Sunday, December 31, 2006

My Best (and Worst) Books of 2006

I read 154* books in 2006, which works out to about one every two and a half days. Since I would be awfully hard-pressed to pick a simple top ten from those I'll split it up and do ten each of fiction and non-fiction (and then ten each of the ones that disappointed me, just for good measure). Books are in no particular order within the categories, and were not necessarily published this year.

Fiction Top Ten
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (review)
Harry Potter and the ... by J.K. Rowling (yes, I read all six this year)
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke (review)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (review)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (review)
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (review)
A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss (I know, that's three, deal with it)
The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (review)
The Seville Communion by Arturo Perez-Reverte (review)
The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Nonfiction Top Ten
Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins (review)
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (review)
The Divided Ground by Alan Taylor (review)
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick (review)
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Portrait of an Obsession by A.N.L. Munby
A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes (review)
The Magic Circle of Rudolf II by Peter Marshall (review)
Rough Crossings by Simon Schama (review)
Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography by Nick Rennison (yes, it's sort of fiction, but it didn't belong in that category) (review)

Nonfiction Bottom Ten
Samuel Adams by Mark Puls (review)
1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies (review)
The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly (review)
Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton
What Would the Founders Do? by Richard Brookhiser (review)
Dark Bargain by Larry Goldstone (review)
One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski
Dante by Barbara Reynolds (review)
Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis
Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton (review)

Fiction Bottom Ten
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
The Collectors by David Baldacci (review)
The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer (review)
The Third Translation by Matthew Bondurant (review)
Lost by Gregory Maguire
Malefice by Leslie Wilson
The Master by Colm Toibin
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Death of Colonel Mann by Cynthia Peale
Death of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

*At least. As I wrote this post I kept finding more that I had forgotten.

Link Added

I've added a sidebar link to Bookride, a new blog by Charing Cross Road's own Nigel Burwood (of Any Amount of Books). Stop by and check it out.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Preparing for Potter

The release date hasn't even been announced, but the Globe and Mail reports that the Royal Mail Service is already making preparations for the arrival of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.* "More than 500,000 advance order copies of the sixth adventure, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were delivered on July 16, 2005, in an operation that required some 150 additional trucks ferrying books to around 1,400 delivery offices across Britain. While the number represents only a fraction of the 80 million items the Royal Mail delivers daily, the security - and secrecy - surrounding the work mean the books have to spend as little time as possible on warehouse floors, complicating their distribution."

Here's a wowser: Deathly Hallows is already the number one book at, based solely on pre-orders (I suppose that's got nothing to do with the fact that "reserve your copy now" is plastered right across the main page ...).

(h/t Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen).

* Yes, we now know the title. Exactly what definition Rowling's going for with "hallows" seems to be the big question on everybody's mind - well, after when the book's going to appear, that is.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Review: "The King's Three Faces"

Boston University history professor Brendan McConville's new book (his second) is The King's Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. It is billed as "a powerful counterthesis to the dominant American historiography," and while I think it undeserving of such melodramatic jacket blurbage, it is still not only an important book but also a good one, and should be widely read.

McConville's fundamental argument is that royalism in the American colonies ran very deeply from the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688) to the very start of the Revolutionary War in 1775-6. Over those decades, he maintains, rites and ceremonies honoring the British monarchs became engrained in the American way of life; this led to the creation of an emotional tie between the individual and the ruler that grew stronger through the early decades of the eighteenth century. Simultaneously in England, the people's bond with the monarch grew weaker while their support for parliament increased. McConville calls this trend paradoxical, but I think if he'd examined Americans' support for their elected colonial legislatures he would have found an important parallel that is entirely absent from this treatment.

The best portions of this book were those describing the various ceremonies used to honor the English monarchs and their families, as well as McConville's discussion of royal images as they were put to use in colonial America. I also was quite impressed with the section on a few of the proposals for structural redesigns of the imperial scheme that could well have averted the military revolution: McConville argues that because these were proffered by "outsiders" (that is, not by imperial bureaucrats who would have had to support any such changes for them to be effected), all such efforts were bound to fail. Nonetheless, there were some very imaginative plans put forth!

As McConville correctly notes, Americans' final break with George III was both abrupt and passionate - it was thought well through the first months of the Revolution that the monarch would not prosecute a war against the colonies, and when it became clear this was a misguided hope, the rupture was both fierce and extreme (witness the pulling down of the royal statue in New York City, for example). This is not a new argument, but its complementary piece (the long-running colonial feud with Parliament) is an important element in the runup to Revolution that McConville omits.

Since I always gripe about poor practices with footnotes, I must add some words of praise for this book: UNC Press has put McConville's references right where they belong, at the bottom of the page. Only the absence of a full bibliography is to be lamented in this case.

The King's Three Faces
is a well-written book; it simply tries to make too much of a splash by claiming to "reinterpret history"; McConville's excellent examination of American colonial royalism would stand quite firmly on its own.

On the Trail of Stolen Documents

Time has a 'exclusive' feature this week on Operation Historic Protector, an effort launched by NARA's Inspector General last month "to combat what many fear is a growing threat to the federal government's historical repository, as well as to state archives and university libraries: the pilfering of old letters, documents, maps, photographs, books and other historical artifacts."

Right now the project is pretty low-level, with two staffers from the IG's office assigned to monitor the manuscript trade in search of suspicious items. Paul Brachfeld, the inspector general, told the magazine that OMB has so far refused his request to fund the operation, "but he says he hopes to build up his force along with a network of outside artifacts experts around the country who will tip off his agents 'every time they find something suspicious. And we swoop down.'"

Brachfeld told Time that his office is investigating a "major case" of document theft "in which 'almost a hundred documents' are believed to have been stolen by a National Archives employee. Brachfeld would not discuss details of that case because 'it is awaiting prosecution.'" This one has not hit the news so far as I know.

In the wake of the Smiley/Berger/Harner/&c. cases in recent years, this doesn't seem like a bad idea. When I was at Union we recovered multiple items stolen from the library by monitoring eBay, so it certainly can be done. Clearly we can't just sit back and ignore the problem.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Paul Collins has not one but two Christmas Eve treats for us: in the New York Times today he has a short essay on a little-known political hit-piece by Clement Clarke Moore, the putative author of "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). In 1804, Moore published an anonymous pamphlet attacking then-president Thomas Jefferson for his views on religion and race relations as expressed in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. Collins remarks on the pamphlet, its context, and Moore himself.

And over at Weekend Stubble, Collins writes on a rather odd assignment he's been working on this year: an article in the current New Scientist about food which is decades or even centuries old. His post contains some great pictures of Boer War chocolate rations, and the full article is very much worth a read.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Top Ten Books at Auction, 2006

Fine Books & Collections will release its top fifty books sold at auctions in a couple months, but they've posted a preview: the top ten sales range from $781,000 for the 1595 Mercator atlas sold at Sotheby's to $5.2 million for the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio (also auctioned by Sotheby's). Nine of the top ten sold for more than a million bucks, with four fetching in excess of $2 million.

Christmas Card Craze

The AP has a dispatch about the origins of mass-produced Christmas cards - in 1843, Londoner Henry Cole produced about 1,000 engraved greeting cards, some of which he sent to friends and family (the extras were sold). Only some 20 of the originals exist today. By the 1870s the practice was spreading to America through Boston publisher Louis Prang, and this year, the article notes, Americans are expected to send something like 2 billion greeting cards.

AP also sidenotes that 1843 was also the year in which Charles Dickens released his now-classic tale A Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Spotty-Posting Warning

I'm off early Thursday for a nice long bus trip home to central NY for Christmas, so posting will probably be somewhat sporadic for the next week or so. Happy holidays to all!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Few Good Links

- BookFinder has tabulated their ten most-sought out of print books for 2006. Quite an, erm, interesting, list.

- Over at Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, Lew's got a selection of celebrity bookplates (mostly actresses).

- Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen has added some book-related Dürer and Schopper engravings to her CafePress shop - you can get them on t-shirts and totebags, and she assures us that mugs are "coming soon."

- Hugh Hollowell has a post listing everything you ever wanted to know about him but were afraid to ask (plus some).

- BibliOdyssey. Need I say more?

Defining Booksellers

Michael Lieberman has released Part I of Book Patrol's Bookseller Manifesto for the 21st Century, comprising new definitions for various types of bookseller: "Of course, on the most basic level, one who sells books is a bookseller. Unfortunately, the bookselling landscape has been so radically altered that the term bookseller has become void of any significant or specific meaning." Check out his new lexicon, and offer your comments if you're so inclined. Part II of the Manifesto, he says, will "deal with the fractured world of bookselling and offer some concrete ways booksellers can unite and succeed."

Massively "Grangerized" Bible Sold

A Devonshire rector's bible sold last week at auction for £47,000, reports the Church Times. What made this particular copy so expensive? Rev. Franke Parker had taken an 1800 edition of the Macklin Bible (normally bound in six or seven volumes, with a current price tag of around £600) and extra-illustrated it with more then 9,000 Old Master prints and engravings. By the time he was through, in 1883, he had the book bound in 63 volumes, each 20 inches tall (covering twenty feet of shelf space).

The bible had been in the possession of Henry Phillpotts, a Bishop of Exeter, whose library is being auctioned off (the Parker Bible was the first thing to go). The set attracted much attention from art collectors at the Dominic Winter auction house near Cirencester before the sale; it was purchased by an anonymous phone bidder.

Unfortunately, things here take a nasty turn. According to the auctioneer, the high bidder has "already extracted the prints and drawings he wanted", to the tune of some 300 illustrations. They now hope to sell the damaged set to "an American institution, which had expressed interest during the auction."

It's most unfortunate that the diocese did not attempt to find an institutional home for the bible where it could have remained intact as the unique oddity it is - to have it destroyed so recklessly is a great shame indeed. (That being said, I cannot condone the Rev. Parker's actions in creating such a montrosity, since he undoubtedly destroyed a good many books himself in the process).

Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Review: "God's Universe"

In God's Universe, Harvard Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science Emeritus Owen Gingerich spells out his views on the creation of the universe, arguing that "the universe has been created with intention and purpose, and that this belief does not interfere with the scientific enterprise." He believes that the universe can be seen as a more "coherent and congenial place if I assume that it embodies purpose and intention." In this modern-day natural theology (see William Paley's works for its earlier analogues), Gingerich says he has found a "subtle place for design in the world of science" (a force which brought about the big bang, for example, or caused the formation of DNA).

Gingerich is careful to distance himself from many sides in this debate. He laments the "primitive scriptural literalism that leads erroneously to a conclusion that the earth is only a few thousand years old", while at the same time chiding those who say they favor "Intelligent Design" for pitting their views as an alternative to Darwinism. "As a philosophical idea," he writes, "ID is interesting, but it does not replace the scientific explanations that evolution offers" (p. 74). However, he has just as much gentle remonstration for the hardline evolutionists, including Richard Dawkins, who "use their stature as scientific spokesmen as a bully pulpit for atheism. ... I suppose he single-handedly makes more converts to Intelligent Design than any of the leading [ID] theorists." He also has differences with E.O. Wilson over the question of purpose and randomness.

What is special about this book is its reasonableness. Gingerich does not argue that those who disagree with his view of the creation are wrong, simply that they see things differently. His fundamental point is well worth quoting here: "Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that there has occasionally been creative input into the long chain of being." As Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Darwin, Gingerich is a scientist who happens to believe in an active God - and that didn't stop any of them from being good scientists. (Likewise, I don't think the opposite belief hampers scientific investigation either; like Gingerich, it's extremism and closed-mindedness I have difficulty with).

Whether or not you agree with Gingerich's thesis, these short essays are both provocative and interesting. We need more calm, steady voices like his in the debate over the role of religion in science (and vice versa).

Book Review: "Phiz"

The improbably-named Hablot Knight Browne (aka, with good reason, "Phiz") is the subject of a recent biography by Valerie Browne Lester - Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Illustrator extraordinaire, Phiz was responsible for the engravings which accompanied many of Dickens' works in their original serialized form: it is his images of such timeless characters as Uriah Heep, Mr. Pickwick, and Dr. Manette in the Bastille that have engraved themselves on our collective literary memory. I thought this time of year would be quite appropriate for a read of it (I'm also having my semi-annual read-through of A Christmas Carol).

Lester's biography is the tale of the relationship (business and personal) between Phiz and Dickens, but also of his works with other authors less well-known today (Charles Lever, Harrison Ainsworth, and many more). It also aptly tells the story of Phiz' family life and other endeavours. Although Lester's position as her subject's great-great-granddaughter kept much criticism from the work (if Phiz had any faults, you won't learn of them here), it is nonetheless a fascinating look at Victorian literary culture.

It's an awful shame that both Dickens and Phiz destroyed much of their correspondence; from the letters which survive and are quoted here, it is reasonable to assume that those burned missives would be both hilariously witty and copiously illustrated with little sketches. A most unfortunate loss. This biography is, however, nicely illustrated with copies of various Phiz engravings - which complement the text beautifully - as well as sections of photographs.

A fine casual read.

Young Collectors Profiled

The Christian Science Monitor has a piece today on a few young book collectors, highlighting a panel discussion between a few of them at the Boston ABAA fair last month.

No Jail for Memorabilia Thief

The AP reports that Barbara Moore, a college teacher convicted for possessing stolen archival items from the papers of pianist Glenn Gould (she was acquitted on the theft charge in October) has been sentenced to pay a $5,500 fine and perform 60 hours of community service. Moore is believed to have snatched the papers when she was researching at the National Archives of Canada in the late 1980s.

(h/t Everett at ExLibris).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Book Review: "Schott's Almanac 2007"

Ben Schott, best known until now for his three "miscellanies" (Original; Food & Drink; Sporting, Gaming & Idling) has gotten into the almanac game; the 2007 edition was released this fall by Bloomsbury. Like the earlier volumes, this is a collection of entertaining and useful facts, organized by broad topics for easy browsing. Not really the sort of book to sit down and read in sequence, but perfect for dipping into now and then as the mood strikes you.

Like more "traditional" almanacs, Schott's includes some information pertinent to the year covered, including various awards presented, crime, election and other statistics, and the obligatory ephemerides. There are useful summaries of news stories and scientific studies, some handy glossaries, &c. &c. I particularly enjoyed the presidential comparison chart (p. 292-3), the book recommendations (p. 166) and the whole Books & Arts section (p. 159-180).

With occasional illustrations very reminiscent of those in the Wall Street Journal and a very nice design overall (even if the text does seem a little too small at times), this almanac is definitely worth a perusal, and I'll look forward to the 2008 edition with anticipation.

Rutgers Receives Central Europe Trove

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University has received a gift of what is believed to be the largest collection of modern Hungarian art outside Central Europe, reports the International Herald Tribune. The donation - from New York's Salgo Trust for Education - also includes a collection of 16th-19th century maps and rare books.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Museum in the Works for Extraordinary Collection

Yesterday the New York Times reported on a massive and marvelous collection of materials relating to African-American history which had been accumulated over many years by university librarian Mayme Agnew Clayton. Ms. Clayton, who died earlier this year, had collected more than 30,000 rare books by and about blacks, as well as "the world’s largest collection of 16-mm films made by blacks; 75,000 photographs; 9,500 sound recordings; and tens of thousands of documents, manuscripts and correspondence." Her son Avery is now working to create a museum and research center in Culver City, CA where the materials can be archived and displayed.

Highlights of the collection include a signed first edition of Phillis Wheatley's 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and rare copies of works by Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance figures. However, the distinctiveness of this collection is in its breadth and depth; experts told the Times the collection is "unmatched on the West Coast."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Book Review: "Pigeons"

Journalist Andrew Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird (released recently from Grove Press) provides an interesting cross-section of "pigeon culture" around the world today. From the racing and breeding clubs of New York, Europe, and China to the shooting clubs of rural Pennsylvania, to a "squab factory" in South Carolina and the "bird control" outfits of, well, every major city, Blechman surveys the great variety of relationships humans have had and continue to have with pigeons.

As with most books of this type, some "characters" are expected to make appearances. There's "Dr. Pigeon," an enthusiast who lives in a one-room cabin with no electricity or running water, and also Kee Bubbenmoyer (an unapologetic pigeon shooter). The mysterious "Bob" who organizes "underground pigeon protection groups". And Anna Dove and Sally Bananas, who walk around New York dumping ten-pound bags of birdseed because the pigeons "need them." The one that perhaps takes the cake, however, was Dave Roth, a Phoenix man who lives in a house Blechman depicts as absolutely covered in pigeon dung from the various birds he's rescued. Blechman even spends a chapter discussing his unsuccessful attempt to get an interview with Mike Tyson, who has a flock of pigeons and apparently enjoys them more than anything else in the world.

While it's true that pigeons often get a bad rap, and there are certainly many population control methods in use that are at best ineffective and at worst causing an even bigger problem, Blechman's enthusiasm was at times slightly excessive to the point of getting obnoxious. The fact that he profiled the women who spend their days providing food to wild pigeons in the middle of Manhattan (and thereby increasing their dependence on human action and keeping them concentrated in urban centers where they cause the most problems) without so much as a caution against this sort of irresponsible behavior was very troubling. In some sense, it is not the pigeons we should blame for just "doing what they do," but the people who go out of their way to permit and aid the pigeons in finding the perfect habitat in our cities. Blechman's discussion of how Basel, Switzerland dealt with its pigeon problem was instructive, and is certainly a lesson worth learning.

Pigeons do have many interesting features, including their ability to home (return to their roost), which is still not completely understood by scientists. The sections on this in the book as well as a historical look at the use of pigeons by the military, were among the most interesting and least objectionable to me.

Some minor quibbles: Blechman writes (p. 6) "the name 'rock pigeon' is becoming increasingly popular among ornithologists"). "Rock pigeon actually became the official name of the bird (Columba livia) in 2003 (hence its growing use). Darwin's voyage on the Beagle lasted nearly five years, not two (p. 51), and Blechman seems to attribute more to Darwin's early conclusions about the Galapagos finches than there was (ironic, since Darwin put pigeons to great use in formulating his ideas about evolution). Bat dung is guano, not guana (p. 131). A very minor thing, but I thought the paragraphs were indented too far onto the page.

More substantively, it's curious that this book has no pictures. Blechman works at describing in great detail some of the various decorative pigeon breeds, but provides no images of them at all. Nor are photographs of any of his "characters" included. Perhaps this was seen as an unnecessary expense, but it would have been rather helpful.

Certainly a quick book to breeze through with some very intriguing anecdotes and characters. But sadly, nothing particularly special.


I've added quite a few links to the sidebar, and removed a few blogs which hadn't been updated in months. Here are the new ones (ordered randomly):

- Book Patrol: A Haven for Book Lovers. An excellent blog by Michael Lieberman; Book Patrol was recently picked up (very deservedly) by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

- hugh's blog: Adventures in Entrepreneurism. A reasonably new blog by Hugh Hollowell, who's got some great projects going as well as some really useful posts.

- Cuppa Joad. A blog run by the good folks at alibris. They recently included PhiloBiblos in a post called "Blogs for Bibliophiles to Pore Over" (I'm honored indeed to be lumped with the others in that list!).

- FoggyGates - A Bookish Blog. Forrest Proper of Joslin Hall Rare Books (Northampton, MA) runs this one. I have long enjoyed Joslin Hall's great catalog commentary; this is a great addition.

- Tech Ramblings from the Rare Book Trade. Mainly tech-related, but not entirely. Wonderfully written posts.

- BibliOdyssey. Wonderful illustrations from rare books, and useful accompanying text.

- fade theory. More on books, libraries, &c. Also some reviews.

I've also added the links from the sidebar to a page on (here), mainly so that I can access them all if I'm not at my own computer - but you're welcome to use them as well.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dickens Letter on the Block

A letter written by Charles Dickens on December 25, 1849, is up for sale at a New Hampshire auction house. In the short note, to journalist William Jerdan, Dickens writes "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! As you reprint the extraordinary lies of the New York Herald, perhaps you may like to know something more of their authority. I therefore send you for your own perusal (for I must not anticipate the defence to the ingenious Mr. Powell’s American actions for libel) a few small passages in the life of the distinguished 'literary gentleman from England,' who is in question."

In their listing, the auction house notes that Jerdan's paper, the Literary Gazette, had printed excerpts from an earlier New York Herald piece by Thomas Powell concerning a biography of Dickens and the roots of a dispute.

Bidding on the letter ends tonight. As of 10:45 a.m., the amount bid for this letter was $1815.

There are many other interesting things in this sale, both autographs and full letters.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Book Review: "The Italian Secretary"

Caleb Carr, best known for The Alienist, has tried in The Italian Secretary to do the impossible: write a decent Sherlock Holmes story without being Arthur Conan Doyle. The result is surprisingly not bad; typically I cannot get through attempts like this, but Carr's effort was worth it - he comes perhaps as close as possible, but there's still something missing from the Holmes and Watson who appear in this novel (as I think there must be).

Nonetheless, this is a fine mystery in itself, with suitable suspense, decent plot twists, and appropriately nefarious villains. A fast read.

Book Review: "The Piltdown Forgery"

The classic account of 'the rise and fall of Piltdown Man,' written by J.S. Weiner, one of the scientists who uncovered the great natural history hoax. This edition of The Piltdown Forgery (first published in 1953) contains a new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer, who brings the story up to the present day. Weiner's own narrative is a readable examination of the discovery, the controversy, and the eventual undoing of the Piltdown hoax, complete with a damning indictment of those who perpetrated the act. Weiner is somewhat careful not to definitively attribute blame, although not surprisingly his suspicions centered on Charles Dawson, the "discoverer" of the remains. A worthwhile short read.

Update: Borges Manuscripts Found

Call off the dogs: the two lost Lame Duck Borge manuscripts have been found, reports the Boston Globe's "Off the Shelf" blog. Apparently the works were "simply improperly filed." More here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

December "Avid Collector"

Abebooks has released the newest edition of their "Avid Collector" newsletter. As always, it's chock-full of goodies, including a sweet subscription offer for Fine Books & Collections (blog), an interview with Bill Reese, some musings on remainder marks ("merely a minor nuisance and rather inconsequential ... [or] the scourge of the universe, the ebola virus of the collecting community and something to be avoided at all costs"?) and many other goodies. You can sign up to receive the e-version of "Avid Collector" here.

Borges Manuscripts Lost, Presumed Stolen

Lame Duck Books in Cambridge has reported the loss and presumed theft of two extremely rare Jorge Luis Borges manuscripts, the Harvard Crimson reports. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," and "The Library of Babel" were last seen at the Hamburg Book Fair in early November, and were discovered missing on November 16 during a reception before the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. They were priced at $450,000 and $500,000 respectively.

Reports of the theft have been filed with Cambridge Police and with Interpol; Lame Duck's insurance company is also investigating.

A very decent article, worth reading - good quotes from some Borges scholars and Lame Duck's Saúl Roll.

Of course I share the hope that these manuscripts are recovered and don't disappear for decades down the rabbit-hole that is the black market for this sort of thing. If you have any information about the disappearance, please contact the Cambridge Police Department or Interpol.

Book Thieves Caught Red-Handed

Kim Martineau's got another bang-up tale of book thievery in the Hartford Courant today, this one with a whiff of cross-border intrigue. She reports that Nora Thompson and Peter Mason King were arrested in Toronto in October after being seen on surveillance footage lifting rare books from The Avenue Ltd., an antique and art shop in Westport, CT. The duo were reselling the books to Toronto dealer "D & E Lake Ltd., according to police. Investigators also uncovered evidence that the duo also had been stealing from the Toronto dealer and pawning off the items at irresistible prices back to Phelps-Wyant in Westport, police said."

It is unclear just how much the couple snagged and how many other shops they visited, the paper notes.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Capote Futures Falling?

Based entirely on personal observation, it seems that Boston's In Cold Blood-mania - propped up for the last couple of years by near-constant releases of one film or another about Truman Capote - has begun to abate. Through the late summer, it was near-impossible to find a used copy of the book in any of the Boston shops (I know, as I was hunting one up for a customer). Yesterday, however, I realized that we had two copies in stock (at once!), and both had been in the store longer than a day.

Maybe it's just because the title doesn't make the book a particularly appetizing holiday present, but I think that perhaps the fever has broken.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Book Review: "The Iraq Study Group Report"

I've just finished reading the Vintage edition of The Iraq Study Group Report, which was printed almost overnight for its public release last Wednesday. It's a fairly short document - just 96 pages of report and another fifty pages of supporting documents - but it's an important one. This bipartisan group of some of the most interesting minds in American political life today managed to reach consensus on seventy-nine recommendations for a new approach to America's policy toward Iraq and the wider Middle East region. These recommendations are not something that we ought to take lightly, and I hope that they will be given their due by those who must decide whether to act of them or to continue down the current, perilous, path.

I believe that the recommendations contained in this report, if pursued in a comprehensive, bipartisan and coherent manner, have the potential to provide America with not only a viable exit strategy from Iraq, but also a blueprint for lasting stability in the Middle East and a lessening of ideological warfare here at home. No, this report is not a magic bullet and will not solve our problems overnight. But following this strategy, it seems to me, would improve our chances of success ... or at least decrease our chances of abject and utter failure characterized by continued deterioration of Iraq and a possible regional conflagration.

If you don't want the Vintage version of the report, you can always download it here in pdf form.

Book Review: "The Gettysburg Gospel"

Civil War historian and longtime Gettysburg resident Gabor Boritt knows just about every detail imaginable about Lincoln's speech there on November 19, 1863. And now, so can you! In The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows (a most ironic subtitle), Boritt provides what must be as comprehensive a study of the Gettsyburg Address as any that's ever been written before.

The narrative itself covers the aftermath of the July battle and the organization of the cemetery dedication ceremonies and the strain they put on the town, and also offers a full run-down of those who participated in the dedication. Boritt discusses Lincoln's writing process at length (even though almost nothing is know for certain about the composition of his speech), and adequately portrays the mood of the 19th, with Edward Everett's two-hour oration, Lincoln's two-minute "comment," and the rest of the ceremonies in context.

Some discussion is then given to the aftermath of the speech, from an exhaustive
survey of newspaper coverage and comments in private letters. Boritt traces the speech's slow but steady rise in popularity through the 1880s, when it reached a status approaching that with which it is regarded through the present day. That's all in the first two hundred pages of a 415-page book. The rest is appendices, notes, a very nice bibliography, and the index.

Everett's long oration is reprinted here in full, followed by facsimiles of the various manuscript drafts of Lincoln's speech. Twenty-five pages are given to a line-by-line dissection of the speech through each manuscript copy and also as recorded in several newspapers of the day. Then Boritt subjects the speech to various forms of linguistic analysis in what appears to be an attempt (inconclusive) to render judgment on which published version was the most accurate and/or which manuscript draft Lincoln was reading from.

The text itself was fairly interesting, although I was glad that Boritt overcame the style he used in the first chapter of employing short, choppy sentence fragments to emphasize his (usually speculative) points. Also, my perennial complaint, the notes (good ones!) had no indicators in the text, which made flipping back and forth an obnoxious chore. Simon & Schuster (and all other publishers who engage in this form of abuse) should abandon this practice at the earliest opportunity. If you can't put the footnotes at the bottom of the page - where they belong - at least provide an indication that a note exists.

Boritt's appendices were a bit much; I suspect most readers will skip them entirely and would not be the worse for it. I also don't see much reason to prefer this volume over Garry Wills' excellent Lincoln at Gettysburg ... unless of course you happen to fixate on the different number of characters in each of the five manuscript versions, in which case this is probably the book for you. Not a bad study, to be sure - just neither entirely necessary nor particularly excellent.

Recent Acquisitions

- Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript library has acquired the archives of "New Leader" magazine, a journal of political philosophy and cultural criticism which was published from 1924-2006. The archive "will comprise over 200 linear feet of material, including editorial correspondence, manuscripts, original artwork, photographs, contracts, advertising, and other documents spanning the magazine's history."

- The books of the late Sir Basil Blackwell, eulogized as "the best read man in England," have been donated to the Bodelian Library at Oxford, and will "form an important part of the new Bodleian Centre for the Study of the Book." "The collection was started by Sir Basil in the 1920s. It includes valuable and important printed books from the 15th to the 20th century covering a wide range of subjects, especially European and English literature."

- More than 10,000 volumes of culinary books and ephemera belonging to Philadelphia chef Fritz Blank will go to the University of Pennsylvania. The collection includes early cookbooks, cooking periodicals, and more than a thousand community cookbooks ("like those compiled by churches or PTAs").

Friday, December 08, 2006

AbeBooks Honored has been named one of the top fifty e-commerce sites by Internet Retailer magazine (there really is a magazine for everything), sharing category honors with iTunes, Netflix and SimplyAudioBooks. In the article announcing the choice, Abe's integration with LibraryThing was one of the top selling points:

"Earlier this year made a significant investment in, a social networking site for book lovers. Since then the e-retailer has been creating links between the two sites to bring more bibliophiles together and get more of them to search for and purchase used and rare tomes. So if the shopper looking for the Buddhism book gets profoundly stuck because of his lack of information, he can send out an all-points bulletin to LibraryThing social networkers, many of whom may be able to help in the hunt.

'We're really in the search business; we're about finding a unique book,' says Boris Wertz, COO at Abebooks Inc. 'And making it easier to find books on our site beyond using the search tool is a major goal of ours.'

LibraryThing is a fantastic tool for avid book readers and collectors and may be even more sophisticated than the community features of 'the Big Kahuna' of online bookselling,, says Sucharita Mulpuru, senior retail analyst at Forrester Research Inc. 'The tags seem more relevant,' she adds, 'and the lists seem more germane to book lovers than the random lists that often show up on other user-generated content sites.'"

Congratulations to both AbeBooks and LibraryThing for this - it's definitely well-deserved!

Also in AbeBooks news today, Forbes columnist Alice LaPlante comments on the site's excellent e-mail reminder system.

Good Posts on Phillipps/Munby

Over at The Bibliothecary, Ed's got a pair of great posts on one of my favorite characters, the great collector Thomas Phillipps. The first points us to a BBC radio play about Phillipps (click on the "Tuesday" link, but it's only good until this coming Tuesday) and also has some other excellent links to pages on Phillipps and his biography, A.N.L. Munby. Ed's second post has more on Munby (I did not know he wrote ghost stories, I'll have to find them!) and about what happened to the massive collection after Phillipps' death. A true Victorian character, Phillipps.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Book Review: "The Voynich Manuscript"

Well this was a new one to me! The Voynich Manuscript discusses a rather odd document (now held at Yale's Bienecke Library) which seems to be written in some sort of cipher and is accompanied by a series of bizarre illustrations. The work has resisted all attempts to force its secrets, and remains one of those enigmatic historical problems that can serve to either tickle the imagination or drive one totally mad.

Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, English television writers/producers, offer here a readable and useful introduction to the manuscript, its checkered history, the efforts of those who have sought to explain it, and also a grand overview of the various theories which have sprung up around it. Is it an unknown work by the thirteenth-century mystical friar Roger Bacon? Or is it the product of migraine-induced hallucinations? Could it be nothing more than a very elaborate hoax (and if it's a hoax, was it created in the early Renaissance, or the early twentieth century?). Is it possible that humans will ever break its code?

While this book is rather too full of digressions, dead ends and tangents, the manuscript's own power to intrigue kept me going. It is, without a doubt, one of the more fascinating literary mysteries I've read about recently. Not to mention the great cast of book characters who make appearances: Wilfred Voynich (who may have pilfered the manuscript in the first place from an Italian library), Milicent Sowerby, H.P. Kraus, &c. And those extraordinary illustrations ... wow.

There seem to be quite a few Voynich MS-related sites out there, including this one which looks to have some good images. Googling will give you more than you could ever wish for.

Hymnal Fetches High Price

The early Mormon hymnal I posted about yesterday sold at Christie's for $273,600, the Deseret News reports. This may be the third-highest price ever for a book related to Mormonism. The buyer was not identified. Ken Sanders has some comments in the article about other rare LDS books and their potential values.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Interesting Manuscript News

- In Sweden, a previously unpublished manuscript revealing details about seventeenth century witch hunts and trials has been found in a museum archive, The Local reports. While much of the narrative - "A true tale about the nature of witchcraft", by minister Jöns Hornaeus - was already available in print, the discovery of the original manuscript revealed new information about the witchcraft investigations in Västernorrland County, including interviews with local residents. Unfortunately much of the text has been inked out, hindering the process of deciphering it. The manuscript was in a folder headed "Sorcery and superstition, witches, witches' rides and recipes".

- Not witches but fairies in England, where the Cumbria Archives has found a document of burial records for the village of Lamplugh for 1656-1663. Looks like Lamplugh was a pretty exciting place: causes of death include " A frying pan and pitchforks duel", " Attacked by the parson’s bull", and "Led to a watery grave by a will-o’-the-wisp." Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen highlights this one.

- Also in England, the government is attempting to halt the potential private sale of a collection of letters and diaries written by Mary Hamilton, an early "bluestocking" who has been called "the female Pepys" for her meticulously detailed account of eighteenth-century events. John Rylands University library in Manchester has offered to buy the archive for £123,500 so that it can be made publicly available.

Early Mormon Hymnal on Auction Block

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that a very rare, previously unknown and mint-condition copy of an 1835 Mormon hymnal will be auctioned at Christies today, with pre-sale estimates set at $200,000-$300,000. The hymnal was "edited" by Emma Smith, wife of LDS founder Joseph Smith, and none has come up for auction in several decades. Interestingly, this book - although presumably not this particular copy - played a role in the infamous Mark Hofman forgery case in the 1980s.

RBN also links.

Monday, December 04, 2006


As we near the end of the year, the annual flurry of "best of 2006" lists has begun. I'll use this post to link to some of the lists I find, and will update it as necessary. It will presumably not be comprehensive, nor will I comment on the selections (no matter how good or bad I find them, I'm going to try to be very strict with myself about this). I'll post my own list as we get closer to the end of the year (because there's still another month to read!).

- The New York Times has its "100 Notable Books of the Year", and also the "10 Best Books of 2006". These are each evenly split between fiction and nonfiction.

- The Christian Science Monitor lists "Best Nonfiction 2006" and "Best Fiction 2006". Quite a few of each.

- The Boston Globe has best fiction (by Gail Caldwell) and nonfiction (by Michael Kenney) lists, with commentary.

- The Book World editors at the Washington Post list their "10 Best of the Year" (five and five). They've also got long-lists for fiction and nonfiction with subsection links for each.

- At the UK Times, there is a list for everyone (and I do mean everyone). Erica Wagner offers her list of best fiction titles, Peter Kemp takes us on a round-the-world tour through his favorite fiction, and Marcel Berlin examines the top crime books of 2006. There's also a "Books of the Year" roundup from Alberto Manguel, Marina Warner, Paul Muldoon, Craig Raine, A.N. Wilson and Elaine Showalter. Wilson gets a prize for using the word "unputdownable". Christopher Hart tackles biography (best as well as worst), John Burnside reviews memoirs, Derwent May focuses on nature books. Richard Dixon has fun with reference books, as does Erica Wagner (again) with esoterica. The lists go on ... and on, and on from history to poetry to art, sports, photography, &c. - they're all here.

- The Independent calls their list "The Finest Books of the Year" - they also have subject links off to the right of the main list.

- LibraryThing group "What Are You Reading Now" has a thread going for members' "Top Five for 2006" (and now "Bottom Five for 2006" as well).

- I forgot Publisher's Weekly also has their "Best Books of the Year" list up. Lots of categories.

- Metacritic has a "list of lists" aggregating a whole bunch of other sites' best and worst.

- Slate writers now have their best book lists up.

- The LATimes editors post their favorite fiction and favorite nonfiction lists.

- "Best of the literary crop" from the Salt Lake Tribune.

- NPR lists some independent booksellers' picks of '06.

- More to come, I'm sure! If you see a good (or bad) list I've missed, send it along!

Schott's "Bibliognost's Handbook"

The problem with reading newspapers online is that it's much easier to miss things than if you've got the paper version in front of you. Hence, thank goodness for Ed at Bibliothecary, who passes along "The Bibliognost's Handbook" [pdf] from yesterday's New York Times Book Review. Drawn up by Ben Schott, the author of three volumes of miscellanies (and now a 2007 almanac
which I'm slowly making my way through), the handbook has some great "Biblio-words", a few "Odd Book Titles" (and they are), and a section dedicated to Biblical misprints (quite amusing).

Ed bounces off this to discuss author Andrew Lang, (who I clearly have not read enough of!), so make sure to read his whole post.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Book Review: "Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography"

As part of the "Books That Changed the World" series, Darwin biography Janet Browne has penned a short "biography" of Darwin's Origin of Species (forthcoming from Atlantic Monthly Press). Part overview of Darwin's life, part discussion about the book itself, and part an examination of the impact the Origin has had in the almost 150 years since its publication, Browne's book is both a decent introduction to the text and to Darwin's thinking.

The book's size is its most limiting factor. Undoubtedly constrained by the strictures of the series, Browne is unable to provide much more than a cursory glimpse at the convoluted and intense process by which the Origin came into being, not to mention the man behind that genesis. Its post-publication impact is assessed more thoroughly - Browne has done an admirable job reducing more than a century of scientific thought into forty pages or so.

There are more complete examinations of both Darwin and his works available, but for a readable and succinct survey, this is a good place to start.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Book Review: "Not Your Usual Founding Father"

There is perhaps no man in America as suited to selecting a single volume's worth of Benjamin Franklin's works than Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan. The author of one of the best among the recent Franklin biographies (2002's Benjamin Franklin), Morgan has put his editorial and introductory skills to great purpose with Not Your Usual Founding Father, a fine (if at times idiosyncratic) collection of Franklin's writings that serve as a more-than-adequate introduction to the man or as a delightful complement to a good biography (like Morgan's own effort).

The volume includes some of the writings with which those who read Franklin are fairly familiar, but also some unexpected gems. It is well-measured proportionally to give a sense of Franklin's widely-varying interests and the many roles he took on throughout his long career. Morgan's introductory notes and commentary on each section are useful without being overly analytical (Gordon Wood's jacket-blurb labels them "sprightly and readable", a sentiment with which it is difficult to disagree).

Franklin's ability to distill an argument into a coherent and succinct but substantive form shows through remarkably in these selections, on everything from the treatment of American Indians ("Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America", 52-57), religion and some of its attendant hypocrisies at the hand of man ("Letter to Joseph Huey", 61-63) and the rationale for America's struggle to free herself from the British yoke ("Letter to Admiral Lord Howe", 227-229).

Perhaps most impressive among these essays (not surprisingly, given that it's Franklin), are the satirical hit-pieces, which even today carry a wallop of irony that cannot go unappreciated. Protesting against the export of English felons to America, Franklin penned a 1751 letter to the editor in which he suggests that America could return the favor with a product of her own: rattlesnakes. Later, as the conflict between England and the colonies grew even more heated, he quoted liberally from Parliament's own acts in "An Edict by the King of Prussia," which lays bare all the outrageous actions taken by England which its people would surely like unconscionable if applied to themselves.

While Morgan is (as Franklin was) unduly harsh toward the erstwhile John Adams, and scarcely mentions Franklin's family affairs, his Autobiography, or his anti-slavery efforts near the end of his life, he has still drawn together a most useful and appropriate collection.

A Library Fit for a Sheikh

Forbes has an interesting profile today of Michael Lamb, operations manager for Powells, who sidelines as a library consultant for the rich and famous. Right now he's assisting a Saudi sheikh who's building a new palace and wants it to contain a top-notch book collection. Lamb says the total cost when all the books are found will be upwards of $70,000.

"To ensure that the library includes proper representation in all areas, Lamb communicates with a number of elite, bookish investigators who regularly scour university syllabuses and prize-winning publications to find the most academically revered translations and pristine limited editions. Negotiations about the library’s ultimate contents have already taken six months."

This is just one of many rather interesting articles in Forbes' "Special Report: Books" which I will have to spend some further time with this weekend.

Friday, December 01, 2006

To Talk of Many Things

- Lew Jaffe over at Bookplate Junkie has an extensive post up on physician's bookplates. Looks like he's been adding some new info throughout the week.

- The Bibliothecary has posts on memorizing poems (even 52 in a year seems like a challenge!) and ghost stories on the radio, as well as his own "omnigatherum" with some great links as well.

- Reading Copy and Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen comment on the recently-released Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook, which features various Seussical recipes.

- Off the Shelf reports that the Iraq Study Group's final report will be printed by Vintage on an expedited schedule in order to have it on booksellers' shelves by next Wednesday - the same day it's delivered to the president and Congress.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Yale Libraries to Increase Security

In the aftermath of several high-profile thefts and four separate reviews of its procedures, the Bienecke Library at Yale University is taking steps to strengthen its security measures, according to a report in today's Yale Daily News. Based on recommendations from two outside experts and an internal review (a library-wide study is still ongoing), the Bienecke's reading room will now be constantly monitored by video camera, and new staff will be hired to expand the manuscript cataloging unit (in order to alleviate a backlog). Other recommendations include keeping complete records of who has requested and viewed rare materials.

These common-sense security measures can be expensive and time-consuming (and frustrating to patrons). But when it comes to keeping our historical documents and rare books safe from those who would make off with them, the cost of inaction is much greater.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Book Review: "The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories"

If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's acclaimed first novel, I suspect you'll also enjoy her new collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. In fact, I'd venture a guess that most of those who didn't like Jonathan Strange for its physical and/or mental heft will even like Ladies, since it doesn't require nearly the commitment. I, for one, was completely taken by Clarke's spectacular style in Jonathan Strange, and she doesn't fail to disappoint in these eight stories (all but the last of which were actually published previously) either.

Whether the story is a retelling of a classic fairy tale ("On Lickerish Hill" is a derivation of the Rumpelstiltskin legend), a derivation from other authors' creations ("The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is set in the village of Wall as created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess in Stardust) or a tale featuring her own characters (Jonathan Strange in the title story, the Raven King in "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner"), Clarke has managed to pull it off. I'm hard pressed to pick which of the octet I liked the best - together they hang quite nicely. I think "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" may take the cake though (I enjoyed the diaristic style as well as the suspense).

The faux-footnotes that so pleased me about Jonathan Strange make reappearances here courtesy of Clarke's useful foil Professor James Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen). Charles Vess' illustrations are marvelous (the sketch on page 1 being my particular favorite), and the overall design of the book with its somewhat gaudily stamped cover is reminiscent of a book from the early part of the last century. This design is marred only by the unfortunate glossy paper label stuck to the rear board, which I could have done without.

With Jonathan Strange I immersed myself for a week or more in the fantastic parallel universe Clarke created so delightfully. While these stories didn't take nearly as long to read, they still allowed me to lose myself within - what everyone wants from a fairy tale!

I shall be awaiting Clarke's new creation with some impatience now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Books Elude Your Grasp?

Is there an accepted term for a book that you know exists but you've never been able to find a copy of? That you've hunted for without success even in this day and age of interconnectedness and lightning-fast communication? If there isn't such a term, I think there ought to be.

I've had one of these books in my life for about three years now: Edwin Wolf II's The Book Culture of a Colonial American City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen and Booksellers. Somewhere along the way I saw a citation to this book and decided I ought to have a copy, so I started looking around online to see about getting one. None were listed on ABE, which was surprising since the book didn't seem particularly difficult - printed in 1988 by Oxford University's Press' Clarendon Press, with many libraries having a copy - surely it wouldn't be overly tricky to find one up for sale. Hah.

Literally two or three years (eons to me!) of checking ABE and eBay listings went by, with no success. I set up an ABE alert (awfully handy for things like this) to tell me if any sellers listed one ... and I periodically combed through the Books on Books and Regional Americana sections on my rounds of the used bookshops. Once I got to Boston and started working in a used shop myself I discovered the quite useful AddAll, which aggregates used book listings from ABE, Amazon, Alibris, ILAB and a whole bunch of other sites. Surely I thought Wolf's book will show up there. But no, still nothing.

Emails to some of my best sources for Books on Books, including The Colophon Book Shop in Exeter, NH and Oak Knoll Books in Wilmington, DE were also strike-outs, as was a shot-in-the-dark note to the publisher (who failed to answer at all). Was this book printed in such a limited run that libraries had snatched up all the copies out there?

Suddenly late one night when I opened that day's email of "wants" from ABE I sat bolt upright at my desk: there it was. Harvest Book Company from Fort Washington, PA had listed a copy. My hand shaking, I clicked the link in ABE's email, only to get an error message which said something to the effect of "The requested record is out of date." Nooooooooo!! Thinking I was already too late, that someone else had snatched the book up as soon as it was listed, I nearly gave in. But, I thought, maybe the listing's still live at Harvest's site. Sure enough, it was. I put through the order, fully expecting for the next few days to get an email saying they'd already sold the book, it was no longer available. But then there on the mailbox one evening was a little cardboard package stamped "Harvest Book Company" on the side. It did exist! There have been many books in my life I've been very happy to finally get my hands on, but most of those were fortuitous discoveries. This one I'd searched for, I'd despaired of ever finding a copy, and then here it was. Quite a thrill, let me tell you.

So, I've been thinking since, we need a word for such elusive books, the ones that keep getting away. Any ideas are welcome, as are your own stories of long-sought tomes.

Palimpsest Continues to Yield Its Secrets

I've written before about the ongoing effort to restore the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest, but the NYTimes printed a nice update yesterday that I thought I would pass along. Besides the Archimedes text, researchers have discovered ten pages of speech texts delivered by Hyperides, "an Athenian orator and politician from the fourth century B.C." It is being called the most important Hyperides breakthrough since 1891, and the discovery of two previously unknown speeches has increased the known number of Hyperides' works by twenty percent.

Make sure to read the whole Times piece, which contains much more about the palimpsest's history and the other interesting things the research team has discovered.

[Note: Title corrected; typing palimpsest is tricky!]

Monday, November 27, 2006

Churchill's Speeches Influenced by H.G. Wells

As Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen so aptly puts it, "apparently the Google plagiarism detectives are on the case." Dr. Richard Toye, a British historian, has been studying the influences of H.G. Wells on the speeches and writings of Winston Churchill; he's concluded that Wells was "an important intellectual influence on Churchill during the formative period of his career," and that Churchill recycled a few of Wells' lines and themes, including "gathering storm" (from War of the Worlds) and "modern Utopia." The Independent has the full report.

I like this quote from Toye: "It's a bit like Tony Blair borrowing phrases from Star Trek or Doctor Who ... People look at politicians in the 20th century and presume their influences were big theorists and philosophers. What we forget is that Churchill and others were probably not interested in reading that stuff when they got home after a hard day in the House of Commons. They wanted to read a book that was full of ideas but was also going to be fun. H.G. Wells was perfect for that."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

1650s Travel Diary to be Published

The Scotsman reports that Scottish minister James Fraser's narrative of a three-year journey through Scotland, England, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Holland (1657-1660) is set to be published for the first time. A witness to the late days of Cromwell's government, Fraser also found himself over the course of his journey a member of the Vatican's Swiss Guard, in which capacity he stood sentry at the residence of the Queen of Sweden.

The Episcopal minister at Inverness when he wasn't globe-trotting, Fraser was educated at King's College in Aberdeen; he wrote poetry and prose in both Gaelic and English and also spoke Latin and Hebrew. The three-volume manuscript diary was "rediscovered recently by academics at Aberdeen University who were carrying out an assessment of historic material ahead of the creation of a new £55.5 million library and special collections centre. It is now being transcribed with a view to publishing part or all of the remarkable journal."

Book Review: "The Collectors"

David Baldacci's The Collectors (currently a bestseller from Warner Books) is eminently skippable. It is little but a hackneyed potboiler, with half-developed stereotypical characters, a predictable and contrived plot, and a very poor conclusion which can only be termed "sequel-bait." The fact that one element involves the very rare Bay Psalm Book (the earliest surviving example of American printing) is not enough to save this book from a negative recommendation. Neither are the very nice endpapers. There are far too many good books out there to waste even an afternoon on this one.

Book Review: "Micromegas and Other Short Fictions"

After reading Passionate Minds (review) recently I decided I needed to brush up on my Voltaire a bit, since it had been a few years since Candide. I had a copy of Micromegas and Other Short Fictions on my shelf so I've been making my way through it for the past few days. It is fascinating how well Voltaire's wry, ironic style has held up across the centuries; these stories are excellent examples. I particularly enjoyed "The Consoler and the Consoled" (message: time heals all wounds, but they still hurt like the dickens) and "Dialogue Between the Cock and the Hen." Deeply allegorical at times, but also funny and provocative, Voltaire's stories are certainly worth a read and some contemplation of the human spirit.

Lewis Carroll Letter Recovered for Yale

A handwritten letter by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) belonging to Yale University's Bienecke Library was sold on eBay earlier this year but has now been recovered, Kim Martineau reports for the Hartford Courant. Another excellent piece of journalism by Martineau, who covered the Smiley case brilliantly for the Courant. And another warning sign that libraries have some serious gaps in their armor.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Book Review: "Thunderstruck"

Erik Larson's Thunderstruck takes as its subject two plotlines - one about the vicious North London Cellar Murder and the other about Guglielmo Marconi's difficult road to develop workable wireless radio technology - which are seemingly unconnected for much of the book but end up (unsurprisingly) converging in a fascinating way (apparently a motif he also used in The Devil in the White City, which I have not yet read, although it's on my pile). It's an interesting writing style, and the only thing that bothered me about the alternation between the stories was the sometimes all-too-abrupt perspective changes.

Both plotlines are fairly well-developed, which is good; both also do an excellent job of bringing the late Victorian/early Edwardian period into sharp focus. Larson's research into both his main subjects and many tangential bits was obviously extensive, even if the citations here are hidden in that obnoxious style Crown seems to be preferring these days (no indication in the text of what's being referenced).

This wasn't a book that knocked my socks off, but I did enjoy it. Richly detailed (I won't fault Larson for that, I enjoyed them), and well written, I'll recommend it as a good armchair history.

German Library Thieves to be Tried

The Times (UK) reports today on an upcoming book-theft trial in Germany, where Ludwig M. and Reinhold K. will face the music for stealing nearly a million dollars' worth of early botanicals from the University of Erlangen. Reinhold, a night porter at the library, has been snatching books from the stacks for several decades: "Police found books stacked in his garage and followed the trail to a bookseller, Ludwig M., who allegedly commissioned the thefts according to the market value of botany and zoology classics."

Library director Hans Otto Keunecke said "The thief didn’t have to break down a door or force a lock. He had unrestricted access to our most priceless possessions. He worked for us for 40 years and had all the necessary keys."

The article notes that while both the thief and the crooked dealer have confessed to the thefts, their defense team will argue that because many of the thefts took place more than a decade ago, a statute of limitations applies on those counts.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

My best wishes to all of you for a happy, safe, and filling Thanksgiving!

I'll be back either tonight or tomorrow with a review or two and any book news that pops up.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Discovering Past Plagiarists

Paul Collins is swiftly becoming one of my favorite modern writers for his great knack at finding provocative angles to literary topic; his latest column, in Slate, does nothing to diminish that trend. In "Dead Plagiarists Society," Collins suggests that the wonder that is Google Book Search has great potential to discover past instances of literary thievery.

Collins: "The most intriguing result of a digital dragnet would be if any deeply idiosyncratic last-person-you'd-guess authors get fingered—Emily Dickinson, anyone? Ben Franklin, perhaps? I'd bet that in the next decade at least one major literary work gets busted. Such thefts don't necessarily end a literary reputation: After all, what Melville did with ordinary maritime literature amounted to an act of lead-to-gold alchemy. But it's invigorating to think that some forgotten authors, long buried and with the dirt tamped down over them by their ruthless rivals, will now get their due. Plagiarism, it seems, will out."

Now there's a challenge if I ever heard one!

[Note: There's also a podcast interview with Collins (mp3)]

A Plea for the BPL

Northeastern Univ. history professor William M. Fowler Jr. has an op/ed in the Globe today urging folks to step up and assist in the preservation of the Boston Public Library's collections:

"John Adams' library is only one of thousands of national treasures in the BPL. The shelves in Copley Square groan under the weight of other rare books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and prints. Over the last several years the city, the Commonwealth, and the Boston Public Library Foundation have supported the restoration and preservation of the McKim Building. However, they have done much less to protect the building's previous contents. In the course of time McKim's grand palace will simply become a magnificent tomb filled with dust and bits of paper.

What can be done? Digitization is a partial answer. Electronic copies of books and documents will reduce the need to handle them, and thus help preservation. Such technology, however, will do nothing to repair damage already done or to prevent future deterioration. There is no substitute for careful conservation of the originals. The BPL's four sister libraries each have sizable conservation staffs. The BPL has only two conservators.

Both the city and the Commonwealth have supported the library, but given competing demands on the public coffers it is unlikely that they can provide more. The BPL must follow the path taken by the other four great libraries -- private fund-raising. The Boston Public Library Foundation has made gallant efforts, but much more needs to be done. While we must nurture those who have already given hoping that they will give more, casting our buckets into the shallow pool of local giving is not likely to produce impressive results. We are the custodians of national treasures that deserve national attention. Boston and John Adams once helped to start a revolution and the nation followed. It is time to reignite that bold spirit to save America's treasures."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Q&A with Mancevice

Via Shelf:Life, I discovered a pre-Fair interview that the Worcester Telegram & Gazette did with Jeffrey Mancevice, one of the best-known dealers in early European printed books. He had quite a spectacular booth this year, one of the best for browsing.

For the Love of Books

I've finally gotten a chance to read all of David Mehegan's November 15 article in the Boston Globe on books, in which he manages to meld the BPL exhibit on John Adams' library (which I still haven't been to see, for shame), the Boston Book Fair, a new "reading" device from Sony, and Barack Obama (you'll just have to read the whole thing to see how he does it).

Mehegan writes "In all its variety, the Adams exhibit demonstrates the complexity and power of books. It also suggests questions so elemental that they're almost never asked. Why do books have such power over us, anyway? And why do books, as a human artifact, never become obsolete?"

There's some excellent material here, from a discussion of the physical endurance of books to the unwillingness/discomfort of reading a book on a computer screen (I particularly like a quote from Sara Nelson of Publisher's Weekly about the physical process of reading: "There's a feeling that you're moving through something. I'm reading a fat book now, and I'm 280 pages into it. The process of accumulating pages under my left thumb gives me a clear sense of having traveled a certain distance. It's as if I'm halfway through the world this author has created.")

I can't say I agree with Thomas Horrocks, a librarian at Harvard, who told Mehegan he thinks people will eventually become entirely accustomed to reading electronically. I think - and this was one of the things that the panel at the Book Fair discussed on Saturday - we'll see a distinction increasingly made between "sustained" reading (novels, monographs, biographies, even long articles) and "reading for information" (newspaper articles, blog posts, search results, etc.). I know I make that distinction in my own life, and I suspect many others function at least somewhat similarly. I haven't ever found an electronic tool that can give me the same pleasure of reading as a book can ... and I seriously doubt I ever will.

Do take a minute and read Mehegan's article if you haven't had a chance, it's certainly worth it.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Book Review: "A Small Moment of Great Illumination"

Leonard Pitt's A Small Moment of Great Illumination: Searching for Valentine Greatrakes, the Master Healer (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006) is the tale of an odyssey - an odyssey whose germinative spark came from a footnote. Back in 1989, Pitt writes in the first chapter, he found a reference to Valentine Greatrakes in an article on the history of medicine. Curiousity led him to pursue the citation and in doing so he discovered much about the life and doings of Greatrakes, an seventeenth-century Anglo-Irishman who suddenly found that he could heal certain ailments just by touching those who suffered from them. His fame spread, he journeyed several times around England and Ireland - including to the court of Charles II.

A Small Moment is the tale of Pitt's research into Greatrakes' life, including travels to the healer's town and to libraries around the US and UK doing research on the man. It also tells of Pitt's longstanding desire to purchase a copy of Greatrakes' book, A Brief Account.... Greatrakes gets a short biography in the telling as well. It's a fairly interesting book - particularly if you've ever had a similar experience, although sometimes it seems rather outmoded today. Since all the action took place in the early part of the 1990s, the Internet played only a minor role in Pitt's research into Greatrakes' life; today it would be much easier to find almost the same information (although without some of the great contextual experiences, to be sure).

For a book which is based on a serendipitous footnote, the absence of them here is cruelly ironic. Better references would have added a great deal to this book - there's a bibliography at the rear but certainly additional notes would be very useful. I will still recommend it, however, to anyone interested in the history of medicine, seventeenth-century England/Ireland, just even just "the thrill of the hunt."

Report from the Boston Book Fair

I spent Friday evening and much of Saturday at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, which was, as anticipated, quite a remarkable show this year. I arrived about an hour before opening on Friday night so I'd have a chance to wander around a bit before the thronging hordes (the early birds of whom were already queued up outside). After checking out the Commonwealth booth I did a quick once-over of the aisles and looked in at just a few of the booths that I thought might hold a bargain or two. If those deals had existed, however, they'd been snatched up already by the other dealers, who had apparently exhibited moments of piranha-like frenzy a little earlier in the day when some of their colleagues unpacked their stock.

When the show opened there was a good crush of people through the doors and so for the next few hours I was tethered pretty tightly to the booth providing assistance with our larger items and retrieving things from the glass cases. There was much interest in our copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (which once belonged to the great historian Lytton Strachey), as well as our gigantic copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses (the 1717 Dryden translation extra-illustrated with the plates from a 1732 Picart). I almost brained somebody with that as I went to return it to the shelf at one point (hardly a good idea). One of my favorite little items had come up from our Florida shop for the show (a collection of punny and salacious essays from the 1730s known as Merryland), so I got to show that off to a few folks as well.

By around 7:30 things had thinned out enough that I could walk around a bit more, so I took another spin around and visited with some of the dealers I know: Willis Monie from Cooperstown, the DeMarco's from Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga (near where I went to college), First Folio from Tennessee where I picked up my find at last year's fair, and then of course the Boston shops (Brattle, Boston Book Company). Then I gave a quick glance at some of the "high-end" booths: Heritage, Bromer, Bauman, Rulon-Miller and their ilk - they all had beautiful things, which were of course well beyond my purchasing power but are always fun to see. Early copies of Johnson's Dictionary, Isaac Newton's texts, beautiful little vellum creatures - you name it, it was there. There were also much more modern things, which I didn't pay much attention to except to see some of the astronomical prices things are commanding these days.

It's interesting to see the different booth-styles at fairs like this: the locals and nearby dealers with their cases full of many things, including some old beat-up leather bindings that somebody "just might want", the British dealers with their flashy dust-wrappers or purely perfect leather, the Dutch and Germans with row upon row of white vellum, or huge, lovely atlases and maps.

Friday night was the best of the fair for people-watching: I saw and chatted with Lew Jaffe, who manages the great blog Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie. Nick Basbanes was wandering around for much of the evening, and I even saw one of my undergraduate professors who'd come in from Schenectady for the fair (we also ran into each other last year at the same place). Publisher and collector David Godine was about, as well as many of the famous dealers whose names get bandied about in the book world constantly.

On Saturday I returned at noon with a few friends to show them around; I found myself looking differently at things when I was discovering items to point out to them than when I was just zipping through for myself. Among the things we examined were a visa application for Che Guevara (something about a trip to Columbia), some lovely old maps of Boston, and a whole wall of early dust jackets that really were quite astounding (and which I wouldn't have given a second look to normally).

At 4 I went and heard a talk on "The Future of Books" with Sid Berger (a professor of mine at Simmons and a great bookman; Russell Powell, who publishes New England Watershed magazine; and Tina Lang Stewart, a communications specialist). After some preliminary disagreement, I think a consensus was reached that the book is not, in fact, dead, but that it and the Internet must and will reach some kind of complementary equilibrium at some point in the future (with some things - like reference tools - moving into the online realm and other things - like novels, most monographs, &c. - staying in print). It was a lively discussion and brought out some great questions from the audience as well.

I thought I was going to make it through the entire Fair without a purchase; I considered a three-volume set of TF Dibdin's Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in France and Germany (1829) but decided on much reflection that the cloth rebindings weren't very lovely and the text block had a bit too much damp-staining for my taste. I had resigned myself to nothing (since the only copy of Telemachus I found was ugly), and then suddenly there it was. I was standing with my friends in Ken Karmiole's booth when I saw the spine: "Memoirs of Psalmanazar." As soon as I read it I let out an "uh-oh", and once I'd held it in my hands I knew it was all over. A near-perfect copy of the 1765 London second edition, neatly rebacked with the original spine, yellow page edges, and nary a spot of foxing anywhere. The frontispiece was present and clean, and aside from a previous owner's signature on the front endpaper, there was also an old bookseller's label at the rear (with a $15 price tag that I found particularly amusing).

Ken saw me looking at it and said he thought I should have it; I told him I agreed but that I'd be back after a bit. I already knew then that I'd take it, but I just had to be sure. I went and found Sid and took him back to the booth to look at it with me - it didn't take him long to agree that it was the find of the fair. So I did the deed, and am awfully glad I did. When I got home I checked the other online listings - mine was by far the least expensive, and also by far in the best condition. So, a good find. George Psalmanazar is one of those curious figures in English literary history that you come across now and then: a peasant from the Continent (probably), he made his way to England and passed himself off for years as a native of Formosa (Taiwan), making up languages, writing histories of his 'homeland' and generally being a total fraud. Eventually of course the gig was up and he spent the remainder of his life a writer-for-hire, making friends with Samuel Johnson and other great literati of the day along the way. He rates a chapter in Paul Collins' excellent book Banvard's Folly, which is where I first read extensively of him. A true "character," and a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

So the Fair this year has been a wonderful - if slightly overwhelming - experience. It's so nice to see a crowd of true book-lovers engaged in their passion and doing what they love best. If you would know the future of the book, I say, walk into the middle of the Hynes and look around you. It is there.