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.

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).

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.

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.

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.