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A Splendor of Letters

The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World


Nicholas A. Basbanes (View Bio)
Hardcover: HarperCollins, 2003; Paperback: Perennial, 2004.

A Splendor of Letters

"This is the final volume of Basbanes's trilogy on the culture, history, and vulnerabilities of books.... As before, it is anecdotal wide-ranging awesomely literate, readable. From ancient Europe to the impact of digital storage on libraries with great richness in between, Basbanes explores and reports on a grand variety of events, influences, trends and circumstances having to do with books, in the broadest sense of the subject. For anyone even remotely interested in the past, present and future of publishing and literature, this is a fascinating volume. For any professional involved — whether librarian, writer, scholar or editor — it is obligatory reading." — Baltimore Sun (Editor's Choice)

"This book is a proud assertion that books, good or bad, have survived — and will survive." — St. Louis Post–Dispatch

"These three books by Basbanes [A GENTLE MADNESS, PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE, and A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS]...should be considered required reading by anyone who loves books. The are, quite simply, the best books about books ever written." — Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C.)

"The final volume in an acclaimed trilogy for bibliophiles focuses on efforts to preserve books and other printed matter from the ravages of deterioration, destruction and obsolescence. The historical range is expansive.... Even the most ancillary detail has the power to fascinate.... But the research skills Basbanes diplays are matched by the lively quality of his interviews.... [Readers] should find themselves compelled by story after story on the salvation of books. Basbanes's longtime fans will rejoice at more of the same, while new readers will no doubt be swiftly caught up in the book-loving spirit." — Publishers Weekly

"If anyone has established his bona fides as a bibliophile, it is Nicholas A. Basbanes.... [A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS] is a wide-ranging, anecdotal survey of books and those who have collected and preserved them through the centuries. And, although it is his third book on the subject, he certainly has not run out of team, for in it, he describes some of the most poignant and powerful instances of humanity's continuing need to communicate across the relentless, inelucutable barrier of time." — Los Angeles Times

"For readers with a true passion for the sight and smell of leather bindings, and the rarities of the book world, the writings of Nicholas Basbanes are those of a kindred spirit.... Basbanes concludes his great trilogy of works on book culture.... This volume...focuses on a number of issues related to book survival in the future. Whether it's library discards or the destruction of books in times of war, Basbanes brings a sense of urgency and intensity to every issue." — New Orleans Times-Picayune

"Book lovers will tuck eagerly into Nicholas A. Basbanes's A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS, the book that completes his wonderfully informative trilogy." — Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Book lovers will relish this third and final volume of Basbanes's 'bibliophilia' trilogy.... This highly literate paean to books so juices up this reviewer that it must be strongly recommended to anyone and any library intent on valuing the book as an artistic object." — Library Journal

"Basbanes's trilogy about the book world....cultimates in this eclectic ramble through the perpetual problem of preservation..... Basbanes takes multiple directions in this work, from accounts about how the writings of antiquity have been precariously transmitted to the present to interviews with figures in the computer, publishing, and library professions. Yet, throughout, focus in maintained on the preservation issue through Basbanes's unabashed bibliophilism." — Booklist

"Basbanes's main strengths are his infectious enthusiasm for his subject and his doggedness as a researcher.... A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is sure to captivate bibliophiles. And it deserves to. In his chapter on books and technology, Basbanes quotes the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, who warned in 1934 that the world was already glutted with books. 'Many of them,' the Spaniard declared, 'are useless and stupid; their existence and their conversation is a dead weight on humanity.' Basbanes's work is neither useless or stupid. It proves that even if the world is glutted, there's still plenty of room on the library shelf." — Boston magazine

"Basbanes has become our leading chronicler of the printed word and book culture. This new collection of his graceful biographical essays and interviews following upon PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE and completes a loose trilogy. In its pages Basbanes focuses on the transmission of texts, whether on clay tablets or compact discs, and ranges up and down history. He discusses University Microfilms, the Warburg Institute, the deaccessioning of books from libraries, acidic paper, the need for new editions of classics, archival storage, e-books and much else. Throughout he enlivens his story with pen portraits of scholars, writers, conservators, librarians and myriad other book people, before ending with appropriately somber reflections on the destruction of the Baghdad library. In short, A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is itself splendid and will appeal to any serious reader or book collector." — Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"At the center of this work — last of a dazzling trilogy on bibliophilism and book collecting begun by its author in A GENTLE MADNESS and PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE — is a puzzle who simple surface renders its depths all the more bedeviling. Why are readers still emotionally attached to books as paper things printed, paginated and bound?... Entertaining and enlightening...a concise history of recorded knowledge from inscriptions on ancient stone stele to HTML pages written in virtual ink.... Highly readable." — Dallas Morning News

"An absorbing contemplation of issues concerning books in contemporary society..... an amazing study of issues critical to bibliophiles today, A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is a seminal and impressive work which is most especially recommended to the attention of dedicated bibliophiles, cultural historians, and Library Science reference coordinators." — Midwest Book Review

"A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS...offers more than the fascinating tales of eccentrics and 'Antiques Roadshow'-style discoveries with which the first two books were so generously salted. While it contains more than its fair share of absorbing anecdotes, A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS deals primarily with the purpose of books.... Basbanes's prose is deft and clean, and he links his anecdotes seamlessly. Because of that, A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is as dense with content as a thousand fruitcakes, and bibliophiles will want to linger over many of the sections, picking up cross-references and suggestions for further reading.... Basbanes has done a great service for all those who love books and the art of reading, not only for the new experiences they offer but for the immediate connections with generations of thoughtful minds that came before us, sometimes by thousands of years." — Cox News Service

"[His] startling critical success and popularity...has enabled Basbanes to become America's foremost spokesman on books, collecting, and the issues facing the printed word in the 21st century." — Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

"Part Indiana Jones, part literary sleuth, Nicholas Basbanes is like an old friend who has just returned from scouring some exotic locale for rare wildlife. He is bursting with stories he is breathless to tell you, and you can't wait to hear them, to share in his delight and, sometimes, frustration. Basbanes is an editor, a columnist and an insatiably curious writer. The first book in his trilogy, A GENTLE MADNESS, left readers hungry for more erudite tales about bibliophilia. His second book, PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE, further left readers hungry.... [He] dazzlingly complet[es] his trilogy with A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS.... Throughout [the book], a reasoned point of view and an unadulterated passion form a divine alliance. Whether chronicling the findings of archaeologists or lamenting the loss of some of the oldest writings on Earth during the recent looting of Iraq, Basbanes always presents literature in terms of its universal human relevance. It would be hard to imagine anyone who more genuinely grasps the infinite meaning of literature, which, like a message in a bottle tossed on the waves of time, continues a dialogue of hope between writers past, present and future." — San Francisco Chronicle

"In two earlier books, A GENTLE MADNESS and PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE, journalist and book addict Nicholas Basbanes explored the curious universe of book collectors, an oddly riveting place full of passion, skullduggery and misadventure — like a good mystery novel. In his new book, Mr. Basbanes leaves behind the fragrance of fine leather bindings and the Oxbridge atmosphere of finely arched library rooms; he fixes his eye instead on the killing fields of cultural elimination. From the razing of Carthage to the Serbian leveling of Bosnian repositories, he examines the bonfires that have consumed entire centuries of man's musings on matters great and small.... Basbanes is an elegant, wry and humane writer, a lover of all things printed and bound. No other writer has traced the history of the book so thoroughly and so engagingly, with such a warm human touch.... The publisher's flap copy announces that A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is the final volume in Mr. Basbanes's series of books about books and bibliophiles. I can only hope that this is not the case, and that the author will delve into his Santa's bag of rich anecdotes and historical gems to produce another delightfully written book on this compulsively readable subject." — André Bernard, The New York Observer

"An erudite, often lively analysis of the disappearance of texts thanks to time, weather, worms, warriors, decay, poor judgment, and the computer. When does this author find time to read? As in his other work, Basbanes comprises records of his Marco Polo-esque travels, myriad quotations from his countless interviews, and a familiarity with ancient texts (and culture and history) that is at times daunting. Here, peripatetic bibliophile Basbanes examines several issues of enormous importance in BiblioLand. First, the silent thinning of collections by libraries looking for additional space and concerned with a book's failure to circulate (or be consulted). The author is alarmed that unique and/or rare titles are disappearing in this fashion at a growing rate. Basbanes also tells the stories of some of the most famous fragments in literary history — e.g., Gilgamesh (about a third is missing) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He examines how armies have assailed libraries with particular relish (the Romans sacked Carthage, the Serbs blasted the National Library in Sarajevo in the 1990s, Iraqi looters picked clean the National Library of Iraq earlier this year). Most touching is the story of a library in Belgium, burned in WWI, rebuilt, burned again in WWII, and once again rebuilt. The author discusses the odious practice of 'book-breaking' (removing pages, usually illustrations, for separate sale) and explores the nettlesome issue of multiple versions of single texts (Leaves of Grass, for instance). But most distressing is the chapter about time's ravages. That intoxicating odor of libraries, he reminds us, is the smell of decaying paper. The last third deals with the complications of electronic storage and the controversies of e-books. Basbanes's profound passion never falls into pedantry: readers will emerge with new knowledge, new worries, and enormous respect." — Kirkus Reviews

"[Basbanes] provides much on which to reflect. His trilogy is companionable...more comes into focus with the reader's every mood." — Times Literary Supplement

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