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 But when it comes to keeping our historical documents and rare books safe from those who would make off with them, the cost of inaction is much greater.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.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Medieval Manuscripts at Philly Library

The Free Library of Philadelphia has launched a new website to showcase its collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. There's a very nice introduction to medieval manuscript history, use, and production, along with a tour through some of the highlights and a searchable database.

This is a work in progress, to be updated regularly through the next year. The project was funded partly by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Audubon Exhibit Highlights Quadrupeds

"Spectacular Achievements: Audubon's Animals of North America," an exhibit designed to showcase John James Audubon's illustrations for his Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, will be staged at the William D. Cannon Art Gallery in Carlsbad, CA through December 16.

It's true, Audubon's quadrupeds don't have the same visual power of the birds, but the images are still impressive. The article (which does a pretty good job of backgrounding the quadrupeds project) notes that the exhibit is touring nationwide, so if you're not in CA, maybe it'll come to your neck of the woods in the future.

BPL Announces Missing Maps

Just days after announcing a new website to highlight its map collection, the Boston Public Library has released to map dealers a list of some three dozen rare maps which are missing from its holdings, the Boston Globe reports. "The maps that are still missing were from books and atlases used by E. Forbes Smiley III, a rare maps dealer with a home on Martha's Vineyard." Smiley was sentenced in September to three and a half years in prison after a plea deal in which he admitted to the theft of 90-some maps from various institutions. He is widely believed to have been responsible for far more thefts.

Among the missing maps is one drawn by Samuel de Champlain in 1613 showing what was then termed "New France."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Book Review: "Passionate Minds"

David Bodanis' book can certainly lay claim to at least one superlative among my reading list: having one of the longest subtitles I've read this year. Its full title is Passionate Minds: The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world. Whew.

This is one of those books which, done right, would be amazing. It's got the perfect storm of possibilities: intensely interesting characters, coupled with enough politics, literature, science, romance and intrigue to knock a reader's socks off. That potential is perhaps why this book was so disappointing. It's not awful by a long shot, but Bodanis' breezy style and loose technique detract from his subjects (both human and topical). Conflating quotations, using material out of sequence to suit his purposes, switching translations willy-nilly, and generally flouting the standards of conventional biography don't really work well here, nor does Bodanis' habit of inserting anachronistic comparisons into the text.

The subtitle basically is the book in a nutshell so I won't go too far into the plot except to note that Bodanis attempts to make the case for du Châtelet's inclusion in the great pantheon of Enlightenment scientists. I think that case can be made, but I wish Bodanis had chosen to focus more on Emilie's scientific contributions rather than so single-mindedly on her barely-scandalous amorous adventures.

Bodanis' choice of citation is also problematic - there are no indications of citation in the text, so one must examine the rear of the book and find the page number and sentence to which the notes refer. A cumbersome process in the best of circumstances, but entirely necessary here, since the notes are where the author admits that he's tinkered with quotations and so forth.

A readable and interesting history of two remarkable characters ... but it could have been so much more.

Boston Book Fair This Weekend

The 30th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held this weekend at the Hynes Convention Center, and it promises to be a very exciting show. The booths are sold out, and the exhibitors' list reads like a "who's who" in the antiquarian book biz.

Highlights of this year's show include a first edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula with an autographed letter signed by Stoker, a 1685 Shakespeare folio, a 1773 edition of Johnson's Dictionary, and a rare 1823 facsimile of Jefferson's manuscript of the Declaration of Independence.

I'll be working the Commonwealth Books booth on Friday night (we'll have some very nice offerings as well although I'm sad to see none of them rated "highlight" status) and probably will be around the fair much of Saturday afternoon as well, so do stop by if you're in the area.

Online Ben Franklin Exhibit

To celebrate their 275th anniversary, the Library Company of Philadelphia has mounted an online exhibition titled Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer. Extensively documented with some really excellent images of Franklin's written and printed works - don't miss this one!

The Great LitBlog Debate

Kim Bofo at Reading Matters started a firestorm in the litblogging world on Monday with this post, in which she argues that bloggers ought to note when they've received copies of books they review free from the publisher. She suggests that publishers are "using" bloggers to manipulate sales of books that would (presumably) otherwise not get favorable coverage. She is particularly incensed about a Simon & Schuster marketing effort regarding The Thirteenth Tale, which she outlines clearly in her post so I won't bother rehashing it.*

Bofo concludes: "Personally, I think it's time that book bloggers came clean. It might sound ridiculous, but I honestly think we need a code of conduct. We need to tell our readers when we are reviewing free books or when we are taking part in marketing exercises, because if we don't we run the risk of just becoming yet another cog in the public relations industry. And surely the reason we all started blogging about books was because we were sick of the mainstream media's treatment of books. If we don't clean up our act now, we might as well forget any notion of reading unbiased, reliable and truthful reviews online, because how will we ever be able to tell the difference between a genuine review and one written on obligation? I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that our credibility as book bloggers is at stake."

The response was quick. Edward Champion calls Bofo's post "preposterous", noting her assumption that whenever a publisher provides a copy of a book, "there is an automatic quid pro quo between publisher and litblogger. This is a preposterous contextomy, seeing as how any sane person is aware that it is impossible for any journalist, whether print or online, who receives fifteen to twenty books a week to review each and every one of them. The litblogger is under no duty to review anything, just as the publicist is under no duty to send free books." Champion goes on to note that he has more faith in the average litblogger than Bofo and does not automatically assume that they are incapable of deciding for themselves what's good or bad.

Ron Hogan at GalleyCat also found Bofo's comments unimpressive. "[A]t a certain point, readers have to either trust that the writer/reviewer is sharing their genuine sentiments or stop visiting the blog. Bloggers don't have to beg for your trust any more than 'legitimate' book reviewers do...and, frankly, it's insulting of Bofo to suggest that a blogger's opinion could be 'bought' for a couple hardcover novels." Hogan's final sentence says it perfectly: "[I]f you can't tell the difference between somebody who's genuinely passionate about a book and somebody who's repurposing press releases, then frankly you're probably not the most attentive of readers to begin with."

When I wrote the first review of a book I'd received free from a publisher I revealed a bit of the angst I was feeling about that relationship, and commented that I "almost wanted it to be bad so that I could pan it and not feel like I was selling out." Since then, I have rarely made clear which books I've read from my own collection, which I've purchased, or which I've received from publishers. I hope that those who read my reviews will indeed take them for my true feelings, which is - in every case - exactly what they are. If you ever have a question about where I'm coming from, I hope you'll ask me and not assume one way or the other. But I think it neither my duty nor my responsibility to outline how I received any given book I write about, whether from a publisher, a used bookstore, Amazon, a friend, &c. If you disagree, that's fine - every blogger is free to disclose whatever they wish. But like Hogan and Champion, I think we've got to all have a little faith that those who write about books are doing it for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

* A note on The Thirteenth Tale: I reviewed it, positively. Because I liked it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book Review: "The Interpretation of Murder"

Yale law professor Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder (just out from Holt) is a thrilling mystery set in 1909 New York. It features prominent historical figures Sigmund Freud (on his first and only visit to America), Carl Jung and George B. McClellan Jr. (the mayor of NYC at the time), and goes beyond the traditional mystery genre to muse about the impact of Freudian thought and its implications for criminalistics. Rubenfeld takes the reader from the glittering high society and New York nightlife all the way to the stews and tenements of the Tenderloin, and he's done his research well.

I found this book rather similar to Caleb Carr's The Alienist - if you liked the one, you'll almost certainly like the other (although I wouldn't advise reading them consecutively). I had a hard time putting either of them down, and read Rubenfeld's very quickly. While I'm not up on my Freud (or my Jung) I was able to follow the narrative without any problem; Rubenfeld has - thankfully - not made this a mystery that can only be understood by psychoanalysts. I don't think this book breaks any new ground, but it's a very decent read.

Washington Letter Fetches $9,500

A letter written by George Washington sold at auction this week for $9,500, says the Cumberland Sentinel. After what the paper calls a "bidding war," Maryland farmer Carl Brady came out on top. The letter, which dates from December of 1786, was written to Washington's neighbor Leven Powell, and concerns Mt. Vernon's buckwheat crop.

Among the losing bidders was Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens (to which, of course, the seller probably ought to have donated the letter in the first place, but we won't go there today).

Google Adds UVa

The University of Virginia has signed onto the Google Books Library Project, The Book Standard reports. With more than three million books and 17 million rare books and archival collections, UVa is certainly an important addition.

President John Casteen said "This is a historic moment. When Jefferson designed the University, he placed the library at its center - both physically and academically. Reading and the quest for knowledge were all-important to him. Reaching out into the world - what we now call Globalization - was central to his vision of what an American university must do to promote the knowledge that sustains personal freedom. To have the library that is the clearest single emblem of this vision now assume a role in a vast, international digital library has special meaning here. It puts a distinctly contemporary meaning to our founder's dream of making knowledge accessible to all people."

More here.

New Maps Site at BPL

The Boston Public Library has unveiled a new website for the Norman P. Leventhal Map Center, The site allows searching of the Library's collections (which contain more than 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases), and also will feature online exhibits and other spotlights, including "Maps in the News" and a "Map of the Month". The site has already gotten some rave reviews from map specialists, so stop by and check it out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Interesting Milestone

Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen reports that on this day in 1732, the first professional librarian was hired by the Library Company of Philadelphia to mind their collection. Here is the actual agreement letter between the directors (one of whom was Benjamin Franklin) and Louis Timothée, which notes:

"That the said Louis Timothee shall be the Librarian of the said Company for and during the Space of Three Months from the Date hereof.

he shall give due Attendance in the Library on Wednesdays from two ’till three o’Clock and on Saturdays from the Hours of Ten to four weekly during the said Term and may permit any civil Gentlemen to peruse the Books of the Library in the Library-Room.

... That as to the Order of lending the said Books He the said Librarian shall not lend at one Time to any one Person more than one Book except such as in the said Catalogue are mentioned to be lent together nor for a longer Time or a less Sum pledg’d by Note as aforesaid than as in the said Catalogue set down."

Ancient Bibles on Display

The Baltimore Sun reports on a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000." Housed in the Sackler Gallery, the purpose of this display is "to give people an idea of what survived from this period of the early development of the book, from tiny scraps to astonishingly well-preserved volumes," said curator Ann Gunter. "We convey the experience of looking at something so familiar to all of us. We all have books in our houses. Here is the earliest history of the format of something that we take for granted and only know as mass-produced material. Every one of these books is individually made and inscribed."

"In the Beginning" features many of the various formats in which the Bible was presented, and includes "some of the earliest biblical artifacts in existence, including pages and fragments written in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Coptic." Many of the items are on display in the US for the first time.

The Sun article includes a list of highlights from the exhibit: among them are the third-century Chester Beatty Numbers and Deuteronomy Codex ("the oldest extant manuscript of any Bible in the world") and the Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the fourth century and "contains the only complete copy of the Greek New Testament that predates the ninth century."

Interestingly - and appropriately - the display also shows how the canonical gospels came to be chosen from among the thirty-two (known) potential candidates.

Don't think I'll be able to get down to DC before the exhibit closes in January, but the online display isn't bad at all.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Book-Buying in Dublin

The Boston Globe travel section has a highlight piece on the bookstores of Dublin, where it sounds like many of the same problems afflicting independent booksellers here have reared their ugly heads.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Book Review: "Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography"

Is it possible to write a "biography" of a fictional character? Apparently it is, for Nick Rennison has done it, and done a lovely job of it to boot. His Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography (just out from Atlantic Monthly Press) is a full-length, scholarly treatment of the life and times of the world's greatest detective: the fact that Holmes never really existed is really of little matter at all.

Rennison has culled every available biographical fact from the Holmes canon and used them to full advantage, while filling in around the edges with entirely plausible additional details. We learn of Holmes' childhood on the Yorkshire moors, his whereabouts and business during the "Great Hiatus" when the world thought him dead at the foot of Reichenbach Falls (he was traveling, Rennison suggests, on assignment for the British government in Tibet, Mecca, and the Sudan). We learn about the extent of Holmes' involvement in the Jack the Ripper case, his pursuit of Irish terrorists, and of other great unrecorded achievements.

In this book, we also learn much about Holmes' erstwhile Boswell, Dr. Watson, and about the detective's great enemies Moriarty and Moran. The relationship between Holmes, Watson and the "literary agent" Arthur Conan Doyle are also outlined in some detail; Holmes, we come to find, was rather picky about his portrayal in print, and did not hesitate in sharing his concerns with the man with whom his name has become inextricably linked.

Skillfully utilizing the Holmes stories as well as an extensive knowledge of the later Victorian period, Rennison has fashioned a readable, interesting and wonderfully detailed biography of Holmes - from the bibliography (read the whole thing) to the footnotes and beyond. If you are a Holmes fan - casual or otherwise - I cannot recommend this new volume highly enough.

Book Review: "A Spectacle of Corruption"

A Spectacle of Corruption is David Liss' sequel to the excellent A Conspiracy of Paper, and includes appearances by many of the same characters. In Spectacle, Liss ably tackles the knotty mess that was British politics in the early Hanoverian era: Whigs, Tories, Jacobite plots, rough-housing at the polls, &c. Benjamin Weaver works to clear his name of an undeserved murder conviction against the backdrop of a contested parliamentary election in which he finds himself unwillingly tangled.

I'm hard-pressed to say whether I liked this one or Conspiracy better - I think just for the excellent coverage of political intrigue this one has the edge. Both, however, make for excellent reading (as does their companion, The Coffee Trader, which I reviewed here). Recommended.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nice Online Audubon Exhibit

As regular readers will probably know, I'm somewhat obsessed with the works of John James Audubon, and am always looking for news and such related to him and/or his art. I came across an interesting link this morning in a piece about artwork that technologically-talented folks have set to motion (which is quite interesting by itself and I intend to take some time later to play with the other links the author includes).

A few years ago, Le Musee de la Civilisation in France mounted an online exhibit of Audubon's Birds of America, allowing users to scroll through the 435 plates and get some background on the work and the birds. As part of that, they also included twelve animations, which vary widely in feel and technique (some are more slideshows, others put parts of the plates themselves in motion). All are worth watching. My particular favorites are "Wavy" (the swan) and "Frailty" (with the ivory-billed woodpecker).

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Bookish Challenge

I often try the "Weekend Edition" puzzlers ... and almost never can come up with the right answers. This week was a true rarity when the solution came to me - thought I'd toss it out there for all of you to take a stab at as well.

"Take the word lather. Rearrange the letters and repeat them as often as necessary to name a famous literary work in 16 letters. Hint: The title of this literary work has three words, one of which is hyphenated. Name this famous literary work."

The deadline's passed for real submissions, but if you come up with it, feel free to post a comment.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Princeton Gift to Support Early Americana Collection

An anonymous descendant of Patrick Henry has made a substantial donation to Princeton's University Library, according to a university press notice. The gift endows "the Barksdale-Dabney-Henry Memorial Fund for Teaching and Research on Patrick Henry and Early Americana" and will also "be used to support public programs and library projects related to Henry and early American history - especially the Great Awakening, the Scottish Enlightenment in the American colonies and the Revolutionary War."

Some functions supported by the endowment include the cataloging and selective digitization of materials in Princeton's rare book and manuscript collections relating to early American history. Other uses will include "the preparation of course packs to support the Princeton curriculum in history, English, American studies and other areas; the acquisition of manuscripts, rare books, maps and other materials relating to Henry and his times; the creation of school-based educational programming to focus on colonial childhood and education; and the research and mounting of major library exhibitions."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

To Talk of Many Things

Somehow I've gotten a bit behind (okay, more than a bit) so I'm going to have to do an omnibus post here and link to a whole bunch of things I've been meaning to write about.

- James Gleick had an article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, "Cyber-Neologoliferation", in which he discusses the ongoing release of O.E.D.3, the third edition of the great Oxford English Dictionary. Quite an interesting discussion of the editing process, including the never-ending addition of "new words" and the discovery of earlier usages for known words. Gleick even asks a few of the editors if they have favorite words: "Fiona McPherson gives me mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, as in, 'Lead on, O kinky turtle' [presumably this stems from "O king eternal"?]. It is named after Lady Mondegreen. There was no Lady Mondegreen. The lines of a ballad 'They hae slain the Earl of Murray, / And laid him on the green' are misheard as 'They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.'" Hmm. Learn something new every day!

- According to the Carlisle Sentinel (PA), an upcoming auction will feature some memorabilia from the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, including a letter written by George Washington.

- American Heritage reports that St. Francisville, LA's Oakley plantation house has been reopened after extensive renovations. Oakley played an important role in the making of John James Audubon's great Birds of America: while tutoring the owner's young daughter there in 1820-1, Audubon drew more than thirty birds during afternoon jaunts through the local forests. In later years, he was often back in the area. Restoration of the house is expected to be fully completed by next March in time for the 36th annual Audubon Pilgrimage.

- The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" column this week is a tongue-in-cheek piece on the high cost of new hardcover novels. Quite funny (I particularly enjoyed the 'quote' from Senator Jeff Sessions).

- I read this article by law prof. Lawrence Lessig for my Archives class this week and thought I should share it; it's not brand-new, but it's a fascinating inside look at the process behind a Supreme Court argument (in this case - Eldred v. Ashcroft - over copyright issues and the public domain).

- A couple new blogs out there for your reading pleasure: Reading Copy is written by the great staff over at AbeBooks, and has some excellent stuff so far. I've added a link and will check in with this one regularly. I also recommend Reading Archives (apparently there's a theme to these today), which is written by University of Pittsburgh LIS professor Richard Cox. This blog, he says, is designed to offer "critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society."

Monday, November 06, 2006

From the "Diamond in the Rough" File

The Metuchen Library (NJ) discovered a hidden gem in its basement recently, reports The Star-Ledger (via RBN). A copy of the 1636 second edition of John Gerard's Herball languished in that infamous "library limbo" since it was donated "decades ago," until some volunteers discovered it this spring and brought it to the attention of the library's director.

After an appraisal and examination, the library has decided to sell the book, as they consider the costs of insurance and restoration too costly. No word yet on how or when the sale will proceed.

The Star-Ledger piece is worth a read; it's got some good information about the book and its background.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Boston: It's Where the Authors Are

The Globe's "Off the Shelf" book blog has a useful post up on all (or at least many) of the author events coming up next week in the Boston area. It's pretty impressive, really - there are quite a few of them!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Several Items of Note

- Princeton University Rare Books Conservator Scott Husby will speak at Columbia's Butler Library on 11/15 on "A Census of Bookbindings on Incunables." Husby "has been compiling information on incunables held in American library collections that retain their original gothic bindings. So far he has examined over 11,000 bindings produced throughout Europe that are held at the Huntington Library, the Morgan Library and Museum, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia and Princeton Universities." RSVP and other information here.

- Barbara Moore, who stole several items from a Canadian archival collection and tried to sell them through a New York dealer, was convicted on October 24 on two misdemeanor counts of possessing stole property. "The jury acquitted Moore of two felony larceny counts, the Associated Press reported October 25. She was freed on $5,000 bail, but faces up to one year in jail when she is sentenced in Manhattan State Supreme Court December 13."

- There's a new blog on the block: Peter Christian Pehrson of Waxing Gibbous Books and Written By Hand. Looks like it will deal mainly with manuscript primary sources, but there are some good book-posts tossed in as well. I'm adding a link.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tales from the Archives

The Albany Times-Union reports on this year's winner of the New York State Archives' "Researcher of the Year" award, Loyola University history professor Timothy Guilfoyle. Guilfoyle, who researched at the State Archives back in 1994, won for his book A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York, which was published this summer by W.W. Norton.

"The book examines the seamy underside of New York City in the late-1800s. He paints a complex portrait of George Appo (1856-1930), veteran pickpocket, opium addict, con man, ex-convict and archetypal hustler of the urban demimonde."