PATIENCE & FORTITUDE is a continued study of books and book people, primarily dedicated to the exploration of libraries both past and present. Basbanes's easy narrative style induces the reader to relax into an easy chair of history and anecdote. Of interest, Basbanes begins his narrative with a description of the ancient Library of Alexandria and winds up with a discussion of the modern attempt to recreate the past. Named the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, this new world library has been plagued by various trials and setbacks from the outset. The idea, born in the 1970s as a way for Egypt to regain a touch of its ancient glory, gained support from UNESCO in the 1980s, and has received both international dollars, praise, and criticism. As this massive structure dedicated to books and knowledge grows near the Nile Delta, we can only hope that through private and international book donations and support the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will live up to its ideals and promises. The original opening date came and went, and is now slated for International Book Day, April 23, 2002.
Interspersed throughout the scholarly historical material, Basbanes also introduces the reader to a long line of book people, both pragmatic and eccentric. One collector, Able Berland, made mention that his collection of incunabula, his dearest friends, would soon go back on the auction block. His dedication to collecting was such that he beleived the only way to preserve the art of collecting was to allow present and future bibliophiles access to collections, keeping the spirit of ownership and preservation alive and well. Berland believed explicitly in the chase and the re-circulation of titles and rarities back into the open market. Time wants to grant wishes to visionaries, and Berland's collection went to the market soon after the publication of PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE. I had the privilege of watching, via C-Span, the dispersion of Berland's collection at auction, hosted by Basbanes. As a very amatuer collector I found myself intrigued by the dollar amounts spent per volume, and yet cheering each and every purchase. Nicholas Basbanes, ever the gracious host, steered us through the auction process with succinct interviews, knowledge, and absolute passion.
The final third of "Patience & Fortitude" deals primarily with the modern library and the direction the future will take them. Basbanes writes of the budgetary constraints libraries face and the cost effectiveness of engaging electronic media to fulfill their needs. The classic library continues to grow its book collection, while maintaining high quality subscription rates for periodicals. Ever looking to control expenditures, librarians are now forced to make hard choices. As a Trustee for my local library, I can tell you that these decisions are very hard and need public debate. Our biggest fear is that eventually, 20 years or so hence, we may rue the loss of original source material. Santyana reminded us best about forgetting the past, or losing the knowledge we have gained. Empirical studies show that declines in book collections at the university level correlates with a decline in advanced degrees awarded at said institutions. I cannot help but wonder then if there is a direct correlation between the decline of collections in public libraries and the economic welfare of the communities impacted. We stand at the cusp of change and need to address it head on.
As a life long bibliophile, I enjoy books about books almost as much as I enjoy collecting and reading books themselves. So, for any person who considers themselves a "book person," I heartily reccommend PATIENCE & FORTITUDE as well as Basbanes previous bestseller, A GENTLE MADNESS. We live the past and rediscover the future through Basbanes. I, for one, am looking forward to his filling in the existing gaps with his third installment.
Reviewed by Tony Parker on October 2, 2001
Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture