone-rubber mold, archaeologists translated the hieroglyphics to mean "Eternal Life," a fitting tribute to a city that began as an idea from a book and perpetuates its legacy today through the wonder of literature.

Plutarch tells us that Alexander the Great carried his copy of the Iliad with him on his eleven-year campaign to conquer the world, and that he stored it in a richly wrought jeweled casket taken from the personal collection of King Darius III, by common consent the most exquisite trophy seized from the Persian royal treasury by the Greek forces. The story, as handed down from generation to generation, is that the blind poet Homer appeared to Alexander one night in a dream at a time when the Macedonian was considering where among his recent triumphs to build a new Greek colony. Here, in John Dryden's seventeenth-century translation of Plutarch'sLives, is the advice Alexander received from his favorite author:

An island lies, where loud the billows roar,
Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore.

Jolted awake by the vision, Alexander proceeded directly to the small island that Homer had described in the Odyssey as having a "snug harbor" with a "good landing beach where crews pull in, draw water from the dark wells, then push their vessels off for passage out," and determined straightaway that he had found exactly what he was looking for, a strategic outpost on the Mediterranean Sea through which Greek culture could pass to Africa and Asia. He then sketched out on the bare ground what he conceived as the basic layout for his glittering namesake, indicating precisely where temples, ornamental gardens, fountains, and public buildings should be erected. The architect Dinocrates, who had accompanied Alexander's army on its campaign eastward, set about creating a city of rectangular shape with broad streets intersecting at right angles and an efficient hydraulic system that would bring fresh water in from outlying areas to be stored in underground cisterns. In time the little island just offshore would be connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway called the Heptastadion, so called because it was seven stades, or furlongs, in length, creating the oval enclosure known today as the Eastern Harbor.

To guide sailors along the tricky coastline, a three-tiered lighthouse was erected on the outermost tip of the breakwater; called the Pharos in honor of the island, it cost eight hundred gold talents to build, according to Pliny the Elder. The 385-foot-tall beacon -- about 80 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor -- assisted mariners well into the fourteenth century, and was esteemed in its time as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the only ancient wonder that had a totally practical function. The lighthouse inspired such awe that likenesses were reproduced on Roman coins, and a brisk business was to be had in the sale of souvenir models to tourists, precursors to the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building replicas that are hawked about by street vendors in Paris and New York today. Examples of the popular ancient clay trinkets still turn up from time to time in various reaches of the region. The dimensions of the lighthouse are fairly well known, thanks in part to an Arab traveler, Abu el-Haggag el Andaloussi, who carefully measured them in 1166. At the summit stood the statue of a deity, thought by some to have been Poseidon, believed by others to have been Zeus. On the fa�ade was a formal inscription that is reported by Lucian of Samosata to have read, "Sostratus of Knidos, son of Dexiphanes, has dedicated this monument to the gods for the protection of sailors."

All of this bustling activity got under way in the winter of 331 B.C., when Alexander was twenty-four years old. The tempestuous monarch never saw the city he willed into being, although his mortal remains were brought there from the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis fifty years after he died at the age of thirty-two. Embalmed by skilled Egyptian and Chaldean morticians, his body was wrapped in sheets of gold leaf, immersed in honey, and placed in the heart of the royal quarter in an elaborate mausoleum known as the Brucheum, where it attracted throngs of tourists for seven hundred years.

Unlike Athens and Rome, where architectural ruins endure in glorious profusion, modern-day Alexandria offers little visible evidence of its noble heritage, and the original city exists only as a glittering memory. Whatever graceful edifice was not pillaged over the centuries was toppled by earthquakes or leveled in modern times by indifferent developers. A tidal wave that swamped the city in A.D. 365 also inflicted devastating damage, burying much of the waterfront beneath twenty feet of water. Two spectacular red-granite obelisks that had survived the tribulations intact were dismantled in the nineteenth century and sent abroad as gifts to England and the United States. Although called Cleopatra's Needles, the spires have no known connection with the famous queen; dating from 1500 B.C., they were erected at Heliopolis by King Thothmes III, and moved to Alexandria in 12 B.C. by the Romans. Centuries later, one was shipped to London in recognition of Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory over the French fleet...

Patience & Fortitude. Copyright � by Nicholas Basbanes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Nicholas A. Basbanes has worked as an award-winning investigative reporter, a literary editor, and a nationally syndicated columnist. The author of five books, he also writes a regular column for Fine Books & Collections magazine and lectures widely on book-related issues. He and his wife, Constance, live in Massachusetts.

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