A bibliophile’s bibliophile to visit Sweet Briar

| March 18, 2014

Love books? It is fair to say that Nicholas Basbanes does. He recently published his ninth volume on them.

The author will be at Sweet Briar College as the featured Friends of Library spring meeting speaker to talk about his most recent volume, “On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History,” at 7 p.m. Friday, March 21, in the Wailes Lounge at the Elston Inn Conference Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Nicholas Basbanes

Since “On Paper” was published in October, it has been named a best or notable book of 2013 by the American Library Association, Bloomberg, Mother Jones and others — garnering quite a lot of attention for a history of something many people take for granted.

But paper was one of those transformative inventions that shaped humanity itself, Basbanes says. And beyond its value for recording ideas for posterity, it is and has been everywhere, from gun cartridges to toilet paper. That’s what got him so hooked, Basbanes told NPR’s Diane Rehm last October.

“It began as a continuation of my explorations into books and book culture, but it took on a life of its own because paper, while it’s a natural product, it’s also an idea and it really isn’t something that just would have happened. It really took perception,” he said.

So he begins his tale with the invention of paper in China and follows it whither it goes, Carlin Romano writes in The Chronicle Review, applying, Romano and other reviewers agree, the skill and straightforwardness of the reporter he was for several years.

“Soon enough, however,” Romano writes, “Basbanes is working all the angles — how our language teems with ‘paper’ metaphors and clichés, how Leonardo, Beethoven, and Edison would be unimaginable without paper, how its presence in architecture, espionage, gunnery, bureaucracy, and science practically determined those practices. Basbanes is a power hitter whose grand slam brings home other recent appreciators of paper.”

Publishers Weekly calls the book both “accessible” and “engrossing” and the author’s treatment of his subject “wide-ranging, freewheeling, authoritative,” a description that should be in keeping with his appearance at Sweet Briar.

“My talks are not scripted, and are meant to entertain,” Basbanes says, noting that his remarks will generally be drawn from the book, however.

Basbanes was an award-winning investigative reporter during the early 1970s before becoming the literary editor of the Worcester (Mass.) Sunday Telegram until 1991. For the next eight years, he wrote a nationally syndicated column on books and authors. His first book, “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books,” was a finalist in 1995 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His nine books cover cultural history, particularly books and book culture. He also writes a featured column for Fine Books & Collections magazine.

Basbanes and his wife, Constance, are Friends of Library members and the parents of Nicole Basbanes Claire ’04, for whom the annual Student Book Collecting Contest at Sweet Briar is named. Their older daughter, Barbara Basbanes Richter, is a free-lance writer and reviewer. Nicole is a librarian.

For more information about the Friends of Library or the lecture, please contact Joe Malloy at [email protected].

Jennifer McManamay


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