Advanced Search
Nicholas Basbanes
Nicholas Basbanes
A Gentle Madness
ISBN: 0805036539
A Gentle Madness
Mr. Basbanes talked about his recent book, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books, published by Henry Holt and Company. The book focuses on the history of book collecting and preserving over the past 2500 years. It also covers the book collecting culture, including rare book buying and selling, through interviews with various book collectors.
A Gentle Madness
Program Air Date: October 15, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of "A Gentle Madness." Where did you get that title?
Mr. NICHOLAS BASBANES, AUTHOR, "A GENTLE MADNESS": I coined it, actually. It was a description made of Isaiah Thomas, a great 19th-century American bibliophile and collector. And when he died, his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Thomas, said, `Grandfather was afflicted from the earliest age with the gentlest of infirmities: He was a bibliomaniac.' And when I saw that--that description of him, I said, `There's my title.'
LAMB: On the cover of this book, you've got what looks like some kind of a wood cut. What is that?
Mr. BASBANES: It--it is, in fact, a w--a wood cut--a very famous one. It's 500 years old. It was executed by Albrecht Durer. It's called The Book Fool and it was in the "Das Narrenschiff," the original "Ship of Fools." And the first fool of the whole navy, the fool at the helm, was the bibliomane, the book fool. And I've always loved that particular engraving and--and I chose it for the--for the dust jacket.
LAMB: If someone buys this book, which sells for $35 if you pay full price, what do they get?
Mr. BASBANES: They get a book, I hope, that they will keep and enjoy and pass on to others. I think they'll--they will have a--a record of--of the passion for collecting books--not only collecting books, but preserving knowledge over 2,500 years.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea for this?
Mr. BASBANES: I--I'm asked often if I'm a bibliomaniac myself, and m--my stark answer is, `I'm on the cusp,' but one review of my book recently suggested, `Well, Nick Basbanes might not be a bibliomaniac, but he's at risk.' And I--I have been committed to books all my life. I'm a professional writer and journalist and I was a book review editor in Massachusetts for 13 years and I've interviewed many, many authors. And I've just always loved books, read them and treasured them. And so it j--was just a natural kind of a thing to want to write about this passion.
LAMB: Where in Massachusetts?
Mr. BASBANES: I--I was the book review editor at The Sunday Telegram in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is--which is in central Mass. It's about 45 miles from Boston. I--I grew up in Massachusetts. And I was book editor from 1978 to 1991. From the very beginning--I think this is pertinent--I always have interviewed authors and I have always have asked them to inscribe my books. After a while, I had about--I have perhaps 2,000 inscribed books. You know, `How does he have 2,000 books when he's only interviewed 1,000 authors?' Well, I cheated. If I were interviewing Joe Heller on "Good as Gold," well, I might bring along a--a "Catch 22" and ask him to--to inscribe that. Or Arthur Miller, for instance--if I--if I was interviewing him on his autobiography "Timebends," I would have "Death of a Salesman" there, which I sought out and found. So it became a--a collection which I think is a unique collection, and that kind of explains, I guess, the passion for the subject.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. BASBANES: I live outside of Worcester in a town called Grafton, a small town where the Tufts University Veterinary School is. It's a nice, little central Massachusetts community.
LAMB: You tell a story early in the book about Bennett Cerf and William Faulkner and Alfred...
Mr. BASBANES: Oh, God.
LAMB: it--does he pronounce it Knopf or Knoph (pronounced Knopf and Noph)?
Mr. BASBANES: Knopf. Knopf.
LAMB: Knopf. What was--what was the first?
Mr. BASBANES: I--I love that. Faulkner understood the value of his signed books. He--he--he actually went out of print in his lifetime and--and--and, thankfully, he came back; people rediscovered him. But for a period, he would sign limited editions of his books, and these accounted for extra income. Well, one night, there was a dinner party at his--at his editor's home, Bennett Cerf, and a--and to their party was invited Alfred Knopf, who went up to Faulkner and said, `I s--I scoured all these used book stores in the lower East Side of Manhattan.' He'd had about a half a dozen books, and he would appreciate it if Faulkner would sign some of them. He said, `I can't sign any--any of these books.' He said, `This is how I make my income.' He said, `I only sign them for my friends.' It wasn't ha--he--he--he is said to have had a few too many drinks that night, perhaps. But Cerf prevailed and said, `Can you at least sign one?' And he did.
LAMB: Who--who is Bennett Cerf?
Mr. BASBANES: Bennett Cerf--I'm sorry--was his editor at Random House, and actually, one of the founders of Random House, so he was--he was Faulkner's publisher at that time and Knopf was a colleague--of course, one of the great publishers of the period.
LAMB: When did you first start working on--specifically on this book?
Mr. BASBANES: I'd like to think when I became impassioned with books as collectibles, but--but I can date it, actually, in 1987, when I--I wrote a magazine piece about the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was established by Isaiah Thomas, the gentleman I mentioned earlier, and for whom the title of this book is more or less a--a salute, a little bow to my region. And I wrote this piece and it was very well-received. And in the following year, I wrote about--another magazine piece about 1,200 years of book collecting in Boston: 1,200 years--350 at Harvard, 200 at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Athenee. And it adds up to about 1,200 years.

And there were--there were a lot of these magnificent stories--Jeremy Belknap, Thomas Prince. And this story was published and it had a very nice reception. And my wife suggested one day, `You know, there's your book, the book that you perhaps even were born to write.' And you have that s--that energy of the--of the light flash and the cartoon character, and that's what spawned the idea for this book.
LAMB: At the end of the second part--or, I mean, second section of pictures is this picture.
LAMB: What is it?
Mr. BASBANES: That is a library--a--a very contemporary library. It was assembled by a man named Richard Manny, a Ne--a New York advertising media executive. And that--that appears in a chapter I called Carpe Diem: Seize the Day. It's a very interesting story about, perhaps, the excesses of the '80s and the--the prices we pay in--in the '90s.
LAMB: What's carpe diem mean?
Mr. BASBANES: Seize the day. It's a--it's a very--it's a--it's a theme in--in literature. `Gather ye rosebuds while ye may'; `Carpe diem.' And I think the spirit of Manny was--he's the--he's the gentleman who paid $2.1 million at auction for the four Shakespeare folios, and within a year, of course, he was in bankruptcy for $32 million. All of the money that he earned from his business with his wife apparently was not only spent on books, but on paintings, and they had a--an auction in New York to--to dispose of the material.
LAMB: Have you met Richard Manny?
Mr. BASBANES: Oh, yes. E--everybody I write about in part two of this book--part one is the history. I cover from Alexandria in--in Greece up to the great crash. Part two--I am, at heart, by inclination and desire, a journalist. Part two is where I went out and covered all these auctions. In one case, I covered a trial of Stephen Blumberg, which we haven't discussed yet.
LAMB: But we will.
Mr. BASBANES: I hope so. And...
LAMB: I--yes, we will.
Mr. BASBANES: T--t--and t--t--to answer your question, yes, of course, I--I--I have met Manny and Carter Burden and chef Louis Ofmary. And everyone who is profiled in part two is somebody I not only met, but somebody I interviewed at length and whose books I handled and whose libraries I visited.
LAMB: Richard Manny lives where?
Mr. BASBANES: Richard Manny now lives in Pennsylvania, I believe. He had--that library, which you indicated earlier, that--that's in a home on Irvington on--and that was the Blumberg suite there. They--they--that house is now up for sale. I mean, the man truly did go bankrupt. He s--he said he couldn't--his business couldn't support his disease, which was collecting.
LAMB: What was his business?
Mr. BASBANES: He--he brokered. It was a very interesting--it became quite a--quite a story on Madison Avenue--I mean--and certainly in the trade journals. Inside media--he would buy excess airtime from television stations and networks and then he would broker it to sponsors, I guess, is how it worked, and he made a lot of money doing this in the '80s. When the bubble burst, he owed $32 million of money he had received from the s--the--the sponsors that he hadn't, apparently, paid the--the television stations and the--and the networks. So he went into bankruptcy.
LAMB: Now why did he get into book collecting?
Mr. BASBANES: He and his wife have always been collected--collectors. He just--they--they have collected art; they have collected antiques. They have several collections named after them. They give a--a great deal of the things they collect away. There's a collection of furniture that they--they gathered at the Winterthur in Delaware. There's a collection of miniature portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's a collection at the Art Institute in Chicago. But the books, he--he went after as a--a personal passion, and it was just--apparently, ju--just a--an extension of this collecting passion that they shared as a couple.
LAMB: And he lost it all?
Mr. BASBANES: The--n--no. He f--they sold the books and they--this is still being litigated, as they say in--in bankruptcy court. I tried to--to bring it as--as--as current--make it as current as I could i--in--in the book, but I believe it is still being resolved. Whether or not to everyone's satisfaction, I'm not so sure. I d--I don't know where it stands right now, but it is still being discussed.
LAMB: Where are the centers of book collecting in the country?
Mr. BASBANES: What I found is that people collect all over the United States, but the centers are, I--I think, obviously, in New York, because that's where the major auction houses are. That's where the--that's where the--many of the great dealers are. But I have a chapter in the book I called Continental Drift, which describes some of the great, great collecting activity that goes on in California. I--I really think that--that you find centers all over--all over the country, and I think this is validated by the success of these antiquarian book fairs which you see travel everywhere. Ver--just recently, there was one in Washington, DC. I was here signing copies of my book. I think they--they attracted 3,000 people. But these--these little bazaars--they're traveling bazaars, and you have perhaps as many as 120 entrepreneur book dealers from all over the United States. They'll--they'll bring their wares into one auditorium for a weekend and people will come and--and have an opportunity to meet dealers from other parts of the country. Well, these things go everywhere and--and has really brought book collecting to every--literally, every--every region of the country. So I--I'd be reluctant to say where the centers are.
LAMB: You say early that you actually had your hands on a copy of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, or at least the manuscript--the early manuscript.
Mr. BASBANES: The--the--the man--the--the manuscript...
LAMB: The manuscript.
Mr. BASBANES: ...which is in a vault at the Huntington Library in--in San Marino, California, and that's exciting.
LAMB: What sells? I mean, you name Benjamin Franklin. What about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? I mean, what...
Mr. BASBANES: Well, we're talking unique material now. When you're talking about a manuscript, of course, there's only one copy of that manuscript. When you're talking about letters by G--George Washington, a--again, these are one of a kind. Books, of course--by definition, printed books are in multiple copies. I'm not so sure what you--what you mean by--what is it?
LAMB: Well, what's a b--what has value? You mentioned Shakespeare's folios.
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm. Of course. Yeah.
LAMB: And then we're talking about Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. What else has value for people that buy them?
Mr. BASBANES: Well, y--you--you go...
LAMB: Politicians vs. art is what I'm getting at.
Mr. BASBANES: OK. You--you--you go t--you go to an auction and--and the presale estimate, let's say, for--for Cervantes' "Don Quixote" is--is $400,000. Now it's...
LAMB: The original manuscript?
Mr. BASBANES: Not the manuscript now, but--but let's say the printed book--and a first edition of the printed book. And the presale--and that's a lot of money, $400,000. But it goes for $1.65 million. Now why did that happen? Because you had two people who wanted one thing. So that--I mean, value, I guess, is established by having more than one person who wants a particular item. That's--that's, I guess, a--a definition in collecting, for scarcity, isn't it?
LAMB: Now one of the things that we've seen here is--and you talk about this gentleman as you go over to the Rare Books Library at the Library of Congress...
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...right across the hall is a fellow who used to be of Sears and Roebuck who you say--What is it?--2,200 or 2,500?
Mr. BASBANES: Les--Lessing Rosenwald has 2,300 books.
LAMB: Lessing Rosenwald.
Mr. BASBANES: Lessing R...
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Mr. BASBANES: Le--no. He--he's deceased. He--he died, I believe, with--within the last 10 years. He was--he made his fortune as chairman of the Sears and Roebuck Company; c--collected an extraordinary variety of material, generally illustrated books. And, in fact--you mention Rosenwald--the engraving on the--on the dust jacket of this book, the Durer engraving, of which there are only two in the United States: This one here at the Library of Congress w--is from the--the Rosenwald collection and the other is at the--is at the Morgan Library in New York.
LAMB: You're talking about that engraving in the middle?
Mr. BASBANES: That engra--engraving from "Das Narrenschiff" is one of the books that he gave to the Library of Congress. He is considered the greatest benefactor in the history of the Library of Congress, certainly, perhaps, not the--not the most important. The most important would be Thomas Jefferson, I--I think we would all have to agree. When--when the British sacked Washington during the War of 1812 and burned the Capitol to the ground and dest--and destroyed the Library of Congress--all the books were destroyed--it was Thomas Jefferson who came forth and said, `Well, I had planned to bequeath my library to the nation. Perhaps now is the time to--to--to pass it on.' He didn't pass it on; he--he offered to sell it, and there was a great debate in--in the--in the House. And, in fact, it barely carried the day.

F--f--for reasons we might find inexplicable today, the--the members of--many members of Congress were reluctant to buy books in--in languages like Latin and Greek and books by--wha--What does a US congressman need with a volume of Rabelais or Voltaire?--were some of the arguments. Daniel Webster argued against buying Jefferson's books. I think there were 10 Harvard graduates of the House of Repres--Re--Representatives and they all voted against buying Jefferson's books. There were 11 members from Yale. I believe all of the Yale graduates voted against buying Jefferson's books. It carried the day largely be--because of the Southern states. And, of course, there were a lot of polit--there were political reasons as well; Jefferson's political base was in the South, and I guess his political rivals were in the North. But the--the political debate did enter the purchase of the books.

But when they finally did acquire these books, the whole focus of the library--the Library of Congress became a great library. It--it no longer just served the members of Congress. I mean, in addition to agricultural tracts, tariff studies or whatever, now you were collecting wonderful books, literature, and now you have a library that is easily the equal of the Bibliotheque Nationale, the British library, the Vatican library. And you can really thank Thomas Jefferson for that. The--the--the current librarian of Congress says the soul of the library was provided by Thomas Jefferson.
LAMB: Other than the Library of Congress, where would you go in this country to what you consider to be the top five libraries?
Mr. BASBANES: Oh, boy. I--if I were to put together a--a--a list, a--a tour--every time I come to Washington, in fact, I have to go to the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is right near the Supreme Court, a little p--place tuck--tucked in the corner there. That's--that's a shrine for me--a literary shrine. The Library of Congress I just visited yesterday to see this wonderful exhibition of materials lent by the Bibliotheque Nationale. I always go into the Library of Congress.
LAMB: From France.
Mr. BASBANES: From France. I'm sorry. In New York, I always go to the Morgan Library. In California, I would always go to the Huntington Library. I--I just--that's four.
LAMB: Pick Huntington for a moment, because...
Mr. BASBANES: Excuse me.
LAMB: was quite shocked when I read in your book--I did not know that Bill Mo--Moffitt had died...
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...62 years old. I remember meeting him when we were out there for the--the Lincoln display.
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm. You saw the Lincoln display?
LAMB: Yes.
Mr. BASBANES: Well, of course, you know that one of the principle contributors to that is Louise Taper, who's in my California chapter who--this is the only time in the history of the--of the Huntington Library where they had an exhibition which featured material by a private collector. That particular exhibition, which--which attracted 300,000 people, featured the material owned by the--the Huntington Library, the Illinois State Historical Society and a private collector, Louise Taper.
LAMB: Now t--let's take Louise Taper for a moment. And by the way, Bill Moffitt's job was what out there at the Huntington Library?
Mr. BASBANES: He was the--the--the librarian and he, regrettably, sadly, passed away earlier this year--February. Bill Moffitt, of course, was on the front page of The New York Times just a few years ago. He's the person who was responsible for making the Dead Sea Scrolls, if you'll recall, available to scholars. How could he do that in California? Because they have a--a--photographic records which had been deposited there of every--every one of those scrolls, and he just decided that scholars deserve a whack at this. And he was not bound by any legal restraints from not showing them, and so he made that decision, and it has basically--really influenced the--the course of sch--of scholarship in that area.
LAMB: Let's start with Henry Huntington. Who was he?
Mr. BASBANES: Henry Huntington was a--a self-made multimillionaire. He--he was born in New York state. He went into the railroad business with his uncle, Collis Huntington, and he made a fortune out in California in railways. He basically is the person who--who created the Los Angeles railway system. He owned shipyards. But when he was 50 years old, h--his--his wealth was just extraordinary and he decided to start collecting. He collected books and he collected paintings. Now he collected books the same way he did business, which is decisively.

He didn't invent the--what we call the on-block purchase. Let's say s--a person has a wonderful collection and--and somebody of means might go in and say, `Well, I'd like to have your--your Shakespeare first folio,' or whatever. He would buy the whole collection, and he did this about 112 times. He bought collections that took individuals lifetimes to put together. And what he did--in one fell swoop, would buy this--this whole--he would make preemptive offers. And he really did put together in, perhaps, 15 years one of the world's great, great libraries. And this now serves, you see, subsequent generations of scholars. That's a--that's a--a j--a pervading--pervasive theme of my book, is that the collector--the collector might be a little bizarre, a little eccentric, but f--but in the long run, he and she--they do contribute to the preservation of knowledge, and--and I think it's--it's not the--it's not the exception; it's the rule.
LAMB: The Huntington Library available to the public near Los Angeles?
Mr. BASBANES: It--it's in San Marino, which is right next to Pasadena--Pasadena, 11 miles outside of LA, right.
LAMB: How does the Louise Taper story, then, fit in with the Huntington Library and the Lincoln display?
Mr. BASBANES: Well, she's a private collector. She's an individual. Her hu--her husband is Barry Taper, who is the son of the late Mark Taper, so these are people of--of means, which is important. And when you want to collect at--or you intend to collect at a certain level, you have to have means to indulge your passion. And--and Louise developed a passion for everything pertaining to Lincoln. Now we're not talking about books here; we're talking about letters; we're talking about manuscripts, anything that he wrote, anything--a ledger, a--a little book that--that he wrote, "Nonsense Rhymes," and--when he was a child--everything. Well, this--this material is--is of extraordinary use to a--to a biographer, I would think, who wants to--who wants to find out what Lincoln was thinking about at any particular time.

But Louise actually went beyond just Lincoln. When she started looking into Lincoln, well, then she looked into his wife's family. And, of course, once you started with the wife, then--then you have to get into John Wilkes Booth, and y--she starts collecting material pertaining to John Wilkes Booth. But--but then it's not just Booth, because Booth's brother, Edwin Booth, the--the great Shakespearian actor--well, then you have to start collecting him, don't you? And then you have to start collecting the--the--the children. And it--it is a--a domino kind of a cycle.
LAMB: What can you say about--I know you have a US Postal Service employee that got into this stuff, but what--what can you say generally about book collectors? Is there any--are there any givens about them--the kind of money they have, for instance?
Mr. BASBANES: I think part of the appeal of this book and--and why people are responding it to--responding to it in a most gratifying way is that book collecting is something that's available to everyone. You c--you can participate at any level. I enjoy going to second-hand bookstores. I love going to flea markets. I love stopping at yard sales. One of the epigraphs that I use for this book is a quote from a Larry Mcmurtry novel, "Cadillac Jack," where--where a--a character by the name of Zack Janks says, `Anything can be anywhere.' And, boy, I live by that credo. I mean, I think I should have been the one who found that "Tamerlane" in a--in a box up in New H--in a New Hampshire barn where a commercial fisherman paid $15 for it and sold it the next year at auction for $198,000. That's Poe's "Tamerlane," his fir--his first book. So I think the beauty of book--book collecting is that you can participate at any level and participate happily.
LAMB: What's the story about the postal employee?
Mr. BASBANES: The postal employee is a g--gentleman, a--a bachelor who lived out in Los Angeles and he just loved books and h--it--it is worth noting that he--that he was a postal employee because he ha--that means he had a government job during the Depression--a steady job. And he had an income and he spent all of his--everything on--on books. And he filled his house. He couldn't move. I mean, I think he finally had to s--sleep in the--in the kitchen. When he died, he died among his books, alone. I think they found him two or three weeks afterwards, and--and the--the books were dispersed by the--the county. There were ills...
LAMB: What'd he buy?
Mr. BASBANES: Well, you see, there is a--an interesting distinction. He was a collector of English literature, but he was also an acc--what we call an accumulator. A collector does have a focus. Louise Taper's focus is Lincoln. Chef Ofmary's c--focus is c--the culinary arts. Ruth Baldwin, the wonderful collector in Florida--her--her focus was children's literature. So there is a focus, and you--you decide how you want to gather material. Well, this--this fellow out in--out in LA, he had everything, so we kind of called him a--an accumulator.
LAMB: What's the chef story?
Mr. BASBANES: Chef Ofmary came to this country in--I think it's about 1952, '53, '54. He has a P--PhD in--in psychology. He's a native of Hungary. And he came here basically as a displaced person with $1.20 in his pocket and 14 books. He's a very bright man, a very resourceful man, and in time, he--he came to own a very popular and successful restaurant in Chicago called The Bakery. While he was building this business, he bought a building in Chi--in Chicago up near Lincoln Park--34 rooms, I think--and he just filled it not only with books, but with every manner of culinary artifact--everything that you could possibly think of: cherry pitters, cheese graters, antique types of things--200,000 items. Now a lot of people might think this is junk, I guess, but this man is just accumulating things.

But guess what? When he closed The Bakery in 1989, he was, I--I guess, at that time, about--in his 70--70 years old--the culinary artifacts went to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, which is a culinary institute. It is now the museum of--th--the Ofmary Museum. The rare cookbooks went to the University of Iowa, where they have now a--a culinary history collection so scholars can go and look at this material. He gave a--another collection of 10,000 volumes of--of Hungarian literature to the University of Chicago. He gave, I think, a million menus to the University of Las Vegas in Nevada. Now this is a--a collector who is also a philanthropist. He's a wonderful man, too.
LAMB: Now does that work out as a tax deduction for...
Mr. BASBANES: I'm sure it does.
LAMB: ...when you give this away?
Mr. BASBANES: Yes. Some people sell; some people give. In his case, which, you know, I th--I think that if he put a lot of money into a collection, and--and some people do feel that--that they should get some kind of compensation. And in some cases, they do. I find for the most part, people give the material away. And, yes--yes, there are absolutely tax deductions. How that is formulated, I--I ca--I--I--I--I c--I can't say.
LAMB: What's the story on your book cover? Because this is--as people can see, that's...
Mr. BASBANES: Isn't it wonderful?
LAMB: It looks like gold.
Mr. BASBANES: We--we have a designer at my publisher, Henry Holt, who d--who designed the--the cover. My editor, Allen Peacock, and--and I did select the--the illustrations that I used in the cover. I--I selected the--the book fool for the front and he selected the Achimboldo, the librarian, on the back, which is also, I think--I--I--I--I can't give you the dates on it, but it's old--several hundred years old. And--and it is an engraving from a painting, and--and he--he's--he's the famous Italian artist who--who made constructions of people out of vegetables and fruits. And in this instance, he did one out of books.
LAMB: Was it expensive to do this cover?
Mr. BASBANES: I'm just so proud of the job that Holt did with this book. Yes. I don't know what it cost them to do that dust jacket. I'm sure it was--it--it was expensive. They also didn't have to give me the end sheets inside, but they did that--you know, when you open the book and you see the end sheets. They did that to make it a better book. They didn't have to give me 32 pages of photographs, but they did. Six--16 would have sufficed, but they were committed to publishing this book, doing it well, and what they told me is they did it because they--they thought it was a book that--that deserved to be published and they wanted to do the best job they could with it, and I'm very grateful to them for that.
LAMB: Stephen Blumberg.
Mr. BASBANES: Mm. Chapter 13 in the book. Those are photographs that I took of Stephen. A--a national magazine last year wanted to buy those--some of those pictures from me and I thought I'd keep them just to use exclusively in--in this book. I spent a day with Stephen during his trial--halfway into his trial. Stephen is the individual who stole something on the order of 24,000 very rare books from 368 libraries in 45 states, two Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia. Now what makes him interesting and deserving, I--that's perhaps the--not the--the--the right terms to use in this context, but why I--I thought he should be in the book is the fact that he stole these books not out of greed, not to sell them, as most other book thieves have done, but because he loved them and to collect them. And he brought them together at a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, where he was finally arrested. And I--and when he went on trial, I went and I attended the trial. I was there for two weeks. At halfway into the trial--I had been talking with him, getting to know him, assuring him that I was writing a book about books. I wasn't necessarily interested in Stephen Blumberg the criminal, but, of course, that does also fit into it.
LAMB: Where was he from?
Mr. BASBANES: He's born in St. Paul. It--as--as you might have seen from some of those photographs, he looks sometimes--I mean, he ca--he has it in him to look like a homeless person. The lower right picture is--he's in a Dumpster. Yes. That's exactly what it looks like. He's in a Dumpster. And when we drove down to Ottumwa, he had this old 1969 Cadillac--roared off the road--saw a Dumpster; jumped in--and I mean headfirst--jumped in and the thing was shaking and--back and forth. Refuse was flying out of the top, and I remember saying--I had my camera and I said, `Thank you.' And when he popped up with a book, I shot a picture. He called that rescuing treasures.

His defense: very interesting. Of course, he was charged with transporting books across state lines. That's a federal crime--stolen books. So the--he is not actually charged with stealing the books, but with transporting them. But--but the essence of the case was criminal bibliomania--criminal bibliomania. And the defense was insanity. It's the only instance that--that I can find--and I'm sure it's the only one there is--where criminal bibliomania--where a--a defense has been put forth with a claim of--of insanity. He was convicted; the jury didn't buy that. He's still in prison. He's scheduled for release in--in February.

Now you might reasonably ask, `All right. It's a great story, as stories go, as journalists judge stories,' in which I am. `But why is it in the book?' I think that in any--any study of anything, an example of excess is--is instructive, because bibliomania on the whole--bibliophilia, which is the cousin, are productive exercises. We've gone into this, haven't we? I mean, Thomas Jefferson collected books; we have the Library of Congress. Rosenwald collected books; well, we have this wonderful collection over here. And you can go down the list: Isaiah Thomas, Henry Huntington, Pierpont Morgan. But every once in a while, you kind of do have an individual who goes over the cliff, and Blumberg, of course, is the quintessential example of that.
LAMB: To direct--I mean, some people who watch this show want--might wonder why we're doing a show about collectors, other than the fact the people that watch this show love books. There is a connection, though, with Mr. Blumberg and a guy named Charles Merrill Mount...
Mr. BASBANES: Uh-huh.
LAMB: ...the National Archives. And we have seen lots of stories lately about the security problem at the Library of Congress.
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Do you know much about the Charles Merrill Mount story?
Mr. BASBANES: He--he--well, he was a s--a--apparently a scholar. I--I--I don't really discuss Mount in the book. I tried not to write about stories that others had written about. But I--it--perfer instead to write new stories. But--but, Mount, yes, is perhaps the most dangerous kind of book thief--manuscripts--manuscript thief. You mentioned Bill Moffitt earlier. Moffitt talks at length about the most dangerous book thieves. They're not the Stephen Blumbergs of the world, because they're aberrations. I mean, there's only one person who's going to climb up elevator shafts the way he did and--and put on a disguise as a professor and make keys and really scheme of ways, over a 20-year period, to get into libraries and back up pickup trucks at night. That was--that was Blumberg's modus operandi.

But th--the real danger comes from people like Mount, who have access, who are distinguished, people who are employees, perhaps, of a library. We have an instance in here of a--of a man named Skeed Willingham, who was a librarian at the University of Georgia. He was just recently released from prison from--from--for decimating their collection of Civil War mat--imprints and material. And nobody really knows how much he took because he sold most of it. I mean, his--his motive was pure greed. And they were able to--to get him on a few things. They had some spectacular scientific evaluation done by the FBI and--and he did some time for that. But it's the insider. It's the person with--with--with stature and with validation. And--and you mentioned that the Library of Congress is working on its security. Well, that is one of the good things that--that Bill Moffitt's--one of the--one of the positive things that emerged from the Blumberg matter is the fact that--that institutions now have been forced to look very hard at their security procedures.
LAMB: Go back to the Bloomberg story--Blumberg, excuse me. How did he get into this in the first place?
Mr. BASBANES: It's--it's a--it's an amazing story, because I c--I call that chapter The Blumberg Collection. And I guess it's an ironic title, but it was a collection, and--and it goes back to what we were saying earlier: that a collection is a focused, considered gathering of books. Th--these were not random books. These were books that supported his interest in architecture, in Americana, in discovery, in exploration, and he knew the things that he wanted in various institutions. And he became ob--obsessed with--truly obsessed with doing this. His primary interest w--was and continues to be in Vic--in American Victorian architecture in addition to the 25,000 rare books, which were primarily assembled originally as a reference library for the larger "work," and that we put quotation marks around `work,' which--which is his--his interest in American stained glass windows. He has a collection of 50,000 doorknobs. When I went with him to Ottumwa, he took me to one of his warehouses. It has been estimated that he has had as many as nine warehouses throughout the United States; certainly, one in Ottumwa, one down in Texas, one back home in--in Minnesota, another one, I believe, in Michigan, and others elsewhere where he just gathered this material: stained glass windows, doorknobs. He...
LAMB: A hundred and twenty thousand seventy-eight records?
Mr. BASBANES: And he claims selected. I mean, not--not randomly gathered; selected. I saw--I saw many of these. I certainly didn't count them, but--in the warehouse--stacks of records, doorknobs he gave me as a memento of our--of our visit. Now where'd he get all these doorknobs? Fair question. Where did he get all these--these stained glass windows from--from the earliest years, when he was 12 or 13 years old? He used to go into condemned buildings out--out in the Twin Cities area. They were tearing down these old houses--which he considered a great crime--to put in some interstates, and he would go into these houses and he would--he would remove the--the stained glass windows, the doorknobs, and he became an expert in the field. He's considered an authority by many, many other--other people in the fields--an authority on antiques, American architecture. And so the books that he started to gather were--were meant to be a reference library.
LAMB: Where did he--which library in the country did he steal the most from?
Mr. BASBANES: He--he--when we went through his house, I--I asked him--because I'd been attending the trial--I said, wh--which--which room is the California room? He had a room that he called the California room. And--and--and, in fact, that photograph where he's standing, smiling in front of those--those empty shelves which the FBI have--have emptied at that point, we're in the California room right there. He called it that because he did his--his most productive foraging in the state of California. And there are a number of places that he hit particularly hard. The Claremont colleges, really hit very, very severely.
LAMB: How did he get caught?
Mr. BASBANES: He really didn't--one of the many ironies emerging from this story is that he was not caught through any fault of his own. H--a--a friend, an acquaintance of his who actually testified at the trial of--as to having gone out and--and stolen things with him, turned him in--negotiated a--a deal with the--with the government and turned him in for a $56,000 bounty. This--this is Kenny Rhodes. And up to that point, the--the law was not on the trail of Stephen Blumberg.
LAMB: Not even close.
Mr. BASBANES: Not even close. I mean--I mean, there are some humorous aspects to this. During the trial, one expert testified about a book they called the bishop's Bible, and they believe--because when he acquired books, he also removed all traces of prior ownership, making identification difficult. Wh--wh--where do the books belong? Where should they go back to? But o--on this bishop's Bible case, they said, `Well, he--he took this from Rice University.' Well, I mean, when that was reported in the AP the next morning, that's the first that those--those people knew that--that was the first time they knew that book was missing. Fully, 95 percent of the books that he stole were not known to be missing until--until these people were notified by the FBI.

Th--there's a wonderful anecdote in there. A gentleman by the name of John Sharpe, who's the academic librarian at Duke University--once the books were recovered and moved into a warehouse in Omaha, which I also was allowed to visit--the only journalist allowed to get in there and see these books before they went back to their rightful places--after S--Blumberg had been convicted, he was trying to demonstrate his willingness to participate, to help with the expectation that it might lessen whatever sentence he--he got.

He was in this warehouse--Stephen was in a warehouse sitting in the corner. And this librarian from Duke was over there trying to find w--out whether or not they had any books there. Blumberg went up to him. He said, `I'm s--sorry--I'm Stephen Blumberg. I'm sorry for what I did.' He said, `I--I didn't want to hurt anybody. I only wanted to take a few books.' And the man from Duke said, `A few books? Look at this place! How many did you take from Duke, anyway?' He said, `Oh, not many. Only 400 or 500.' And Sharpe said, `I almost dropped.' He knew they had lost a few. He said, `Well, come on. What did you t--he--n--name me some titles.' He said, `Well, I got your one millionth book,' the one millionth book that they--they acquired on the occasion of the one millionth book. Sharpe said, `I knew that book wasn't supposed to be in the s--the spot that it--that it--where it was supposed to be.' He called his office. Lo and behold, it was missing. Now they were able to find it. He came back and he said, `I also got your two millionth book, and I also got books from the flowers'--now--now they were able to s--to start determining which books of theirs had been stolen, and this happened everywhere.
LAMB: Why did Kenny Rhodes--And who is he?--turn him in?
Mr. BASBANES: For money.
LAMB: Who is he?
Mr. BASBANES: He's not a very n--nice guy.
LAMB: Do you know him?
Mr. BASBANES: I don't know him. I--I s--I observed his testimony. I--I approached him in--in the hotel lobby. He--he--actually, I quote from some of his testimony in the pretrial hearings. He's--he's a career criminal. I mean, he's an admitted felon.
LAMB: And he was traveling around with...
LAMB: ....Stephen Blumberg?
Mr. BASBANES: Yeah. Traveling around. And I think at some point, he decided--I also think that he was k--keeping this Stephen situation as a--as an opportunity that he might be able to use at some point. I mean, I--he will--he will admit this to you. But when I--when I went up to him, confronted him in the hotel lobby--and I asked him if we could do an interview and he said, `Well, what's in it for me?' And I said, `Well, nothing, but just the opportunity to--to get your side of the story in,' I said, `because if all I have to go by is--is your testimony,' I said, `you come out looking like a--a pretty bad guy.' You know, he's a big man. And he squared his shoulders and he looked me in the eye. He said, `I am a bad guy,' and I quote him to that effect. So he's not a very nic--not the kind of person you'd want to have martinis with.
LAMB: W--why did Stephen Blumberg shut his operation up in Ot--Ottumwa, Oh--Iowa?
Mr. BASBANES: Ottumwa, famous for being the home of Radar O'Reilly on--on M.A.S.H. and the--the home of Edna Ferber. But if you look at the map, it's the middle of the country. He really was embarked on a--on a quixotic mission, I guess, to--to gather books from all over the United States. He loved going to the--to the huge flea markets down in Texas and the--there are--are flea markets up in Massachusetts at Brimfield that he--he went to. And it was kind of midway, and--and he really didn't--well, this is kind of funny. He was out on--on bail during the trial, and one of the provisions of his bail was that he--he not go near--within 50 yards--I think it was perhaps even 200 yards--of any museum or library--that was one of the provisions of his bail. So he later said to me, `It doesn't matter, anyway. I--I didn't take any--I--I'm not interested in any books in Iowa, anyway.' He never stole any books from Iowa, so I guess he really didn't want to do anything.
LAMB: Again, how many libraries in this country did he steal books from?
Mr. BASBANES: They--they believe ab--three hundred and six--they can--they can demonstrate 368. It's possibly more, because, again, when he would take a book out, he would remove the book plate, any--any indication of ownership, shelf marks--he would remove. And then he--what helped the I--the FBI is that he kept some scrap books, another collection within a collection of--of book--book plates, you know, from various institutions: the Wisconsin State Historical Society, the Library of Congress, Harvard University. During our interview--I have seven hours of tape with him--we drove down to Ottumwa from Des Moines and back to--to--to Des Moines later that night. He s--we were driving along. He said, `Turn o--turn off your tape recorder.' He said, `You know--you know, the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" they think I got from Harvard?' He said, `I got it from USC.' And it was--he thought this was cute, but what he was doing was hoping to hold this stuff out and--and back as a chip that he could use to play, that `I can tell you where this stuff t--came from.' But the FBI did--did assemble a terrific group of--of--of volunteers, and they were able to determine most of this on their own.
LAMB: In the end, what happened to all of the books? And who got the money?
Mr. BASBANES: Well, there was no money...
LAMB: Or did he sell--did they ever sell any of the...
Mr. BASBANES: Well, he never--again, he never sold--he never s--stole to steal the books. In other words, he never sold any of the books. They recovered everything that he stole. They were able to determine, I guess, the--the provenance of--of, maybe, 15,000 of the books. Three thousand, which they couldn't--couldn't identify, they g--they gave to Creighton University in--in--in Omaha because they had--they had volunteered a lot of help and--to the FBI. And, in fact, when Blumberg learned about this, he sent them a letter from prison. He said, `These books are mine. If you can't determine who they belong to, these--these are mine.' And they said, `Well, no. We're going to keep them,' and the FBI did give these books to Creighton University as a gesture of thanks.
LAMB: And he'll be out of prison next year?
Mr. BASBANES: He'll be out of prison--I believe his scheduled date of release is January or February. He--he's not an evil man. I mean, I--his defense was insanity, and it was not a frivolous defense. I truly believe he di--he deserves punishment for his crimes, but I think that his crimes should be put in perspective. I mean, he--he didn't commit murder. There's no child abuse here, no drugs, no violent crimes. His--his crime was that he loved books and that he stole them and he's being punished, big time. You know, we're talking seven years and a $200,000 fine.
LAMB: How many of these books have been printed by Henry Holt?
Mr. BASBANES: M--my book?
LAMB: Mm-hmm.
Mr. BASBANES: Well, we're--a--as we speak, we're--we're into our third printing. I--the--the most recent number I've heard is, we're up to 35,000 copies, which is very gratifying to me and...
LAMB: Are you surprised?
Mr. BASBANES: I'm--I'm gratified. I'm--I'm not really--a--at the risk of sounding immodest, I'm not really surpri--I'm surprised at the--at the response and the wonderful things people say about it, but my feeling, as a lifelong journalist, has always been, if you got a good story and you tell it well, people--people will want to read about it, and I--and I was very confident from the beginning. The stories were wonderful. They haven't been told before, and I was confident in my ability to tell them well.
LAMB: Who is Havin O'Moore?
Mr. BASBANES: Haven. Haven O'Moore is the mystery man of--of the book. I--I think it's the sleeper chapter of--of the book, because there had been quite a bit of press on the Blumberg matter when he was--he was arrested. You know, there was some national attention. But the O'Moore matter--that's--he--he put together a library called The Garden Library, and all it ever got was five paragraphs in The New York Times. When this library was sold at auction in 1989, I attended it. I went to New York, really just to attend this auction of magnificent material. That was my intention. But then, of course, as a good journalist, as a good researcher, you want to know who the people are who put it together. Why are they selling it? These were simple questions, but they didn't seem to have any--any--any ready answers.
LAMB: How come no picture of Mr. O'Moore?
Mr. BASBANES: There are no pictures of him. There is a--a photograph of a bust of him in the catalog of a--of the Garden sale, which I requested permission to--to reproduce it. Sotheby's wouldn't give me permission to do that. That's why there would be no picture in the book. They wouldn't let me have one.
LAMB: Who was he? Where did he live? Where is he now?
Mr. BASBANES: He's--he's still living in Cambridge. He--where he's from is one of the--I'd like to think of Chapter 6 as a mystery story. I mean, it--and if I were teaching a course in investigative journalism, I think I'd--I'd use that--that chapter. It's h--how to go about doing it.

I went back to Massachusetts, where Mr. O'Moore lives, and I had heard that there was a lawsuit. There were two partners--it's a limited--the guarded, limited collection. So it's a partnership, so therefore, there must be papers documenting this partnership. I went back; couldn't find the papers. I had heard that there was a lawsuit. I went to the Middlesex Superior Court; learned that there was a Davis vs. O'Moore; found what's known as the docket sheet, seven pages; Xeroxed that immediately. Then I asked to see the case file. They wouldn't let me see it. Now this seems to be a violation of the--of the public documents laws. They just wouldn't let me see it.

Then I made a formal request to see the material. Then I was informed that subsequent to my request, the material had been totally impounded, even the docket sheet, even the name of the case: Davis vs. O'Moore 88-635, I think. You could look it up. But I had the docket sheet, my Rosetta stone, and it did give me some information there. It gave me the names of--the names of the plaintiff and the defendant, and I just started a little investigative exercise, which took me about three years to find out who he is and how he got the money--the $17 million of this other man's money to build this library and what caused it to be sold at auction in 1989. And we're talking about some of the great, great books in the world. It was an exquisite collection. His wish--his stated wish was to be identified as the greatest book collector in the world, often stated, and...
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
Mr. BASBANES: Met him once, at the sale. I was--I was at the preview. And irony of ironies--I mean, there's so many ironies in this--in this story--the only time these books were ever gathered together as a collection was when they were being displayed prior to this sale, because before this, they were all kept in bank vaults. I mean, the books would be bought and they were kept in two Boston bank vaults. I learned that. They were never kept in the house, his house or anybody else's house. He had hoped to build this research library right across Harvard Yard from Harvard University, using this young man's money, again, to do this. And at this sale, all these dazzling books were together: the Shakespeare folios, the Cervantes, the--oh, just amazing--papyrus scroll and the "Book of the Dead," a--a Yeats notebook--just--just amazing, amazing stuff.

And there he was. And somebody said to me, `You know, if you haven't met Haven, there he is over there.' I went over, introduced myself to him, had a few words, told him what I was trying to do. H--he gave me some quotes, which I wrote down and which I wrote in the book. At this point, three Sotheby's officials come up, two on the left, one on the right, or which--two on the right, one on the left--I don't remember--but--but physically told me that I am not allowed to talk to this man in Sotheby's at all. We told the press no interviews.
LAMB: What's Sotheby's, by the way?
Mr. BASBANES: Sotheby's is the--is the world's largest auction house in New York, on New York Avenue in the upper East Side of Manhattan. It's where all these great, great auctions take place. Christie's, of course, is the other great auction house in New York. But this kind of--I said, `What's going on here? This is an auction. Why can't I talk to this man?' So this was another reason, when I went back to Massachusetts, I decided to look and see if there was a--a case. I mean, this is--is unusual--Don't you think?--that--that--where they say you can't ta--not only can you not talk to this man; you can't even stand near him. And if you do this, we'll ask you to leave the building.
LAMB: Why was everybody pre--all along the way, including the court in Massachusetts, trying to protect this--the Davis family or whatever?
Mr. BASBANES: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: How can--how can they do that?
Mr. BASBANES: How--they did it. I mean, I think the book...
LAMB: How can a court keep a public record from being seen?
Mr. BASBANES: Good question. I mean, I--I--I--I wrote a letter, said to this judge--Judge Izzo--I--I wrote her superior and asked to see this material, but it was denied. I could sue, I suppose, so--unseal it, but I chose--don't forget, this is one chapter in--in a book; it's not a whole book ab--really, I have to stay the course, you know? Keep my eye on the ball, in a sense of--as the athletes say. I'm still writing about libraries and books. I really am not interested in--in a--in a sensational expose of--of the--the seamier details or whatever--whatever they--whatever is sealed in that case. You know, I'm--I'm really not all that interested in it right now.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to Mr. Davis?
Mr. BASBANES: Just once. Again, at the conclusion of the--of the sale, he was sitting in the front row. O'Mo--O'Moore was sitting up in a--in a glass booth watching these books be sold. He--he had told friends, `They're selling my children into slavery.' This is O'Moore. Davis, in the meantime, is leading the applause for--every time the--the books were sold big time. I had been told this was Davis. I went up, introduced myself to him, said, `I'd like to interview you.' He said, `No interviews. Talk to my lawyer. Talk to my lawyer.' So, obviously, something's going on here, and that's all I--that's the only cooperation--cooperation--tha--that's the only time I ever got any words from either of these principals.
LAMB: Y--you found out that Haven O'Moore is not Haven O'Moore, though.
Mr. BASBANES: The title of that chapter is To Have and To Have No More.
LAMB: That's why I said `Havin,' because I couldn't figure out how you could get Haven out of that.
Mr. BASBANES: And Haven O'Moore is an anagram for Have No More. His real name is--well, it's a mystery story. We get--I mean, determining who he is is--is what I do, I believe, in that chapter, and I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I think I have enough.
LAMB: You found him--found his--North Carolina...
Mr. BASBANES: Yeah, I did. Well, I had things to work with. I had the docket sheet, OK. But--but in--in the catalog to the sale--regarding the sale, he made this ext--he wrote this extraordinary biographical statement about himself. He said he'd served two tours in the US Army. Well, that's factual, you know? If you say you were--spent some time in the Army, then there must be some records to support that. I found his Social Security number, legally, in Massachusetts. Drivers licenses are public documents, and it happens that drivers license numbers or Social Security numbers--using that, I sent that to the freedom of information--to the Army Personnel Center in St. Louis, asked for all the m--military records for Haven O'Moore or possibly a Haven Moore, because I'd heard that this might be his name. And they sent me back some material which just presented a totally different picture of the man--th--the actual man and--and the man who he--who--who presented himself to the world as this man with three PhD's and fluent in 20 languages. I hate to give too much of it away. I--I...
LAMB: I don't blame you. What...
Mr. BASBANES: I have to say to you, I got a wonderful letter from a reader i--in Minnesota, with a great letterhead--gen--I don't recall the gentleman's name, but he--it was a comment--it was a profile of Sherlock Holmes. And it was--BSI were the initials, which are Baker Street Irregulars. I mean, this--this is a member of the Great Sherlock Holmes Society. And he loved this chapter and he s--and he offered an--an--an analysis of the data that I had presented with the solution--with a possible solution and...
LAMB: We only have a minute or so. If--could you find the book in the world that's the most valuable?
Mr. BASBANES: Could I?
LAMB: Yeah. I mean, what would it cost? I mean, what would it be?
Mr. BASBANES: To go back to what I said earlier, the cost would be--if--if there were two people that wanted it very badly and they had the means to acquire it, it would be whatever the winner of that contest is willing to pay.
LAMB: But what kind of--would it be a Shakespeare book or would it be a Bible or...
Mr. BASBANES: Well, the Shakes--oh, a Gutenberg Bible, I would--which are out in printed books now, but then we have books in manuscript--it would be worth millions. The--the Leonardo da Vinci thing, worth $28 million, right? Twenty-eight million dollars for a--for a 72-page book. But that's--that's a--a written book--a manuscript book.
LAMB: What are you going to--what are you going to do next?
Mr. BASBANES: Another book.
LAMB: On what?
Mr. BASBANES: We'll see. I'm captured by this subject. I certainly don't want to do anything that's derivative just for the sake of doing it. I'd like to really spend some time looking at what happened in Europe. I'd really like to focus, instead of 25 centuries, on some 20th century things, whether or not it's in books or it's a biography or something, I don't know. I'll have to determine.
LAMB: What was the toughest thing in writing this book?
Mr. BASBANES: Staying the course, I guess. Eight years--it took eight years, but it was really not hard. I loved it.
LAMB: Nicholas Basbanes is our guest, and this is what the book looks like. "A Gentle Madness" is the title. Thank you very much.
Mr. BASBANES: Thank you, sir.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.