Inspired by a landmark exhibition mounted by the British Museum in 1963 to celebrate five eventful centuries of the printed word, Nicholas A. Basbanes offers a lively consideration of writings that have "made things happen" in the world, works that have both nudged the course of history and fired the imagination of countless influential people.
In his fifth work to examine a specific aspect of book culture, Basbanes also asks what we can know about such figures as John Milton, Edward Gibbon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Adams, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Henry James, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller even the notorious Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler by knowing what they have read. He shows how books that many of these people have consulted, in some cases annotated with their marginal notes, can offer tantalizing clues to the evolution of their character and the development of their thought.
Taking the concept one step further, Basbanes profiles some of the most articulate readers of our time David McCullough, Harold Bloom, Robert Fagles, Robert Coles, Helen Vendler, Elaine Pagels, Daniel Aaron, Christopher Ricks, Matthew Bruccoli, and Perri Klass among them who discuss such relevant concepts as literary canons, classic works in translation, the timelessness of poetry, the formation of sacred texts, and the power of literature to train physicians, nurture children, and rehabilitate criminal offenders.
"Basbanes has a deep and abiding passion for books a joyful addiction," Dan Smith wrote in the Toronto Star of Patience & Fortitude, characterizing his body of work as "part travelogue, part scholarship, and all story." The tradition continues with Every Book Its Reader.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Every Book Its ReaderThe Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World
By Nicholas Basbanes
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Nicholas Basbanes
All right reserved.
The Magic Door
I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lonely the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland.
-- Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door (1908)
In the early years of the twentieth century a woman named May Lamberton Becker (1873-1958) enjoyed enormous popularity for the "Readers Guide" columns she wrote for the New York Evening Post, and later the Saturday Review of Literature. "No teacher in any university, no bibliographer or encyclopedist can have helped so many in sudden need of knowledge," the eminent scholar and critic Henry Seidel Canby wrote of Becker's taste and acumen. Her stock in trade, Canby marveled, was an ability to highlight the best books in "well nigh every field of knowledge and imagination in her years of service," matching books with readers "so often with gratifying results that she may well be regarded as an institution." Canby's comments were offered as a foreword to A Reader Guide Book, a 1924 collection culled from hundreds of Becker's columns. Dedicated to "the librarians of America in gratitude for countless kindnesses," she offered her choices in general groupings that included philosophy, music, travel, religion, poetry, economics, and history, along with more discrete categories, such as "a bride's bookshelf," "teaching English to foreigners," "studying social work," "the baby's first books," and "getting over the grippe."
In its day, getting the May Lamberton Becker stamp of approval carried the same cachet for a book that a nod from the television personality Oprah Winfrey does today. Most of the titles Mrs. Becker recommended speak for their times. Each section of her guide -- and there are one hundred and eleven-is prefaced by an inquiring letter from a reader. My copy, purchased for $2 at a secondhand bookstore in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1996, bears the bookplate and the signature of a woman, Grace Kelser Willett, along with the date, 1925, written in ink on the front pastedown. Mrs. Willett had lightly marked in pencil a number of choices that piqued her interest: The Happy Traveller by the Reverend Frank Tatchell; Geography and World Power by James Fairgrieve; Our Poets of To-day by Harold Cook; West Broadway by Nina Wilcox Putnam, along with several novels of faraway places and a few anthologies of short stories. To a young man who asked for a list that would give him "something of a background equivalent to a college education," Becker replied that she could, if she wanted, "dispose of this question by saying truthfully that there are no such books. But it would not be fair." Then, ever so gently, she suggested a menu of reading material that would give her correspondent confidence, broaden his reach, and encourage him to go serendipitously in search of other titles. "To read like that is one of the high delights of being a human being, and like all high delights, there must be a certain noble recklessness about it, something quite different from 'calculating profits, so much help from so much reading.'"
My favorite piece in the collection is an essay Becker wrote about a correspondence she had with a woman she never met face-to-face, but considered a kindred spirit all the same. Rarely has the therapeutic power of reading been expressed more poignantly than by this lovely exchange. The friendship began, Becker wrote, when she returned from a month's vacation in the autumn of 1921, and "found on the top of a mountain of mail" a letter written on a single card, "packed in with the skill that comes in only one way -- literary tastes early in life combined with a paper shortage." The return address indicated a rural delivery route -- an R.F.D. -- that elicited yet another bond of sympathy from Becker. "I remember when there were none of these, and I have lived to see a secondhand Ford come climbing the hill to the door of a farmhouse that I knew when it was isolated, bringing all the world to the door with yesterday's newspaper. I watched it wheezing up the valley one calm August morning with not a notion that it was carrying the World War. So I can't even take the letters R.F.D. just as letters; they have too much meaning."
The writer, a farm woman in Pennsylvania whose frugal budget allowed her very little in the way of personal luxuries, had a simple enough request for Becker: "May I ask you to tell me of a few books that you have loved, that have made you sit up and just shout with delight? I am going to buy four new books this winter and I want four friends to stay by me, to read over and over." The woman explained that her family's horses were always needed elsewhere when she wanted to go into town, making trips to the library difficult, if not impossible; what she sought was some can't-miss recommendations for books she could acquire through a mail-order purchase. "It was when she began to give me samples to order from that I realized what books must mean to her on the farm," Becker continued, and thereupon provided a brief summary of the woman's reading, along with her sage comments on the literary fashions of the day. "Now I would not have been a human being had I not packed up four books and sent them off with a note saying that I had . . ."
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