Our Collection

Books About Books by Barbara Bieck, Special Collections Librarian

In this installment of Book Recommendations, New York Society Library Special Collections Librarian Barbara Bieck highlights her favorite books on books. The books featured here are not works of literary criticism, but rather studies of books as material objects, those perfect vessels for recording and conveying information and stories. A list of recent arrivals on books and reading follows Barbara’s recommendations.

As a special collections and rare book librarian, it may not come as a surprise that one of my favorite sections in any library or bookstore is the books about books section. This genre covers a wide range of topics for people interested in books and in reading generally. Whether your interests lie in riveting tales of theft and intrigue, or you prefer accounts about the sometimes eccentric lives of booksellers, one can always find something fascinating on these shelves. Do you like to read mysteries? Biographies? Some excellent stories are tucked away in this section. Are you an aspiring book collector looking for advice about the trade? Books about books are there to help you in your time of need. 

I’ve compiled a short list below of some of my favorite nonfiction books about books from the Library’s collection; books that I think are interesting and accessible to both bibliophiles and the biblio-curious.

I first came across the works of Nicholas Basbanes during my time in graduate school. A professor recommended I read A Gentle Madness, so I dutifully began carting the tome around the city, planning to break up what I assumed was a dry book about books and their collectors into short bursts of reading during my commute. I abandoned that plan immediately after devouring the first chapter. Basbanes flawlessly weaves anecdotes into his deep research, creating a fascinating narrative about this disease called bibliomania. Basbanes effortlessly portrays the thrill and excitement of collectors on the hunt, combing through dusty bookshelves, bidding at auctions, and participating in some light, and some not-so-light subterfuge, all in the name of collecting. This timeless master chronicle of bibliomania is an enjoyable celebration of books and the passionate people who have revered and preserved them over the centuries. 

Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture is another delightful Basbanes book. Drawing its title from the names of the beloved marble lions guarding the Fifth Avenue entrance to the New York Public Library, Basbanes continues the exploration of book culture he began in A Gentle Madness. Utilizing ever more anecdotes, he devotes more space to book history and the physical shift of the book form over centuries. Basbanes also discusses the evolving nature of those institutions that contain books, ranging from public to private libraries and from bookstores to national repositories. The Library holds several more books by Mr. Basbanes, including the most accessible book about the history of paper one can read. If you think it’s impossible to wax poetic about paper, your mind will be changed by On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History.

Larry McMurtry, a Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and historian, is also a passionate book lover. The prolific author dedicated a significant portion of his time to bookselling, and owned and operated his own bookstore, Booked Up, until 2012. Books: A Memoir is McMurtry’s account of his life as both a reader and a writer, filled with entertaining anecdotes and interesting characters; peppered with observations about authors, literature, and the eccentrics who collect and sell rare books (including himself).

If you enjoy memoirs, Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller offers a snarky account of the various customers who dare enter his bookshop in the small Scottish village of Wigtown. Detailing the everyday quirks and trials of owning a bookstore over a year, Bythell draws upon his acerbic wit to entertain readers, while creating a larger underlying narrative of the plight of small business owners in the age of behemoth monopolies like Amazon. Another entertaining read by a bibliophile for bibliophiles is Paul Collins’ Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. Collins recounts moving his young family from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, a small Welsh town and haven for book lovers. Through accounts of his day-to-day life sorting American literature in one of the 40+ used bookstores in town, Collins manages to instill in readers a sense of the importance books play in our lives. Engagingly interspersed with tidbits of book trivia and commentary on the production of his first book, Sixpence House is an interesting read for those looking to get lost in a meditation on what books mean to readers.  

For those who prefer a harrowing tale, I recommend Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. Blanding describes the theft of several million dollars’ worth of maps from the Special Collections departments of renowned institutions like the New York Public Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Taking advantage of the goodwill shared between librarians and antiquarian book dealers, E. Forbes Smiley III orchestrated one of the largest thefts in the library world, stealing hundreds of maps, sometimes cutting them out of rare books, to then sell piecemeal to other collectors. Smiley was eventually convicted of stealing 97 rare maps valued at more than $3 million, and sentenced to 42 months in prison, and Blanding makes a case that he has not truthfully returned all of the maps he has stolen. In fact, Blanding insists that Smiley still has hundreds of maps in his clutches, according to records and information shared by librarians. Blanding delves into the details surrounding Smiley’s turn to the dark side of the antiquarian book trade, and offers a different look into the cutthroat world of the collector, where rare items are attained by any means possible.  

If you are looking for books on collecting and the rare book trade, the Library offers a range of titles to browse through. Books and Book-Collectors by John Carter is a seminal look into the lives of collectors that stands the test of time. Carter also co-authored the ABC for Book Collectors, an informative and entertaining must-read reference for anyone entering the world of book collecting. It includes helpful explanations of everything ranging from Adams (a reference frequently found in booksellers’ catalogues) to Zinco. More practical guides abound for beginners in the trade; you can search through the 010s in Stack 11 to find something that suits your purposes.

Recent Books of Interest

To search for more books in our online catalog, start with the subject headings below. Once you get your call number, head to stack 11 and browse around the book you are looking for. You never know what you might find next to it.