Monday, June 30, 2008

The Charlottesville Report

Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for, a brief recap of my recent trip to Charlottesville.

Travels down were mostly smooth: I flew on Northwest from Boston to Detroit and then from Detroit to Charlottesville. That final leg got a little bit bumpy, much to the dismay of the very excitable woman in the seat next to me. Every time we bounced a little, she started swearing like a sailor, and then would immediately clap her hand to her mouth and apologize profusely for it. No sooner had she finished apologizing than the whole process would begin again (the turbulence lasted for about twenty minutes or so). I found the whole thing much more amusing than I probably would have otherwise, and quickly concluded that she needed to be distracted, so I started asking her questions about where she'd been and where she was going, just to take her mind off the bumpy ride. That seemed to do the trick, and we got to the ground without any lasting damage done (except to the seatback in front of her, which I think she squeezed into an entirely new shape).

After catching the shuttle to my hotel (the Hampton Inn & Suites at the University, right on West Main Street, which I highly recommend for its location, price, and quality) I spent Thursday evening wandering around the downtown pedestrian area, which is full of little shops, cafes &c. Many of the shops had closed for the evening by the time I arrived, but I did browse through several of the bookshops, including Blue Whale Books and Read It Again, Sam. I went back on Saturday morning and visited a few more (Daedalus, The Avocado Pit, and Oakley's Gently Used Books), but Blue Whale and Read It Again, Sam seemed to have the most extensive selection of good-condition used books. I missed a couple others that I wanted to visit, but will save those for next time.

Friday morning I went up to the Jefferson Library, located at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies just down the hill from Monticello. After a quick tour of the library*, which was built just a few years ago and is quite lovely, I spent the morning in very productive meetings with members of the library staff. Since things are still up in the air about that I can't get into too much detail just yet, but in a nutshell we were discussing possible collaboration between LibraryThing's Legacy projects and the TJ Library to broaden the scope of existing Legacy collections, and to add more. I will have more information on this as things progress, but I thought our talks went really well and I was really pleased to be able to show off some of the great capabilities and potentials LT offers for projects like this, and to share my enthusiasm for the Legacy efforts.

Once we'd finished our meetings, I was treated to a delicious and very filling lunch at Michie Tavern, a 1784 structure strategically moved to its present location in order to take full advantage of the visitors to Monticello. It's a bit of a tourist attraction, but the food was wonderful: a buffet of fried chicken, pulled pork, green beans, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes (these were particularly tasty), cornbread and assorted other goodies.

Following that I had a tour of Monticello proper, including a glimpse of the Dome Room on the second floor of the house. I don't have any other interior shots since no photography was allowed on the public tour, but the online Monticello Explorer provides a really nice virtual tour experience. I really wanted to snap a picture of Jefferson's book room and office, but I contented myself with postcards. Both the house and grounds are very well-maintained, and the tour guides for both the house and the plantation area clearly knew their material and were delighted to talk about it and to answer questions. Jefferson's imagination and style are still on full display in the house's features (both in terms of architecture and furnishings). After reading that Jefferson had used his telescope to keep tabs on the workers building the University of Virginia, I was delighted to find that one can still (through a hole in the trees) see the Rotunda from Monticello's terrace.

At the end of the day, as if I hadn't been treated to enough wonderful experiences already, the library staff invited me to join them and others from the ICJS, the Jefferson Papers Retirement Series and the Monticello-UVa Archaeology Field School for a summer barbeque, which was another excellent meal. It was a delight to get to talk with other folks who live and breathe history and libraries and documents - we as institutions probably ought to do much more sharing and talking and spending time together than we do.

On Saturday morning I got up very early and walked from my hotel to the Grounds of the University of Virginia. As I posted earlier, I had thankfully had the presence of mind to read most of Garry Wills' Mr. Jefferson's University before I went ... I was awfully glad to have done so, since the book explained what I was seeing in a very useful way. Anyone associated with Union (or maybe it's just me) often likes to gloat that our campus - the first in America to be professionally designed - is also the most beautiful, but I must admit that Jefferson's "academical village" (the second campus to be professionally designed, in this case by Jefferson himself) gives Union a run for its money. Being on the Lawn early on a Saturday morning, when it was almost entirely empty and quiet, was sort of a surreal experience, but one I enjoyed greatly.**

The Rotunda itself is a marvel, and I was happy to find that it was open so that I could have a walk-through. After exploring it thoroughly, I wandered the gardens a bit before going back to the hotel to prepare for departure. The trip back to Boston was slightly delayed and much too long, but the visit made those minor inconveniences seem even more minor.

A really exceptional trip, and one I look forward to making again in the future. Even the weather was pleasant: a bit hot, but very breezy the whole time, which made the heat much less obvious (this morning in Boston, with steamy, soggy air and no movement at all, was much less pleasant).

I've posted all of my photos here. Oh, you'll be happy to know that the Eee behaved brilliantly, passing its first travel test with flying colors.

* I'm afraid that if our MHS fellows ever found out about the great offices and awesome lodgings the TJ Library offered, we'd never hear from them again!

** They really like Jefferson: I counted at least three statues of the man, and I wasn't even looking.

Document Theft: Not a New Problem

In weeding some old catalog cards from our files last week, a colleague stumbled across a wonderful description of a long-since-deaccessioned photocopy of a broadside:

"1799. Dec. 10
Mexico. Governor.
“ . . . Viceregal decree prohibiting the extraction of papers, documents, and books from their archives and libraries, and their sale to biscuit-makers, rocket-makers, apothecaries, shopkeepers, and the like, for consumption in their trades. Mexico City, December 10, 1799. [n.p., 1961]
Broadside, [4 p.] 47 x 33 cm."

I haven't yet found an image of the broadside, but the text is here (via the very cool Legislación Mexicana)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Links & Reviews

I'm saving the Charlottesville Report for tomorrow so that I can empty out my overflowing Google Reader tonight.

- Wordle is pretty cool. Here's a visualization of the entire text of my thesis (in Union colors, naturally) [via Liminal Librarian (the site, not my thesis)].

- Michael Lieberman posts an open letter from Iraqi National Librarian Saad Eskander regarding the 7-million-document archive from the Baath Party headquarters "removed" from Iraq during the invasion and how held by the Iraqi Memory Foundation at Stanford's Hoover Institute. Eskander's been calling for the return of these documents for years (here's my writeup of a talk he gave in Boston last November), and has been joined in that call by the American and Canadian archival communities, among others. Of course the materials should be returned.

- The good folks at Rare Book Review note that The Times has digitized its issues from 1785-1985 and made them freely available and searchable online. Lovely!

- Joyce offers up a fun poem about book formats.

- Travis comments on what's next in the Brubaker case (answer: pre-sentence reports).

- From BibliOdyssey, detailed engravings of a beached whale.

- Gary Dexter discusses how Swift's Tale of a Tub got its name, over at The Telegraph.

- Paul Collins has some Frankenstein finds, which reminds me that I got to see the Frankenstein exhibit in the UVa Rotunda while I was down there, and recommend it highly.

Reviews

- Taryn Plumb reviews Emerson Baker's The Devil of Great Island in the Boston Globe (my review here).

- For The Telegraph, Kate Colquhoun reviews The Phoenix: St Paul's Cathedral and the Men who Made Modern London by Leo Hollis.

- Also from The Telegraph, Clive Aslet reviews Michael Boulter's Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species.

- And Malcolm Gaskill reviews A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz (my review here).

- David Waldstreicher reviews two new works in the Boston Globe today: Nancy Rubin Stuart's The Muse of the Revolution about Mercy Otis Warren, and Kevin Hayes' The Road to Monticello, a new biblio-biography of Jefferson.

Book Review: "The Biographer's Tale"

Yes, I did get through four entire books over the last four days (if you'd spent as many hours in airports and on planes as I did, you probably would have done the same). The final of these, finished at home, was A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale, in which the author draws upon her many successes at fictive biography in The Possession and turns them into something very different here.

This is a sort of "meta-biography," an autobiographical work by someone trying to write a biography (after having given up literary theory for not having enough 'things' to work with). Like Byatt's other works, the novel is learned and complicated ... I found it a bit hard to concentrate on it at times. She brings in a wide range of scholarly interests, adding elements of artistic and scientific inquiry to her narrator/protagonist's plate as he delves into the researchers of his chosen subject and finds much more there than originally met the eye.

Byatt's ability to describe, lampoon and dissect the foibles of academia make this book worth reading. Her attempts to combine those elements with the expected (and long-delayed) romance (or romances in this case) fell flat for me. Passing those sections off as those of a narrator uncomfortable with writing about his own experiences seemed a bit of writerly hocus-pocus.

All in all, an adequate book, but not one I expect to have the urge to read again.

Book Review: "Mr. Jefferson's University"

I've been meaning to get a copy of Garry Wills' Mr. Jefferson's University since it was released in 2002 (it contains an image of the plan for Union's campus - the first architecturally designed campus in this country - so we knew of it when it came out), but I hadn't run across it and hadn't felt any particular compulsion to buy it online. So I waited, and it languished on my (very long) mental "to be read someday" list. While I was walking through the downtown Charlottesville shops on Thursday night the book's title crossed my mind again, and I managed to find a lovely used copy for a very reasonable price. Since I knew I'd be visiting the University this weekend for a walk-round, I thought I'd at least dip into the book before I went.

Once I started reading, I knew I would have to finish the book (or at least get a fair way through) before I took my walk over to the Grounds. Wills provides a (mildly scattershot) capsule history of the University and Jefferson's preeminent role in its foundation and design (both intellectual and architectural), combined with what amounts to a walking tour of the "Academical Village" as envisioned by Jefferson and still plainly on display today. Had I not had Wills to guide me, I'd have had no idea what I was seeing as I visited the Lawn and saw the different Pavilions (there are ten, each with a different design) and connecting ranges of student rooms which face out onto the greensward. I would have had little understanding of the design of the Rotunda, with its oval-shaped classrooms on the lower and first floors and large dome room (which originally housed the library).

Wills' excellent description of the spectacular main Lawn, as well as the gardens behind the Pavilions and the ranges of 'hotels' behind those are an excellent introduction to the University Grounds, and it seems a book perfectly suited to a morning or afternoon's read while sitting on the Rotunda's steps or in one of the several courtyards around the building (I settled myself on this bench to read the last forty pages or so, in fact). However, without having the visual cues to understand what Wills is talking about, this book might not come through at all. I think if I'd tried to read it at any other time, I'd probably have given it up. But if you're familiar with the University, or are going for your first visit, I can't recommend Mr. Jefferson's University highly enough.

Book Review: "The Dead Beat"

I was unsurprised to see that my copy of Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries included a cover blurb by Mary Roach, since both of those writers have played a major role in the propagation and promotion of books which treat various bizarre or macabre aspects of everyday life. Johnson's volume takes on the humble obituary, and like Roach she's able to bring a dry wit, a good sense of satire, and a firm grounding in personal experience to her topic which makes the book come to life in a way that a scholarly treatise on the same subject might fail to do.

Johnson covers many aspects of obituaries, from the structure and language generally used (a section on the euphemisms for death was one of the funniest segments of the book) to the practice of pre-writing obituaries for famous people. She interviewed obit writers from several major US and British papers and includes short profiles of each along with their takes on the practice of obit-writing. She attended conferences of obituary enthusiasts, and analyzes the online community of obituary fans. There's quite a bit of "shop talk" here which got old to me and probably would to anyone not already immersed in the obit world - some more of the many interesting examples of the wide range of styles would have been welcome.

Strangely enough, Johnson doesn't cover much at all about the history of obituaries, except for a short discussion of changes to the form in recent years as the practice of writing "egalitarian obituaries" (that is, long, discursive treatments of 'ordinary people') has come into vogue. Nor does she focus much on obituaries across cultures, except for pointing out the differences between American and British practices and a too-brief overview of how obituaries are viewed in other parts of the world. But for its deficiencies, this was a fun short read, and I guarantee that you'll never read an obituary the same way again.

Book Review: "The Prestige"

The book that got me through the outbound trip to Charlottesville was Christopher Priest's The Prestige, a split-perspective historical novel with supernatural/fantastic elements thrown in. I'd seen the recent movie version and enjoyed it, but heard the book was better (it was, of course, but the film does in this case give the book a run for its money).

A tale of two rival illusionists during the late Victorian era, the story of their great feud and its consequences is told from each of their points of view in turn, alternating with a present-day storyline (read: framing device) featuring two of the magicians' descendants (or is it two?).

Interesting characters, a few good mysterious twists, and supremely macabre ending. Complex and quite worth reading.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Update from Charlottesville

Sorry for the radio silence; I've been having too much fun to post, I have to admit. I'll have a full report (with pictures) tomorrow after I've gotten back to Boston.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jefferson's Library on NPR

Apropos of my impending trip (I'll be flying down to Charlottesville tomorrow morning for some discussions with the Monticello library staff, which I hope to be able to report on when I return), NPR's "All Things Considered" did a short segment tonight on the Library of Congress' effort to reconstitute Jefferson's library.

[Note: my plane/airport reading includes Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat, Christopher Priest's The Prestige, and A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale. I'm taking the Eee! too, so if the wireless gods are good I may be able to get out a post or two as the trip proceeds].

Book Review: "Editions and Impressions"

Nicholas Basbanes' most recent collection of essays, Editions and Impressions: Twenty Years on the Book Beat was published late last year by Fine Books Press, the good folks responsible for the ever-excellent Fine Books & Collections magazine. It consists of a series of essays on books from Boston to Balad (Iraq) and a number of capsule profiles of various bibliophiles Basbanes has encountered over the years (including the Carter Burden, Ann Fadiman, Arthur Jaffe, Robert Sabuda, and the recently-deceased Matthew Bruccoli).

These essays, Basbanes writes in the Introduction, were selected "because they are not replicated in any substantial way in my other published work" (although most of them have appeared in edited form in various newspapers and periodicals in the past). Basbanes' comments on biblio-things (bidding at a high-end book auction, book-breakers, &c.) are always worth reading, and the enthusiastic, contagious joy he feels for his subject just oozes from the pages of these essays.

Nicely-designed, with interesting contents, this slim volume is a must-read for Basbanes fans. A second volume, to be published this fall, will contain excerpts from some of Basbanes' many interviews with authors.

Brubaker: The Canadian Connection

Yesterday's news that Brubaker had hit Canadian libraries as well as those in the States is augmented by a column in today's Calgary Sun featuring comments from University of Calgary librarian Ada-Marie Atkins Nechka. She told the Sun's Michael Platt "It [is] so annoying -- we discovered an entire set is missing, something that is very rare and very expensive to replace."

Annoying is not exactly the word I would have used to describe it, but you get the idea. The university is apparently "keeping mum about what exactly is missing until police can return the material."

Will librarians never learn? "Keeping mum" about these things is exactly why folks of Brubaker's ilk get away with thefts for as long as they do.

Austen's "Emma" Sets a Record

A presentation copy of Jane Austen's Emma sold at Bonham's yesterday for £180,000 ($355000), setting a new record for a Jane Austen book. One of twelve presentation copies printed, this three-volume set was inscribed to Austen's friend Anne Sharp. The seller is "descended from the family of Richard Withers, who were left Sharp's property when she died." This is believed to be the only Emma presentation copy ever to sell at auction, as well as the only one given to a personal friend of the author.

The Guardian says the winning bidder was an anonymous Briton.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review: "The Tiger in the Well"

The third installment in Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy is The Tiger in the Well. This one was by far the best of the trio, and made me very glad I stuck with the series to the end. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Sally finds herself the victim of a freakishly complicated scheme to undermine her life in some pretty demented ways. As Sally seeks to clear her name and defeat those so intent on ruining her, the cast of characters expands greatly in this volume to include a fair number of gangsters from the various London underworld tribes (don't worry, they're the good guys), a few more fiends (Pullman can write a pretty good nemesis, if you ask me), and a delightfully troublesome little child.

As in The Shadow in the North, Pullman uses this book to discuss some worthwhile topics, including political persecution, the state of life for the working poor, and the treatment of immigrants in late Victorian England. Pulling these in without unduly interfering with the plot was a tricky proposition, but Pullman manages to carry it off remarkably well.

I figured out the mystery fairly early on, but that didn't diminish the excitement I felt as the end finally neared. A creepy, troubling work, and a fine one.

Brubaker Plea Now Official

James Brubaker's plea deal, first noted here on 2 June (via Travis) was made official on Monday, the Great Falls Tribune reports. Brubaker pleaded to counts of Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property and Possession and Sale of Stolen Property. Sentencing is set for 15 September, and Brubaker is currently in custody. He "faces possible penalties of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and 3 years supervised release."

Some further drip-drip about the total amount of material stolen: "Of the 832 books believed to have been stolen by Brubaker, 338 books have been confirmed to have been stolen from libraries. Of the apparent 109 victim libraries and universities (and other sources of books), 51 have been confirmed as having been the victim of the thefts. Victim libraries were found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Brubaker also had valuable books from libraries in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge, all in Alberta, Canada." [The John Hellson tie-in, perhaps?]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bookshops in Charlottesville?

I'll be down in Charlottesville, VA later this week for meetings at Monticello, so if anyone knows of good bookshops (or restaurants, heh!) there that I shouldn't miss, please drop me a line.

A Theft Case Even More Bizarre Than Usual

I've waited to post about the Eugene Zollman theft case for a while simply because when I first heard about it, it didn't make any sense to me. Still doesn't, but I've sat on it long enough. On 19 May of this year, 70-year old Eugene Zollman of La Porte, IN, was charged in federal court with theft of major artwork for stealing more than $15,000 worth of Jefferson Davis documents from the Transylvania University library ... in 1994.

Zollman, a Davis impersonator and collector, had visited the Transy library in April and May of 1994, according to visitor logs (more about which later). In November 2007, Rice University's Lynda Crist, editor of The Papers of Jefferson Davis, noticed certain Davis documents which she knew were supposed to be in the Transylvania library for sale on the website of Stanford, CT-based Alexander Autographs.

I'll let Travis take it from there: "A series of phone calls between the cops and feds and dealers led to an investigation that has led to this moderately happy ending. He’s been indicted in Kentucky and Indiana and hopefully the 70 year old will spend some time in prison. The investigation also revealed that these are not the first documents Zollman stole from Transylvania and auctioned off" [according to news reports, "police determined that Zollman had also auctioned Jefferson Davis documents that belonged to Transylvania through a New Orleans auction house in 1997, the affidavit says. But those documents have not been found.]

And there's a twist. Alexander Autographs president Basil Panagopulos told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Transy wanted to keep word of the thefts under wraps, and only went to the police when he "insisted that he needed a report from law enforcement that described the items as stolen in order to take further action." Transy officials deny this, saying they immediately contacted police when they were made aware of the documents' reemergence.

Panagopulos said in a later statement/press release that, at first, "The university's position was that they hoped that the documents could be simply returned, with no city police involvement nor any mention of 'Jefferson Davis' due to the controversial nature of Davis' stand during the Civil War [quite an odd reason, if you ask me]. Panagopulos pressed the issue, insisting that it was the duty of the institution to report the crime and prosecute any thief in order to not only reclaim any additional material he might have, but, in a broader sense, to protect all other vulnerable repositories of historic archives." He maintains that the university's failure to provide adequate specific information regarding the thefts meant that he legally still had to offer them for sale, which he did with the understanding that he would be the highest bidder in order to be able to return the stolen items to Transylvania. He said that he hoped to be able to return the items to the university by 3 June.

Everett Wilkie commented in an Ex-Libris post when this news broke, and his views are well worth sharing here: "From a security point of view, I would like to comment that Transy was able to produce researcher circulation records going back 26 years, which obviously proved crucial. RBMS/ALA guidelines recommend keeping such records permanently, for obvious reasons. At one point in a Guidelines revision several years ago, the RBMS Security Committee at a hearing was pressured by ACRL to drop that recommendation. I merely point out the apparent folly of discarding such records--ever." Indeed.

I haven't seen any updates on this case for a while, but it certainly is a strange one.

Bipolar Disorder as a Criminal Defense

In the wake of Edward Renehan's attempted use of his bipolar disorder as a defense for stealing multiple items at multiple times from the collections of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the New York Sun's Jay Akasie examines the issues surrounding this particular legal strategy. He quotes defense attorney Murray Richman: "Using bipolar disorder as a defense in a case is just not viable. It's absolutely not a defense — it's an excuse. It has nothing to do with a person's ability to know right from wrong."

Other lawyers told Akasie that "bipolar disorder can have so-called jury appeal if the sufferer has a long and well-documented history of aberrant behavior coupled with requests for institutional help," and that documented cases of bipolar disorder can be used to achieve more favorable plea deals. Most often, however, because bipolar disorder primarily "affects mood rather than cognition," it is not considered a valid insanity defense.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Links & Reviews

- The latest news from Cedar Rapids is not good: between water damage and mold, losses at the Cedar Rapids Public Library are now estimated to exceed 2/3 of the collections [h/t LISNews]. More photos (horrifying as they are) here [h/t Library Preservation].

- Over at Exile Bibliophile, notice of a great event that I really wish I could make it to. Kevin J. Hayes, a leading American bibliographer, will discuss his forthcoming book The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas at the Overholser Museum in Oklahoma City on 26 June (at 7 p.m.). Hosted by the Bibliophiles of Oklahoma.

- Paul Collins notes that his piece on the history of the semicolon is now live at Slate. Poe, it turns out, was not a fan of the point-virgule: Collins says Edgar "may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon's popularity," since with the rise of the telegraph, "Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion." Fun and enlightening, as always.

- LT's added a new feature, member home pages. I like it so far. They've moved the menu tabs around a bit, which is confusing me, but I'll get used to that.

- Over at Free Range Librarian, Karen Schneider has an incredibly unnerving travel story (made more unnerving since I'll be taking a plane later this week for the first time in oh, five years).

- Robin McKie's got a fascinating essay in The Guardian on Darwin's race to publicize his theory of natural selection so as to ensure that Alfred Russel Wallace wouldn't get all the credit. The 150th anniversary of the public reading before the Linnean Society will be marked on 1 July.

- Chas Newkey-Burden's Guardian blog-post on why he refuses to buy second-hand books is barely deserving of a response, so I'll simply say that I buy the vast majority of my books secondhand now, and by avoiding the disgusting subset of those which seem to be all Newkey-Burden comes across, I've run into none of the problems he describes.

Reviews

- In The Scotsman, Roderick Graham reviews Stephen Alford's Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I. Graham writes "This is a scholarly, readable and affectionate biography of one of Britain's greatest politicians. Burghley would have put careful ticks in most of the margins."

- For The Telegraph, Frances Wilson reviews Ian Kelly's Casanova: Philosopher, Gambler, Lover, Priest [what, librarian doesn't warrant a mention?]. Wilson: "Casanova has baffled and thwarted many of those writers who, while trying to describe and evaluate his experiences, have succeeded only in repeating in edited form the events as he tells them, but in Ian Kelly he has at last found his Boswell ... Ian Kelly has taken on a tremendous challenge and produced a great blast of a book, packed with energy and information, marinated in sympathy and understanding, and rippling with enthusiasm right down to the final footnote."

- Jerome Charyn reviews Nicholas Delbanco's The Count of Concord in the Washington Post. This new novel from the Dalkey Archive treats the life of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, a British spy during the early days of the Revolution before going to Europe. Charyn calls Delbanco's work "a disturbing, essential book that reaches back into our past with this strange ghost of a man who resides deep within the nation's history."

- Also in the WaPo, Mindy Aloff reviews Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade. Aloff calls the book a "tender, suspenseful and informed meditation on action and thought in the cultivated realms of East Coast America following the Civil War." Rather a more positive review for this book than Laura Miller gave it in the NYTimes.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Eee! A New Toy!

I don't think I've written (read: complained) about this before, but my old laptop (a Dell from 2003) doesn't like to travel (it's big and clunky, and the battery doesn't work, which makes airport security people not like it very much at all), and since I will be making a few treks out of Boston in the next few weeks, I figured I had a good excuse to acquire a shiny new toy (see picture). That's an Asus Eee PC, sitting next to my normal-sized keyboard and my desktop monitor. I'm not entirely sure what the Eee stands for, but from anecdotal evidence, it seems entirely plausible that they just named the computer based on the noise most people make when they first see it.

The model I got (it arrived earlier this week) has a 7-inch screen, with an 800 MHz Intel Celeron processor, 512-meg RAM and a 4-gig hard drive. A really smooth Linux interface is preloaded (you can also apparently install XP, but I don't have any real reason to), along with basic goodies like Firefox, Open Office, &c. Three USB ports, pretty decent speakers plus jacks for a mic and headphones and an SD memory card slot for additional storage space. It weighs about two pounds (at one point I was carrying it around with a pile of papers and completely forgot that I had it in my hands). The battery seems to last about three hours on each charge, which is significantly more than my Dell's ever managed. It's been extremely easy to get it up and running on various wireless networks, and it seems to handle video and audio surprisingly well.

The keyboard is tiny - that's probably the thing about this machine that will take the most getting used to - but I'm definitely getting better at it (I still can't get the shift key though, that's a weekend project). I thought the touchpad mouse would bug me, but I've found it alright so far (and I actually really like the scroll feature on the right edge of the touchpad).

Anyway, all this is a very long-winded way of saying that if you're looking for something light and basic to use for commuting or research trips, &c., I've been very happy with this little guy so far.

Friday, June 20, 2008

On Hamilton's "Report on Manufactures"

Earlier this week I noted in my Christie's auction report that a scarce first edition of Alexander Hamilton's 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures sold for $206,500. This morning I was browsing through the new catalogue from the William Reese Company (No. 263, Recent Acquisitions in Americana) and stumbled across another copy of the Report. Reese's copy, described in the catalogue as "about good," contains four leaves in facsimile and has had some fairly extensive repairs.

Reese's description makes the rarity of this report quite clear: "Copies of this document have long been held by some of the country's older libraries [ESTC lists 21 total], but very few have come onto the market in modern times. Some twenty years ago the late Edwin Wolf II, in his capacity as director of the Library Company of Philadelphia, was asked by the staff of a large institutional collection of American economic history about the possibilities of acquiring a copy of Hamilton's report. After considerable research, Wolf concluded that no copy, as far as he could determine, had ever changed hands. We know of only a handful of copies which have come onto the market since then, three of them deaccessioned as uncatalogued duplicates by the New York Historical Society."

The copy now offered by Reese, which they conclude is "somewhat wounded," is available for $10,000. For such a rare item, that seems a bargain even with the faults. The most recent complete copy to sell before this week went for $120,000 (with premiums) last October at Bloomsbury, while the "tattered" Forbes Collection copy made $54,000 at Christie's in November 2006.

Auction Report: Sotheby's

The last of the recent spate of big book auctions (Fine Books & Manuscripts) was held yesterday at Sotheby's New York. The Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript and the first edition Principia both failed to sell, so the unexpected high spot proved to be David Roberts' The Holy Land (1842-49), a six-folio-volume work containing 240 lithographed plates. That better than doubled its estimate, selling for $338,500.

The second edition Catesby made $194,500, while the Shaw/Hill Picturesque Views of American Scenery (1820) fetched $182,500. One first octavo edition of Audubon's Birds sold for $59,375; a second copy of the same set fetched $74,500. A first edition of The Federalist made $122,500.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Extra Links (& Review)

- Over at Book Patrol, Michael Lieberman has an interview with AbeBooks CEO Hannes Blum. Blum discusses some recent AbeBooks acquisitions, and gives a very favorable mention to LT: "At a very basic level, we are constantly learning from Tim Spalding at LibraryThing. Tim’s site leads the way in social networking for book people." Additional topics covered include Abe's pricing structure, the changing face of bookselling (online and otherwise) and the future of the book.

- Joyce points out (hilariously) Oliver Judson's NYTimes blog post on Darwinmania, the impending "rolling celebration" to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin's announcement of his discovery of natural selection (1 July 2008), the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth (12 February 2009) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species (24 November 2009).

- At bookn3rd, Laura offers up a fascinating post on Napoleonic savant Nicolas-Jacques Conté, a polymath known among other things for being the inventor of the first engraving machine.

- BibliOdyssey's newest image selection, from Jacob Hoefnagel's 1592 work Archetypa studiaque patris, might be one of my new favorites. Fascinating arrangements of natural history specimens, engravings based on the paintings of Hoefnagel's father Georg.

- Over at ephemera, an interview with Rebecca Mertz, who collects banana labels.

- Wellesley College has acquired a copy of the second edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1566). The book was purchased in February from a New York dealer for "more than $100,000."

Review

- Robert Knox reviews Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, for the Boston Globe.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Auction Report: Christie's

Some more highlights from yesterday's sale of the Richard Green Library, which completely blew out presale estimates and made more than $11 million for 290 lots. As I mentioned last night, the Copernicus was the highest of the high spots, but other things also sold very well: twenty-two lots made more than $100,000 each. Prices below include premiums.

- Galileo sold well: a very lovely and extremely rare copy of his first printed work, Le operazioni del compasso geometrico, et militare (1606) sold for $506,500; his second printed work, Difesa di Galileo Galilei ... contro alle calunnie & imposture di Baldessar Capra (1607) fetched $230,500; and a first edition of Sidereus nuncius magna (1610) made $290,500.

- A surprisingly scarce 1791 first edition of Alexander Hamilton's Report on Manufactures (one of three copies known listed in ABPC since 1975, and the only one in its original wrappers), which belonged to then-Senator Samuel Johnston of NC, sold for $206,500.

- Newton's Principia and Darwin's Origin of Species each made $194,500.

- A collection of 130 Einstein offprints (Einstein's own collection, in fact) went for $314,500.

- Also among the lots was an Enigma machine from WWII, which sold for $104,500.

- The only known copy of the first telephone directory (New Haven, CT, 1878) better than quadrupled its high estimate, selling for $170,500.

- A second edition of Copernicus (1566) made $98,500.

This catalogue really is a what's what of the top scientific books ever printed, so I do encourage a good browse of it. Not just remarkable books, but remarkable copies of them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Copernicus Smashes Estimates

I'll have more on today's Christie's phenomenal sale of the Richard Green Library in the morning, but I must note the whopping price paid for the first edition copy of Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). Presale estimates had suggested the book might go for up to $1.2 million, but after premiums the lot went for $2,210,500.

This copy, one of the widest-margined copies still in existence, was once owned by Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Foucault (1643-1721), described in the Christie's catalogue as an "archeologist [sic], early bibliophile, lawyer, politician and administrator." After Foucault, the copy's provenance went like this, according to the catalogue: "Myron Prinzmetal (1908-1987), cardiologist, purchased this copy in 1957 from F. Thomas Heller, New York, who had acquired it from Librarie Thomas-Scheler, Paris, listed by Scheler in his Catalogue nouvelle serie no. 1 (1957); sold by Zeitlin & VerBrugge to Richard Green in 1975."

The sale total nearly doubled the $6 million presale estimate. I'll have more highlights (and there are quite a few more highlights) in the morning.

Book Review: "The Billionaire's Vinegar"

What's that old saying we all learn sometime fairly early in life? Oh yes: when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. And yet stories of people getting taken in crop up all the time. One such is that recounted in Benjamin Wallace's new book The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Crown, 2008). Wallace reports on the most famous (not to mention lucrative) wine hoax of all time, the sale of a cache of vintage bottles "discovered" in a Paris cellar and engraved with the initials "Th.J".

In 1985, the first of these bottles to go on the open market (a 1737 Lafite) set a still-standing record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a bottle of wine when it sold at Christie's to the family of Malcolm Forbes for the equivalent $156,000. The bottle had been authenticated by Christie's experts as having belonged to (or at least ordered by and engraved for) Thomas Jefferson during his time as the American ambassador to Paris. But even before this sale, doubts surfaced about the authenticity of the bottle, and while Christie's wine department (headed by the great Michael Broadbent) and the bottle's consignor (the somewhat-mysterious German wine collector with the inimitable - if ultimately fictional - name of Hardy Rodenstock) pooh-poohed the concerns of Monticello researchers and others, concerns persisted.

In the intervening two decades, as Rodenstock sold more bottles and continued to find more surprising and unexpected rarities, the doubts mounted and the facade slowly began to crumble. Wallace ably leads his reader through the many twists and turns in the very complicated story, introducing us to Rodenstock and his fellow wine enthusiasts (be they auctioneers, writers, collectors, or just tasters) as well as to the culture of high-end wine collecting and tasting, the sharp rivalries between competitors in the wine world and to the fascinating investigative process (on both scientific and circumstantial fronts) which finally resulted in the discovery of the hoax and the ultimate end of Rodenstock's Icarus-like flights of wine-fancy.

Not knowing much about the rare-wine world at all, I found this book a perfect entreé into the subject; Wallace provided sufficient background to handle the oenocentric portion, and combined that with ample helpings of mystery, historical discussion (of wine-making, Jefferson, forgery, &c.), and journalistic character-sketches and interviews of the characters involved with all aspects of the case. Most fascinating was the cult of gullibility which seemed to develop and Rodenstock and his implausible discoveries: everyone involved so wanted the bottles to be real that they all accepted what Wallace calls the "standard of plausible confirmability" and drank the Rodenstock Kool-Aid (there's a phrase sure to give a true oenophile chills up the spine, I'm sure).

Sure to be one of my top books of 2008. I had to pace myself with it, because I would have read it in one sitting if I wasn't careful.

And, there's more. Patrick Radden Keefe wrote a New Yorker article about the matter last year, and reportedly both his and Wallace's works have been optioned for movies (both would make good ones). Also, word just a few days ago that Bill Koch (who you'll meet near the end of Wallace's book and is playing a major part in ongoing litigation against Rodenstock) claims that new evidence of Rodenstock's business dealings adds fuel to the lawsuits against him. So there are more shoes yet to drop in this utterly compelling case.

Book Review: "The Shadow in the North"

The trouble I have with trilogies is that if I have all three books, I tend to read them right in a row (and can't seem to resist doing so). Thankfully the second installment in Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, The Shadow in the North, is even better than the first (The Ruby in the Smoke, my review of which is here). The good characters, at least, get a bit more fully fleshed out here, even if they do remain somewhat thinly-drawn (the bad guys remain really bad). In this book, unlike its predecessor, some of the elements from Pullman's later works (military-industrial society and its implications, &c.) are brought in, and he handles them as deftly here as in his later works.

A bit older and a bit wiser, Sally, Fred and the gang get tangled up in a convoluted mystery involving a strange and nebulous company and its vicious owner, a whiny and elusive Scottish magician, a psychic or two, and a lord's daughter. Things get more violent and more emotional in this one, so be ready for that.

Flood Updates

Posting at Library Preservation, Kevin Drieger has some late updates from the Iowa flood zone. As of yesterday morning, officials at the main library at the University of Iowa reported "up to two inches of water is in the basement including the Special Collections storage area and the bookstacks storage area." The materials had been removed from this area earlier, so "No collections are wet or appear to be in danger of getting wet." The University is working to determine the best method for removing the water.

Kevin provides images and links to some places that weren't as lucky: the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, and the art library at the University of Iowa. The Czech & Slovak Museum reportedly was able to remove at least portions of its collections out of the building prior to the floodwaters' arrival, and hopefully the art library was able to do the same.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"I doubt that"

Note to self: never attempt to interview Gore Vidal. Ouch.

Another Guilty Plea from Renehan

Historian Edward Renehan has entered a guilty plea in the charge against him for stealing a Theodore Roosevelt letter from the TRA, Newsday reports. Admitting "I took a letter from the association and subsequently endeavored to sell that item," Renehan pleaded guilty to the most serious charge, third-degree grand larceny (as prosecutors had said they would demand).

Nassau County court judge John Kase said Renehan's sentence on this plea will run concurrently with the federal sentence he'll receive in August for stealing Washington and Lincoln letters, also from the TRA. He'll face 24-30 months in prison total. The county sentence will be handed down on 15 September.

TRA president James Bruns said of the plea "We're pleased that this step of the process is over, and we're awaiting the sentencing. We hope that in the interim, he turns over the additional property that we believe he has." He told the paper that the association is still trying to determine how best to secure those further items they believe Renehan took. Renehan's lawyer calls the idea that Renehan has more things "spurious," and said that he believes Renehan's sentence should include only probation and restitution.

Links & Reviews

- The horrifying floods in the Midwest are having a tremendous impact on libraries. The University of Iowa's rare books and manuscripts collection has been moved to higher ground (hear an NPR report on the evacuation here - thanks Joyce - or a YouTube video here), and the library building is in continued danger this morning (though a concerted sandbagging effort by students, staff and others has been ongoing for days). LISNews has a roundup on U of I, along with news that the Cedar Rapids Public Library is believed to be completely inundated by floodwaters. Several other libraries in the flood zone are believed damaged.

- Via Book Patrol, I must point out Jason Kottke's post on the Hypnerotomachia poliphili. Kottke's discussion centers on the book's remarkably modern feel, and its equally remarkable unreadability.

- Geraldine Brooks' The People of the Book (my review here) has won the Book of the Year Award for 2008 from the Australian Publishers Assocation.

- The Boston Globe today has yet another report on troubles at the BPL, this time focusing on use of the library by people some would prefer not be allowed to darken the doorstep. Based on my own anecdotal experience, it seems to me that the library's appropriate use policies (as quoted in the article) could be enforced more rigorously, but fundamentally I agree with those who believe that the middle word in the library's name is just as important as the other two.

- Laura has a follow-up to our discussion on Internet reading, pointing to a very good Slate article by Jakob Neilsen about this very subject. Also, Caleb offers up a selection of quotes "about the Internet. Well, not exactly about the Internet, because it didn't exist when most of the writers below wrote. They were in fact concerned with such topics as readerly hygiene in the face of textual surfeit and the threat that mass culture poses to the hierarchies that traditionally defended intellectual and artistic labor." So what did Johnson, Thoreau and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have to say about this seemingly 21st century dilemma? Go find out.

- Since the new "Sex and the City" movie has apparently led to a major windfall for Kessinger Publishing, a word of caution: the organization has been widely criticized by booksellers for purchasing rare books, scanning them, and then trying to return them to the sellers in damaged condition. Not cool.

- From BibliOdyssey, images from a sixteenth-century manuscript on Habsburg cannons.

- More on "age-banding" from Stuart Kelly at The Scotsman here. Kelly writes "it's a dumb idea, which only serves lazy booksellers, librarians, and publishers who can't be bothered to make proper recommendations. Children develop at different rates, and the stigma that would be created for a child who wasn't 'in-step' with an arbitrary marketing ploy is unthinkable. ... If they're serious, it should extend beyond children's books, and copies of Henry James and Barbara Pym can be labelled 'For Over 60s Only'." More than 1,300 authors, librarians, teachers, parents and others have signed the online No to Age Banding petition so far.

- On NPR, Benjamin Wallace discusses his new book, The Billionaire's Vinegar (about a bottle of wine which purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson). I'm about halfway through the book at the moment, and have had an awful time putting it down. It's wonderful.

- The LATimes offers a summer reading list of some 50 titles, both fiction and non-fiction.

Reviews

- In the Washington Post, John Berendt reviews Marilyn Yalom's The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds (Houghton Mifflin). Interestingly, this coincides with a couple of J.L. Bell's posts at Boston1775 this week, here and here.

- For the TLS, Jim Endersby reviews a whole slew of new books on natural history, including a biography of John Kirk Townsend and a history of the famed Macleay collection.

- Lisa Margonelli reviews Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (Bloomsbury), in the NYTimes.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Re-recommending Very Short List

If you haven't yet signed up for Very Short List, take a moment now and go do it. Since they mentioned the Legacy Libraries project in early May I've been getting their daily email update, and I have to say that they consistently provide links to some of the funniest, most provocative, most unlikely-to-be-stumbled-upon-otherwise things to be found on the Interwebs. Yesterday's offering, a clip of Salvador Dalí's 1952 appearance on the game show "What's My Line?" had me laughing out loud (and last night, I needed that).

Great stuff.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Remembering Russert

When I first heard this afternoon that Tim Russert had died, I didn't believe it. I'm not sure I do yet. I didn't know him personally, of course, but as I've thought about him in the last few hours I've realized that there is probably no one outside my family with whom I've spent more hours on Sunday mornings over the years. There is certainly no one whose judgment in all things political I trust more.

I remember watching NBC's coverage of that election night back in 2000 when Tim held up the now-famous dry-erase board on which he'd written "Florida" three times. Others wanted to switch the station and see what CNN or Fox was saying, but I kept saying as the night went on that whatever happened, Russert would know it first. Similarly, watching NBC's coverage of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries on 6 May, when I heard Russert say "We now know who the Democratic nominee will be," I got (happy) tears in my eyes, because I knew he was careful enough not to make a statement like that if he wasn't sure it would hold water.

Watching Russert's "Meet the Press" has long been an integral part of my Sunday mornings. Always tenacious, but always fair, Tim's interviews and his journalism were a credit to his network, to his profession, and to the country. His faith, his love and devotion to family, friends and colleagues are legendary, and the encomiums being delivered to him this evening are a testament to the wide swath he cut across the spectrum of American life.

My thoughts and prayers are with Tim's family and colleagues tonight.

Godspeed, Mr. Russert, and thank you. Sunday mornings and election nights will never be the same.

Auction Reports: Christie's & Bloomsbury

Christie's New York held a sale of Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts, Including Americana yesterday, which brought in just about $2.5 million. Two of the major expected high spots (the signed, limited Ulysses and a Samuel Beckett collection) failed to sell, but there were some high prices realized:

- An Einstein manuscript diagramming his special theory of relativity sold for $230,500.

- A letter by George Washington written when he was president-elect made $194,500.

- A Kelmscott Chaucer in the original binding fetched $146,500.

- The first edition, first issue of Poe's Tales (1845) made $134,500.

- A John Adams letter from February 1801 (after Adams knew he had lost his bid for re-election) sold for $37,500.

Bloomsbury's Bibliophile Sale was, as I suggested, the place to get a bargain on some interesting if not particularly expensive items. Few lots exceeded the high estimates, and some sold for much less than expected (a 1649 Elzevir for £65, &c.).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Weber Pleads

As expected, Lester Weber has entered a guilty plea. The Daily Press reports that Weber admitted to the significant thefts from the Mariners' Museum (he stole almost 1,500 items and sold them on eBay for more than $160,000), mail fraud, and filing a false tax return (all felonies). He'll be sentenced on 7 November, until which time he's free on bond. "Weber's wife, Lori Childs, attempted to plead guilty to the same charges last month, but [U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach] Smith ordered a psychiatric evaluation to determine her competency to enter the plea."

A spokesperson for the Newport News prosecutor's office told the paper that some of the items stolen from the museum, including nearly a hundred artifacts from the Titanic, have been recovered and will be returned.

Hopefully Travis will chime in soon on what the sentence should look like.

[Update: Travis has indeed chimed in, here. He notes that the theft charge could be sentenced under the guidelines covering Theft of, Damage to, or Destruction of, Cultural Heritage Resources (which would add time to the sentence compared to a regular old Theft).]

On the Internet and Reading

One of yesterday's enjoyments after I got my work done was a browse through the newest Atlantic, the cover story of which is Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr argues - using little but anecdotal evidence - that Internet-based reading (not really Google on its own, but I guess that made a more catchy headline) is changing the way we read and process what we read. He writes "... what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf, developmental psychologist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who "worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged."

Following this argument, Carr discusses ways in which "old media" have adopted Web-like strategies ("Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets"), and concludes "Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today." Then he moves on, for some reason, to discuss a perceived jive between scientific management theory and Google's "pursuit" of artificial intelligence.

Some of Carr's points I don't necessarily disagree with: it's definitely true that reading on the Internet is a very different animal than reading from a book. When online, I find myself with an ever-present plethora of at least four or five Firefox tabs (five at the moment, plus NPR's media player), which I flick through incessantly as new emails appear or new links come dripping into my Google Reader (which I'd already affectionately nicknamed the Skimmer even before I read Carr's article). But just because I read that way online doesn't mean I can't settle down with a book and read deeply ... in fact, I enjoy that much more. I just read Internet things quickly because I don't particularly enjoy staring at a computer screen. For long articles, I print them out and read them later (you'll notice I've linked to the online version of Carr's article, but I actually read it from the paper magazine).

Naturally, as I was writing this post, Laura's take on Carr's article came across the transom (and yes, I stopped to check the Skimmer when it came through). She is, of course, correct to say "In reality the internet, or any other form of technology, is what we make of it, guided by both individuals and by social norms or institutions. It’s easy enough to avoid the condition that Carr describes simply by altering the way you interact with the internet." But I don't quite agree that the Internet is, as she says, "as well suited a tool for intensive reading as it is for skimming the headlines, celebrity gossip and latest YouTube videos." It's an excellent delivery system - getting material for reading has never been easier - but I've never found it a very pleasant place for doing the actual reading. A tiny quibble, though, with what is an excellent critique of Carr's article. Read the whole thing.

In short, as with all media, the Internet can be put to good use, and it can be overused to the point of driving one to utter distraction. In Carr's case, it might be time to unplug the computer for a while and hunker down with a pile of good books.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Auction Report: Bonham's

Some of the prices realized at today's Bonham's New York Fine Books and Manuscripts sale (including premiums):

- John Adams' copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations went for $36,000; a 1785 J.A. letter also rated a high price, selling for $33,000. The John Quincy Adams letter didn't do quite as well; it went for $600.

- the Franklin & Ross Arctic expedition manuscript diary made $10,200.

- a first edition of William Bligh's account of the Bounty mutiny sold for $13,200.

- an original Charles Schulz Sunday "Peanuts" comic strip fetched $39,000.

- David Roberts' The Holy Land beat the estimates, making $51,000.

- the collection of 34 Thomas Bewick wood blocks sold for $4,800.

- the first edition of Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations went for $78,000, as did the manuscript draft page from Darwin's Descent of Man.

Google's Market Share

Wow. Hitwise reports that "Google accounted for 68.29 percent of all U.S. searches in the four weeks ending May 31, 2008 .... Yahoo! Search, MSN Search and Ask.com each received 19.95, 5.89 and 4.23 percent respectively. The remaining 41 search engines in the Hitwise Search Engine Analysis Tool accounted for 1.63 percent of U.S. searches. ... Google search properties (Google.co.uk and Google.com) accounted for 87 percent of all UK searches in May 2008 representing a 12 percent increase compared to May 2007. Yahoo! search properties accounted for 4.09 percent of UK searches in May 2008, a 2 percent increase compared to April 2008. MSN search properties accounted for 3.72 percent and Ask search properties accounted for 3.07 percent of searches. MSN increased two percent compared to April 2008 and Ask increased 6 percent."

Hitwise's U.S. sample is 10 million; 8.4 million for the U.K.

Potter Prequel Sells

The Harry Potter prequel made £25,000 at last night's charity auction, The Guardian reports. They offer a bit more about the text: "Rowling's micro-story is set three years before Harry's birth and features the characters Sirius Black and James Potter, Harry's father. The story opens with a youthful Sirius and James cornered by two irate policemen at the end of a high-speed motorbike chase. After a cheeky exchange with the policemen, the two teenage characters make their escape - using broomsticks, "drumsticks" and just a little bit of magic."

Oh, and in August, the BBC adds, Waterstone's (the sponsor of the charity auction) will be publishing a book containing the texts on all thirteen of the cards sold ... so if you're desperate for your Potter fix, you'll be able to get it then.

[Update: Here's the text, courtesy of Waterstone's. How's that for (near) instant gratification?]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: "The Library at Night"

Alberto Manguel's latest book is The Library at Night (published in the U.S. by Yale, 2008). The book emerged, he writes, out of his quest to discover why, in the face of the knowledge that all our human efforts to "lend the world a semblance of sense and order ... are sadly doomed to failure," we still try. "Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake." The chapters, which all begin "The Library as ___," include anecdotal musings from Manguel's own life as a bibliophile and personal librarian, combined with always-pertinent historical background.

In his unmatched lyrical prose, Manguel treats many varied aspects of book collecting, librarianship and reading: library catalogs, reading out loud (I'm glad I'm not the only one who does that), the exclusiveness inherent in every library collection, Google Books, Borges' manufactured and hilarious list of "things to avoid in literature," &c. I could spend pages going through the various chapters, but I think I'll settle for just including a few quotes which I found particularly interesting:

- On the differences between a library at different times of day: "If the library of the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle" (p. 14).

- On price stickers: "Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the backs. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime to which adhere the dust and fluff of ages, making me wish for a special gummy hell to which the inventor of these stickers would be condemned" (p. 17). Let's just say I couldn't agree more.

- "In a library, no shelf remains empty for long. Like Nature, libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books" (p. 66). Oh, too true!

- "Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival, the random culling of the rag-and-bone trade, and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library" (p. 165).

- "What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries" (p. 194).

- On how a modern-day Gulliver would view the reading habits of contemporary humans: "What would he see? He would see huge commercial temples in which books are sold in their thousands, immense edifices in which the published world is divided and arranged in tidy categories for the guided consumption of the faithful. He would see libraries with readers milling about in the stacks as they have done for centuries. He would see them exploring the virtual collections into which some of the books have been mutated, leading the fragile existence of electronic ghosts. Outside, too, the time-traveller would find a host of readers: on park benches, in the subway, on buses and trams and trains, in apartments and houses, everywhere. Our visitor could be excused if he supposed that ours was a literate society. On the contrary. Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading - once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive - is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good. As our visitor would eventually realize, in our society reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room" (p. 223). I'm not quite as sanguine as Manguel seems to be about the vibrancy of the biblio-universe, but I still found the quote fairly apt.

- Naturally there were points where I disagreed strongly with Manguel; most notably, he seems to have a soft spot for the Nicholson Bakers of the world, who don't seem to comprehend the limits of spatial and fiscal resources or the simple fact that some things (i.e. newspapers) just weren't meant to last forever in their original, highly-acidic form (p. 72-3).

- "Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination. It may be that there is no book, however well written, that can remove an ounce of pain from the tragedy of Iraq or Rwanda, but it may also be that there is no book, however foully written, that does not allow an epiphany for its destined reader" (p. 232).

- "As readers, we have gone from learning a precious craft whose secret was held by a jealous few, to taking for granted a skill that has become subordinate to principles of mindless financial profit or mechanical efficiency, a skill for which governments care almost nothing. We have gone from one scale of values to the other many times, and will no doubt do so again. We can't be spared this erratic course, which seems to be an intrinsic part of our human nature, but we can at least sway with the knowledge of our swaying, and with the conviction that at one point or another our skill will once again be recognized as of the essence" (p. 232-3)..

- On not reading all the books in your library: "... a library, whatever its size, need not be read in its entirety to be useful; every reader profits from a fair balance between knowledge and ignorance, recall and oblivion" (p. 254).

- "Electronic text that requires no page can amicably accompany the page that requires no electricity; they need not exclude each other in an effort to serve us best" (p. 321-2).

As one of the preeminent contemporary writers on biblio-things, Manguel's views and musings are always welcome, even in the infrequent cases where I didn't share his position. His rich, delightful writing is a pleasure to read, and as with all of his other works, this one is well worth reading.

Book Review: "The Late George Apley"

An acquaintance of mine has been telling me since I moved to Boston (almost three years ago now) that if I want to understand this city, I must read John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley. I have, at long last, done so, and as I find is so often the case, I regretted deeply having waited so long. Marquand's book, subtitled "A Novel in the Form of a Memoir," was first published in 1937 (and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later), but I found its charms utterly timeless.

Told through letters and other documents interspersed with the personal reminiscences of the compiler/narrator (a college chum of the aforementioned late George Apley), the novel is the story of a Brahmin's life. Tracking George Apley from his birth at the tail end of the Civil War until his death in the early years of the 1930s, Marquand offers up a brilliantly delicate satire of the upper-crust culture of Boston as the city grew and changed around a cast of characters who tried their best to come to grips with the times of which they (sometimes unwillingly) found themselves a part.

Apley's life follows a trajectory seemingly predetermined: the proper upbringing (winters on Beacon Hill, summers at the family estate in Milton), education (Harvard, naturally), a bit of travel (Europe with an aunt and uncle), and marriage (but only to a suitable girl of the right sort), followed by gentle involvement in the family business and constant involvement in various civic and social clubs and organizations. It is a life of privilege and duty which Apley takes up almost unquestioningly (with a notable exception or two), but is also a life from which happiness and personal pleasure are almost entirely absent. As he ages and begins to educate his own children, it is almost painful to watch the cycle begin anew - and I doubt I'm alone in thinking that the realization of that caused George Apley no small amount of pain as well.

As I was reading I couldn't help but imagine how this remarkably insightful book must have received in its own time, when Marquand was writing without any of the benefit of hindsight we readers of today unthinkingly bring to our own experience with the book. Above all, The Late George Apley is a powerful and trenchant examination of Boston life, then and perhaps indeed even now: Marquand's comparison of Boston and New York (which reads in part "Of course, no one from my cautious part of the world is entirely at home in New York") made me laugh; at least in my case, I've always found that comment quite true.

Portraying a world which is, for most of us at least, utterly alien (where the potential removal of some rosebushes is enough to prompt an entire series of letters, or the unintentional burial of a distant aunt in the wrong portion of the family plot sufficient to spark a deep and abiding family feud), Marquand's wry style, pointed wit and incredible talent of perception make the pages of his book absolutely dance with vitality and emotion. We are privy to the innermost (or near-innermost, anyway) workings of George Apley's mind, a mind never at ease, never comfortable with the "to the manor born" life, but never quite ready to take that great leap into the unknown.

Highly recommended; one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Book Review: "The Ruby in the Smoke"

Before Lyra Belacqua, there was Sally Lockhart. Philip Pullman's first, pre-His Dark Materials trilogy featured another strong-willed young woman as its heroine, and the first installment in that set is The Ruby in the Smoke (first published back in 1985). It's a delightfully quick read, targeted at young adults but perfectly appropriate for slightly-less-young-adults as well (or at least this one found it so, anyway).

While the plot (which seems to owe a great deal to Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone), is fairly conventional, Pullman's writing ability carries it through nicely. The characters here are for the most part thinly-drawn and one-note (when they are good they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid, &c.), but for a light-hearted jaunt through Victorian London, you could read much worse.

NYTimes Highlights Upcoming Lots

In today's New York Times, Dennis Overbye muses about some of the lots in the Christie's sale of Richard Green's scientific books, which I mentioned in yesterday's post. Overbye writes "It was a thrill to hold Copernicus in my hands on a recent visit to the back rooms of Christie’s and flip through its hallowed pages as if it were my personal invitation to the Enlightenment. No serious library should be without one. Just in case you are missing your own copy, you can pick up this one for about the price of a Manhattan apartment next Tuesday."

Overbye runs through the litany of Great Names to be found in the Green collection, then adds: "Pawing through these jaw droppers, I found my attention being drawn again and again to a small white book, barely more than a pamphlet, a time machine that took me back to a more recent revolution. It was the directory for [the] world’s first commercial phone system, Volume 1, No. 1, published in New Haven by the Connecticut District Telephone Company in November 1878, future issues to be published 'from time to time, as the nature of the service requires.' ... The first directory consisted of a single sheet listing the names of 50 subscribers, according to lore. By November, the network had grown to 391 subscribers, identified by name and address — phone numbers did not yet exist. And the phone book, although skimpy, had already taken the form in which it would become the fat doorstop of today, with advertisements and listings of businesses in the back — 22 physicians and 22 carriage manufacturers, among others."

The first phone book isn't expected to fetch quite as much as the Copernicus - you could have that for a mere $30,000-40,000, if estimates hold.