Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review: "Pirates: An Illustrated History"

Blackbeard biographer Angus Konstam expands his scope to pirates of all kinds in Pirates: Predators of the Seas: An Illustrated History (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007). The dust jacket calls this volume the "essential companion for every armchair swashbuckler," which seems fairly apt. It's a basic overview of pirates and pirate culture through history - from classical times through the present day.

This book is indeed heavily illustrated with contemporary engravings, photos of artifacts, maps and (primarily) later adaptations of pirate life (those by Howard Pyle, for example). Unfortunately, many of the early illustrations used seem to have been crudely adapted, which takes much from their impact.

Fairly formulaic and not particularly compellingly written, this is a decent browsing book, but not much more. The absence of a bibliography or list for further reading is particularly unfortunate.

Book Review: "Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science"

Ursula Klein and Wolfgang Lefèvre's Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science: A Historical Ontology (MIT Press, 2007) is an in-depth history of how chemists understood, identified, classified and studied materials objects during the eighteenth century. The authors argue that by examining the important historical contexts of how chemists dealt with material substances during this period, we can better understand both materials science and the field of chemistry as they have evolved over time.

If one can get over the jargon-filled, mechanistic prose of this book, there is an interesting story lurking within. Chemistry and chemists' understanding of materials were shaped significantly by how those materials were used in other contexts (mining, metallurgy, medicine, craftsmanship, &c.) and how chemists went about acquiring those materials for study. It was practical experience, observation and experimentation brought about by the wide overlap between chemical study and artisanship that led to the development of certain classifactory practices within the discipline and beyond.

Klein and Lefèvre provide an analysis of how chemistry terms have changed dramatically over time, noting that words in use today (compound, or composition, for example) would have been understood and used very differently in the eighteenth century, thereby making our own analysis of how earlier chemists operated much more difficult.

In several chapters the authors analyze early attempts at systematic classification of chemical substances; this gets a bit sloggy at times, but they do provide alternative chapters for those whose interests lie elsewhere. Finally, the third section examines how the classification of plant-based chemical products changed over time.

I suspect this book might have been made more interesting for the general reader by removing some of the jargon and adding a bit more narrative structure, but for what it is, it's a tough but interesting read.

Book Review: "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table"

Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was first published serially in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, and in book form a year later. It is less a novel than a collection of short, idiosyncratic musings disguised as breakfast-table discussions (lectures might be a more accurate description) between the eponymous autocrat and his (semi-captive) audience - the other boarders at his lodging-house in Boston.

Since there's not really much plot to discuss, I thought I'd pick out a few portions of the book that either struck me as interesting or made me laugh. Holmes' wit remains sharp, but I suspect some references and allusions have been lost, dulled by the changes a century and a half have wrought in the American psyche. Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy in this little book.

The autocrat dislikes puns and wordplay (except, of course, when he wants to employ such tactics himself). "A pun," he writes, "does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were to be given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide."

Holmes develops the concept of a "literary tea-pot," sort of a reading intern:
"Society is a strong solution of books. It draws the virtue out of what is best worth reading, as hot water draws the strength of tea-leaves. If I were a prince, I would hire or buy a private literary tea-pot, in which I would steep all the leaves of new books that promised well. ... You understand me; I would have a person whose sole business should be to read day and night, and talk to me whenever I wanted him to. I know the man I would have: a quick-witted, out-spoken, incisive fellow; knows history, or at any rate has a shelf full of books about it, which he can use handily, and the same of all useful arts and sciences; knows all the common plots of plays and novels, and the stock company of characters that are continually coming in on new costume; can give you a criticism of an octavo in an epithet and a wink, and you can depend on it; cares for nobody except for the virtue there is in what he says; delights in taking off big wigs and professional gowns, and in the disembalming and unbandaging of all literary mummies. ... In short, he is one of those men that know everything except how to make a living."

The musings seldom tend toward natural history, but Holmes' disquisition on elm trees in the tenth chapter is one of the sections I like most of all. It helped, perhaps, that I read this section just a few hours after discovering a survivor elm on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge - a tree that possibly (if only barely) might have been a young sapling when Holmes himself walked those very streets.

Likewise, the essays only rarely refer to actual contemporary events, but Holmes does take to task those engaged in the wholesale rearrangement of Boston's cemeteries for the sake of symmetry: "... the upright stones have been shuffled about like chessman, and nothing short of the Day of Judgment will tell whose dust lies beneath any of those records, meant by affection to mark one small spot as sacred to some cherished memory. Shame! shame! shame! - that is all I can say. ... epitaphs were never famous for truth, but the old reproach of "Here lies" never had such a wholesale illustration as in these outraged burial-places, where the stone does lie above and the bones do not lie beneath."

An example of nineteenth century literary Boston brahminism at its finest, Holmes' jottings have retained most of their punch; Autocrat can still amuse, provoke, and chide its reader today, just as it did 150 years ago.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Egypt Requests Rosetta Stone Loan

Via Jim Watts at Iconic Books, a story in The Art Newspaper notes that "the Egyptian government has made a formal request to borrow the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum" for a three-month period in 2012 to coincide with the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum.

BM trustees are expected to weigh several major factors in their consideration of whether to allow the loan to go forward: first and foremost, preservations concerns. Secondly, "if the Rosetta Stone can be lent in view of its iconic importance. It is probably the single most-visited object in the BM’s entire collection, attracting even more visitors than the Parthenon [Elgin] Marbles. The Rosetta Stone has been at the museum since 1802, and has only left the building twice - when it was evacuated during World War I and when it was lent to the Louvre for one month in 1972."

Finally, there is some concern "over whether it would be prudent to lend to Cairo, because of possible pressure in Egypt to retain the stone or request its permanent return."

The paper adds: "In March, Dr. [Zahi] Hawass [head of Supreme Council of Antiquities] told The Art Newspaper that he intends to seek the loan of five key masterpieces from international museums. The others are the head of Nefertiti (Berlin Museums), the Dendera zodiac ceiling (Louvre), the bust of Hemiunu, builder of the Great Pyramid (Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, Germany), and the statue of Ankhaf, builder of the Khafre Pyramid (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). 'I will give guarantees for their safe return,' he promised."

Botanical Illustration Exhibit in NYC

The New York Times highlights what looks like a very interesting exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden, "Paradise in Print."

"A selection of watercolors, folio editions, rare books and prints from the 18th through the mid-20th century - organized by Jane Dorfman, Marie Long and Stephen Sinon of the Botanical Garden - illuminates a number of historical events through tales about plants."

The exhibit description adds "The works tell stories of the Caribbean's natural history, exploration by Europeans, sugar trade, and more. And, of course, you'll see mesmerizing illustrations of the region's vibrant flora, from plumeria to passionflower. Discover 500 years of Caribbean history and culture and see the region through the eyes of the early explorers and colonists."

The Times story runs through several of the exhibit sections, which include examinations of some of the major Caribbean commodity crops through contemporary illustration, natural history expeditions like those of Mark Catesby, and early illustrated works showing off the region's flowering plant diversity.

"Paradise in Print" accompanies the NYBG's "Caribbean Gardens" exhibition, and runs through 19 August.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wardington Hours to Stay in England

The fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript known as the Wardington Hours will remain in Britain after the British Library successfully raised £635,000 to purchase it. The 45-page manuscript was sold to a German dealer at auction in December, but Culture Minister David Lammy "placed an export ban on the book to give the library a chance to match the price," the BBC reports.

Created by an anonymous artist of miniatures known as the Bedford Master, who worked in Paris during the early 1400s, the Wardington Hours "may once have formed part of a complete Book of Hours now held in the Huntington Library in California." Until recently the work was in the possession of the late Lord Wardington.

The BL's purchase of the Wardington Hours was made possible with a "£250,000 grant from The Art Fund, together with donations from the Friends of the National Library, Friends of the British Library, and Breslauer Bequest."

[Update: Jim Watts has some more on this subject. He writes "This example illustrates how rare, museum-quality books usually function socially more like relics than like icons. That is, unlike iconic books like the Bible or Qur'an which are readily reproduced and whose distribution and export tend to be heartily encouraged, relic books are regarded as one-of-a-kind and often carry significant associations with particular places or countries. The textual and performative dimensions of relic books have ceased to be important; they are valued for their iconic dimension alone."]

Another HP First Sells

'Tis the season ...

Bonhams in London sold a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone earlier this week for £9,000 ($18,000); that's more than the other recent copy (sold at Dominic Winter on 21 June for $14,200), and beats the presale estimates of £5,000-£7,000. "Bonhams sold the hardback on behalf of a woman who had bought it originally with book tokens she had been given as a school prize."

Manuscript of "The Good Earth" Recovered

The original typescript (with hand-corrections) of Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth "went missing" from the author's home around 1966; it reappeared earlier this month "after the daughter of one of the author's former secretaries tried to put it up for auction" at Samuel T. Freeman & Co. in Philadelphia. Patrick Walters filed an AP report on the story.

Auction house officials alerted the FBI after authenticating the document and being told it was stolen; the FBI is currently holding the manuscript "while the family trust and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation decide what to do with it."

No charges will be filed in the case, according to US Attorney Patrick Meehan (yes, he's the one 'prosecuting' the McTague case too). He said that while it appeared the document had been "inappropriately obtained" (which I am declaring the official PhiloBiblos Euphemism of the Day), "[t]o the extent that somebody may have been suspicious some number of years ago, that was some number of years ago."

In this case, it's probably true that no charges could or should be filed, so I won't grouse too much. It's good that the document (which was accompanied by a collection of letters to Buck from, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman) has been recovered, and hopefully it will end up somewhere that it can be studied and viewed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Preservation in Small Libraries

The AP's Deanna Martin has filed a story about preservation efforts at small libraries and museums, highlighting the budgetary constraints these institutions face as they try to care for their collections. "More than 70 percent of the country's small libraries, museums and archives have conservation budgets of less than $3,000, according to a 2005 survey by Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The survey found 270 million books, journals and newspapers, 189 million scientific specimens, 153 million photographs, 13.5 million historic objects and 4.7 million works of art in need of immediate care."

Preservation is challenging in museums and libraries of all sizes but can be more so for small public libraries, which often lack the temperature, light and humidity controls that archive storage requires." Installing UV filters, air handling units and other controls are important pieces of a preservation plan, but for some small libraries, even these steps are difficult to fund.

Conditions have improved since the 2005 report, said Anne Radice, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Millions of dollars in grants have been awarded to help fight deterioration, and Hurricane Katrina showed the need for emergency plans. But more work is necessary to ensure that key pieces of history don't disappear, she said. Katrina and Hurricane Rita damaged or destroyed 107 public libraries and their collections in Louisiana, and officials are still working to rebuild. Since 2005, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given money to help refurbish and rebuild libraries on the Gulf Coast."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brontë Home a Bust at Auction

The four-bedroom birthplace home of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë in Thornton, Yorkshire went up for auction yesterday, but as the Guardian reports, "A two-century jinx on a potential literary goldmine held true today when the birthplace of the Brontë sisters failed to reach its modest reserve price at auction. ... Sluggish bidding stopped short of £180,000 for the stone-built terrace house in the Yorkshire village of Thornton - well below offers for humbler bungalows in adjacent lots."

A jinx is believed to have settled over 72 Market Street, which has "seen successive failures as a butcher's shop, tourist centre and restaurant." Most recently, the house has been through "an unhappy spell as two flats." I guess maybe that dismal track record explains the lack of bids.

Sellers had put a reserve of £200,000 on the house, but once bidding stalled, a private offer for £178,000 was accepted. Auctioneers Tony Webber tells the Guardian "It's a strange thing. When you consider that this family gave the world the likes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre it's hard to believe that the home in which they were conceived and born is even still available for private sale."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Streeter Sale on "BookTV"

Travis points out that C-SPAN2's "BookTV" program ran a segment this weekend on the Frank Streeter auction, which took place back in April to much fanfare. Travis writes: "Streeter died shortly after arranging with the auction house to sell his library. C-SPAN interviewed several people affiliated with both Streeter and Christie’s both before and after the sale. Those interviews (or, at least, the parts of them we got to see) were quite interesting and made me wish I had a Tivo."

Thankfully the episode is available online, here (I'd have been very impatiently waiting for a t.v. rerun otherwise!). I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but am very much looking forward to it.

Scholars Plead for More Time at Vatican Library

After the Vatican's suprise announcement in May that its library would be closing on July 14 for a three-year renovation project, it has been a busy place, the NYTimes reports. "[D]ozens of scholars have been lining up each day at ever earlier hours to snatch one of the 92 available spots in the manuscript room, where they can pore over archaic texts in forgotten languages. The library staff, traditionally prompt in responding to requests, has been struggling to keep up with the demand."

The Times report adds that researchers have begun circulating petitions addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, "ultimate authority on Vatican matters." "Some ask that the manuscript division at least remain accessible to the public during the three-year renovation. Others request that the closing be delayed until 2008 so that scholars will have time to wrap up research and meet publishing or teaching deadlines."

Scholars say they're concerned that the three-year plan will be just the beginning: "A deeper concern is that once the renovations begin, new structural problems could arise. Many scholars cite the endless restorations that kept the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under wraps from 1990 to 1997, and, more troublingly, the renovation of the Bibliotheca Hertziana of the Max Planck Institute for Art History here in Rome. It has been closed for renovations since December 2001 and is not expected to open until 2009, though an off-site reading room for the printed books collection has been available to scholars since 2003."

Pope Benedict is expected to visit the library today.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Holocaust Archive on "60 Minutes"

Tonight's "60 Minutes" featured a fascinating report by Scott Pelley on the Holocaust archive at Bad Arolsen, Germany, which is in the process of opening to the public for the first time. The archive, which takes up more than sixteen miles of shelf space and comprises more than 50 million pages, contains the shockingly bureaucratic records of the various concentration and extermination camps - from execution logs to head lice examinations.

The archive has been closed to both survivors and scholars until recently; the facility began a gradual opening process in April of 2006, and is expected to be fully open by next fall. The documents are also being digitized for distribution to other research centers.

Text and video of Pelley's report are here.

Links & Reviews

- Ian reports that plans for Portland's Mugglefest are proceeding apace. Sounds like it's going to be a crazy day up there on July 20-1!

- Jenny Uglow's Nature's Engraver is getting some good press, including this brief note in the New Yorker and a Michael Dirda review in the Washington Post.

- New blog: The Iconic Books Blog, an effort of Syracuse University's Iconic Book Project. Link added to the sidebar.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer has a story on Jill Jonnes' new book Conquering Gotham - A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels. Also in the Inquirer a week or so ago, Ed Pettit's review of The Gentle Axe, a 'sequel' to Crime and Punishment with Ed declares "worthy." Over at Bibliothecary Blog, Ed comments on my review of At Midnight on the 31st of March, noting that he found a radio script and that his local library has the book shelved in adult non-fiction for some reason. Meanwhile, I've been looking into some of Case's other books, which have not been reprinted. Once I've hunted them up I'll be sure to add comments.

- NPR noted this week that Bonham's will be taking bids on two previously-unknown collections of John Steinbeck letters. Also from NPR, a conversation with author Mark Usler about "odd town names and the stories behind them."

- Scott Brown has more on the week's Gotham news; he suggests that a comeback is possible, but rather unlikely. My new copy of Fine Books & Collections just arrived this week; I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet, but it looks marvelous as always.

- ephemera wants to know about your (non-book) "grail quest" - "a passionate search for an item thought impossible to find." "Are you on such a quest? I'd like to hear your story, especially if you have been searching a long time for a single item - an item that is known to exist, thought to exist, or once existed but is now lost to history. It doesn't matter why you are looking for the item, it only matters that you've been actively seeking it out."

- Joyce has posted some useful videos - how to make yourself a leather strop for sharpening knives, and how to add ribbons to a bound journal. She also comments on an Amazon print-on-demand plan announced this, which doesn't sound like very good news.

- Travis reports that Thieving Intern Denning McTague's sentencing has been set for 2:30 p.m. on 12 July.

- BU religion professor Stephen Prothero has an essay on the Gospel of Judas in the NYTimes, in which he comments on many of the recent books written on the text since its release last year.

- Ed and Michael both comment (here and here) on Alina Tugend's NYTimes piece about giving away books.

- In the Washington Post, H.W. Brands reviews Michael Barone's Our First Revolution (my review here).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Recent Auction Highlights

From the 19 June Christies sale of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts (mentioned here):

- Lot 111, John Woodhouse Audubon's Illustrated Notes of an Expedition through Mexico and California (1852) surpassed expectations, fetching $120,000. I didn't realized before this this copy had been presented to William Cullen Bryant.

- Lot 131, the previously-unrecorded copy of Copernicus' De revolutionibus, failed to sell.

- Lot 223, an 1812 letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush, realized $168,000 (just above the low estimate).

- Lot 227, John Wilke Booth's "Secession Crisis" speech in manuscript, passed the high estimate and sold for $312,000.

- Lot 239, a rare first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence (6 July 1776) more than doubled its estimate, selling for $360,000.

From the 21 June Sotheby' sale:

- Lot 5, a 1790 letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush, made $51,000 (estimates were $12,000-18,000).

- Lot 91, a 1757 letter from George Washington to VA Gov. Dinwiddie, fetched $264,000 (just above the low estimate).

- Lot 105, the Beeton's Christmas Annual first edition of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, beat expectations and realized $156,000.

And that first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sold at Dominic Winter in Gloucestershire yesterday for $14,200. That's well below the top estimate of $30,000, and well below the top price ever paid for the book (almost $40,000, two years ago, by this guy).

What's on College Summer Reading Lists?

College & Research Libraries News writer Gary Patillo has collected a few of this summer's college and university summer reading list choices; they can be found here.

Rare Piece of Canadiana Sold ... to American

The headline in today's Halifax Daily News reads "Historic Document Lost." I admit, "damn thieves" was the first thing that crossed my mind when I read it (look at how cynical they've made me). Then I thought fire ... flood ... shipwreck ... but in this case it's a little bit different: "A rare piece of Canadian history was lost to the country yesterday after an auction in New York, where an elaborately hand-written, 385-year-old legal document - described as the contract for 'Canada's Mayflower' - was sold for $90,000 [$84,000 USD] by a Canadian collector to an American antiquities dealer, who then flipped the relic to a second private buyer in the U.S."

The document, on parchment, "outlines a 1622 agreement to send 'the good shipp called the Planter' to the newly created colony of Nova Scotia," and is "accompanied by a letter from King James I authorizing payments to the Scottish nobleman [Sir William Alexander] who founded the first English-speaking settlement in mainland Canada." The contract for the ship is between Alexander and others (including New Hampshire founder John Mason) and Planter owner Thomas Hopkins.

Hopkins' descendants had retained ownership of the contract, which was unknown to historians until it was sold in London in 1989. Sotheby's called it "one of the most significant documents relating to the early history of Canada to have been discovered in the 20th century."

Seth Kaller, a New York documents dealer who purchased the contract from the high bidder at Sotheby's, told the paper "I specialize in documents that changed the world." Presumably the document will soon appear in his catalogues at a significantly higher price.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Death of a True Bibliophile

I never had the opportunity to meet Robert L. Dawson, but I wish I had. I knew his work and always enjoyed his listserv posts and other writings. Dr. Dawson, "a member of the Libraries & Culture editorial board from 1995 to 2005, and a professor of French language and literature in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Texas at Austin since 1975" died 3 June in Paris, according to a draft note by his colleague Bette Oliver which was shared with the ExLibris list yesterday.

Dr. Dawson's major collection of more than 20,000 printed or manuscript items from the eighteenth century is currently being catalogued at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M, with an opening exhibit scheduled for February, 2008. Oliver describes Dawson's interests as "eighteenth-century literature and culture, the history of the book, and bibliography with special emphasis on women writers, piracies, the French Revolution, and provincial imports."

Some of Dawson's many works mentioned by Oliver include The French Booktrade and the 'Permission Simple' of 1777: Copyright and the Public Domain; Customs Confiscations and Banned Books in France during the Last Years of the Ancien Regime; and Books Across the Channel: France, Great Britain and the International Trade in Books during the Long Eighteenth Century.

"In addition to teaching and research," Oliver concludes, "he was active in the Bibliographic Society of America and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP). A beloved professor who was known for inspiring and encouraging his students and for bringing the fascinating eighteenth century to life, he was also a generous and helpful colleague and friend. Bob Dawson will be greatly missed by all of us."


Rare Book School Profiled

The University of Virginia newspaper runs a profile of Rare Book School today, highlighting some of the unique courses and the leadership of Terry Belanger.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Book Review: "Betrayals"

Betrayals is the third Charles Palliser book I've read, and the only patten I've been able to pick up from his work is that you never know what you're going to get. Each novel (The Quincunx, The Unburied, and this one) are so different you'd never guess they came from the same pen. Always provocative, slightly bizarre and rich with allusion, Betrayals rises almost to the leve of The Quincunx ... but doesn't quite get there.

This novel is made up of ten short parts, all set in very different times and places and stylistic/narrative differences. With each, however, come clues, innuendoes, and intriguing hints which - eventually - are spun together, creating one vast tangled web of unpleasantness for just about all concerned. It required a great deal of attention, making this a fairly poor choice for reading on the T; I'm sure I missed a level or two of Palliser's complicated labyrinth, and goodness knows how many of his myriad literary references passed me by (I did catch a few at least, and have realized a few more even as I type).

Complex and dark, this novel is apt to inflict wrinkled brows and bouts of compulsive rereading previous chapters once all (or some, at least) is revealed. It'll make you think.

Map Missing

The following alert appeared on ExLibris this afternoon:

Missing map. Apparently "lost" at U.S. Customs, JFK Airport, New York. Shipped by airmail from Europe on May 22, 2007. Arrived JFK May 24, 2007. The USPS says the map is in Customs.

Description. 15 inches high x 19 inches wide, engraved map titled: Nova Virginiae Tabula. Imprint in box at bottom center of map: Ex officina Judoci Hondij. Published 1618. Willem Blaeu purchased the plate in 1629 and changed the imprint to read: Ex officina Guiljelmi Blaeuw. The missing map is the Hondius version, not the Blaeu version.

If you have heard about, seen or purchased a map such as the one above since May 22, 2007, please get in touch with me.

If you have sold the map, please retain the identity of the purchaser so the FBI can get in touch with him (her). The map is scarce, and any copy surfacing in the last month is likely to be the map in question. Only two others have been on the open market in the last 8-10 years. This map has several unique characteristics so can easily be distinguished from legitimately owned copies.

Thank you.
Luke A. Vavra
Cartographic Arts
E-mail: CartographicArts [at]

[Update, from Luka Vavra - 21 June 2007]

The 'lost' map arrived today.

Customs must be trying to make a statement about their workload. They had not opened the package nor contacted me or the sender.

Thanks to you who expressed concern."

Gotham, Heritage Still Making News

- LATimes columnist Scott Timberg has a long, wistful essay about Heritage Bookshop in today's paper; he name-drops some of the store's more, eh, well-known clients, highlights some of the rare titles and editions that have come through the Weinstein's shop, and reports (at least it's the first time I've seen it) that "[t]he 12,000 reference texts that helped the brothers to assess rare books will go to UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library."

- Yesterday's Village Voice reported "something's cooking" at Gotham Book Mart; former employees report a settlement may be in the works between 87-year old owner Andreas Brown and his landlord. Michael Lieberman comments here. Previous posts on Gotham are here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Review: "At Midnight on the Thirty-First of March"

A friend recently asked me to try and locate a copy of Josephine Young Case's At Midnight on the Thirty-First of March, an out-of-print title most recently published in 1990 by Syracuse University Press (it was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1938). When the book finally arrived yesterday (after an interminably long wait), I decided to dip into it for a few minutes ... famous last words, I know. After just the first few pages, I was hooked; I couldn't get anything done until I'd read the whole darn thing (thankfully at just 132 pages it only took most of the evening and just cut a few hours out of my night's sleep).

Written entirely in blank verse, At Midnight is the story of the sleepy upstate New York town of Saugersville, whose occupants suddenly (at midnight, on the 31st of March) finds themselves entirely cut off from the outside world. The roads mysteriously end just outside of town; electricity, radio and phone transmissions simply don't exist. The people of Saugersville are alone. The poem tracks the community through an entire year, as residents adjust to life without gasoline, new supplies, or news from beyond their little valley (or even the knowledge that any human life exists beyond their town). They struggle to revise their lives, debate what should be taught to their children in school (one of the most interesting segments), and all in their own ways try to cope with their new situation. Some, of course, are more successful in this than others.

Midway through the year, one of the community's leaders muses, internally, on life as it has become. I think this has tremendous power to speak to us today living in the age that we do - perhaps even more power than it had to Ms. Case's audience back in the late 1930s.

"'What will become of us? We seem to be
The only human beings left alive.
If there are ever going to be again
Races of men, and cities, governments, -
At least upon this continent, like us,
Americans, - we are their fathers now,
And they depends on us and what we bring.
I do not think this can be really so.
There must be other villages alive.
One day we will discover them, they us,
And meeting fall to talking of a day
When we were all so near we did not care
Who lived or died or what became of us,
Too sure of everything - heat, light and power
And public education and the roads, -
Too little parts of a machine too great
For us to understand, or anyone,
So that we blamed ourselves no more at all
For anything that happened - that was bad;
I guess we took some credit for the good -
Complaining always of the government
Or capital, or labor, or the weather.
The last is all we can complain of now
With no one to account for but ourselves,
And near enough to see where blame is due,
If blame there is where everyone works hard
And does his best to keep himself alive.'"

It's a frightening scenario, and one that's pretty difficult to think about. Case's poem is imaginative, poignant and eerie, with very careful pacing as well as opening and closing sections which are just unforgettable. It deserves a wider audience.

Short Announcements

- Soft Skull Press is having a 40%-off sale through 30 June (via fade theory).

- Chronicling America at the Library of Congress has released 310,000 digitized newspaper pages from 1900-1910. "The site is a project of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). NEH has just announced that eight awards to institutions, totaling $2,577,666, have been made to continue and expand the program. The program is also expanding the time period of newspapers that may be digitized to 1880-1910."

- Dr. Klaus Graf has posted an updated list of digital rare book libaries in Spain.

Newton's Apocalypse Papers Displayed

The Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem has put on public display (for the first time) a collection of Isaac Newton's manuscripts on religion, including his calculations of the date of the end of the world and the dimensions of the temple at Jerusalem, the AP notes.

A web version of the exhibit, with digital copies of the manuscripts, is here.

The collection was purchased by scholar/collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda at Sotheby's in 1936, and was donated by him at his death to the state of Israel in 1951. The national library took possession of the materials in 1969, but they have never been displayed until now.

"Yemima Ben-Menahem, one of the exhibit's curators, said the papers show Newton's conviction that important knowledge was hiding in ancient texts. 'He believed there was wisdom in the world that got lost. He thought it was coded, and that by studying things like the dimensions of the temple, he could decode it,' she said. The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. 'These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world.'"

Incidentally, Newton's study of the Book of Daniel in an attempt to determine the time of the apocalypse led to his conclusion that the world will not end before 2060. "It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner. This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

Also included in the exhibit is a 1940 letter from Albert Einstein to Yahuda about the Newton papers. He writes in part: "While the process by which Newton’s writings about the physical world evolved must remain hidden, as Newton apparently destroyed the preliminary versions, in the realm of his biblical work, which is still mostly unpublished, we have a variety of sketches and ongoing changes that give us a most interesting look into the mental laboratory of this unique thinker."

Gibran Manuscripts Donated to Princeton

From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, word that "significant portions of the working manuscripts and notebooks of four well-known books, including The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran have been donated to the Princeton University Library." The William H. Shehadi Collection of Kahlil Gibran contains notebooks showing "he author's many textual changes and deletions. The collection also includes fragments of other manuscripts, photographs of his New York studio and published editions of his works."

"Aside from Gibran's works and the published love letters and private journal of his American friend and muse Mary Haskell, the manuscripts in the Shehadi Collection are one of the main sources on Gibran, [saidDon Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections]. The collection was amassed by Shehadi, a Lebanese-American physician, researcher and professor who was educated at American University of Beirut. Shehadi, who admired Gibran's compassionate concern for others, published several articles on Gibran and, in 1991, a book based on the collection titled Kahlil Gibran: A Prophet in the Making."

Library officials said they expect cataloging and conservation work to be completed by the fall.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Murray/Byron Letters to be Published

More than 170 letters to Lord Byron from his publisher, John Murray, will be published this week by Liverpool University Press, The Times reports. Much of the correspondence, which runs from 1811 through 1822, has never before been published or widely accessible to scholars. The Times notes "The correspondence illustrates Murray’s business acumen in suggesting editorial changes to make his works commercially attractive."

Editor Andrew Nicholson describes the collection as "unique in the annals of publishing," and describes the relationship between the author and his publisher this way: "Murray – deferential and complimentary without being sycophantic, forthright but diplomatic. Byron, flattered, agreeable, bantering, but firm and unyielding." Byron sometimes accepted Murray's suggestions, but frequently stood his ground, replying once "I will have none of your damned cutting & slashing."

Taper Collection Goes to Museum

Louise Taper and her major collection of "Lincolniana" feature prominently in Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln, which I recently reviewed. Today, the AP reports that Taper's collection will soon go on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which recently acquired the treasure trove of some 1,500 Lincoln items.

"The collection contains hundreds of letters and documents, but its strength is the array of personal, everyday items related to the 16th president, his wife, and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Parts of the collection will go on public display next month," the AP notes. Among the effects in Taper's collection are a well-worn stovepipe hat, and gloves stained with blood from the night of the assassination.

Taper is donating portions of the collection, and the museum's foundation purchased the rest for an undisclosed sum; "[e]ventually, the foundation will give the collection to the museum so that the state owns it outright."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Book Review: "Our First Revolution"

Well-known political journalist Michael Barone plunges into the armchair history genre with Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers (Crown, 2007). Drawing on existing secondary sources, Barone has written a concise and interesting account of England's Glorious Revolution, when the Protestant William of Orange overthrew England's King James II in 1688-89 in what Barone says is "the first change of government to be called a revolution" by those who lived through it (pg. 2-3).

The majority of the book treats the history of England in the years following the Restoration, the immediate leadup to William's invasion, and the Glorious Revolution's aftermath. Barone cogently discusses the religious and political turmoil that gripped the British Isles during these decades, and although he breaks little new ground, his discussions are worthwhile for their synthesis of previous research.

Barone's sections on William's skillful and brilliant use of printed propaganda before and during the Glorious Revolution were of great interest, and I wished he'd expanded them. Likewise, given the subtitle it might have been appropriate to provide a fuller examination of the contemporary impact of the Revolution on the American colonies (two paragraphs and then a short concluding chapter form most of this discussion), rather than simply linking the 1688-89 Revolution with America's own struggle decades later.

Slightly flawed, but nonetheless a readable introduction to the period and an excellent analysis of the parliamentary elections from the 1660s through the 1690s.

Links & Reviews

Quite an accumulation this week:

- Better late than never, I'm finally posting a link to Ian's dispatch from the Portland Book Fair last weekend.

- Dwight Garner, the senior editor of the New York Times book review, has started a blog, Paper Cuts. [via Reading Copy]

- Over at Book Patrol, Michael notes a design for a special edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: "The book comes wet. Soaked in sea water then sealed in a nice clear pouch." Simply dry the book in the sun (it's printed on waterproof paper) and read. Michael adds "The high-end Jules Verne collectors are going to be tempted to buy two copies of this edition, one to buy and hold and one to buy and dry." In another post, Michael shows us a new sort of bookshelf.

- I almost did a separate post just on all the goodies from Bibliophile Bullpen over the last few days. Joyce points out that the long scroll of Jack Kerouac's On the Road is on display at the Boot Cotton Mill Museum Galley in Lowell, MA; she also links us to this New York Magazine article in which some authors/critics/professors pick books think should be translated into English. Among Joyce's other finds this week: some great photos of a bookshop in France, and an NPR story about a rather unorthodox library organization system in AZ (judgement withheld).

- At Brookline Blogsmith, Lori writes about her love of Anne Fadiman's essays, noting the arrival of her new collection, At Large and at Small.

- Bookride takes a look at the "collectability" of the Bay Psalm Book, the earliest extant American printed item.

- For Slate, Paul Collins hunts eBay for radioactive antiques (literally); he adds some extra quotes and a video clip here. People really will collect anything.

- In the Boston Globe, T. Susan Chang reviews Peter Berley/Zoe Singer's The Flexitarian Table, a review which made me hungry just reading it. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer reviews Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln for the Washington Post; he concludes "One cannot help wishing that what Ferguson has captured is not really Lincoln's America. Hopefully it is not America's Lincoln, either." Better phrased than my own thoughts on the book, but the same idea. At Reading Archives, Richard Cox examines Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, which sounds awfully interesting.

- There's a nice essay on Linnaeus at Rare Book Review, which includes quotes praising his work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau ("Tell him I know of no greater man on earth!") and Goethe ("With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly").

- Via Rare Book News, John Gribben's tour of British bookshops continues in The Telegraph, and James Goldsborough writes in the Voice of San Diego about the vibrant bookshop culture in Paris (a sentiment also expressed by our librarian at MHS, who recently returned from that city).

- GalleyCat points us to a Christian Science Monitor article about how publishers are starting to sit up and take notice of the growing potential of book-networking sites like LT.

- Speaking of LibraryThing, another major milestone fell by the wayside this week as the total number of books catalogued there passed 15 million.

On Bunker Hill Day

Today, 17 June, marks the 232d anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, considered the first major military engagement of the Revolutionary War. Yesterday I joined some friends for a hike out to the Hill, where we climbed the 294 steps to the top of the monument and then visited the new museum (discussed in a Boston Globe article here). They closed the second floor of the museum before we got a chance to see the battle exhibit, but the first floor seemed well put together, and it certainly worth a visit (it's also free).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Losing the Stonyhurst Gospel

Christopher Howse has an essay in the Telegraph about the Stonyhurst Gospel, an early manuscript copy of "The Gospel of St John, which had been put in St Cuthbert's tomb after his burial in 697. It is a beautifully written vellum manuscript, with the oldest surviving leather binding in Europe. And in 1809 it was nowhere to be found."

The book was placed in Cuthbert's coffin when his remains were installed at Lindisfarne's high altar in 698; in 1104, when Cuthbert moved to Durham Cathedral, the book was removed from the coffin and stored with the rest of the relics. After the sacking of the cathedrals during the time of Henry VIII, "the little Gospel book came into the possession of an Oxford antiquary. It was given by the 3rd Lord Lichfield to the Jesuit College at Liège in 1769." This institution, transplanted to Lancashire after the French Revolution, became Stonyhurst College.

William Strickland, a cleric and college administrator, borrowed the Gospel in 1806, lending it to the Society of Antiquaries. Three years later, its location was unknown, prompting the College to send Strickland a letter urging him to "ask the Society of Antiquaries precisely when they had returned the book to him 'which might lead to a recollection of the occasion by which you sent it back'. The suggestion worked; the book was found, and is now on loan to the British Library at St Pancras."


[h/t Shelf:Life]

Friday, June 15, 2007

Indian Book Thieves Nabbed

Three men have been arrested in Hisua (Nawada district), India for the theft of Gulistan, a Persian manuscript written by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707), Sahara Samay reports. Twenty pages of the manuscript were recovered when police, posing as customers, "approached the three persons at the house of one Ram Ratan Yadav ... The moment they were shown a few pages of the text of Gulistan, the policemen arrested Yadav and his two accomplices Bajrangi Singh and Rajesh Kumar."

"The manuscript, said to have been gifted to former Maharaja of Tekari in Bihar's Gaya district late Gopal Sharan Singh by the ruler of a principality in Rajasthan, was stolen from the locker in the office of Tekari Raj International School on the night of December 10 last year," the report adds.

Four additional suspects - Buta Singh, Pintu Singh, Neeraj Singh and Jyoti Singh - are sought.

There isn't any obvious connection between this case and the theft/recovery of an Aurangzeb Quran back in March (here).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Updates/Comments on Atlas Theft

First, a brief update on the status of the case against Rebecca Streeter-Chen, the former Rockland County Historical Society curator accused of stealing the Society's 1823 Tanner atlas. At her most recent court appearance (last Monday) I'm told Ms. Streeter-Chen made bail and was released pending indictment by a grand jury for the theft. No word as to when that will occur.

Also, Travis has written a couple posts on this case over at Upward Departure: in the first, he writes that this case "began tugging at the heartstrings," noting Ms. Streeter-Chen's husband's claim (to the media) of responsibility and blaming the events on a "drinking problem." Travis writes "All defendants plea for mercy based on circumstance (from bad upbringing to drug addiction to heart condition to dependents, I’ve seen almost everything). And no circumstance justifies stealing books from your place of employment; I am certainly not in favor of leniency in this case. It’s just that most of the rest of the cases I look at seem to be done (despite protestations to the contrary) for greed or revenge. This one just seems different."

I'm not sure I agree. Seems pretty straightforward to me, except that clearly Mr. Chen should have charges brought against him as well, for conspiracy if nothing else. Presumably he didn't commit the actual theft, nor was he the one who took the book to Philadelphia in an attempt to sell it (details here). But he was almost certainly involved at one level or another.

In his second post, Travis comments on the capture of Ms. Streeter-Chen, calling it "another example of the UD’s First Rule of Rare Book Theft: It is very difficult to profit from the crime without a pre-determined buyer. The internet has made an already small community a lot smaller." Indeed, as we know it was an email bulletin about the theft that alerted the prospective seller to the atlas' status and allowed its recovery (and the capture of Streeter-Chen).

[Update: Travis responds, with "UD’s Second Rule of Rare Book Theft: Thieves, regardless of motivation, are a scourge and do not deserve our sympathy." He adds, and I should have made this clear in my original post "I, of course, never advocated any lenient punishment for Streeter-Chen (or her husband); but I also didn’t take her to task the way I ordinarily do book thieves. Especially considering her role as protector of historical artifacts." He's right in saying that I also should have included the line from his first post in which he says "When it comes to book thieves the UD is not known for his compassion. I think they should be clapped in irons and thrown in a well. But, apparently that’s not, you know, constitutional."

I know a book-person who was originally quoted as telling Miles Harvey (author of The Book of Lost Maps) that book thieves should be beheaded for their crimes (or at least lose a limb or two). When Harvey called to verify to quotation as the book was going to press, this person decided that was a bit harsh and toned down the language. I told him he should have done no such thing.]

Gaiman on Wells

Neil Gaiman has an essay in The Times (London) about the continued relevance of H.G. Wells. He notes Wells' template-making ability (his motifs have been used endlessly), and contrasts the novels with Wells' science-fiction short stories, of which he writes: "They work because they lack, sometimes, plot, often, character. What they have instead is brevity and conviction. The world of the finest of Wells’s short stories is one of possibilities, of breakthrough in science or society or of the unknown which change the world."

Gaiman suggests that we view Wells' science fiction stories "as if they were postcards from an alternate future that is already past," (quite a nice turn of phrase, that), and quotes the author's own view of writing short fiction: "it may be horrible or pathetic or funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating, having only this essential, that it should take from 15 to 50 minutes to read aloud. All the rest is just whatever invention and imagination and the mood can give – a vision of buttered slides on a busy day or of unprecedented worlds. In that spirit of miscellaneous expectation these stories should be received."

The Times piece is excerpted from Gaiman's introduction to a collection of Wells short stories being published this month, The Country of the Blind and Other Selected Stories (Penguin Classics).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book Review: "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books, 2007) cements Hosseini's growing reputation as one of the best living fiction authors. I found it even more interesting, haunting and gripping than The Kite Runner, and was entirely unable to put it down (I had planned to read half on an outgoing bus trip and save half for the return, but found that impossible).

Three decades of Afghan history from the perspectives of two very different women whose lives are forced together by circumstance, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a rich, emotional book which educates, inspires, and moves. Hosseini's talent for writing beautifully even when his topic is utterly brutal is on full display here - I can't tell you the number of times my hand flew involuntarily to my mouth in shock. Its themes may be timeless and placeless, but Hosseini's choice of setting is no accident; there are lessons for all in the plight of Afghanistan, and particularly in the harsh realities faced by its women. I will spare a plot summary, but cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is simply excellent.

This Week's BibliOdyssey(s)

As always, BibliOdyssey has some excellent images for us this week: their first collection is from a stammbuch (friend's book) / wappenbuch (armorial) from the 1590s, with captions in Latin. They note the fourth image from the top, in which people are apparently being up-ended into some sort of grinder.

The second collection is made up of images from Simiarum et Vespertilionum Brasiliensium, an 1823 work by zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix (for whom the near-extinct Spix's Macaw is named). Spix, an Austrian, traveled in Brazil from 1817-1820. The images included here are of monkeys and bats.

Anthropodermic Bindings

Just about once a year the topic of books bound in human skin (aka anthropodermic bindings) is brought up again in the biblioworld, to the delight of some and the disgust of others. Scott Brown over at Fine Books Blog notes that his most popular post ever is his discussion of human skin bindings (here). Scott adds a photograph and description of a book in the Stanford Medical Library which was bound in human skin for Hans Friedenthal, a prominent physiologist and anthropologist.

Scott also points us to the classic essay on anthropodermic bindings, "Tanned Human Skin," by Lawrence S. Thompson, which appeared in the April 1946 Bulletin of the Medical Library Association. Not for the squeamish indeed - I was surprised to find myself able to get through it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Book Review: "Lincoln's Man in Liverpool"

Lincoln's Man in Liverpool: Consul Dudley and the Legal Battle to Stop Confederate Warships (Northern Illinois University Press, 2007) is a short but detailed examination of Thomas Haines Dudley's long diplomatic and legal struggle to halt the construction of Confederate ships in English ports. Author Coy F. Cross II puts State Department archives to good use, providing a running narrative of Dudley's correspondence with his superiors in London and Washington and his colleagues at other consulates in Europe and around the world.

Cross' enthusiasm and affection for Dudley is evident throughout; unfortunately it doesn't translate into a very interesting book. For the hardcore Civil War navy buff or fan of legal and diplomatic arcana, I recommend it; for the casual reader or for the person whose main focus lies elsewhere, it's probably a bit much.

Archives in the New Yorker

Richard Cox has an excellent post over at Reading Archives about D.T. Max's New Yorker piece on the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin (mentioned here). He notes that the major focus of Max's article is on acquisitions, and outlines a few of what he calls "disturbing aspects" of the discussion (including what seems to be a palpable distaste for writings in digital form).

Cox concludes that while articles like this provide "good information to the public about what archives and archivists are about," the positives are "weakened because there is no discussion of other archival issues, such as why cooperative approaches might not be better or if there ought to be some consideration of the ethical aspects of such collecting as well."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Catching Up

A few of the bits of news and good posts from over the weekend:

- A team of researchers from the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies is working at the Public Library of St. Mark in Venice to create a 3-D copy of the Venetus A - the oldest known copy of Homer's Iliad. Wired reports on the hi-tech project, offering a detailed look at the digitization process and the subsequent transcription of the manuscript. This searchable transcription (at the Homer Multitext Project) will eventually accompany the digital facsimile. [h/t Shelf:Life]

- The Guardian reports that an English illuminated bestiary from the 13th century will soon be on display at the Getty in LA. The Getty announced last week that it had purchased the Northumberland Bestiary for an undisclosed sum. The 75-page work, considered one of the "finest examples of English Gothic illustration," contains more than a hundred colored ink drawings.

- Michael Lieberman notes the upcoming premiere of "The Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film," which will debut at the ALA conference in Washington later this month. He notes that the documentary is "the first full-length documentary film to focus on the work and lives of librarians," and has links to the film's website, the trailer and some behind-the-scenes goodies.

- Nigel from Bookride has a first-hand report from the Campbell-White sale (mentioned here), which Michael also comments on.

- Via Joyce, Valley Advocate writer Andrew Varnon took a trek through the used bookshops of the Northampton-Amherst area recently; his account of the journey is here.

- Joyce also has a front-line post from this weekend's Portland Book Fair, complete with a picture of the back of Joe's head. And she notes author Matthew Pearl's work with Boston's Animal Rescue League; Pearl writes the "personality descriptions" for cats' cages.

- Some reviews: William Hague's biography of William Wilberforce gets a write-up in the Telegraph; Michael Dirda reviews Seth Larer's Inventing English; and Bunny Crumpacker discusses Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in the Washington Post.

- Paul Collins posts on his latest New Scientist article - about Polaroid founder Edwin Land's attempts to make sure that car headlights and windshields were equipped with polarizing filters to reduce glare.

- Rachel at Book Trout discusses a book on their shelve which was once in the library of bibliophile William Lyons Phelps.

- Even before Deathly Hallows makes its debut, editor and Harry Potter promoter Barry Cunningham claims to have done it again, GalleyCat reports. He's signed a deal for Tunnels, a first novel by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams about "a boy archaeologist who discovers a lost world under London by digging into tunnels beneath the city."

Friday, June 08, 2007

Campbell-White Collection Sold (Mostly)

The Annette Campbell-White collection of modern firsts (posted about here) sold for a total of £1.3 million (including commission) at auction yesterday, Bloomberg reports, short of the £1.8 million ($3.6 million) it had been expected to fetch. Twenty-six percent of the lots failed to sell. A first edition of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was the highest-priced item, selling for £70,000 before commission. A second copy of Gatsby, which had repairs, did not sell.

"A draft of 'Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party,' from 1978-1980, went for £42,000, a record for a Graham Greene manuscript."

Buyers said higher prices weren't realized because many of the books had been recently purchased at auction, so their values have't increased substantially.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Book Review: "Land of Lincoln"

Using the narrative model put to such effective use by Tony Horwitz in his Confederates in the Attic, Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson explores the man, the myth, the icon that is Abraham Lincoln in Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007). By visiting some of the many Lincoln sites, interviewing some of the premiere collectors of Lincolniana, attending a convention of Lincoln impersonators (or 'presenters', as he says they prefer to be called), and even speaking with a few Lincoln "haters," Ferguson attempts to reconcile some of his own longstanding perceptions of Lincoln with what he sees as the wider societal view of our sixteenth president.

If you find it possible to get past Ferguson's shocking conclusion that Lincoln was a complicated guy and his legacy's just as complicated (not exactly breaking news, I hope, to anyone who's ever thought much about the matter), there is much of interest in this book. His examination of the recent overhauls of major Lincoln exhibits at the Chicago Historical Society and the creation of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield are quite good - it's worrisome (to say the least) to think that the consultants who design exhibits for Disney are now also designing museums, and Ferguson's discussions with these designers (who threw about phrases like "emotional engineering", the type that make me cringe) are quite enlightening.

The interviews with top collectors of Lincoln memorabilia made for excellent reading, while Ferguson's retelling of his trip to a workshop based around promoting "Lincoln's values" fell flat. The only thing worse than having to attend a crappy workshop is reading about attending a crappy workshop. More to the point, as Ferguson points out, using Lincoln as a literal managerial model may not be the best idea. There are some amusing moments, as when Ferguson learns that the "Lincoln Heritage Trail" he wanted to recreate for his children to replicate a trip he took with his own parents was a gimmick dreamed up in the 1960s by the American Petroleum Institute to promote road tripping and gas consumption.

Ferguson gets a bit overly snarky about the National Park Service for my taste ("The reigning ideology of the Park Service is party poopery - a constant vigil against anyone taking unauthorized pleasure in a Park Service property", pg. 216). Yes, they make things a little clinical, but they do their job with what minimal resources they're given. You want to improve service at national parks? Support upping their budgets, don't complain about them.

In the end, Ferguson comes around to arguing that in the end, "I was more grateful for the icon. I was happy to find a Lincoln that was simpler and more plausible than the ones I'd gotten from scholars, haters, publicists, and buffs" (pg. 261). Whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess, but my view is that while we can all be grateful for the "icon" Lincoln has become, and admire him for the courage, wisdom, vision and perseverance he displayed, we should also seek to understand him as a person. This doesn't mean making him into soundbites or PowerPoint slides or dissecting his every word or action for signs of x or y or z (you name it, there's been a book or a paper written suggesting it). It does mean grappling with the fact that like all human beings, Lincoln wasn't born as a marble statue, that he held views which we may find go against the "iconic" image. Such is life, and such was Lincoln.

I must, as I often do, take issue with the way Ferguson documents his sources. He's got a couple of brief paragraphs discussing sources he used, but often in the text he offhandedly mentions books or authors without offering even a "for further reading" list, let along a bibliogaphy. Even worse, at several points he quotes authors without saying who they are or where the quote is from (see pg. 264, for example) - this is a frustrating and easily remedied habit that should not be allowed to continue.

At its core, this is a reasonably interesting trek through the Lincoln milieu. It's got a few faults, but the premise is worthwhile and much of the content holds up.

Handwritten Lincoln Note Found at NARA

The manuscript draft of a note from Lincoln to his top generals exhorting them to pursue Robert E. Lee's army in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg has been "found" at the National Archives, the AP reports. Archivist Trevor Plante "said he was looking for something else last month when he found Lincoln's note [dated 7 July 1863] tucked away in a drawer among other papers." His reaction, he told the press, was "wow." The text of this note was known to scholars because it was telegraphed to the generals, but the handwritten original was not known to have survived.

Correction of the Day

Via BookWorld, a correction from the Times Literary Supplement that cracked me up:

Correction: Oliver Reynolds's poem "Dear Angelo" (June 1) begins "We are looking at the past...", not, as printed, "the post".

Links & Reviews

An early Links & Reviews this week since I'm headed out of town for a couple days.

- The New Yorker has a very interesting D.T. Max essay on the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin and how it has developed into a top-rank repository for the papers and archival collections of well-known writers. [h/t Everett Wilkie, Ex Libris]

- From NPR this week, an interview with Anne Fadiman on her new book of "familiar essays," At Large and at Small (also an excerpt); a discussion with Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger on their book Songs of Insects, which took six years to write, record, and photograph.

- Adrian Tinniswood's The Verneys gets a brief mention in the New Yorker.

- Reading Copy notes the release of the nominees for this year's Quill Awards. Eighteen categories ... five nominees each ... and I haven't read a single one of them. Nor, oddly enough, am I likely to.

- Joyce has "footage from the front" at the Concord Book Fair last weekend, which I'm sorry to have missed. She also notes, regretfully, that the Book Barn in Wells, ME will be closing at the end of the summer, and until then, everything's 50% off.

- Forrest analyzes a neat old photograph he recently acquired, over at Mutterings of a Mad Bookseller.

- Ed, our resident Bibliothecary, went to Book Expo America last weekend in New York and has some commentary, links, and a list of the new good books he snagged.

- Upcoming auctions: Rare Book Review reports that Thomaston Place Auction Galleries (Thomaston, ME) will hold an annual books and ephemera auction on 30 June with some real goodies: a 1578 Breeches Bible (images) and many other rare titles.

RBR also notes that a 19 June sale at Christies will feature a first manuscript draft of John Wilkes Booth's "Secession Crisis" speech, written in late 1860 (Lot 227). The twenty-one page draft is being sold by the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, and is expected to fetch between $200,000-300,000. Significant background and excerpts from the speech here. There are more than 300 other lots in this sale of printed books and manuscripts, including many modern firsts and a previously unrecorded first edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (Lot 131) which was examined by Owen Gingerich ($300,000-400,000). Other highlights (to me): a letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 8 January 1812 (Lot 223) in which every great Adams letter-writing characteristic is on display ($150,000-200,000) and a copy of John Woodhouse Audubon's 1852 book Illustrated Notes of an Expedition through Mexico and California (Lot 111 - $70,000-90,000). Auction watching - such a fun spectator sport!

- Bookfinder Journal notes that the first ISBN-13s with a 979-prefix could begin appearing as early as 2008.

- Travis has some thoughts on the increase in Smiley's restitution payment.

- fade theory points out Mirror of the World, a new, beautiful online exhibit at the State Library of Victoria. Highly recommended.

For my upcoming trip I'll be taking along Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, which received a rave review from one of my most trusted book recommenders.

Book Review: "The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series is one that I've long meant to read, so when I saw a copy of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (all five books together) I figured I'd take the opportunity and finally read them (taking short breaks in between to avoid overkill). The first two books (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the end of the Universe) were quite funny; the other three were occasionally amusing but nowhere near as captivatingly funny. In short, this series is largely comprised of satirical, pithy humor - with occasional bursts of intense wit - interspersed with stretches that made very little sense at all.

Michigan State to Join Google Books

Michigan State University has announced that it's part of a twelve-university consortium of Midwest institutions set to join Google Books. "The agreement between Google and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) will help preserve and stabilize the libraries’ legacy collections, as well as provide broader and more in-depth access to historically significant print resources," notes an MSU press release.

The areas at Michigan State being considered for digitization are its 100,000-volume agriculture collection; 3,000 serials and 1,400 monographs from the Turfgrass Information Center; the Africana collection (ranked in the top five within the U.S.); 45,000 volumes from the collection of Canadiana; and - most interestingly - the 150,000-volume Russel B. Nye Popular Culture Collection, consisting of "comic art; popular fiction including dime novels, story magazines, pulps, juvenile series books, detective fiction, mystery fiction, science fiction, western fiction and women's/romance fiction; popular information materials including almanacs and etiquette manuals; and print materials relating to the popular performing arts."

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation is the "academic arm" of the Big Ten athletic conference, and also includes the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, and the University of Chicago.

The South Bend Tribune has a little bit more on the agreement today, and notes something very important about this particular agreement. The CIC "also will create what it said was a first-of-its-kind online repository to collectively archive and manage the full content of public domain works scanned by Google within the schools' libraries." Now that's an excellent idea.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chemist to Join LC's Preservation Efforts

I thought I'd written about this before, but can't find the post, and it's important enough anyway to mention again.

André Striegel, a Florida State University assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been named the first Preservation Research and Testing Professor in Residence at the Library of Congress’ Preservation Research & Testing Division. Striegel, an expert in cellulose, will spend the summer in DC "investigat[ing] the degradation of cellulose-based materials over time - and work on ways to mitigate the problem."

Striegel: "It is an honor to be the first person asked by the Library of Congress to serve in this capacity. I can only hope the research I perform while there helps us to understand how cellulose, the basic ingredient of paper and cloth-type documents, degrades and how this, in turn, leads to corrective or preventive actions to help preserve the books, documents, artwork and other materials that have served to transmit information and values across cultures through the centuries."

An FSU press release notes that Striegel will be involved with consultations on other LC projects, "including one that focuses on the degradation of magnetic audio tapes. He also will give a series of lectures."

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Happy (Belated) Birthday

The Strand Bookstore in New York City celebrated 80 years of operation on 2 June, Gothamist reports (linking to a short piece in New York magazine). Fred Bass, one of the owners, was asked how things have changed in 80 years, and if people are "as literary as they once were." I like his response:

"I think they are more so. We’re a very educated country. When TV came in we thought the book business would die. That wasn’t so; the things that appeared on TV started to stimulate the book business. Look at the Ken Burns series on the Civil War - suddenly there was a boom in the book business every time something appeared on TV. Now we’re being challenged with the computer and Internet. But the computer is an incredible help to us. Twenty or so percent of our sales are online now. So far today we’ve had 905 books ordered online, and it’s noon. People like to handle and see books, no matter how much material you put online. They want the experience of coming into the store. Plus it’s a great place to pick someone up."

I've not yet had the pleasure of visiting the shop, but it's definitely on the agenda for the next time I visit New York. I'm afraid, however, that I might never come out.

Early Biblical Manuscript on Display

The Associated Press reports that Jerusalem's Israel Museum has opened a display featuring a fragment of Old Testament manuscript believed to have been written around the 7th century CE. "The manuscript, containing the Song of the Sea section of the Old Testament's Book of Exodus, ... comes from what scholars call the silent era - a span of 600 years between the third and eighth centuries from which almost no Hebrew manuscripts survive."

The parchment is believed to have been left in the Cairo Genizah, a vast
depository of medieval Jewish manuscripts discovered in the late 1800s in a previously unknown room at Cairo's ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue. It was in private hands until the late 1970s, when its Lebanese-born American owner turned it over to the Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library at Duke University." It is now on loan to the Israel Museum, displayed in their Shrine of the Book exhibit along with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Businessman Buys Raffles Collections

The China Post reports that Singapore businessman Tang Wee Kit recently purchased two collections of material related to Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British East India Company official credited with developing Singapore into a major trading hub during the nineteenth century.

Mr. Tang bought the collections from a London book dealer for c. $1.1 million total in 2004 and 2005. The first lot contains more than 70 Raffles letters to members of his family, and the second comprises rare books, papers, a lock of Raffles' hair, and his wax seals.

Tang says he plans to make the materials available for public viewing and study, "either in a private gallery or through the city-state's National Heritage Board."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Links & Reviews

- NPR's "Day to Day" ran a segment this week with Salon critic Laura Miller, litblogger Maud Newton, and author ZZ Packer. They, and listeners, suggest some good books for summer reading.

- At Brookline Blogsmith, Lori notes the PW profile of the state of independent bookselling in Massachusetts (they're doing a weekly state-by-state roundup).

- Another glowing review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in the Boston Globe today, this one by Alison Arnett.

- Michael Lieberman comments on a new colloborative project between London's Great Eastern Hotel and the design department of the Royal College of Art. Basically it's sheets with bedtime stories printed on them. Pictures here.

- Scott Brown reports that Bloomsbury Auctions, the world's largest auction house specializing in books, is going to open a saleroom in New York this fall. He's also got some more links and reminiscences on the Gotham Book Mart sale.

- Michael Kenney reviews Nancy Isenberg's new biography of Aaron Burr in the Boston Globe, Kate Colquhoun reviews The Lost World of James Smithson over in the Telegraph, and Candice Millard writes up three of the new pirate books in the NYTimes.

- Some upcoming auctions: Rare Book Review notes that Christies will auction Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts on 6 June: highlights include a first English edition of Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four and a 1613 King James Bible. Luxist reports that PBA Galleries will sell a four-volume set of Johann Wilhelm Weinmann's Duidelyke Vertoning (Phytanthoza Iconographia), printed 1736-48 and considered to be the " first successful use of color printing in a botanical work."

- Joyce links to Invisible Inkling's post "10 Obvious Things about the Future of Newspapers You Need to Get Through Your Head."

- Paul Collins has a blog post about his new Believer article on the Birotron, a 1970s keyboard constructed from eight-track car radios.

- Biblio-Technician's B.N. Guffey finds some holes in the story of the St. Louis bookburner (mentioned here). As I said last week, the whole thing seemed more of a publicity stunt to me than anything else, and it seems to have worked in a big way.