Can you have too many books?

Musings on bibliophiles from classical Alexandria to the Internet

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Dismissed from high office, stripped of all his honors, and forced to leave his beloved city of Florence for the primitive countryside, the Italian humanist Niccolo Machiavelli found solace in his books: "When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where ... I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself unto them completely."

This poignant glimpse into the life of the exiled Machiavelli is but one of the many fascinating stories told by Nicholas Basbanes in "Patience & Fortitude," a grand, rambling, serendipitous treasure-house of material about books and the people who have loved them.

The title comes from the words with which New York's dynamic, much-loved mayor Fiorello LaGuardia used to conclude his Depression-era radio broadcasts, words meant to give heart to his listeners while acknowledging the hardships and setbacks that they faced.

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"Patience & Fortitude" looks at everything from the ancient classical library at Alexandria to a recent and controversial state-of-the-art information nexus in San Francisco. Within the scope of Basbanes' purview are book collectors, booksellers, antiquarians, libraries, librarians, readers, and writers: everyone from the 6th century Irish monk Saint Columba, who transcribed countless manuscripts, to the postmodern Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, almost as prolific a writer of books as he is a collector of them.

Collectors, as Basbanes shows, come in many forms. We meet one man who's entirely devoted to amassing every available edition of every book written by his favorite authors, another who seeks out everything about 18th-century music and musicians, yet another who collects what are called "association copies," books that have a historical and cultural significance by virtue of whom they belonged to, such as an edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson given by one of Emerson's sons to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The more used, earmarked, and scribbled-in the book, the more precious it is to this collector.

Can there be such a thing as too many books? Basbanes notes the disturbing attitude held by some modern librarians who have a strange passion for getting rid of books, particularly those that are old, musty, and seldom used. This is the same trend so vividly and disturbingly chronicled by Nicholson Baker in "Double Fold" (reviewed April 5), and Basbanes, like Baker, is appalled by it. Basbanes focuses on the controversy surrounding San Francisco's New Main Library, designed to serve as a kind of high-tech computerized wonderland, where a reluctant staff was forced to "weed out" hundreds of thousands of books that were sent to the landfill.

Fortunately, not all libraries have been afflicted with the futurist syndrome. Emblematic of the many librarians faithful to the spirit of their profession was Archibald Cary Coolidge, library director at Harvard in the early 20th century. Harvard's legendary Widener Library was well served by his credo: "There is no such thing as a dead book at Harvard."

Coolidge enabled Harvard to amass the largest university library in the country. As Basbanes explains: "Unlike other institutions that see wisdom in constantly weeding their collections down to more manageable proportions, Harvard makes a determined effort to keep everything it acquires, including material that has been lying around unused and gathering dust for decades."

For years, even centuries, a book may sit on the shelf untouched, but on the day that someone picks it up and reads it, a vital connection has been made, a qualitative experience that cannot be measured in terms of quantity.

Basbanes tells a charming story about the exemplary Coolidge. Asked how he came to know so much about so many things, Coolidge, who had a speech impediment that prevented him from pronouncing the letter R, is said to have replied, "Oh, I wead and I wewead and I bwowse awound." For anyone who cares about preserving one of our most precious human resources, it's clear that the key is not "weeding" but "weading."

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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