marginalia || Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

This is a book-lover’s dream. Or dream dictionary, to be more technically correct about it. Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, by Nicholas A. Basbanes is always on my “Currently Reading” pile—whenever I am plagued with that terrible hiccup I’ve dubbed Bibliophilic Purgatory, I skim the pages of this book, picking out choice anecdotes, lingering over highlighted quotations and images. It’s a book crammed with information and trivia about books, writers of books, collectors of books, readers of books, lovers of books. It made me giddy. In some cases, it had me thinking, Hey, I’m doing something awesome with my life.

Let us skip hand-in-hand through the chapters of this wonderful book—those most memorable to me, of course. [That’s how much I adore it—I’ll talk about it at the risk of boring you to tears with my inane rambling! Wahoo!] [Re the details, corrections from those who have read this are always welcome! :p]

1. The Magic Door. A chapter on general book-loving. Basbanes gives us [tear-jerking] stories of bibliophiles—most of them displaying the lifelong attachment of people to books. One is about the woman who wrote to May Lamberton Becker (who penned a column called “Readers Guide” for New York Evening Post, among others), asking, “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 a four new books this winter…” Imagine stretching your budget to accommodate your love of reading—and even that having only enough for four choice ones. And then there’s the story of A. David Schwartz, owner of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, who took his time among the shelves of his stores, looking for that “good book to die with.” All of the stories are amazing.

3. Eye of the Beholder. A chapter that deals with the whole business of talking about books—on what “good” books are, what their “true value” is, on censorship. We’re given a run-through of the whole Shakespeare-Bowdler hooplah, as well as a profile of and interview with Harold Bloom [who makes many appearances in this book]. Here’s one of the quotes I went away with from this chapter (I couldn’t agree more with it):

I learned early on that when people share their reading habits with you, what they are really granting is privileged access to their deepest interests and predilections, even their dreams, needs, and anxieties. (p.47)

5. In the Margins. No doubt my favorite chapter—it gives us a concise survey of the history of marginalia among notable personalities, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the forefront [Trivia Alert! Coleridge is “credited with bringin the word ‘marginalia’ into English usage from the Latin to describe his habitual process of writing in books.” (p.91)] It’s also the chapter that has to be blamed for the fact that I now scribble on the pages of my books. Basbanes just makes it sound awesome and historic to write on one’s books, haha. Basbanes quotes Heather Jackson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has studied the phenomena of marginalia:

“One of the most intriguing qualities of marginalia, the attitude of defiance in which they are often produced,” an altogether “elusive but important quality” of the practice. (p.93)

11. The Healing Art. Among the topics found in this chapter: 1) Where we get our love of reading—one Robert Coles relates how he grew up with bibliophiles for parents, parents who taught him the love of reading, where no book was too daunting, parents who read to each other every night; and 2) How vital books are to our lives, [if we let them]. Robert Coles talks about one Walker Percy, a Southern writer, in a way that, I suppose, applies to anyone who loves books:

“Through novels he found kindred spirits, writers who could conjure up this world, help him to understand his won world, and also make him feel less lonely, because when you read, you are in the company of another person. The other person’s words and thoughts become part of yours, and connect with you, and reading is a kind of human connection. It’s an embrace of another person’s thoughts, ideas, suggestions, premises, worries, concerns—the whole list of nouns is what I think reading enables, and prompts in a person. We are the creature of language, and through language we affirm ourselves, we find out about the world, including ourselves, through words, and we share with one another through language.” (p.263)

It’s a well-researched book, yet the language is never stilted, never boring—you can take in so much information without feeling nauseated by all of it. I suppose it’s because Basbanes’ prose is easy to follow, fluid, as fascinated by the wonders of books. And I can feel how Basbanes himself is afflicted with this “gentle madness” of bibliophilia—this is not a disaffected survey of literature and the manias associated with it. Basbanes loves what he is doing—there’s no doubt about that.

So. What does it mean to love books? [Answer: It means awesome.] How does one love books? [Answer: Awesomely.] It’s a dork-out read for sure. But it’s a book that allows you to dork-out with pride. [That is a great catchphrase, if I say so myself, haha.] Darn it, but I love this book.

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17 comments

  1. J.S. Peyton · · Reply

    This book sounds awesome (lol). I have Basbabes’ “Gentle Madness” on my TBR shelf, but I have yet to read it. If it’s anywhere near as good as this sounds, I think I’ll love it. And, as soon as I’m finished with it, I’ll be reading this too.

    P.S. I write in my books too. It’s always nice to read a defense of the beautiful art of marginalia. :)

    1. Awesome! [I saw what you did thar!] I think A Gentle Madness focuses on book-collecting (or book hoarding, haha), whereas this book is more of a survey about the whole book-loving thing. :]

      And I’m actually looking for books that focus on the practice of marginalia. There’s still a little scream in my mind whenever I put the pen to a book’s page–never mind that I’ve been doing it for years now, haha. [Huh. I’ve been reading this book for two years now, imagine that. ;p]

  2. A whole chapter devoted to marginalia? I’m sold! (Even though I have a strong aversion to Harold Bloom. But maybe I can suffer through him if there’s enough incentives throughout the rest of the book.) :-)

    1. Oh, marginalia. What a scorned habit, haha. Re Harold Bloom, I’m pretty indifferent about him, and Basbanes isn’t a rabid fanboy of Bloom’s–it somehow feels necessary that he be included among “notable” book-lovers.

      There is so much incentive littering within the pages of this book. :] You can feel how much Basbanes loves what he’s doing. :)

  3. I *need* to read this book. And it feels very urgent. End of story.

  4. Sounds interesting! Although I have this irrational fear of writing in books because at the back of my mind I’m thinking: What if I really, really need money in the future and I need to sell my most-loved books? One of my greatest fears, haha.

    I think I’d also love A Gentle Madness. I also have an irrational compulsion to buy cheap books, just because. :)

    1. I know what you mean–but then, so far, the books that have compelled me to write on them are keepers. I usually prefer to respond to a kick-ass phrase, rather than scribble WTF–get what I mean? ;p AND THEY ARE FOREVER GOING TO BE MINE, hahaha. Screw dying of hunger; I have books. :]

  5. Ooooh, gonna gonna read this one! Thanks for the review!

    1. You’re welcome. It’s such a dorktastic read, haha.

  6. Great review. I love this challenge because I am discovering lots of new books — new to me, at least. This one sounds amazing and I want it.

  7. Oh my goodness, I have to buy this book!

  8. I have never done this before, but after reading your review I literally just got on ebay and purchased it! Thanks for the review.

    1. Oh wow, haha. I hope you like it! :D [Your comment makes me giddy, harhar.]

  9. I haven’t read this one of Nick’s although I do have it.
    Instead for this challenge, I am going to read Nick’s Trilogy – A Gentle Madness, Patience & Fortitude and A Splendour of Letters.
    At least that is the plan.

  10. […] an also deeply personal; add quirky and charmingly off-kilter to that, and we have Nick Hornby. Nicholas A. Basbanes has a quiet dignity, much like a retired professor, spending most of his days in an expansive yet […]

  11. […] Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, by Nicholas A. Basbanes […]

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