Cool, calm, and collected? Not quite
Did you hear the one about the book collector who bid against himself at auction? Some true stories about book-lovers with no bounds.
Nicholas A. Basbanes could be called a "meta-collector" of books. He does not divulge any information about his personal book collection. But what is clear from his two (and he promises - threatens? - an upcoming third) weighty volumes, is that he collects book collectors and book collections. Each one of his books could serve as a doorstop for a heavy door (to a library).
His first book (Henry Holt Publishers, 1995, 638 pages) was called "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion of Books." In it, he told many a story of a person whose love of books drove him out of his means and minds. One of the more intriguing anecdotes concerns Stephen C. Blumberg, who managed, in the course of 20 years, to appropriate - a nicer term than stealing - more than 26,000 books and manuscripts from libraries and book collections all over the United States. When the FBI finally caught up with him and emptied - in many truckloads - the house that housed his collection, its worth was estimated at approximately $20 million.
Unlike other thieves who want to make some profit, Blumberg did not steal to sell. He was not even keen to read. He just wanted to have the books. He was of independent means and could have bought most of the books he had stolen. He even bought several houses for his illicitly gained collection. Yet he could not explain why he stole the books (Basbanes interviewed both Blumberg and those who had apprehended him at length).
The interesting thing is that in most cases, the libraries and collections which lost their bibliographical treasures to Blumberg, did not even know about the losses until his capture. The libraries and collections were, in general, ashamed to admit that they had lost the books and manuscripts. Until they were notified that the books had been found, they did not miss them. In some cases, Blumberg managed to erase all traces of the former owners. The FBI thus had a tough time trying to return the books.
In his trial, Blumberg did not even try to claim "not guilty" to the charges of holding stolen property. His lawyers tried - and failed - for a plea of insanity. He was sentenced to six years in jail. Was it madness? Was it gentle?
Basbanes' second book is entitled "Patience & Fortitude" (HarperCollins, 2001, 636 pages), an expression coined by New York's legendary mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who used it in his radio speeches during the Great Depression. The two lions made of stone that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library are nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude." These also are probably two essential qualities for a book collector. Along with being wealthy, of course.
The second book's subtitle is "A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places and Book Culture." It all could be summed up as "booklore." In this book, Basbanes tells, in great detail, the stories of famous libraries - Alexandria, Florence, the Vatican, Seville, the Bodleian library, to name but a few - and talks to book collectors, book dealers and booksellers.
One of them, Roland Comstock, who owns more than 50,000 volumes and crisscrosses the U.S. to have his copies signed by their authors, tells Basbanes, in reference to the title of the latter's first book: "Collecting is very definitely a madness, but there is nothing gentle about it at all. This is hand-to-hand combat."
Sometimes it is combat between the collector and himself. Here is what happened to Abel Berland, for example: He read that Christie's in New York was auctioning a book that he dearly wanted. He tried to contact the book dealer who usually represented him at auctions (real collectors seldom attend these affairs themselves), but he was out of town. Desperate, Berland contacted Christie's and gave them an "open bid," meaning that he agreed in advance to pay more than the highest bidder. He managed to get the book in the end after a bidding fight with another buyer - who turned out to be none other then his usual book dealer who had tried to secure the book for him. Berland had thus, in effect, been bidding against himself!
All these stories make me look at my books and feel fairly sane. Most book collectors who talked to Basbanes donated their collections to libraries or universities (in many cases, in order to start another collection). Not so Berland. He was intent on selling his collection at an auction, quoting another collector who said, "If the great collections of the past had not been sold, where would I have found my books?" And he elaborates: "Does the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington need another first folio? They have 79 already. Someone has to replenish the supply; if not me, than who?"
The stories Basbanes collected about various libraries, especially in modern times, do not serve as incentives for donating books. Many of these institutions struggle with shortage of funds and space. Some of them "weed out" books, which means "sending them to storage" or just plain throwing them out, sometimes with the assistance of garbage dumpsters.
And then there is the story of the new library in San Francisco, designed for the 21st century, with beautiful patios and spaces for people and computers - and almost no space to store and shelve books. And the story of libraries that destroy their card catalogs, claiming that all the cataloging can now be done digitally (it can't). And stories of the new libraries in Paris and London, and the debates around their inception, and the story of the new library in Alexandria, due to be inaugurated on April 23, 2002, which has a beautiful new building, but almost no books.
Sometimes one has to read two bulky volumes to find one great quote (by Otto L. Bettman, who amassed a collection of more than 16 million visual images, and then sold them to Bill Gates). Here is what he had to say to Basbanes (Bettman was more than 90 at the time): "The Chinese have a saying that one picture is worth a thousand words, but I disagree. I believe that one word can be worth a thousand pictures - [pictures] aren't quite substantial enough. It's all surface stuff, very superficial, and only reading allows you to penetrate the world. That is the power of the book."