Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book Review: "A Splendor of Letters"

The third of Nicholas Basbanes' books, A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (HarperCollins, 2003) completes the trilogy begun with A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude; in this volume, Basbanes discusses the important issues surrounding the preservation of the written word. As he writes early in the book, "the setting down of what Ralph Waldo Emerson ... called the 'splendor of letters' remains only half the task at hand; ensuring that what has been recorded is passed on properly to the next generation ... makes up the rest."

Like Basbanes' other books, this one takes an anecdotal and fairly idiosyncratic approach to its topic; also like the others, it works here. You find yourself bouncing from the perils of book thievery (p. 11-12) to the importance of the Rosetta Stone as surrogate (p. 23) to notes found trashed beneath the shadow of Hadrian's Wall (p. 56-7) to the bombing of the Sarajevo library to the potential impacts of digitization on third world countries - and you enjoy the ride.

Filled with jumping-off points (I've got about ten books and articles written down to find), good stories and incisive commentary, A Splendor of Letters is yet another Basbanes delight. Recommended.