Saturday, May 16, 2009


Nicholas H. Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude, as well as one of my favorites in this "trilogy of bibliophilic efforts", A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, delivered the 2009 Lazerow Lecture, "Fruits of a Gentle Madness", at UCLA's Department of Information Studies last Thursday afternoon. It was an entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring talk, to a most receptive group of bibliophiles and bibliomanes -- the passionate lovers of books and the obsessive collectors of the printed word in all its forms.

Basbanes is an engaging writer, and his narrative in print is matched by his captivating storytelling ability. I, for one, couldn't stop smiling (especially when he said he reads what he's written aloud to his wife, since I'm accustomed to reading my writings to my husband in the middle of the night - usually when he'd much rather be sleeping).

At the end of the talk, our speaker entertained questions from the audience. I felt like the eager 4th grader I once was (many decades ago!), and asked whether or not there would be future editions of A Gentle Madness (1995), in which he inaugurated the lively, richly anecdotal exploration of book people, places, and culture for which he has become well-known and -loved. This allowed me to recount an unforgettable moment in the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library's 1986 attempted bibliocide at the hands of an arsonist on April 26, 1986.

At the aftermath of the fire, which consumed some 750,000 books and water-damaged some 400,000 more in the third largest public library in the country, the staff was called back to begin the sinister task of biblio-triage and packing the survivors of this cataclysm. As the manager of the then Foreign Languages Department (mercifully renamed International Languages Department in 1994), I was responsible for the well-being of its multi-language collections. During the harrowing 72 hours that ensued, the brittle, charred remains of a book came tumbling the stairs next to the Department. I gently picked it up, noting that it had fallen open to the title page. The title--Dieu te juge-- startled me. "God is judging you," it said. Was that warning a prophecy from the Almighty? I pondered. The book had to be saved, and by none other than me. Twenty three years have elapsed since that fateful day. Edouard Peisson's novel, Dieu te juge, (Paris: Grasset, 1955), has been under my tender care in a Ziploc gallon-size baggie, and only yesterday did it emerge from its protective encasement to have its title page be digitally photographed for the ages. I will have to borrow a copy to read, since the one in my possession is too fragile to have its pages turned.

The period of mourning for the City's great loss has long passed. Like the proverbial phoenix, rising from the ashes, the requiem for and rebuilding of one of the world's great "universities of the people" has brought solace and relief to the citizens of Los Angeles.
My profound thanks to Nicholas Basbanes for autographing my copy of A Splendor of Letters, and especially for allowing me to relive that "can this be happening to me?" moment as I continue my journey within the world of books, libraries, and life-long learning. BTW: I now have a Basbanes collection, having purchased 5 other of his books. I must now make time to read them!



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