Author Nicholas Basbanes was interviewed on May 1, 2014. Mr. Basbanes appeared on Booknotes on October 15, 1995, where discussed his book A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books.
Today we are interviewing author Nicholas Basbanes, who appeared on Booknotes on October 15, 1995, to discuss his book, A Gentle Madness, Bibliophiles, Bibliomains, and the Eternal Passion for Books.
Good morning, Mr. Basbanes.
Good morning, Misha. Thank you for doing this interview with me.
Well, thank you for joining us. I would like to know, how did your book come to be on Booknotes?
Well, for me it was a stroke of extraordinary good fortune. The wife of my literary editor, my literary editor, is Glenn Hartley of New York, and his wife, Lynn Chu, is also a literary editor. I've had a literary agent, my literary, the wife of my literary agent, happen to be in Washington. She had one of their clients who was being interviewed by Brian on Booknotes, and my book had recently been published, and it's a gorgeous book, if I may say so. It's a nice big book with an extraordinarily handsome dust jacket. And she was chatting with Brian and said, "Here, this is one of our authors." And he looked at it, and he was just taken immediately by the subject. It's the bookful Albrecht Durer from 15th-century engraving. And he thought that was smashing, and he liked it. He said, "What's this? A gentle madness? What's it about?" And she said, "Well, it's about bibliomania, the passion to own books." He said, "Well, I don't know how that fits into public service. Does he talk at all about politics?" And she said, "Oh, he talks about everything." He said, "I want this guy on the show." As I understand it, this is how the story was relayed to me. And he committed himself on the spot to having me come down, knowing nothing really about me before that. And the book was published in August of 1995, so we did the interview that October. So I had a couple of months to prepare for it, but that's how it happened. And it was really a wonderful opportunity for me, I must say. Really very special.
I'm interested in the fact that one of the things we're interested in is how Mr. Lamb chose the books.
And this just happened to be a network between professionals. What we would call, Brian was a naval officer, like myself back in the day. And we used to say, "Always be alert to targets of opportunity." You really never know what's going to pop up and that it might be fruitful. And he said that he saw something that appealed to him, the whole idea of 2,500 years of bibliomania, stories about these people who have been possessed and driven to do these things. And he said, "You know, maybe we could -- I'm just assuming." Actually, I've had conversations with him subsequent to this, so I think I'm giving a pretty fair estimation of the thought process. But this guy might be pretty interesting for our viewers. Well, why not? He's doing 52 shows a year. Let's let this guy come on and give an account to give himself. So, again, I can't speak for what went through his mind, but I believe that's kind of what happened there. And for me, it was just a remarkable opportunity.
And your book was only in the second year of the program, I believe.
You see, I didn't realize that, but now that -- well, actually, no, no. My book came out in 1995, so -- and Booknotes started in -- oh, '89. I'm sorry. My bad. It had been on for a little while, because I was very familiar with the program. I mean, this was the program you watched if you were a nonfiction writer. You only dreamed of getting on there. So let me say, this was not something that came to me out of the woodwork. With respect to what it meant and what it could possibly mean for the fortunes of the book, I understood immediately that this was a wonderful opportunity for me to introduce my book to a readership that really wouldn't otherwise be familiar with what I was doing. So it was wonderful.
Well, and at the time, there was a resurgence in the interest -- there was in the scholarly interest of the history of the book.
Well, that's right, and it continues. And so it was kind of -- and my book really does -- it is really useful in that field, and I'm really very heartened when I see -- so that's so many institutions, so many universities, and I do do a lot of lecturing these days, and I see the syllabuses that they have, and I see "General Madness" in there in the history of the book curricula. It's just a very useful book for a very specific subset of the history. You know, people -- the history of the book takes in just so many different areas, not just the making of them and the writing of them and the publishing of them and the selling of them and the reading of them, but also the people who preserve them and gather them, you know. So this was very much a part of it, and I think Brian perceived that and saw it and thought this was worthwhile to have discussed on this program.
So I would like to find out, how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?
Well, I knew my material backwards and forwards, so I didn't really -- [laughter] I really didn't have to overly familiarize myself with the content, but what I really did want to do is, you know, be aware of what it was I was going down to Washington to do, which is to appear on Booknotes and be interviewed by Brian Lamb. So it was fortunate that I already was familiar with the program, and I had watched it, I can't say religiously, every week, but as often as I could, especially if there were going to be authors on there who I admired. But I certainly made it a point. I had two months to get ready, and I just watched as many Booknotes programs as I possibly could. And that was how I prepared to really make myself familiar with Brian's technique, how he approached the task. It became immediately evident that he read the books, you know, and in my business you really appreciate that and you respect it. So you're going to have to be on your toes. You're going to really have to know your material, and the man is going to ask you some intelligent questions, and he's going to allow you time to answer them, you know. That's really critical and key, too. You are really going to be giving something more than sound bites. So really what I did to really crystallize it is to just watch other episodes of Booknotes, and that's how I prepared myself.
Well, your book is so wonderfully anecdotal with the beautiful stories that you tell.
You know, they are wonderful stories. Thank you. And let me just interrupt by saying when Brian did his -- he did a number of anthologies of his Booknotes programs, and I was honored to be in the very first one. And when that volume came out, there was an excerpt of our interview in there, and he had the authors separated like biographers, historians, whatever, but he had a whole section on storytellers. I was so thrilled that he had included me in the storytelling section, you know, because as you point out and as I feel, I am at root as a storyteller. I believe that, you know, sometimes when you're writing about arcane subjects, you know, people would ask me over the seven years of the writing of this book, "What are you working on?" And I'd say, "Well, book collecting," you know, "I'm doing a book about book collectors." You know, I would get these blank and vacant looks. This is a really boring subject that I said, "Well, trust me. It's all about stories. It's all about storytelling."
You know, I quote Duke Ellington, "Don't mean a thing if they've got that swing." And really, I believe that everything I write is driven by narrative and driven by anecdote, and thank you for taking note of that because I consider that a great compliment because that is how I try to write my books and to attract readers and to keep them interested in subjects that they might otherwise find pretty arcane, you know.
But I did notice that in your interview with Mr. Lamb, you were smart enough to stop before you revealed the ending of some of your stories.
He liked that, you know, he respected that. And he liked it on air, as I recall. And it was specifically, there was one chapter which I regarded and still regard as kind of a mystery chapter, the one that's called "To Have and to Have No More." About Haven O' Moore. About a man who was known as Haven O' Moore, which in that name was kind of a coinage from an earlier name. And really it's spelled Haven O' Moore as Have No More. And so I called the chapter "To Have and to Have No More." And I won't get into the long details of it here. I don't know if we have time, but it was really about a person who assumed a new identity and who really conspired to be deceased now, so we don't have to worry about offending him. But basically he used $20 million of another man's money to build a great library. So that became very interesting to me. And Brian really wanted to know how it turned out on the air. And I said, "You're going to have to read, you know, I'd like to tell you, but I would much rather have your audience read the book." He liked that. He said, "You know, you're someone who actually said, 'No, I don't think I want to answer that question.'" Because really part of the magic, I think, of that chapter is that it is a mystery story. And I really do want you to go and read it and find out how the thing ends.
Well, that was one of the first chapters I went to in your book.
So I would like to know, what do you remember most about your appearance on the program and if you could describe your experience?
Well, again, I prepared for it. So it wasn't a surprise to me how it was going to progress. But I guess what I remember most is that Brian made me feel so comfortable that from the outset I knew I was in very good hands. I knew that he cared about the book. He cared about me as a writer. And he really wanted to give me every opportunity to present myself and to discuss my work. And he was giving me a gift, really, of being on the air, of speaking before a national audience on a Sunday night.
Come on, this is a big thing. This is my first book, and I'm all of a sudden being presented before people who have no idea. I don't have a clue as to who I am. I mean, many, many, many of the authors that Brian had on that program were people like David McCullough, Doris Goodwin, we're talking about, you know, the superstars. Everyone knows who they are. But this is Nick Basbanes all of a sudden coming. I mean, you have to ask how to pronounce my name, you know, and I – because it's a difficult, complicated spelling, right, Basbanes. But that gives you an idea of how little I was known. So what I remember is that this was a great opportunity, and I really didn't want to blow it. And he made me feel so comfortable at the outset. And he really asked good, informed, intelligent questions. And then he allowed me to answer them fully. It was really wonderful. But that's what I remember most is just how comfortable he made me feel while I was on the program.
Well, I understand that the facilities are quite small. Do you recall that?
The set was very small? You know, what I recall, it was kind of cute. Yes, it was small. And I've been in smaller TVs, do we, or so, I have to say. And I've been in larger ones.
I don't think it was the size of it so much. What I remember is because he liked the dust jacket a great deal, you know, and so he wanted to –and while we were talking, he said one of his questions was, "Boy, I love this image that you have on the cover. Can you tell us a little bit about it?" And I went through the story. And instead of having a slide, you know, having somebody handle this back in the control room, he held up the book and you could see the camera. So he did that himself, you know, he would hold up the book and show the image that we were talking about. And I remember that that was kind of cute that he would refer to the pictures not only on the jacket but on the inside. And he kind of had to balance it so there wouldn't be any glare. And I thought that was very charming in a way that he was not only doing the interview but orchestrating the art and the illustrations. It was kind of fun.
I'm so glad you mentioned that because I was wondering watching the interview, did they go back and add that at a later time?
That was done on the fly.
Oh, that's great.
It was like the old days of live television, you know, we're going to do it as we go.
It was really cute.
So Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?
Well, I don't see any drawbacks to it. I mean, it's not a soundbite kind of an interview. You are really allowing the author, number one, as I've said, to give an accounting of himself, herself, and the book. And we're not going to do it in 20 words or less. You know, let's have some thought, and he would ask intelligent, interesting, probing questions, and he would give you the time to answer. That's so important. I just can't overstate how important, how significant that is. You are so often interviewed by people who are looking for soundbites, whether it's for a quick television interview or some reporter who doesn't specialize in these things, who's got an assignment to go talk to somebody and do a -- I was actually -- pardon me for interrupting myself, but I was once interviewed by a reporter, I won't say for which newspaper, but he didn't even take notes. You know, he was -- I said, "Don't you need a notebook? You need a pencil? You need a paper except notebook?" But he didn't even take notes.
He was going to go back and write this thing from memory. Oh, boy, that's scary. It is scary, and the result was what you'd expect. You know, it was a very -- it was just a very superficial kind of a piece. So -- but I remember really about -- and when I think about this hour-long format is that it's a serious -- it's a serious interview, and it's not going to be edited. It's going to be one hour, you know, like if you're on 60 Minutes, if you're lucky enough to get on 60 Minutes, they probably spend two or three days talking. I've had people come to my house for some of these television interviews. They will do eight, 10 hours of interviews with you. It's a good -- God, have you got what you're looking for? Sometimes they don't even ask questions. You just talk, and then they will pluck, and they will select, and very carefully, you know, edit out -- edit what they want, and you might be for five or 10 minutes on air. But so it's a very carefully constructed interview. It's that kind of a deal, but with Brian, it's going to be -- we start, the cameras go on, the light blinks, and you talk for an hour, and what you say is what you get. So I just thought that was fabulous. And I just don't think that there's ever been anything else quite like it. You know, there are a couple of other -- I guess Charlie Rose does interviews. He does 20 or 30 minutes, and they're good. They're not going to take anything away from the "he seems to know his stuff" too. But Brian did it week after week, you know, for all those years, 52 weeks a year, and it was one hour, one author, one book. Boy, it was fantastic.
So judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this to be normal for interviewers? How does this change the interview experience?
Well, I think I've already suggested that I don't find it normal, especially when you're dealing with television reporters. It's a couple of seconds, and you can tell because there will be a question. Well, tell us what your book is about. You know, well, basically it's passing it off to you. And you're tempted sometimes to say, oh, it's about 550 pages long. That's not what they're looking for, you know. (laughter) That's really going to mess them up big time. But -- so you have to give a little -- really, you spent seven years on this book, and you're expected to give two sentences of what it's about. That didn't happen with Brian Lamb, and you knew it wasn't going to happen. He was going to ask some very penetrating, probing questions based on his reading. And as you say, his marginalia pointed it out and indicates it. I'm sure it did. It was just really quite a good experience. And I find that especially when you're doing a three or four or five-minute appearance on TV, that's pretty good. If you get up to five minutes, you're really getting a long appearance. Newspaper reporters may give you more time, but the newspaper profile is disappearing from the face of the earth. There aren't very many newspapers that have full-time book coverage anymore. We all know the sad state of newspapers, and it's not going in a direction that I find very encouraging from my own personal standpoint. It's just fewer opportunities to get your message out there to people who would be interested in it. So when you put all of that in the context of what Brian Lamb did on Booknotes, Booknotes really stand alone in my view then and still set the standard.
Well, actually Mr. Lam asked you one of the more unique questions that he ever asked, and I think it points directly at what your book is about. He asked you at one point, "I spent $35 on this book. What am I supposed to get out of it?"
Yeah, that was a tough question actually. I don't know what my answer was to be truthful, but I hope you get your $35 worth. This isn't the kind of thing that you get your money back. You say, "Gee, I didn't much care for that." Although I can tell you people have suggested that sometimes. "Hey, I didn't like the book. Can I get my money back?" Well, thankfully that's not the way it works with books. I mean, you buy the book and you read it, and let's hope you get your $35. At $35, there was a lot of money back in 1995. It's a lot of money today. My most recent book lists for $35. Of course, with Amazon, you can get it for less than that. But what I hope is that you get something that entertains you, that informs you, that gives you some insight on this subject that I've chosen to spend seven years of my life researching and writing and developing and traveling to all four points. I'm going to go to all four points of a compass to get these stories and to integrate them in a way that will be a contribution not only to the entertainment value out there, but to the world of letters to make a contribution. And here we are next year. It will be the 20th anniversary of "General Madness," which will be published in 1995. So 2015 is the 20th anniversary. It's still in print. It's been through eight hardcover editions, 20 or so paperback editions, more than 120,000 copies in print. And it's taught in colleges and universities all over North America, and I dare say offshore in some places. I go on WorldCat, you know, which is the listing of libraries that report copies of it. And "General Madness" is in at least 1,300 libraries, probably more, because all of the libraries that have it don't report to OCLC. So that's very rewarding. That's really what it's all about. It's not just the sale of books. One of my just fondest memories was when I went out to California, San Francisco. I was researching one of my later books. I think it was "Patience and Fortitude," "This Wonder of Letters." Whatever, I did an interview with the author Tilly Olson, a wonderful writer now deceased, but a great, great writer. Yeah, this was for "Patience and Fortitude," because I was interviewing her for the San Francisco Library chapter. And she wanted to familiarize herself with me. And so when I got to her apartment, and she was a great believer, she wasn't formally educated. She always said that her education came from the public library, and she was a great champion of the San Francisco Public Library. That was changing. They were replacing books with electronic books, and that was the subject of that particular chapter. I wanted her insights on it. So I went to her apartment, and when I arrived, she had a copy of "A Gentle Madness" there, and it was the library copy. And she said, "Here, take a look at this." And I go to the back, and of course, this was, oh, about 1997, 1998. And the book had just, I don't know, 40 different stamps in it, people who had borrowed it already and read it. I took a photograph of it. I still have the photograph. It was just, it was thrilling. This particular copy of this book, and they had multiple copies of the book, had been borrowed and read by no fewer than 35 or perhaps as many as 40 people. So what's a book? You talk about what do you get for the 35 bucks. Well, I think this is, when you get into a public library, what do they get for their 35 bucks? Well, there are at least 40 people that got a benefit out of that. And I'm hopeful still it's still in the library. It probably is because it's probably one of those 1,300 libraries that still has, still reports having a copy of it. That's my answer to that.
I've got one library copy under my right elbow right now.
There you go
Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research in writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think other authors and publishers find them interesting?
I think absolutely. I can't claim to be the person who invented this particular phrase, but I use it often enough. And it's that if everybody could write a book, everybody would. You know, I get questions all the time, "Do you think I could write a book if I set my mind to it?" And I say, "Well, that's up to you." But really I don't think everybody can, is equipped. And I'm not just talking about the intellectual equipment that's necessary. That's just part of it. You're talking about a project that takes, for nonfiction writers, five, six, seven, eight years of seeing a book through from the beginning to the end. And again, we're talking nonfiction here. It is just a process. And if you begin from, if you, at the beginning, think of what you have in front of you if you look at it in terms of its totality, you'd never do it. You just have to take it one day, one step at a time. And I don't mean just the writing, but really who do I have to talk to today? How many words am I going to write today? How many books am I going to consult today? It's just a very complicated, involved process. And it's a marathon. And people are fascinated by how this is done. I certainly am. And I find that the questions I'm often asked as well, like, hey, when do you do your research? Do you take a nap in the afternoon? When is your best writing done in the morning? For me, it's in the morning. I like to do the -- I like to transcribe my interviews in the afternoon or do the other work at night. But, you know, I think that they are very keenly interested in the process. And I certainly have found it in my own travels. And I think that when Brian asked about that, I think he was -- he knew. I mean, this is a man who knew exactly what his audience -- nothing like that succeeds in a vacuum. I'm certain that Brian had heard from his viewers. I'm sure there were things about the show that they really liked and that he knew they liked. You know, just do something like this week after week and not get feedback. So I'm sure that he knew that his audience was interested in this. Otherwise, he wouldn't ask it of so many authors. So I'm certain of it that people like it and they appreciate hearing of every different process.
And you also came at the process as an investigative journalist rather than just as a literary critic.
And I continue to do that. It's -- the academics would call it an interdisciplinary approach. And it is. I mean, for me, everything's in play. I use a book. I use catalogs for auctions. I use a book for a book store because there's great material in there. I have a vast library of books, not because -- I mean, I enjoy having them around here, enjoy looking at them, and they certainly make for good wall decorations. There was a very interesting C-SPAN, by the way, program. Richard Hall came up here and did a C-SPAN tour of my --and it's still online, in fact.
Whoever did the Wikipedia entry about me and all my C-SPAN appearances, and there's six or seven of them there. One of them is the trip here to my house. And among my books, you know, we are awash in books here. But these books are not decorations. These books are tools of the trade.So I try to use everything that's available, everything that's out there. But for me, the process really involves going to the story, you know, as much as I appreciate this telephone. And the other modern things that we have are Internet, which I love and which I use and which has become so essential to me. There's still no substitute for going out there and getting the story, talking to the person that you want to interview face-to-face, eye-to-eye. And if you're writing about their libraries or their collections or whatever it is, I think you have to go and see it, you know. I mean, we can all do stories from a distance, I guess. But at many times that's the only way to do it. I've certainly done it and I'll continue to do it. But for me, there's still no substitute for going to the story. There are just things that so surprise you that you never expected to find.
I found that particularly in "The Gentle Madness" and the chapter on the book thief, Stephen Blumberg.
Yes. The fellow who's - and Brian was very interested in Blumberg on the Book Outs interview. That stole something on the order of 20,000 books from 350 libraries in 45 states over a 20-year period. And because he loved them and at his trial his defense was not guilty by reason of insanity. When you have a book called "The Gentle Madness," the guy's perfect. You have to have him. But when they recovered all of these books, the FBI, they put them in a warehouse in Omaha, Nebraska, that was like a secret warehouse. And I really wanted to go to that warehouse and to see those books and the FBI kept putting me off. And finally the agent does an exasperation. He said, "What do you want to come here for anyway?" "Just the library."I said, "Well, guess what? No kidding, that's what." But finally they agreed and I flew from Boston to Omaha, Nebraska. And he said, "I'll only give you 15 minutes in here." And you know what, it was worth it. I flew to Omaha. He picked me up at a McDonald's restaurant and we went to --he said, "Well, I'm not going to blindfold you." He was teasing. But we went there and he gave me 20 minutes. And you say, "Well, really, was it worth it going to the expense and the time and the effort just to write about something that you could write about anyway?" But if you start that chapter and I begin it, I walk into this room and there are these blinking security lights. There are FBI agents everywhere. And there are corrugated metal shelves, you know,kind of government-issued industrial shelves. But what made them very interesting were the little stenciled nameplates on them, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, New York Public Library, you know. And that's the kind of detail that you would never get, if you hadn't have been there and just been able to see this stuff, as they say, in situ. And so that's kind of my process.And I think people are very interested in that. And as you say, if you ask me about investigative reporting, that's kind of one of the elements that I brought to bear in that book and which I also have brought to bear in my subsequent books. My most recent, I might add, "On Paper," which is the title, "On Paper" was published by Knopf. And as we speak, it's one of three finalists for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. So I'm pretty excited about that. But it's the same exact technique that I used for "General Madness" that inherited almost 20 years later. So you do develop your procedures. And I find people are kind of interested in knowing how you go about it.
Well, congratulations on that nomination. That's exciting.
It's pretty exciting. My competition is pretty daunting. It stars Kearns Goodwin for --Oh, dear. And Sherry Fink, you know, for her to pull up her prize. So, you know, I'm just thrilled to be mentioned at that company and to be considered and to just have the Librarian -- because this is an award given by the American Library Association. And, you know, my favorite people in the world are librarians. So to be singled out by librarians is pretty special. So I'm just very happy to be mentioned. withthose two great women.
So if we can continue, Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions.
Actually, he usually just kind of barked out single words. Birthplace, education. Fine. Well, Massachusetts -- Yep. Did that -- Penn State, you know, fine. He's a journalist. I'm a journalist. I'm totally in sync with that. People want to know. You know, there was a school of literary criticism, to which I don't subscribe, that held you should only -- I think we're talking specifically here about fiction, but really it's only the text that should matter, that the biographical details should be apart from the text. And I think that's nonsense to say that the writer is not -- the biography of the writer, the life of the writer, is not a part, is not influential of what produces the book is nonsense. I mean, these books are -- we make these books. These books emerge from people, and your background, your life, your biography is all part of it. And he wanted to know. And again, I'm sure his audience wanted to know. He wouldn't have asked those questions if his audience didn't want to know these things. I mean, Brian Lamb was not just doing something to amuse himself. He was doing something to inform and to instruct his audience, and he had an extraordinary national following. Though I'm certain that he knew when he was providing a service to his audience, and these were some of the things they wanted to know. So I think that's perfectly in play and deservedly so. It belongs there.
Were you surprised by any of his questions?
One, just one. Just one caught me by surprise. It was just -- he asked me a question about -- he had read a little anecdote in the book about William Faulkner in New York going to a party at Bennett's Surfs' house, and Alfred A. Knopf was going to be there, and Alfred A. Knopf had spent the day going to secondhand bookstores in the Lower East Side, finding Faulkner First Edition, that he wanted Faulkner to sign for him, and Faulkner refused to do it. And so Brian asked me to talk about that. And it was just -- it was maybe if it was on half a page, if it took up 200 words in the book, you know, I was just kind of surprised that his reading brought him that deeply into the book. And it was an interesting little anecdote.You know, usually people want to know about my book, they want to know about Haven O' Moore, they want to know about the University of Texas, the institutional bibliomania chapter that I wrote about, which I think is still standing, if I may say so, a great chapter in the book. So many other things that really kind of captured the attention of readers. You know, these are the areas I expect to be asked about, and I was, but I really didn't expect that particular question, and it just spoke to the depth of his own research and preparation for the program, and it did kind of surprise me. Obviously I was able to answer it, but it was nice to meet you. But that was the one, that was the only one.
Well, you -- we've already established that you were a fan of Booknotes and had watched it before,but did your experience on the show change your impression of it?
Not at all. Just heightened it. Just -- again, I was very familiar with the program. I had been a regular viewer of it, and was really greatly honored and thrilled when I was told that I had been invited to appear on it. So I didn't come to the program without any prior knowledge of it or expectation, but I have to say that when I did the interview with Brian, and I was just so -- made so totally -- to feel so totally at ease, and I just thought his approach, his technique, the things he wanted to discuss, his willingness to give me an opportunity to just expand on my thoughts, and I tend to talk in a very circuitous manner. I really do go from one thing to the next, and he indulged in that. It was kind of wonderful. But I also felt in addition to the structure of the program and the way he -- his philosophy of it was just the fact that it performed such a public service. I mean, it wasn't just entertainment or there for educational value, and you don't want to just reduce it to saying, well, he's giving you some information on a consumer product. You know, some people look at book reviewing in that respect, well, okay, we're going to give you two stars, three stars, four stars, and a new product. Why are we thinking that? He didn't do that. What he was doing was singling out authors.I mean, this year, I think for the National Book Award, they considered more than 600 nonfiction books, you know, to try and pick a winner out of that. It's daunting. It's ridiculous. And that was 600 or so books that were submitted for consideration. How many hundreds of really worthy nonfiction books are published in a year? So to be singled out and to be invited to come and appear on a program where it is dedicated to profiling nonfiction authors and their works is really quite an honor, quite a privilege. And I admired not only the fact that Brian did this, but he exercised great selection. It wasn't just one particular type of book week after week. Nonfiction covers a great deal of -- has a great deal of latitude. I mean, it's biography, autobiography, memoir, history, kind of journalistic types of things.It's really -- nonfiction is a very, very broad area. And I think he took pains to be very selective, to give a sense of what is being published in a given year. And to be included in that mix was really quite a privilege and an honor for me. And I came away from my experience there thinking, indeed, what a great public service this has been. And I just bemoan the fact that nothing has come forward to take its place. Others have certainly tried and attempted similar kinds of things, but Brian Lamb had a certain elan and approach and I think an appreciation for what was being done. And I think a great respect for the creative process with respect to nonfiction, what goes into making such a book. It's not just the writing and the research. It's the thinking. It's coming up with the ideas and shaping these things into -- between hardcovers into a printed book. And I really believe he was -- I haven't had a chance to talk with him in recent years, but -- and I'm sure he'd be supportive of the electronic books. They brought a lot to the discourse and they're there and people read them. But I also believe that he had a great and abiding respect for the traditional book as we know it. And it was just so manifest in what he did. So I just came away from that experience with a great deal of respect for what he did. And I think in particularly, as I said, with regard to the public service that it performed. It really did perform a public service. And there was nothing else quite like it. And nothing has really replaced it either.
If we can zoom out a little bit and think about the entire Booknotes series, the Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantage of an 800-book collection with this focus?
Well, it's a snapshot, you know, of a certain time in American publishing, in American history. It's because it profiled books that had been recently published. So he didn't jump around and pick an author who had a wonderful book 10 years ago or 15 years ago or five years ago. So I guess the parameters were that it was new, fairly new, something that's just been released, and we're going to talk about it. And so for those, however many years it was from the late '80s into the present century, it was a snapshot of what was going on. And not only a snapshot of what was going on, but what Brian Lamb -- again, this is seen thro ugh his eyes, too. He's making the decision, to go back to my earlier point, how many hundreds of nonfiction books are published in a year. So he had to do a vet. He had to go through a vetting process. So you're really seeing -- you're really getting some insight into the kinds of books that he felt he wanted to discuss on his program and to introduce to his viewers, and that you have all 800 of those books together in one place is remarkable. And I say this as a person who also, from 1978 to 1999, 21 years, did a weekly -- 52 weeks a year, 21 years -- series of author interviews. They weren't for broadcast, but they were uniformly done in person, face-to-face in Boston or New York or wherever I met these authors, and I did one every week. And I also have a library of about 700 of these books that I've retained. And as I look at them, I say, well, what is this? Of course, the books in my library are not just nonfiction, but I was a literary editor for a newspaper in Massachusetts and then syndicated about 30 newspapers around the country, largely in university cities and state capitals. So it was a lot of -- it was really what I felt was something worth writing about in a given week. It would be an interview with an author. My point is, you know, you ask me about the value of the 800 books that you have there, I say, well, I have a great sense of what it is because I have 700 similar kinds of books, you know, here in the shawls that surround me in my house. And when you look at the books, you're looking at the representations of not just what's between the hard covers, but the authors who conceived these subjects, created them, wrote them, and you have them all right there. And they are a resource, and particularly since Brian annotated them, so you have his thoughts and his perceptions written right in there. And you have the tapes of his broadcasts, you know, so it's really a great package. It's just those 800 books. I think it's the whole process that's represented by what you have there.
Well, I know we've got books on the shelves that certain authors would like to forget.
Well, there you go.
That we've got -- you know, certain authors are rather like yourself, are really proud to be there, and certain authors, I'm sure, there's a handful that look at what's on that -- what's representative of their work on the shelf and just kind of roll their eyes. Well, that's the way it goes. But Mr. Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time, you know, which -- yeah, that was -- from the author's standpoint, that's unfortunate. But I understand it completely, you know. Again, to go back for the third time, how many books -- how many nonfiction books are written in a year that are worthy?
Sure. You know, dozens of them. And Brian was being very democratic here, and he said, you know, I've got one hour a week. There are only 52 of these hours in a year. So if you're on once -- and he was firm about it. It didn't matter if you'd won three or four Pulitzer Prizes, not that there's anyone that has. You're still only going to get one shot on Booknotes his reasoning for doing that, because there's such a plethora of good, worthy books out there and good, worthy authors, and he was trying to introduce as many of them as he could to his audience. So if we could -- I understood it and I understand it completely.
If we could bend the rules, would you be on it again?
In a heartbeat. Okay. What time -- I'll get the next plane down from Boston or Providence to DC and I could be there for tomorrow morning.
Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?
Yeah, that's a good question, because if you know anything of the publishing history of "General Madness," it was -- my book was really very hard to place with a publisher, and so many New York publishers passed on it. And the feeling was not the merits of the writing or the concept or the premise, but the general belief that it was so arcane that a general readership wouldn't be interested in it. I mean, really, who's interested in a bunch of crazy book collectors? That was part of the going thing. And so many publishers passed on it, and then Alan Peacock at "Hope" took a chance and published it, and the first printing was like 4,900 copies, you know, which sold out, by the way, in three days.
Within the first month of publication, which was August 1995, we were into our third hardcover printing. Ultimately, there would be a hardcover printing. So I think by the time I got onto the program in October of '96, the book was getting wonderful reviews. I mean, it didn't get a bad review anyway.It got reviewed beautifully in the New York Times. Michael Dyrter at the Washington Post pulled it's a prize-winning critic, gave it a fabulous review. And it didn't have -- I think in the whole history of that book, there were only two advertisements. There was one in the New York Review of Books for Christmas, and there was another one in the Times, a very small one in the Times Book Review. But otherwise, the popularity and the reputation of that book was passed and spread around by word of mouth and by good reviews. And then I got on Booknotes. So there was already a nice buzz going forward. And I was signing -- in fact, I did the LAM interview in October of '96, so I was in town at the same time to do -- there was an antiquarian book fair going on in the district. And I must have signed -- oh, I don't want to exaggerate -- but easily 150 copies of the book, which was astounding. I mean, there was a line, a long line of people who had heard about it, and they were bibliophiles. And nothing like my book had been done before in this particular field, so it was really getting a buzz. So I can't say that, you know, getting on the Booknotes made the book what it was, but it really did elevate it to a higher level, introduced it to more people, people who wouldn't normally be interested in the subject that I was writing about came to it. The interview was a great success because it must have been because they rebroadcast it over and over again. And you can still see it online, you know.
And the sales just kept -- I'll tell you what I believe to have been. I can't say it was entirely attributable to Booknotes, but I certainly think Booknotes had a lot to do with it, is that the paperback was supposed to come out in 1996. And so there's always confusion now when you go to the copyright page and it says there, you know, this is the first OWL edition. Well, the OWL edition was the paperback, and it was supposed to come out in '96, but because the hardcover was doing so well and continued to do very well after the book notes' appearance, they didn't bring out the paperback until 1998. They waited three years.
Because the paper -- because people were buying the hardcover. They loved the hardcover. It was a beautiful book. It was big. They wanted a nice copy of it. And they were getting $35 for it, too, and the paperback was like $16. I mean, that was a business decision that Old made. That had nothing to do with me. But -- and I really believe that pm Booknotes -- you know, when you get a national book, you're going to be able to get a shot like that. And the thing of it is the people who watched Booknotes were inclined -- these were book people, so you had a target audience from the beginning. It's not like you just appeared on television on, you know, where they have other different things that they're doing. I mean, Booknotes was -- I think it was 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, and people were watching books. They went there and they watched it and they passed the word. And so you had an immediate impact. And very definitely it influenced, I think, the longevity of that book and the public reception of it. So --
Well, thank you.
For me, it was just -- it was miraculous.
Well, thank you for clarifying that, because I -- you know, I was curious as to, you know, if we -- there was this understanding of who the audience was, your book was perfectly aimed to this audience. But I would like to ask you, did your experience with Brian Lamb and book notes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your own research or writing?
For that, I have to say, I think I pretty much have my own -- have developed an approach that works for me. Maybe, if anything, it just reinforced what I have, what works for me. And being on that program and reaching the people that we did in such a positive way, I felt that I was doing something right. He asked me the question, by the way, come to think of it. Brian asked me the question on the program. Because, again, to go back to your earlier question about the -- he said, has the unexpected success -- he might have put it in different words -- but has the unexpected success of this book been a surprise to you? You know, it seems to have surprised everybody else in the industry. And he actually, in interviews that he did on C-SPAN later, somebody like Nan Talese, a very prominent and highly respected New York author, who was one of many editors who had passed on the book, and she admitted it on air. He asked her, he said specifically, how do you feel when you pass on a book that I don't think has much of a chance in the marketplace? And he said specifically, Nicholas Basbanes' "General Madness." And he said, what does that tell you? And she responded, she said, yes, we did look at it. We thought it had merit. And I agree, we didn't think it had much sales potential, and it was a great mistake. I'm sorry about it. You know, so who knows? But he asked me the question, did it surprise you? And I said, to be honest with you -- my answer was honest. I said, to be honest with you, the degree of response has been very pleasant and very rewarding. But to say, does it surprise me? In all immodesty, it doesn't, because I knew that I'd written a terrific book. [laughter] I did the very, very best I could possibly do with that book. I poured my heart and soul into it, and I spent seven years on it. And I've always believed that if you get a good story, and this book is loaded with great stories, not just good stories, and if you tell them well, then the likelihood is that you're going to get an audience. You're going to succeed. And so, no, I'm not surprised at all, because I know the stories were great, and I know I did justice to them. And my confidence in the project seemed to be justified. So I think that kind of answers the question.
It definitely does.
And again, that applies to my technique, the approach that I take to the task, which I said earlier, you know, I regard as a kind of an interdisciplinary approach, which means everything's in play.
If it's a great story, I'll move heaven and earth to get it in there, you know, even if it may not seem appropriate to the task at hand, I'll make it appropriate. I'll find a way to get it in there. That's a tip I learned from Mario Puzo. When I interviewed him, he had done three or four books that were beautifully received critically but didn't do anything. And then it came time to do "The Godfather," and he said, "Well, I'm going to do everything the editors have told me not to do," which is, you know, if it doesn't really belong, leave it out. He said, "Well, my feeling is if it's a great story, it's going in. I'll find a way to get it in." You know, and I've kind of lived by that rule, I have to say. If it's a great story, I will get it in there.
Yeah, but both you and Mario Puzo were putting yourselves in -- well, you weren't necessarily putting yourself in danger. You were dealing with some pretty unsavory characters.
Yeah, yeah, he was writing fiction, too.
But that's one thing I have to say. When I found a crime story to include in "The Gentle Madness," I was dealing with a book thief, you know. [laughter]Who wouldn't hurt a fly? [laughter] Kind of funny. But anyway, I hope that was responsive to the question.
Yeah, oh, yeah, yeah. So I'd like to know what have you been working on after this book, and which works for you most please?
Well, this was the first, so, you know, Joe Heller's first book was "Catch 22," and that's a tough one to follow, you know. Absolutely. And I wrote a book called "The Gentle Madness," and that phrase has entered the language of -- and, you know, people say, "Well, I've got the gentle madness," or "I'm gently mad," and they don't even sometimes attribute it to the title of the book.
That's a compliment in a way. When you coin a phrase like that and it becomes idiomatic to describe bibliomania, you know, you're doing something right.
There you go.
On the other hand, it made it a tough act to follow. But I did do -- I have done eight subsequent books, and I'm proud of all of them, "Patience and Fortitude," which was kind of a companion volume
to "Gentle Madness." It did expand the field a little bit. It wasn't just collectives, but it was libraries, librarians. Again, some people might think that's boring, but if you tell a history of kind of a very selective chronological history of the development of libraries and booksellers, book people, book places, that was "Patience and Fortitude." Then I did "Splendor of Letters," which took in book issues of the day. Then every book is a reader, which was my reading book, which I put together a dream team of people who have been influenced by the things that they have read and how they helped shape the world in many respects. So there was that. Then the most recent book called "On Paper" was really kind of a departure for me because the initial premise for that was to examine the stuff of transmission, the various writing surfaces that we have used for books, which have been many baked-clay tablets, papyrus, which is not paper, silk and bamboo in China, I mean any number of different things, pottery shards, whatever, palm leaves, and then for over a thousand years, paper. So it's really started -- that book started eight years or so ago. It took me eight years to do that one as an examination of writing surfaces, but it took off and just acquired a life of its own where it became kind of a cultural history of paper in general out of 18 chapters, only three or four deal of libraries of books, and I'm just exceedingly proud of that book. It's had absolutely fabulous reviews and a nice response, and as I mentioned, it was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal, which is kind of cool. And so it's been a nice ride for me, I have to say. I've done, I guess it's nine books now, and I'm getting ready to start another one, which I'm not quite prepared yet to say what it is because it's under submission, not the book itself, but the proposal, and one never knows, does one? It's met with a very good response so far, but you don't know until you see
someone actually making an offer for it. I'm confident that I'll be starting work on it very shortly, and it will be book-related. It'll have a book-inspired theme, but it'll be more of a biography of some very interesting people and their times, and it really shouldn't take that long to do because I can pretty much do the whole thing in the Boston/Cambridge area. It will be set around here in the 19th century, so that's a lot. That's giving you a lot of information. You can probably figure out what it is.
Well, we're definitely looking forward to it. If I could ask in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times?
Well, I just think that it set the standard. It set the standard for the author interview and broadcast journalism. I acknowledge that it was just nonfiction, not just nonfiction, but it was limited to nonfiction, but it set the standard. It was an hour-long program where an author was given the privilege and the time to present himself, to present herself, and the work at hand, and nothing quite like it has come along since. It was really a watershed moment, I think, in the process of introducing books and authors to an interested readership. It just set the standard. I don't know how else to define it.
Well, is there anything -- this is my last question -- Is there anything you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?
I just want to say that I just so profoundly appreciate Brian Lamb's dedication to books, to authors, and the creative process, and that he made it a point to introduce some kind of reading this now because I've thought about it. The work of so many worthy writers to a very important national audience. His approach to the task was to encourage his guests to give an account of themselves and their work in one uninterrupted hour, and he allowed us the freedom to speak our minds. It was wonderful, and I'm honored to have been a part of it.
Well, Mr. Basbanes thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. We certainly appreciate it.