Monday, January 01, 2007

Book Review: "Patience and Fortitude"

It is fitting, perhaps, that my first review of 2007 is a book I should have read long, long ago. Nicholas Basbanes' Patience and Fortitude is the author's second book after the wonderful A Gentle Madness, and it does not disappoint. Basbanes, as always, covers a significant amount of ground in this volume, but I found it nearly impossible to set this book down even for a moment or two once I started reading.

Taking its name from the pair of stone lions who guard the entrance to the New York Public Library's main building, Patience and Fortitude shows through countless examples how those two virtures are essential to the selection, creation and maintenance of great libraries (in any form, although it must be noted that having a little money doesn't hurt either). Basbanes takes his reader on a marvelous tour through the great libraries of the past (Alexandria, Glastonbury, Pergamum) to those of the present day (Harvard, Library of Congress, British Library, etc.) with his characteristic style and wit. Through interviews with book people of all stripes, Basbanes brings the culture of books alive - who can resist the lure of the printed page when it is described by such a master?

The dramatis personae of this book are far too varied and numerous to list, although I found the sections on Barry Moser, Umberto Eco, and the many emigre booksellers who came to North America before and during the second world war most personally intriguing. Basbanes' treatment of the great San Francisco library controversy of the 1990s is focused and fair, and his discussion of the role that technology and digitization will play in the library of the future is among the best I've read. While I read it straight through from cover to cover, the organization of the book is such that you could easily read a section here or there as your interests led (but you'll be sucked in, of that I have little doubt).

As always, I will issue my perennial quibble that the notes are not indicated in the text, although they are excellent and accompany a tremendous bibliography (from which I've just made a list of a number of books that I need to read). But this is another great offering, and one any book-lover should not let sit on the "to be read" shelf any longer.