Tuesday, October 31, 2006

ESTC Now Free Online

The English Short-Title Catalogue, a fantastic database listing over 460,000 items published (mainly in English) between 1473 and 1800, is now available online (for free) from the British Library at http://estc.bl.uk.

In a press release, the BL notes "The ESTC is unparalleled in its depth and range containing all types of printed material including letterpress books, pamphlets, newspapers, serials, advertisements, slip-songs, election handbills and a variety of other ephemera. The coverage extends to items printed in all languages in the British Isles and beyond, to Colonial America, United States of America (1776-1800), Canada, or territories governed by Britain before 1801. It covers Portuguese printing from India, German printing from North America, Gaelic printing from Scotland, and French printing from both France and the Netherlands. It also includes false ‘Londres' imprints, for material printed surreptitiously in France and the Netherlands. Engraved music, maps and prints are excluded from the catalogue but atlases and texts which are wholly engraved are in the ESTC."

This is a wonderful resource, and I'm delighted to see it so readily available.

For Your Halloween Pleasure

- I cannot help but mention today the "War of the Worlds" broadcast which spooked the nation on October 30, 1938 (should have posted it yesterday but for some reason I always thought it happened on Halloween). The Mercury Theatre has audio of the broadcast (RealAudio or MP3) and they've also got a list of their (many) other radio plays, some which look quite interesting! It's always interesting to listen to the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, and if I get some time today I'm hoping to sit back and enjoy it again myself.

- Google's posted full digitized versions of some favorite "Scary Stories" for the occasion: I recommend "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and of course "Dracula."

- Via Fine Books Blog, AbeBooks has a highlighted interview today with dealer Larry Coven, who specializes in horror fiction. And speaking of horror, Abe has also tabulated the "10 Most Expensive Stephen King Books" they've sold through their site (linked from Rare Book News).

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Excellent Roman Numeral Reference

After a query on Ex-Libris this morning about some unconventional Roman numeral usage, a member recommended this site, which I wanted to pass along for its extreme usefulness both in converting Roman numberals to Arabic and for recognizing alternative forms.

For Archives, Does Location Matter?

Brenda Maddox takes up this question in a column for The Guardian, spinning off a conference last week "on literary archives at the British Library, 'Manuscripts Matter', which brought together scholars, librarians, dealers, authors, even biographers like myself, all of whom, in their various ways, know the importance of the raw material - letters, rough drafts, even train tickets and bank statements - that show a writer's working life."

Some good debates here over security, cataloging speed, funding and archival integrity.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Some Sunday Reads

- Sunday Herald art critic Catriona Black (whose name would fit well as a character in Harry Potter) is in the Halloween spirit this weekend, delving into the spooky art of Scotland. "There is an undeniable taste in Scotland for the eerie, the gruesome, the dark side of life," she writes. "Convinced that a veritable coven of ghosts and ghouls lurks somewhere in the shadows of our public collections, I have embarked on a hunt to unearth artistic horrors too terrible to describe."

From fifteenth-century woodcuts of witches (including the first image of one riding a broom) in the National Library to Albrecht Dürer's eerie "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", and on to eighteenth-century images of the witches from "Macbeth" as well as prints by "the most celebrated horror-monger of art history," Francisco Goya.

Quite a few neat little stories in this piece.

- Paul Collins at Weekend Stubble notes that he's on NPR's "Weekend Edition" (audio and some supplementals here) to talk about the sensational murder of Maria Marten by William Corder in 1827 and its aftermath. Collins has an article about the case in this month's "The Believer" which I have printed out to read today since it promises to be fascinating. If you think you've heard Corder's name in a rare-book context before, you probably have ... a copy of the famous book written about his case, The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten (by James Curtis, 1828), was bound in Corder's own skin after his execution.

Collins does a great job of sussing out these stories from the nooks and crannies of history (his book Banvard's Folly is a must if you're interested in such things).

- The New York Times outlines a new controversy over what is claimed to be the first novel ever published by an African-American woman. The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride, by Julia Collins (serialized in 1865, but due to be published for the first time in book form this month by Oxford) is the first, say its editors; Harvard's Henry Louis Gates says the honor should go to Our Nig, published in 1859 by Harriet Wilson. The dispute, this report notes, "centers on competing definitions of what constitutes a novel."

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Book Review: "Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution"

We are in sore need of a good modern biography of Sam Adams. Unfortunately, Mark Puls' new Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution (2006, Palgrave Macmillan) comes nowhere close to filling the bill.

While Puls' thesis (that Sam Adams played a vital role in bringing about the Revolution from a philosophical and public relations standpoint) is fundamentally sound and deserves a great deal of attention, his book contains multiple serious flaws which fatally undermine its entire structure.

Let me begin with what I view as one of the more substantial problems: sources. Puls' footnotes lead back, nearly all the time, to books which can hardly be described as at the forefront of modern historical scholarship. George Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent was published in 1882, while William Jackman's History of the American Nation came along in 1911. Both are cited repeatedly, as are Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People (1931) and the immediate post-Revolutionary histories of Mercy Otis Warren and William Gordon. All these are interesting in their own rights, it's true, but not exactly current. Puls' main sources for Adams' life appear to be the 1904 four-volume edition of his writings edited by Harry Alonzo Cushing and two earlier biographies (those of William Wells, published in 1865 and James Hosmer, which first appeared in 1884). Not once is a mention made of the Samuel Adams Papers which are mainly held by the New York Public Library. If Mr. Puls did any actual archival research at all, he certainly didn't make that fact particularly evident.

Of the 100 sources included in Puls' bibliography, exactly half were published prior to 1950. Excusing the published primary document collections which one would expect to see used here, such as Eliot's Debates and the collections of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, we are still left with an astonishingly high number of sources that are more than sixty years old, among them those which Puls cites most often. The scholarship of Bernard Bailyn, Robert Middlekauff, Pauline Maier, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood and many others cannot and should not be so casually cast aside - their omission here is frankly stunning (I should note that while some of their works are included in the bibliography they are rarely if ever cited in the text, and Puls seems to have made little effort to incorporate their views). Also, Puls' only source for quotes by and about Benjamin Franklin appears to be the 1982 The Real Benjamin Franklin, published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies and which seems rather suspect to me (there are many good Franklin biographies out there, it probably goes without saying).

If it'd been only the sources that I had trouble with, I would have minded some but probably would have gotten over it. Alas, there's much more. The book is afflicted with a staggering number of errors, ranging from the factual to the typographical. In the strangely-titled "Who is Who" section which precedes the text, Puls lists John Burgoyne as "British general who defeated American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga" (when of course it was the other way round, which Puls does manage to note correctly in both the entries on Gates and in the text). Richard Fifield is titled "Adam's father-in-law"; he was actually Sam's maternal grandfather. William Franklin (Ben's son) suddenly finds himself the royal governor of Pennsylvania rather than New Jersey.

On page 37, Puls inaccurately describes the procedure for smallpox inoculation used in the pre-Revolutionary period; on page 49 he writes "The English planned to encourage immigration to the interior regions of the continent," when actually the Proclamation of 1763 expressly limited such settlement except under certain approved conditions. The dates given for the repeal of the Townshend Duties and the Evacuation of Boston are incorrect, and Puls' depiction of the revisions of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence at the hands of Congress as "minor editing" is almost unbelievable. The British captain who was tried for his role in the Boston Massacre is alternately named Preston (his actual name), then Prescott, and then finally is back to his correct name by the time of his trial. Historian Benjamin Woods Labaree, author of the definitive work on the Boston Tea Party, is named Larabee throughout the text and the bibliography. And these are just the most serious mistakes which I happened to see; I have not mentioned the various spelling and other grammatical/typographical mistakes which ought to have been caught in the editing process.

Perhaps most galling of all is the lack of any sort of meaningful analysis of what is the key question about Adams in the years leading up to the Revolution: just what was his role in bringing about the Boston Massacre? Was there a secret plot to foment such an act, or was it simply a surprise event? Puls completely misses the ball on this question, failing even to discuss the various possible answers.

A final matter with which I must take exception is Puls' frustrating use of "Samuel Adams" throughout the book. The only time the word "Sam" ever appears is to note that's how Adams signed the Declaration of Independence. For the humble Adams, "Sam" seems to fit so much more nicely - Puls might have put it to good use.

While writing a biography of Sam Adams is trickier than for many of the other Framers (who never met a scrap of paper they didn't save), he deserves a cleaner and much more complete treatment than he's gotten from Mark Puls. I am unable to recommend this book in its current form.

Book Review: "The Book of Fate"

Brad Meltzer's latest potboiler, The Book of Fate, is another "political thriller" filled with nefarious plots and grand conspiracies, assassination attempts and various surprising moments of spycraft. It's not great. But it's a quick, semi-suspenseful read even if the conclusion doesn't end up being a surprise at all. The only real quibble I had with it was how Meltzer tried to work in the Freemasons, but never quite managed to do it effectively ... making it appear a half-baked contrivance designed to cash in on the Da Vinci Code-inspired cabal-mania.

Nothing special, but not awful.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Book Review: "The Partly Cloudy Patriot"

Sarah Vowell's 2002 book of essays, The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, is one of those books that you find yourself alternating between laughing at and nodding along to. Filled as it is with the angst that I suspect many of us have felt since 9/11 and during its various aftermaths, Vowell's musings on America, its history and its culture resonated - and at the same time, her quirky delvings into bizarre little nooks and crannies of American life are enough to bring on a fit of laughter that will draw stares from across the T-car.

From Tom Cruise's hair to Al Gore's "Love Canal moment" in campaign 2000, from "The Patriot" to Tom Landry to Salem's Gallows Hill and the lunchroom in Carlsbad Caverns, Vowell's wry, witty humor and knack for a good story carry this book along nicely. I quite enjoyed it.

Couple Good Links

- On the AHA blog, Elisabeth Grant has a post designed to begin a discussion about the usefulness of Wikipedia, asking "Can we trust it?" Some great links to articles and other debates as well, so read and feel free to chime in.

- GalleyCat reports that rising Democratic powerhouse Barack Obama's books are, for the moment at least, quite pricey under certain conditions. They note a signed first of Dreams of my Fathers is listed on ABE for $1,698, and found a copy of Obama's newest book The Audacity of Hope listed at $220. Now someone's just got to buy them.

- I've got some reviews cooking for tonight or tomorrow (and one of them's gonna be a doozy). And speaking of reviews, don't miss this review of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons by our friend Ed at Bibliothecary. Definitely not a book I'll be rushing out to buy!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

More on Buckley's (Non)Sentence

As I expected he would, Grumpy Old Bookman has posted some thoughts on the Buckley sentencing; his views seem to jive pretty closely with mine (had I been drinking coffee yesterday morning I would almost certainly have sprayed it everywhere). Also don't miss the comments, including one from Clive Keeble, the antiques dealer who was largely responsible for the discovery of Buckley's dirty deeds.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Thieving Librarian Slapped with Wet Noodle (Barely)

Former librarian Norman Buckley, who stole more than 450 rare books and other items worth upwards of £175,000 from the Manchester Central Library so that he could sell them over the internet, was sentenced today to 250 hours of community service, the BBC reports. He also received a 15-month jail term, but that's been suspended for two years and he'll probably never serve it.

Judge Clement Goldstone QC told Buckley his sentence was suspended because he had helped police find the books, which the judge described as part of the city's 'literary heritage'. 'Every time you offered a book for sale, you were breaking the trust that had been placed in you. The ultimate loss to the city and its heritage may have been measured, if it can be measured at all, in the thousands of pounds rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. You have bought shame on yourself and your family by your behaviour.'"

I don't even have the words to express how stunned I am at this (although considering the recent Smiley verdicts I suppose I shouldn't be surprised). This is an absolutely ridiculous sentence for such an outrage against our cultural heritage. Buckley should have been made an example of. Instead, as the Guardian notes, he "walked free from court."

Something's wrong with this picture.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Conserving MD's "Birds of America"

Thought I'd posted this yesterday, but must have forgotten!

The Baltimore Sun has an interesting piece about the conservation work being done on the "Birds of America" elephant folios belonging to the Maryland State Law Library (first discussed here back in September). This story focuses on the actual conservation measures being taken at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia to clean up the plates. Most of the work is reasonably conventional, although I was surprised to learn that they decided to digitally reproduce a foot for the damaged wild turkey.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Book Review: "Mr. Darwin's Shooter"

Roger McDonald's Mr. Darwin's Shooter caught my eye in the stacks at the shop a few weeks ago, and I've been slowly reading it bit by bit on the T since then. It's quite a nice piece of historical fiction, highlighting the little-known character Syms Covington. Darwin's erstwhile assistant on the Beagle voyage and longtime correspondent thereafter, Covington is an enigmatic character, who left a narrow paper trail (online here) and more than a few mysteries.

McDonald's narrative takes place in two time periods: one plot-line follows Covington through his early years and along with Darwin on his travels, while the second portrays him as an aging man in Australia awaiting the arrival of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This device is put to excellent use here; it allows McDonald to introduce a welcome element of suspense and curiosity into the excellently-written narrative.

The tensions in this book are the tensions that have always followed Darwin: as a man of great religious conviction Covington, is profoundly troubled at the conclusions to which his observations lead him (before, it is suggested, they led Darwin to the same place). McDonald handles these tensions well, and has fashioned from them a very good book.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Darwin's Works Online

The Guardian reported Thursday about a new effort by Cambridge University to put all of Charles Darwin's works online. Some 50,000 pages of text (entirely searchable), as well as "tens of thousands of images, many from previously unpublished manuscripts, together with notebooks, diaries and original publications such as The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle (the Journal of Researches) and The Descent of Man." There will even be audio versions of some key works.

"'Nowhere possesses this complete collection. It's a complete run of his papers which has never been assembled in any form anywhere,' said John van Wyhe, director of The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online project."

Another great resource!

The URL for the project is http://darwin-online.org.uk/.

[h/t: Shelf:Life]

Saturday, October 21, 2006

To Talk of Many Things

Now, a few of the whole bunch of things I meant to/wanted to link to this week and didn't quite get time for:

- Scott Brown at Fine Books Blog had a couple great posts, including one on the selling of advance readers' copies and how it's not illegal, and another on what errors in the production process make books more valuable as compared to completely worthless.

- Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen posted a list of terms that (some) booksellers have for their, eh, less than perfect customers. Quite amusing.

- Over at LibraryThing, Tim has kicked the addictiveness level up a notch with a new series of "challenge" contests, in which users try to wend their way from one tag to another using only "related tags" (i.e. "Tarzan" to "Iceland", etc.). It's great, but as I commented to him, introducing it in the middle of a semester ... now that's just cruel!

Archives-Wiki from AHA

The AHA (American Historical Association) has started a blog (linked added to sidebar), AHA Today. So far, I'm really enjoying the content. Today they've got a few recommended history web sites, but earlier this week they ran a two-part series on a big project they're working on rolling out: Archives-wiki. Part one focuses on the proposal and the reasons behind it, while Part two gets down to the nitty-gritty of how the wiki is envisioned.

I think this idea has terrific merit and great potential. As the first post notes, "this project will serve three important functions - assisting historians in their research, developing a new network of community within the discipline and with related research fields, while also allowing the Association to work with and promote a new type of technology."

The second post focuses on the various technological and practical considerations that are going into this, including the criteria to be included, the need for some safeguards, and the worry that historians won't participate. As is made clear, this is still in the beginning stages, with many kinks still to be ironed out.

Robert Townsend, AHA's Assistant Director for Research and Publications, is their point-person on this project, and has invited interested folks to contact him with thoughts and ideas. This is certainly something I'll be keeping an eye on!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Book Review: "Dante"

Prominent Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds has penned a revealing new biography of her subject in Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. While some of her conclusions will almost certainly be controversial, Reynolds' close studies of Dante's works taken as a whole as well as her clear grasp of current Dante scholarship form what seems a fairly solid base. I certainly am not nearly expert enough to dispute her.

This was not an easy book to read, largely because it is hardly a conventional biography at all. While some chapters focus on Dante's life and its events, Reynolds is largely concerned with interpreting those events and Dante's works. It is at its best in the center portion, where Reynolds discusses the early poems and essays followed by Dante's magnum opus, the Commedia. In a fascinating tour through the cantos of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso Reynolds dissects those works, drawing out the various real-world events and people which feature, as well as analyzing the relationship(s) between Dante and his guides along the journey. Reynolds seeks a unifying theme in Dante's works, and finds one in his support for secular authority (in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor) rather than ecclesiastical preeminence (i.e. the Pope).

In the more biographical sections, this book would have benefited from some editorial oversight. Many chapters end with some form of "and we will take up [topic x] in the next chapter", which is rather jarring in a book like this and disrupted the narrative unecessarily. It's not a light read either, and I can't say I recommend it unless you happen to be a very serious Dante aficionado (or aspire to be such, I suppose). It was interesting, but I can't help but think there must be a more standard biography out there that would be more useful for most purposes (including, it should be said, my own).

One important note (and what partly prompted me to get this book): the jacket illustration - which shows Dante as depicted in a Luca Signorelli fresco in Orvieto - is quite lovely, and I happen to have a framed print of it hanging on my wall. I must say, it's pretty weird to be walking through a bookstore and suddenly seeing a picture from your wall on a book jacket!

Audubon Conference Tomorrow

With many apologies for the short notice, I wanted to point out that there will be a one-day conference on John James Audubon tomorrow at the Rensselaerville Institute, near Albany, NY. Events will include a roundtable conference on Audubon's books, as well as the premiere of a new PBS film "John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature."

"A $40 registration fee is required to attend the 1 p.m. conference, hosted by the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve. If you're just interested in the film, $5 buys you entry to a second screening at 8:30 p.m." The conference was organized by Roswell Eldridge, a local Audubon enthusiast who will be showing off his ten volume set of Audubon "octavos" (seven volumes of the Birds, three of the Quadrupeds).

I'm pretty sorry to miss this event, but I will certainly look forward to the PBS film.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Francis Frith Photograph Book Donated

An Oxfam bookshop in Exeter received a "diamond in the rough" in July - a book containing early photographs of the Middle East worth about £4,500. Francis Frith's "Sinai & Palestine," printed in 1862, contains 37 photographic prints: street scenes, panoramic views, and other images.

A volunteer book-pricer recognized the name of the photographer and decided to do a little research on the book, discovering that a similar copy recently sold at auction for
£5,000. "Sinai & Palestine" is now for sale at a London shop, with proceeds to go back to Oxfam.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Courant Reporter to Speak on Smiley

Kim Martineau of the Hartford Courant, who was responsible for much of her paper's coverage of the E. Forbes Smiley case, will speak at the Washington Map Society on Thursday, November 16 at 7 p.m. on "The Case of E. Forbes Smiley." More information here.

[Via Everett Wilkie]

New Zealand Book-Thieves Sentenced

In New Zealand, a gang of book thieves who have targeted libraries and museums for more than ten years have been sentenced for their crimes, as part of Operation Pukapuka (Maori for book). The effort "cracked down on the organised theft of at least 2500 books over 10 years, with a retail value of at least $1 million."

While more than half of the books have been recovered, police say many were sold to overseas buyers and cannot be located. "The thieves' modus operandi was almost ridiculously simple. They breached the system of trust by enrolling at libraries using a variety of false identities to borrow books, and once at home, removed any marks identifying them as belonging to a library."

At least five people have been or soon will be sentenced for their roles in the theft ring.

[Update: In another twist to this story, 301 charges against a Christchurch book dealer for receiving stolen property in this case have been tossed."John Arnold Palmer, 77, who runs Arnold's Books in New Regent Street, is in deteriorating health and wishes to sell the business but the huge indictment has stopped that happening." The judge, citing substantial delays, has granted Palmer's request that charges against him be dropped. Via Shelf:Life]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Fire at Folger Library, Books Safe

DC's NBC affiliate reports that there was a two-alarm fire at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday morning, caused by a spotlight igniting some stored costumes. "The Folger's collection of rare books and materials-including the world's largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period, ranging from 1500-1750, received no damage. No one was injured. Other damage to the library is estimated at $25,000."


Rare Books Hidden in Saratoga During WWII

Today's Saratogian contains quite an interesting little piece of Saratoga history: for several years during WWII, a selection of rare books and other items from the New York Public Library were stored in secure vaults under the Hall of Springs, to keep them safe from a possible German attack on New York.

"In the dark of night and under police escort in May 1942, 27,000 rare books, prints and manuscripts were moved from the library in Manhattan" to Saratoga, where they were housed comfortably until October, 1944. Among the items "was the original, handwritten manuscript of George Washington's Farewell Address, a 15th century Gutenberg Bible and an assortment of documents from signers of the Declaration of Independence. There were the private [papers?] of the Gansevoort Family, a rare multi-volume Audubon collection and a letter from Christopher Columbus that was dated 1493, announcing the discovery of the New World. In all, the collection was valued in 1942 at $20 million."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

State Sentence for Smiley "Largely Symbolic"

Convicted map thief E. Forbes Smiley received his sentence on state charges yesterday, and got the maximum five-year prison sentence. However, according to the Hartford Courant's report today, that sentence is "largely symbolic, and unlikely to add time to the 3½-year sentence Smiley has received in federal court. The state and federal sentences will run at the same time, with Smiley eligible for release from federal prison after three years. In state court, he can apply for parole after serving half his time."

For the first time (that I'm aware of, at least), the judge faulted the federal prosecutors for not continuing to investigate the case and searching for the other maps that the victim libraries believe may have been stolen by Smiley. "The problem is they're taking the word of a thief," judge Richard Damiani said in announcing the sentence. Damiani refused a request from Smiley's lawyer that the prison term be four years, noting that he's sentenced convenience store robbers to more time: "The man stole $2 million," the judge said. Of course this misses the point entirely - Smiley did much, much more than steal $2 million, he eviscerated priceless materials for his own personal profit at the expense of our cultural heritage and institutions.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Book Review: "State of Denial"

Bob Woodward's latest insider account of the Bush Administration at war, State of Denial is by far the most disturbing of the three volumes (the others being Bush at War and Plan of Attack). While some have described this new, extremely critical book as a change of course for Woodward based on public perceptions of the Administration and a judgement of what would sell more books (I have heard him described as a "weathervane"), I think it makes more sense to view State of Denial as a new point on a progressive continuum. As the Bush Administration has proceeded through military operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, more information about the governing style of the president and his closest advisors has become evident - this book couldn't have been written in 2002 - or in 2004 - but Woodward could not have avoided writing it in 2006.

I worked very hard to avoid all the advance publicity from this book, from the scoops obtained by the New York Times to the excerps in the Washington Post and all the coverage on cable and network news. Of course to have done so completely would have been impossible, and I learned many of Woodward's revelations before I had a chance to read the actual book. Nonetheless, that did nothing to blunt the impact of the narrative, which examines the Administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, the planning for that decision, the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, and the acute failure to plan for postwar Iraq in a meaningful or effective way.

The president does not emerge well from this book. Neither does Donald Rumsfeld, who is portrayed as a micromanaging pain-in-the-everything; he comes off (even and perhaps particularly in the moments where Woodward interviews with him on the record) as oblivious to what's really going on around him, selectively remembering details of conversations with other members of the Administration (including the president) and running roughshod over the uniformed military officers when their views did not align precisely with his own.

To be fair, Woodward treats just about every major participant harshly, and deservedly so. What struck me most when reading this book was the high number of "right there" moments ... right there, I would think to myself, what if person X had not given in, what if the argument had continued, what if minds had been changed by five more minutes of discussion? Above all, what if the president of the United States had been willing to ask questions instead of accepting a bunch of sycophantic head-bobbing? What if some of the greatest strategic minds in America today had been consulted rather than ignored? Would America, and Iraq, find themselves in the circumstances which exist today?

Like his earlier volumes, this latest product from Woodward is readable and engaging. It's also eminently depressing, but should be read nonetheless.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

More Join Google Book Project

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Historical Society have joined with Google in the company's book-scanning project. Selections of materials will be made from among the 7.2 million holdings of the institutions, Reuters reports.

"Librarians working to scan the Wisconsin library holdings will focus on collections concerned with the history of medicine, patents and discoveries and engineering, along with the early publications of scientific societies.

It will also target American and Wisconsin history, genealogical materials, decorative arts and sheet music, among other subjects, the University of Wisconsin said."

Duke Archivist Profiled

The newest Duke Chronicle includes a short article on University Archivist Tim Wyatt, an alumnus of the university and a person who's clearly committed to the institution and its archival materials.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Atlas Sale Breaks Record

A 1477 edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia sold today at Sotheby's for £2,136,000, setting a new sale record for an atlas. The BBC reports that bidding on the volume started at £600,000. "It was the latest item to be sold off from the Wardington Manor library, in Banbury, Oxon, to cover restoration costs of the fire-damaged property." The manor burned in 2004, and the rare books were saved by local villagers who "formed a human chain" to retrieve them from the burning building.

The high bidder was dealer Bernard Shapero, who purchased the atlas on behalf of an undisclosed private client.

Boston Globe Review of "The Thirteenth Tale"

Clea Simon reviews Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale in today's Boston Globe. My own review is here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Book Review: "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville"

I just finished a new edition of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited by E.C. Coleman (Nonsuch Publishing, 2006), so I thought I'd say a few words about it. The equivalent of a "bestseller" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this semi-fanciful account of Mandeville's three-plus-decade romp across the Middle East, Africa and Asia not only makes for interesting reading, but also offers some very keen commentary on interaction between people of different faiths and ethnic groups.

The first portion of Mandeville's book is basically a road map to the Holy Land, with descriptions of the various routes that can be taken from Europe, how long each leg of the journey will take, etc. He continues by describing many of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem, Galilee and Bethelehem - descriptions which were very accurate even by today's standards. I visited the region three years ago and was struck by how vividly Mandeville was able to capture some of the holy sites (and how little they've changed in the last seven hundred years).

From Palestine, Mandeville's travels proceed through Egypt and Persia, east to India and the Malaysian islands, and up into what we'd now call China. While things get a little cloudier here in terms of accuracy, many of his descriptions contain at least a grain of truth (while others are just outright amusing). He writes about the people and their customs, manner of dress and dispositions, the means of government and their religion. He describes strange animals and plants which must have fascinated his European readers, and concludes from his astronomical observations that the world absolutely must be round.

Coleman's version of the text, which has been modernized slightly by necessity, is complemented nicely by woodcuts drawn from fourteenth and fifteenth-century editions of the work. This is a well-edited version of Mandeville's great work, and I quite recommend it to anyone who enjoys early travel literature or just a great trip around the medieval world.

RISD Unveils New Library

This weekend marked the official opening of the Fleet Library at Providence's Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The library is now housed on the first floors of what was once the main hall of the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Building. The beaux-arts style decor of the original building was largely retained, with modern elements worked in as per the design of "Nader Tehrani and partner Monica Ponce de Leon, principals of the Boston-based architecture firm Office dA."

The Providence Journal piece confirms what I have heard from friends who've seen the library: the modern elements don't quite jive with the architecture of the building: "only the circulation desk makes much of a design statement. (With its angular, lattice-like front and flaring top it looks a bit like a futuristic lean-to.) The bleacher/computer area, meanwhile, looks bulky and awkward, although a series of laser-cut panels featuring the names of famous authors is a nice touch. ... Unfortunately, many of these newer elements seem lost in such a large space. In this case, old easily trumps new."

Fleet Library will house RISD's 130,000 volumes of books and periodicals, with a special collections area on the second floor. Above the library, the upper floors of the building have been converted into student housing.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Feinsilber Collection at Sotheby's

Next week, Sotheby's in Paris will auction the collection of Fred Feinsilber, according to the International Herald-Tribune. Retired chemical engineering magnate and Holocaust refugee Feinsilber has been collecting fine editions of 19th and 20th century "avant-garde" literature and their early predecessors (back to the Renaissance), as well as foundational architecture texts and key texts in the history of science.

When asked why he's decided to sell the collection, Feinsilber said "When you collect, you first buy what overwhelms you. Then you learn to rise to its level. When the discovery process is over, collecting turns into a power game. It is time to move on."

Some Publishers Find Upside to Google Books

Reuters reports that publishers are noticing an upswing in sales figures thanks to the controversial Google Book project. Oxford University Press online sales director Colleen Scollans says that sales increases have been "significant", and that "Google Book Search has helped us turn searchers into consumers." Springer has also reported increases in sales, while Penguin told Reuters they have "found greater success from other partnerships," citing Amazon's "Search Inside" program.

Of course, some publishers are still suing Google for their library digitization project.

Book Review: "The Keep"

Jennifer Egan's The Keep is a very strange book. A story-within-a-story motif, with two narratives that find themselves clunkily connecting toward the end (shocking, isn't it?), this tries to be simultaneously a piece of gothic suspense and a prison tale. Neither end up working out very well. Reviews of this book have been incredibly disparate (with the exception of the mainstream reviewers, most of whom seemed quite pleased with it), and it's not hard to see why - some might enjoy this kind of funky-fiction. I do not. The non-use of quotation marks rankles from the outset, and the whole thing just seems like the half-worked product of a creative writing seminar.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Emory to Get Rushdie Papers

Author Salman Rushdie has agreed to join the faculty of Emory University as a writer-in-residence, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, and as part of the deal, Rushdie's papers will be permanently housed at the University. "Rushdie's appointment and the addition of his works are a huge coup for Emory, which has intensely focused on building and broadening its literary collections in recent years."

Rushdie's archives include his private journals detailing life under the fatwa - the edict that sentenced him to death - as well as personal correspondence, notebooks, photographs and manuscripts of all of his writings, the university said in a statement. Among the writings are two early unpublished novels."

Emory's president told the media that the Rushdie materials will begin arriving shortly and will be given priority in processing and cataloging to provide speedy public access.

Audubon Exhibit in Texas

The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth is currently staging "Audubon's Passion," an exhibit featuring an early set of the Birds of America (that sent by Audubon to Charles Lucien Bonaparte), as well as the library's first American edition of the Birds. The exhibit, which runs through January 7, is free and open to the public. The linked article contains a decent short biography of Audubon.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Book Review: "A Commonwealth of Thieves"

The prolific Thomas Keneally (of Schindler's List and The Great Shame fame) offers as his latest book A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia, destined to join Robert Hughes' authoritative The Fatal Shore as an excellent account of the first years of the penal settlements in New South Wales.

Keneally's style is readable and interesting, and he does an excellent job of portraying the colonization of Australia by the English in the 1780s. Varying his perspective between the convict-settlers, the British officials, sailors, soldiers and civil officers, and the native Australians who met the boats on the beaches, Keneally has drawn expertly on the available primary sources in weaving this narrative of early Sydney and its environs.

Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, comes off well in this treatment: his pragmatic-but-necessarily-authoritarian style and generally unconfrontational approach to provocations from all corners make him seem genuinely unflappable. While as Keneally notes Phillip and his companions suffered from a severely stunted view of native Australian culture and customs, things during the early years could certainly have gotten much worse (as they would in the future, of course).

Keneally delves deeply into the lives of some of the more intriguing convict-settlers, and outlines well how the system functioned under Phillip's steady hand (with the notable exception of ongoing supply shortages). His excellent epilogue is not to be missed, as it extends the narrative a generation or so into the future. Not being particularly well-versed in Australian history going into this work, I learned a great deal, and recommend it without reservation to anyone who enjoys a good romp through a fascinating historical period.

The Lost Frost Poem

In a news release, the University of Virginia highlights the colloborative efforts of a university graduate student, the archives, and the in-house Virginia Quarterly Review: "the discovery and its publication highlighted what can happen when forces around the University come together."

Ed has had some great posts on the new Frost poem at Bibliothecary as well.

BPL Lacks Conservation Funds

The Boston Globe reports today on the "book hospital" at the Boston Public Library, where candidates for conservation and preservation work wait their turn. Due to a flat conservation budget line and a minimal conservation staff, books which need significant TLC are forced to languish in limbo.

The article includes a quote from historian David McCullough, who headlined a fundraiser for the preservation endowment last month and said of the necessary efforts "These books are a national treasure, which we of the Boston community are duty-bound to preserve. Yes, it will be very expensive to do that, but it's a fraction of what those treasures are worth. If we were the custodians of a great painting or an important building, or of the original text of a great dramatist's masterpiece, we would, of course, save them."

You can find out more about the David McCullough Conservation Fund or make a donation here.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Courant Editorial Bashes Smiley Sentence

The Hartford Courant's editorial board comes out swinging today at the 42-month federal sentence meted out to map thief E. Forbes Smiley last week:

"Let's get this straight: E. Forbes Smiley III was caught stealing nearly 100 rare maps from some of the world's finest libraries and selling them for personal profit, and yet was given a substantial reduction in his jail sentence because he helped recover the loot. Where is the justice in that?

Should a judge forgive a car thief because he returned the vehicle? Should a mass murderer get a lighter sentence because he led police to more bodies? To imply that Mr. Smiley's cooperation is somehow ennobling is an affront to his victims, and they include all who value history and view its irreplaceable artifacts as sacrosanct.

... Judge Arterton, in meting out a lighter sentence at the reported request of the government, used odd logic in giving the thief a break. She justified Mr. Smiley's reduced jail time by noting it is roughly equivalent to the time it took him to commit the thefts. By that rationale, an assassin who kills by gunshot would serve just seconds for the crime."

New Rare Book Facility at PA State Library

The Pennsylvania State Library has completed a five-year, $6.6 million construction project to create a facility for the library's rare book collections. "The new facility is able to preserve the historic collections through state-of-the-art environmental control systems. Temperature and humidity are regulated specific to vault locations, while the materials are protected from harmful air matter and gases by specially-designed filtration systems. The collection is also protected by special computer-controlled fire detection and suppression systems."

More than ten thousand volumes of books and periodicals make up the State Library's collection; many of the items focus on Pennsylvania history and government.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Some Good Links

- Ed over at Bibliothecary has been writing a few book reviews, and also has some excellent links to writers writing about writing.

- The Globe's BookBlog notes a report that some 98-99% of all books published are now out of print, including some by such noted authors as Roald Dahl, H.G. Wells and Gore Vidal.

- GalleyCat asks if there are way too many "great books" (by which they apparently mean books that will sell oodles of copies) coming out this fall, noting current or upcoming releases from everyone: Stephen King, Grisham, Steele, Crichton, Atwood, Allende, Frazier, Woodward, Vidal, Gaiman ... their list goes on. The one they mention that I hadn't known about (and will read) is the short-story collection coming from Susanna Clarke, of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell fame.

- "Scoop" News (NZ) runs a review of Donald Jackson Karr's new book, Amassing Treasures for All TImes: Sir George Grey, Colonial Bookman and Collector.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

From the Devil's Dictionary

I picked up a copy of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary a couple weeks ago, and thought I might throw out just a few randomly selected definitions as a good way to wile away a very rainy Sunday afternoon:

- Resolute, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.

- Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent. This period is divided into two parts, the day proper and the night, or day improper - the former devoted to sins of business, the latter consecrated to the other sort. These two kinds of social activity overlap.

- Harangue, n. A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harangue-outang.

- Once, adv. Enough.

- Monday, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

- Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

Book Review: "The Thirteenth Tale"

I'm always suspicious of books like Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, which has rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists and is getting significant "buzz" around the BookWorld water cooler. But, Borders sucked me in with a good discount, so I picked up a copy on Friday to see what all the fuss is about. I read the book in a single sitting last night.

First of all, I must warn you not to be fooled by the jacket-synopsis, which makes the novel sound like utter treacle. After reading it I almost didn't buy the book, but I'm glad I did in the end. Setterfield has woven a fascinating tale of intertwined lives and bizarre-yet-believable characters, complemented by a well-paced narrative and some fascinating puzzles.

The Thirteenth Tale is infused with books: the narrator was raised in her father's rare book shop, and her mysterious biographical subject is not only an author but also has a fabulous library of her own. The references to and echoes of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins and Henry James are carefully placed and not overcooked as so often happens in writing like this. Anyone who enjoys books and reading them will find something to like here. Admittedly, he narrator and I come down firmly on different sides of the white-gloves controversy, but I suppose I won't hold that against her.

I won't rehash the plot-lines of Setterfield's book, but will just say that I highly recommend it. It doesn't break the mold or change the face of literature forever, but it is a fine read indeed.

New Edition of Ptolemy

A Swiss research team has produced the first modern edition of Ptolemy's Geography, using a copy from Istanbul's Topkapi Museum and other versions of the book from the Vatican, Venice, Florence, and Paris. The new edition is also the first full German translation of the book, which was originally written in the first century CE (and which shows the world to be round).

"The book begins with an introduction to the science of mapmaking, including the problem of how to project a curved surface onto a plane.

It then presents a catalogue of names with the coordinates (longitude and latitude) of some 6,000 places, which Ptolemy drew up using information gathered from sailors, merchants and the Roman military archives. In Switzerland the list includes the names of the important Roman towns now known as Avenches, Nyon and Martigny.

The last section of the book contains a map of the world, drawn according to Ptolemy's instructions, stretching from the Canaries to eastern China, and from just south of the equator to southern Scandinavia. This is supplemented by 26 country maps."

Ptolemy's work made its way to Europe in the 14th century, and it was influential in changing the flat-earth worldview in the pre-Columbus period. This is the first complete Greek text of the Geography printed since 1840, and the researchers have used the oldest known copies in order to remove some of the errors that have found their way into the text over the centuries.

The book, Klaudios Ptolemaios Handbuch der Geographie, is published by Schwabe AG of Basel in two volumes with a CD-ROM (ISBN 3-7965-2148-7; SFr250/€170/$220).

(h/t Bibliophile Bullpen)