NEW YORK – The title of Nicholas Basbanes’ first book has entered popular usage. He coined the phrase “A Gentle Madness,” for his relationship with books, and his debut’s success drove him to write seven more on various aspects of books and book culture.
He has long planned to chart new seas, however, and his current best seller, “On Paper,” is about…paper.
There are no apologies. “It was logical that the next book would be about the medium of transmission,” he told The National Herald.
Professional dedication, not real madness, fueled his interest. As the Literary Editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram, books were his focus for 21 years, during which he interviewed more than a thousand authors.
There is no doubt about his passionate nature however. He met wife Constantina when he was a young reporter and she was hostessing at her family’s restaurant. “I met her there and I was dazzled and I remain dazzled after 36 years of marriage.”
He may have inherited bibliophilia from his parents, John and Georgia Basbanes, both born and raised in Lowell, MA, life-long hard workers who built a linen supply business, and who had little time for books. But when it came to their children, they spared no expense for their education.
Love of learning was in the air, and a bit of imagination. “My most treasured object as a kid was my library card – my passport into wonder.” His brother George became another kind of wordsmith – an attorney.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a writer,” he said, but his dream was to write a book. That’s why he calls himself a poster-child for late bloomers even though he wrote millions of words before A Gentle Madness as reporter from his college days for the Worcester Evening Gazette and the Sunday Telegram.
His fellow famous Greek writer from Lowell (he graciously cedes first place among Lowell writers to Jack Kerouac) Nicholas Gage, is not only a friend and neighbor but a mentor who recommended him for a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer – which was about to win a string of Pulitzer Prizes .
That became one of Basbanes’ great “what ifs.”
“I had just started dating my wife, so I chose love over work…but they began an investigative team and we won some prizes too.”
In 1978 they appointed him to the Literary Editor position. “I think I was born for that job.”
His deep commitment to research that is the bedrock of his books stems from his experience as an investigative journalist. He loves telling stories through field research, and his readers reciprocate: They love him for the power of his narrative and also delight in the facts he intersperses in his tales.
He informs, for example, that paper made literally from cotton rags – an Arab discovery – is still the best, and he tells of his visit to villages in China where papermaking has not changed in 18 centuries.
Consciously deciding to reach a wider audience , only 4 of On Paper’s 18 chapters deal directly with books. “it’s a much broader cultural history of this extraordinary product and its social consequences.”
Paper’s 1800-year history can be traced with precision he said, from the Chinese who invented it, to the Arabs who developed it and became its major producers, to the Europeans who used it to create the modern world through the original information explosion facilitated by the printing press.
The Arabs embraced paper and turned calligraphy into a venerated art form, but they refused to take the next step. Printing presses were outlawed for 300 years, guaranteeing the Europeans would surpass them.
Basbanes has a chapter called “Fiery Consequences” about historical conflagrations provoked by paper, and “Thinking on Paper” explores the power of paper as a tool – a device essential to the creative activities of people like Da Vinci and Beethoven.
His concluding chapter, “Elegy in Fragments,” is a meditation on the aftermath on 9/11 inspired by the mountains of paper and fragments thereof that were scattered throughout New York.
”Paper was hip deep in some places…it is hideously ironic that the only artifacts of any substance to survive those attacks were paper.”
He discovered some remarkable things, including what is known as the 84th floor document, a plea for help from a floor whose inhabitants had been believed to have died instantly. A smudge on it was as yet unidentified blood when he finished writing the book.
But the writer was identified in time for the epilogue.
Basbanes told TNH that the conversation he had with his daughter, who suddenly learned that her father was both a hero and had suffered more than she had believed, remains his toughest interview after 50 years in the business.
His next book will really be a departure: A new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.