By Rebecca Rego Barry
Ask any book collector about his favorite classic of collecting, and Nick Basbanes’ Gentle Madness, first published in 1995, is undoubtedly at the top of the list. Now an updated edition of this book about the “Eternal Passion for Books” has been published. Rebecca Rego Barry asked Nick Basbanes about the book, how it affected his career, and what he’s currently working on. Some snippets:
“RRB: How did you first hit upon the idea of writing about book collectors? Were /are you a collector?
NB: I wrote a freelance piece in 1988 for Bostonia magazine, the general premise of which was 1,200 years of collecting in Boston — 350 years at Harvard, 200 at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 175 or so at the Boston Athenæum, a hundred at the BPL, just under 200 at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, a few other places — I did the math and that’s what it came out to, and it was a very favorably received, since in each instance the story of the individual collections was the story of a particularly obsessed person who had put it together. Thomas Prince, Jeremy Belknap, Isaiah Thomas — it was the quotation about Thomas by a grandson that gave me the idea for the title — really fun stuff, and the stories were out there, waiting to be mined. Once I got started, there was a natural progression, from the historical stories to the contemporary ones. The person who came up with the idea to expand on the concept and do a book was my wife Connie. I was indeed a collector at the time, so I had knowledge of the subject. My day job back then was literary editor for the Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette. I’ve written a bit about this in the introductions to Editions & Impressions and About the Author. In fact that first story I wrote for Bostonia is included in E&I.
RRB: How did this book change your life?
NB: Oh, remarkably, since it represented an entirely new career for me, one I dare say has been infinitely more satisfying and rewarding than anything I could ever have possibly imagined. I had always been a journalist, of course, but this was really an amping up of my game, no disrespect intended to my prior career, but since my driving ambition in life had always been to be a published author, it was sort of like going from triple-A Pawtucket to Fenway Park in a heartbeat. It helps too, of course, that I truly love what I do, and that there is no shortage of good material out there to keep me fully engaged with the task at hand.”