Basbanes's Bazaar

Who will buy a book about why we buy books?

Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World
by Nicholas Basbanes
HarperCollins

The title of literary journalist Nicholas Basbanes's new book promises a lot: Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World could mean just about anything. Will we read about readers? About books? About print? About revolutionary texts? Basbanes's answer to all is yes, and his yeses tumble over each other.

Basbanes drowns his readers in facts, stories, and interviews. He may be trying to avoid the tedium of theory, but the result can seem like a book without a brain. Each chapter has a topic: translation, medical texts, religious texts. But absent any connections between the book's interviews, snippets, and anecdotes, the reader frequently has the uncomfortable feeling of having lost a bookmark. Where some books are railroads, some towers, and others pearl necklaces, Every Book Its Reader is a game of 52 pickup.

Basbanes does relay some interesting facts in this well-researched book, particularly about the lives of famous writers and readers. Don Quixote, he reports approvingly, was carried to the New World by conquistadors. (Is this an endorsement of the great Spanish novel? Of conquistadors?) The author appears unconcerned with fixing the significance of these facts--even when they seem to be in competition. For Matthew J. Bruccoli, critical editions are essential and authors know what they are doing; Edmund Wilson, according to a friend, despised critical apparatus as "barbed wire." Helen Vendler maintains that authors pull their best work "out of the air" and that knowing what authors read is inessential; meanwhile other scholars are busy reconstructing great writers' libraries. Basbanes plays no favorites with his own library, seeming to accept the word of whatever book he's momentarily holding in his hand.

It should be said that Every Book Its Reader basks in wonderful quotations: Langston Hughes observes that in books people "suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas." It's enough to make you think that you should read more, and more thoroughly. An old idea of books as mentors, as numinous treasures, sifts from these pages. I should read Proust, I should read Gibbon, you'll think--and the sooner I'm done with Basbanes, the sooner I can get to it.

 
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