Nicholas Basbanes | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Nicholas Basbanes


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"Every man must die sooner or later, but good books must be conserved," the 19th-century Spaniard Don Vincente is quoted as saying in Nicholas Basbanes's 1995 study, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. The former monk stood accused of murdering at least eight other book collectors for their printed treasures, and his defense attorney, Basbanes reports, argued that his client was obviously insane. When that didn't wash, Don Vincente went to his execution still consumed by a madness that seems none too gentle at all. Elsewhere in Madness, Basbanes tells the tale of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who in high Romantic fashion placed a sheaf of his unpublished poems in the coffin of his wife, Elizabeth, dead (in high Romantic fashion) of a laudanum overdose at 29. Seven years later Rossetti had the casket dug up to get them back, reporting in a letter to his brother that "all in the coffin was found quite perfect," though the papers were "soaked through and through and had to be still further saturated with disinfectants." Basbanes never denies the intrinsic fustiness of this world, mostly peopled with eccentric millionaires who too often value the hardware of paper and binding over the inestimable software of language and ideas. But in Madness and two subsequent tomes, the syndicated literary columnist remains a champion of those poor wealthy souls who must confess, as one does, "the collection owns us, we don't own the collection." Basbanes will give a talk entitled "A Gentle Madness: Collectors and Libraries" on Saturday, July 12, 11 AM, at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, 312-255-3700.

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