Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World


Nicholas A. Basbanes offers a consideration of the many pressing issues that surround the role of books in contemporary society, such as the willful destruction of books and libraries in Sarajevo, Tibet, and Cambodia, and the spirited efforts to restore them. The matter of "discards" at various libraries takes on an entirely new dimension as well, with fully researched stories about the kind of attitudes that may lead to the loss of "last copies" of important works.

In vivid ...

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Nicholas A. Basbanes offers a consideration of the many pressing issues that surround the role of books in contemporary society, such as the willful destruction of books and libraries in Sarajevo, Tibet, and Cambodia, and the spirited efforts to restore them. The matter of "discards" at various libraries takes on an entirely new dimension as well, with fully researched stories about the kind of attitudes that may lead to the loss of "last copies" of important works.

In vivid detail, Basbanes examines the many materials that have been used over the centuries to record information - among them clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, slabs of stone, palm leaves, animal skins, and hammered sheets of gold and copper. Also discussed are the various debates that continue to rage about preservation, which may mean saving and storing books on paper indefinitely, or as electronic data, which are by nature ephemeral.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Throughout he enlivens his story with pen portraits of scholars, writers, conservators, librarians and myriad other book people, before ending with appropriately somber reflections on the destruction of the Baghdad library. In short, A Splendor of Letters is itself splendid and will appeal to any serious reader or book collector. — Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
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) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Book lovers will relish this third and final volume of Basbanes's "bibliophilia" trilogy, preceded by A Gentle Madness (1995) and Patience & Fortitude (2001), which explored the world of books from the perspective of those who work with them (e.g., publishers, librarians) or read them. In this volume, Basbanes discusses the new challenges the book industry is facing in an increasingly digital age and recounts some horrific events in modern history, such as the destruction of the Sarajevo University Library by Serbian nationalists. Prepare to be shocked, however, by his bold revelation that some librarians withdraw books merely because they haven't left the shelf in 50 years. Likewise, hold on to your seats as you learn that some librarians are not on intimate terms with Crispijn van de Passe's Hortus Floridus (1614). But rest reassured: experts like Basbanes, referred to as "the authority on books about books," will save us from the rough beast of ignorance by refusing to compost any book. In his "Battle of the Books," Jonathan Swift recognized that most of what sees print is more tomb than tome, but even Swift didn't anticipate an era in which every proof produces a book and every teen sets up a web page. This highly literate paean to books so juices up this reviewer that it must be strongly recommended to any one and any library intent on valuing the book as an artistic object.-Peter Dollard, Alma Coll. Lib., Mt. Pleasant, MI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An erudite, often lively analysis of the disappearance of texts thanks to time, weather, worms, warriors, decay, poor judgment, and the computer. When does this author find time to read? As in his other work (Among the Gently Mad, 2002, etc.), Basbanes comprises records of his Marco Polo—esque travels, myriad quotations from his countless interviews, and a familiarity with ancient texts (and culture and history) that is at times daunting. Here, peripatetic bibliophile Basbanes examines several issues of enormous importance in BiblioLand. First, the silent thinning of collections by libraries looking for additional space and concerned with a book’s failure to circulate (or be consulted). The author is alarmed that unique and/or rare titles are disappearing in this fashion at a growing rate. Basbanes also tells the stories of some of the most famous fragments in literary history—e.g., Gilgamesh (about a third is missing) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He examines how armies have assailed libraries with particular relish (the Romans sacked Carthage, the Serbs blasted the National Library in Sarajevo in the 1990s, Iraqi looters picked clean the National Library of Iraq earlier this year). Most touching is the story of a library in Belgium, burned in WWI, rebuilt, burned again in WWII, and once again rebuilt. The author discusses the odious practice of "book-breaking" (removing pages, usually illustrations, for separate sale) and explores the nettlesome issue of multiple versions of single texts (Leaves of Grass, for instance). But most distressing is the chapter about time’s ravages. That intoxicating odor of libraries, he reminds us, is the smell of decaying paper. The last third dealswith the complications of electronic storage and the controversies of e-books. Basbanes’s profound passion never falls into pedantry: readers will emerge with new knowledge, new worries, and enormous respect.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060082871
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/25/2003
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.41 (d)

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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Table of Contents

1 Marbles and Names 1
2 Editio Princeps 27
3 The Ozymandias Factor 59
4 Ex Libris Punicis 93
5 From the Ashes 133
6 Shelf Life 179
7 Ingenious Cipher 229
8 Into Thin Air 255
9 Make Haste Slowly 283
10 Music of the Spheres 311
Proper Passage: A Coda 363
Notes 369
Bibliography 407
Author's Interviews 423
Index 425
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First Chapter

A Splendor of Letters
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World

Chapter One

Marbles and Names

Ye who in future pass,
will see this inscription,
which I have had carved in the rock,
of the human figures there --
Efface and destroy nothing!
As long as posterity endures
preserve them intact!

Inscription Honoring
Darius I At Behistun, C. 500 B.C.

O Egypt, Egypt, of your religion only fables will survive, unbelievable to posterity, and only words will survive inscribed on stones that narrate your pious accomplishments.

From the Asclepius Tractate, C. A.D. 350,
Found Buried At Nag Hammadi in 1945

At the core of a high-stakes political speech that has survived the passage of twenty-four centuries is a caustic aside on the merits of safeguarding written testimony and the need to archive documentary material. Cleverly framed as part of a devastating attack on a detested opponent, the biting comment was delivered in 330 B.C. by Aeschines, a renowned orator active in the daily affairs of Athens, and the sworn enemy of Demosthenes, the greatest public speaker of antiquity. The two men had become bitter rivals during a protracted effort to prevent Philip II of Macedon from consolidating control over all of Greece, with each championing different strategies for containment; both approaches had failed resoundingly, and now a legal proceeding had been convened to assess the blame. At issue was whether a proclamation awarding a gold crown of glory to Demosthenes six years earlier should be rescinded on the grounds of incompetence, or allowed to stand. Aeschines knew that if he had any hopes of humbling his charismatic rival, he had to reinforce his views with facts, not heated speculation. Addressing a legal assembly of citizens known as a graphe paranomon, he built his attack around this tart observation: "A fine thing, my fellow Athenians, a fine thing is the preservation of public records. Records do not change, and they do not shift sides with traitors, but they grant to you, the people, the opportunity to know, whenever you want, which men, once bad, through some transformation now claim to be good."

To support his allegations, Aeschines asked that several documents housed in an official repository known as the Metroon -- the sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods -- be brought forth and read before the court of five hundred citizens that had gathered in a common meeting place at the base of the acropolis called the agora. In On the Crown, a brilliant rejoinder considered by classical historians to be his masterpiece, Demosthenes defended his comportment by artfully avoiding any substantive discussion of recent events, and the decree honoring his character was overwhelmingly sustained. Humiliated by this embarrassing rejection, Aeschines left Athens in disgrace and spent the remainder of his days teaching rhetoric in Rhodes, but his pithy rationale in defense of systematic record-keeping endures, and it suggests how highly documents were regarded in ancient Greece, particularly in a graphe paranomon,where a preponderance of evidence, not prevailing public sentiment, was supposed to carry the day. It is worth noting that the graphe paranomon proceeding, or a public action against an unconstitutional proposal, was introduced by Solon, the sixth-century lawmaker whose moderate precepts replaced the unforgiving code of Draco, the creator of laws so harsh they were said by Plutarch to have been written in the seventh century "not with ink, but blood." Regardless of the medium Draco used to document his pronouncements, the laws that bear his name marked the first time that Greek legislation was formalized in writing.

From a preservationist's point of view, the enduring lesson of the Aeschines-Demosthenes confrontation is that while the plaintiff 's argument in praise of archiving has been passed on to our time through the miracle of textual transmission, the actual documents extolled in his speech -- words written in their time on papyrus scrolls -- have long since disintegrated. Paradoxically, all that has been unearthed from a first-century A.D. reading room located near the agora where Aeschines argued his point so heatedly is a rule inscribed on a marble tablet that governed access to its holdings: "No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. The library is to be open from the first hour to the sixth." Like most other classical writings that survive in their original physical form, this edict endures because it was carved onto stone for display in a public place. But even then there were never any guarantees of permanence, as the Roman statesman, teacher, and occasional poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius (c. 309–392) suggested seven hundred years after the two Greeks had settled their scores in the shadow of the Parthenon. Remembered today largely for his lively correspondence and witty dedications in verse, Ausonius enjoyed poking through the shards of past cultures. In On the Name of a Certain Lucius Engraved in Marble, he considered a worn inscription marking the grave of some long-forgotten dignitary. He noted in this rumination that the deceased's forename began with the "single sign" of an L, and that it had been chiseled in front of what he believed to be an M, but which was incomplete, "for the broken top is flaked away where the stone is cracked, and the whole letter cannot be seen." So what, he wondered, was the name of this once prominent man whose identity had been buried in the dunes of time?

No one can know for certain whether a Marius, or Marcius, or Metellus lies here. With their forms mutilated, all the letters are confused, and when the characters are jumbled all their meaning is lost. Are we to wonder that man perishes? His monuments decay, and death comes even to his marbles and his names.

Further evidence of that gloomy certainty comes in The Antiquities of the Jews, a sweeping history of the world ...

A Splendor of Letters
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
. Copyright © by Nicholas Basbanes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2004

    More required reading for bibliophiles from Basbanes.

    Nicholas Basbanes remains the preeminent author of Books on Books, which is a required subject area for any serious bibliophile. In this latest work he eloquently expounds on the dangers of disregarding the importance of the written word, and in the process he captivates the reader and instills a sense of importance for books themselves. The importance of Basbanes' work cannot be stressed enough in this age of digitization and disregard.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

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