Books about Books

It scarcely comes as a surprise that books about books are another one of my passions. And Nicholas A. Basbanes is one of my heroes. But I’ve also read quite a bit about the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the treasures of modern scholarship.

Nicholas A. Basbanes. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

51qtuugk9pl-_sx328_bo1204203200_This is one of my most favorite books about books. It’s primarily about book people of all varieties. My copy is signed by Basbanes, on the occasion of his giving a talk about this in Ann Arbor soon after its publication. It’s a good thing he wrote this before meeting me, or I might have been in it! I’m sure Judy thinks of my passion as some species of madness.

Nicholas A. Basbanes. Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

51i4rp2bo9wl-_sx320_bo1204203200_ This is a sequel to A Gentle Madness. It again chronicles a broad spectrum of curiosities about books, book people, book places, and book culture. It is equally as entertaining as its predecessor. I am amazed at the breadth and depth of material that Basbanes is able to gather, and he writes about it in the most entertaining fashion.

Nicholas A. Basbanes. A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

51hjp4pckzlYes, you guessed it, a trilogy. This volume completes the set. This volume focuses a lot more on books as objects. As things, they face threats, either from deliberate attempts to destroy them or from often inadvertent negligence, such as acid paper. And, the things that are books have had an amazing history of the materials in which they have been rendered. The contemporary tension between books as things in the world vs. books as electronic objects is just the latest chapter in this long history.

Nicholas A. Basbanes. Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.


A curious little volume that focuses on book collecting given all the tools and resources available in the 21st century. If you are serious about book collecting, this is a good place to start. But what it brings home to me is that I am not a book collector, I am a reader. I buy books to read them, not to collect them for their interest or value. But I think book collecting is an interesting activity to reflect upon, and this book is a fun read, even for a reader. And I have enjoyed visiting collections of rare or special books, so I am glad there are book collectors.

Jen Campbell. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores. New York: The Overlook Press, 2016.


It’s important to have some whimsy in one’s book collection. This one caught my eye in the branch of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver’s Union Station. It’s filled with apparently actual things that customers have said in bookstores. Most of them are Jen Campbell’s, but she’s gathered a number from others as well. The one on the cover is typical: “Do you have any books by Jane Eyre?” Or, “Are all of your books for sale, or just some of them?” And “Who is the author of the Shakespeare plays?” Then there’s the one where a customer asks the bookstore clerk to autograph a book by a famous author since he wants to give a signed copy to someone. Well worth a deserved chuckle to peruse this strange collection.

Stephen H. Grant. Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Andrea Mays. The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.



I group the Grant and Mays volumes together, as they cover the same ground, though in somewhat different ways. Henry Folger, who made a lot of money working for John D. Rockefeller, collected Shakespeare First Folios as well as many other materials about the Bard, which ultimately became the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Mays covers a lot of the early history of the First Folios from their creation up to the time that Folger got involved. Grant covers the important element of the story: the collaboration of husband and wife, Emily and Henry. He had the wealth and the enthusiasm for Shakespeare, she was a scholar of the Bard, and so their partnership worked extremely well. Their quest to collect as many First Folios as possible was carried out in secrecy, as they didn’t want their identity to distort the market or give advantages to competitors. They were discriminating collectors, and as a result their ultimate collection is extraordinary. When it came to housing the collection, that effort too was carried out in secrecy, and finally led to a cooperative effort with the Library of Congress to build a separate facility near the Library but administratively separate from it. Henry died before the Folger Library could be completed, but because of the close partnership with Emily, she was able to see it to completion and oversee its early years. It’s an altogether great story, one among many that has stimulated our own interest in writing about couples who work together (a project barely underway, I should say). We attended a talk by Andrea Mays at UC Irvine, at which she showed a First Folio that is in the possession of UCI. A fitting tribute to these amazing biographies.

Keith Houston. The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016.

41ggpyui8al-_sx327_bo1204203200_ This is a thorough, historically based review of the book as a physical object. It covers the essential components of the book: the paper on which it is printed, the technologies of putting text on that paper, a similar review of how illustrations are added, and the assembly of all of it into the object as we know it. The historical material is rich and illuminating. There are twists and turns in almost all of the different components of the book. And there are surprising roles for various historical figures. For instance, moveable type was invented but never successfully implemented at least 400 years before Gutenberg by the Chinese. Chinese paper, ink, and the language itself stymied these efforts. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) essentially went broke investing in an inventor who tried to mechanize the assembly of text. The long-standing challenges of combining text and illustrations had all kinds of bumps in the road, but in the end, the surprise is that photolithography means that a page in a book is a photograph. The transition from scrolls to paged books as we know them has been lost to history, but once it emerged, codicologists — those who study the paged book’s history — have tracked all the twists and turns of bindings, page sizes, and other details of assembly.  All of these and many other great stories are told inside a volume which itself is an exquisite example of the object being reviewed. The book’s Colophon tells the story of its construction. Houston is a master story teller. Imagine, a book about the book that is a page turner!

The Library of Congress. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2017.


There is probably no artifact no more strongly associated with the 19th and 20th century library than the card catalog. This volume, by the staff of the Library of Congress, recounts the history and development of the amazing artifacts associated with the card catalog: the cards themselves, their principles of organization, and the physical drawers that held them. And the book contains scores of examples of cards from the Library of Congress collection, including examples from all historic periods, many handwritten or if printed, containing a variety of handwritten annotations. Photographs of the covers of the books whose cards are shown makes for a wonderful graphic celebration. It of courses recounts the end of the physical card catalog, as on-line catalogs replaced the beautiful physical artifacts in the second half of the 20th century. It’s a gorgeous, informative celebration of a key element of the organization of our cultural treasures in libraries.

Molly Guptill Manning. When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

51vgmgguwcl Librarians who were outraged by the burning of books in Nazi Germany started a campaign to send free books to US troops. They started by asking for donations of books from the public, which led to roughly 20 million hardcover books being collected. But these were hard for troops to carry and read. The War Department and publishers joined forces and created more than a 100 million small, lightweight, inexpensive paperbacks. More than 1200 titles on all kinds of subjects and genres were produced. These became extremely popular with the troops, who carried them everywhere: in the foxholes, on landing craft, in bombers, in field hospitals. They were eagerly exchanged with others. A number of authors had their reputations saved or created by this.  US troops were far and away the most literate during the war. And of course, after the war, the genre of the paperback took off, and by the late 1950s outsold hardcovers. They began to be sold everywhere.

John Markoff. Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

K.M. Elisabeth Murray. Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977. [Paperback 2001]


This is a biography of James Murray, who oversaw the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, written by his granddaughter. It’s an incredibly detailed biography, recounting Murray’s life from it’s humble beginnings to the final days where he died before the completion of the project he devoted most of his life to. The many twists and turns of the difficult years of working on the dictionary. The unrealistic expectations of the Delegates of the Clarendon Press of Oxford University, the ceaseless interference by Frederick Furnivall, who while an enthusiastic supporter of the Dictionary project, kept tactlessly interfering. The attempt by the Delegates to bring in business-minded overseers who had no understanding of the quality of the work being done on the Dictionary. Murray came close to abandoning the project many times, but to his enormous credit, stuck with it, and insisted it go forward under his requirements for high quality. In the end it’s hard to imagine the project succeeding under any other leadership, even though it wasn’t completed until 13 years after Murray’s death. While the bulk of the book focuses on his work on the Dictionary and all the troubles encountered therein, in a final incredibly sweet chapter Elisabeth Murray recounts Murray’s devotion to his wife and children. He was a dedicated husband and father, all the more remarkable given the intense pressures he dealt with in his work. All in all, this is a wonderful portrait of a consummate Victorian scholar.

Susan Orlean. The Library Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.


This book is in part about the terrible 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, that destroyed much of the library’s great collection and led to years of investigations, never solved, about how the fire started and who was responsible. But it uses the story of the history of the library, both before and after the fire, to describe all the people and activities involved in providing the city’s citizens with a culturally and intellectually important resource. It’s a rich story, not just about the specific people featured, but about what a great library is about, what it does, and how the public uses it. I visited the library several years ago when the University of Michigan’s School of Information held an event there for alums. John Szabo, the current head of the LA library system, is a UM alum. He has introduced a wide range of innovative and useful services through the libraries of LA, many described in Orlean’s fine book. I had the good fortune to learn a lot about libraries and librarianship when I was on the faculty of the School of Information at Michigan, but I still learned a lot from this excellent journey though the world of libraries and librarians.

Henry Petrosky. The Book on the Book Shelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

51x33khze8l-_sx309_bo1204203200_This is an amazing story about how the book as an object and the book shelf as a way of storing them have co-evolved. From the earliest forms of books as scrolls to the most contemporary forms of them, the characteristics of books and their means of storage and sharing have changed hand in hand. For instance, when books as we know them were relatively new, and therefore, rare, they were chained to their shelf. Ways of handling such chains had to be developed. The Bodleian Library at Oxford still has examples of these. Early books were not labeled on the outside, as they were few enough in number. Only when books began to be shelved as we know them today was it necessary to put information on the spines. And a whole variety of contraptions to hold books, sometimes multiple ones, were developed to make the reader’s task easier. If there’s a scheme for organizing books that can be thought of, it’s been tried: by color, by size, by topic, by author, etc. The development of formal classification systems by Dewey and later the Library of Congress helped to some extent, as long as there was an excellent indexing system that recognized that most books can be indexed under many different headings.

Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen. The Library A Fragile History. New York: Basic Books, 2021.

The idea of creating a space, a facility, for gathering books (and their predecessors, such as scrolls) is as ancient as any form of reading. This history reviews the long evolution of such places, from ancient magisterial collections (e.g. the much-touted library at Alexandra, weirdly resurrected in present-day impoverished Egypt) to the many ellexiastic and monarchistic collections to the odd private collections. The fragility mentioned in the title is about both decay and destruction. The many religious wars in history doomed many libraries. And changing tastes meant that often private collections were consumed by decay and loss. This is a comprehensive and detailed history, well-worth the time to devour its rich 400+ pages.

Leah Price. What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. New York; Basic Books, 2019.


This is not an easy book to characterize. Price touches on many aspects of books and reading with a range of erudition that is impressive. Whether she talks about those who read books, those who write them, those who publish them, or those who hawk them, her insights are valuable to the book loving reader (like me). For instance, in a chapter about the relationship of reading to health, she describes the contrast between the 18th and 19th centuries, where reading books was viewed as a threat to health, versus the 20th and 21st centuries, where they emerged as cures. For instance, the National Health Service in Wales allowed physicians to “prescribe” books as a cure for mental health issues, so that by 2011 physicians wrote 30,000 prescriptions for books. By 2013 England had also taken up this trend, leading to 100,000 copies of prescribed books being checked out of libraries, or “20,000 more that Fifty Shades of Gray.” Such “bibliotherapy” saved money, and apparently at least helped some. And of course there’s extensive discussion about the exaggerated rumors of the “death of books,” as the evidence is that books are as healthy as ever, even if there are many other options available for reading and learning. This book for sure is well worth reading.

Ammon Shea. Reading the OED: One Man, On Year, 21,730 Pages. New York: Penguin, 2008.


Yes, this man did that, and then wrote a book about it. Moreover, he read the Second Edition, that runs to 20 published volumes (that appeared in 1989). For a fan of the OED, like me, it was an engaging read. He reports on his experience through 26 chapters, one devoted to each of the letters. Each chapter has musings about the experience of doing this, and then a selection of interesting or unusual things he found for each letter. After trying many different settings for reading, and finding many of them, like his apartment, had too many distractions, he ends up spending most of his reading time in the corner of the basement of the Hunter College library. I was thoroughly delighted with the many examples of curious words he found. Three I especially liked, given the current historical period we are in: kakistocracy: government by the worst citizens; roorback, a false report that is circulated for political reasons; and trumpery, something of less value than it seems. And what did he read next after spending a year reading the OED: he started the OED all over again, though in a more relaxed way, without the goal of finishing it in a year. It also led me to look into what a brand new copy of the OED 2nd. Ed. costs ($1,128.13, purchased from Oxford University Press).

John Simpson. The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary: A Memoir. New York: Basic Books, 2016.


John Simpson worked at the OED for more than three decades, starting as a beginning editor and ending up as the chief editor. In the latter role he oversaw the transformation of the OED from a traditional book to an online resource. His memoir if filled with insights about what the work of being a dictionary editor is like, and he illustrates this with frequent inserts about the historical elements of a variety of words or phrases taken from the dictionary. It is written in a witty British style as befits the Oxford setting. Another part of the story is the birth of their second daughter, Ellie, who has a developmental disorder that halted her cognitive and social development at eighteen months. He and his wife Hilary face the daunting task of managing the growth of Ellie with this unusual disorder while both having full careers. They handle it with much grace, though with real stresses. What I especially enjoyed about the memoir were his recounting of the many challenges and opportunities faced by the transition from a largely paper-based past to a promising digital future. He retires from the OED before this transformation is complete, but through the establishment of new practices and standards ensures that the project will move forward. It’s also interesting that in an appendix where he suggests further reading his number one choice is the Ammon Shea story reviewed just above.

Simon Winchester. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

51af4nrhtfl._sx322_bo1204203200_This is an excellent history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, recounted by Winchester’s typical scholarship and easy narration. It’s a well-known story of a struggle between the lexicological experts, led by the dedicated James A.H. Murray, and the Clarendon Press of Oxford, and their constant pressure to increase the pace of production. In the end, it took nearly 70 years to complete, and the pressures from the Delegates of Clarendon nearly did the project in. Murray was repeatedly ready to quit, and the Delegates seemed ready to pull the plug. But Murray persisted, and various people intervened, and the project moved forward. It was not completed during Murray’s lifetime — it took 13 more years. Winchester gives excellent accounts of what made making the dictionary up to Murray’s high standards so difficult. Many words were major puzzles to fill out. Murray was also supported by many talented (and some very untalented ones too) staff and hundreds of volunteers who looked up the quotations that formed the heart of the historical treatment of the words. Like the other Winchester book below, I found notes from my earlier reading when the book was published. These two volumes, along with Murray’s biography above, are excellent examples of why I like to keep books that I’ve already read. Their rereading decades later gave me much pleasure and insight.

Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

51dwj7sjo4l._sx325_bo1204203200_This slender volume tells the story of Dr.William Chester Minor, a physician who served with the Union Army during the Civil War, who dwindled into madness and shortly after moving to London murdered a man and was confined to an asylum in the small village of Crowthorne. There he discovered the call for contributions to the project led by James Murray to create a comprehensive dictionary of the English language based on historical principles. Dr. Minor, an intelligent and learned man despite his mental infirmity, began sending material to the project and over the following several decades became one of the most prolific and useful contributors to what became the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. As Winchester points out, despite some mythology surrounding the meeting of Murray and Minor, they became good friends and met frequently over many years. The story of Minor’s life and its many twists and turns is told in compelling detail. I first read this book when it was published in 1998, and in rereading it in 2019, found end notes written with a fountain pen that brought back memories of that earlier time.