Saturday, January 31, 2009

This Week's Acquisitions

Here's what arrived this week:

- The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux (W.W. Norton, 2009). Norton.

I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick (Wiley, 2009). Amazon.

Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books by Margaret Willes (Yale University Press, 2008). Yale.

Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic by Len Travers (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997). Commonwealth.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed (University Press of Virginia, 1997). Commonwealth.

UK Reads "The Lost World"

Shelf:Life tipped me off on a great program going on across the UK this year: a mass-reading program designed to introduce young readers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (one of my very favorite books; my first copy of it (thankfully just a mass-market paperback), which I probably read fifty times, is falling apart. I recently acquired a new copy, the Chronicle Books edition, which should hold up a bit better.

The Lost World Read 2009 program, sponsored by a consortium of arts, education and government bodies across the UK, provides thousands of free copies of The Lost World (in either a full version or an abridged version for the very young), plus copies of a short biography of Charles Darwin. The BBC has also provided a free audio version of the book, and several cities have organized events around the mass-reading program.

The Lost World was chosen partly to honor Conan Doyle's 150th birthday and Darwin's 200th birthday, both celebrated this year.

A great idea, and one which I'm sure will bring much delight to those who read the book. It's one of the best.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Recent Print Articles

Some articles from print publications that I've enjoyed of late:

- Peter McCullough, "Print, Publication, and Religious Politics in Caroline England." The Historical Journal 51:2 (June 2008), pp. 285-313. [Abstract] McCullough examines the biography of printer-publisher Richard Badger (1585-1641) to show confluences between the publisher's political-religious views and his trade. He posits a key distinction between books printed and books published by a given stationer, and urges book historians to look beyond imprints when studying publishers' careers. McCullough concludes "The interdisciplinary combination of bibliographical, biographical, and historical research can, at least in some cases, reveal that the politics of the books of a printer-publisher might not just collapse into his own, but could be an organic manifestation of them" (p. 313).

- Rachel Finnegan, "The Library of William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, 1704-93." Hermathena 181 (Winter 2006), pp. 149-185. The Earl's extensive library is analyzed using a manuscript library catalog and an 1848 auction catalog.

- André Pelchat, "Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures." The Beaver (December 2008/January 2009, pp. 28-32. A feature article on The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, a sensational anti-Catholic book published in 1836 (which was the United States' top-selling title until Uncle Tom's Cabin).

- Timothy J. Shannon, "The World That Made William Johnson." New York History 89:2 (Spring 2008), pp. 111-125. A look at the cultural context of Sir William Johnson's life and times.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scott Responds to Charges

As expected, Raymond Scott (the Rod Blagojevich of book thieves?) had a little something to say about the charges officially filed against him yesterday, and his choice of fashion accessories tells us a little something about him as well. Scott arrived and departed from court in a 45-foot stretch Hummer, and was seen holding a Cuban cigar and dressed in a fur coat, floral shirt and alligator-skin shoes. The Sun has pictures (and a pretty punny headline). The scene was arranged by the publishing company which has contracted to create a book based around Scott's exploits, the Northern Echo reports (with video).

After his court hearing, Scott told the press "In the words of John McEnroe, they cannot be serious," and said that he would plead "very much not guilty" when he goes to court again on 10 February. He then opened a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne, saying "I intend to open this anyway, because it’s a celebration that I will clear my name." He was told reporters that if he were to be jailed, he would seek a job in the prison library.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: "The Invention of Air"

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America (Riverhead, 2008) is a book that's rather difficult to pin down. It's not a straightforward biography of Joseph Priestley, nor is it a chronicle of his scientific discoveries, or of his accomplishments in various other fields. Nor is it a history of the Enlightenment processes which contributed to Priestley's worldview, or an exploration of how that worldview shaped and was shaped by the times, or a treatise on the interstices of science, government and religion. Each of those elements plays a role in Johnson's story, but combining them into one narrative (and managing, for the most part, to pull it off) is what makes this book different.

Johnson begins with and comes back frequently to the idea of Priestley as one of those rare figures (then and now) who manages to become well-known for accomplishments in several different fields. Priestley's record in that regard was unmatched in his own time and has remained so since (even Franklin, Rush and Jefferson don't quite measure up, and their own accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at - since them, there has never been another figure so well known for widespread influence in as many separate areas). This can be attributed, Johnson argues (and I agree) to the increased professionalization of scholarship, and to the decrease of leisure time.

The unique combination of circumstances which permitted Priestley's wide-ranging ideas to gestate and be transmitted through print (he saw hundreds of his books and pamphlets published during his lifetime) may never recur, but that simply serves to make his story more fascinating. Johnson writes easily of Priestley's scientific experiments, and of his forays into religion and politics (all of which served at one time or another to get the man into trouble). He describes his subject as a "compulsive sharer," always willing to make details of his discoveries known even if it meant losing credit for or profit from them. While he was sometimes stubbornly wrong (his refusal to abandon the phlogiston concept of air has long been an albatross around his scientific reputation), his contributions across the entire intellectual spectrum remain undervalued even today.

While any given part of Johnson's narrative may be covered in more depth by other authors (Jenny Uglow, Robert Schofield, &c.), his synthesis of them (along with brief aside-discourses on things like the role of coffee and more precise tools in spurring scientific development and a long essay on the Carboniferous period and the development of earth's current atmospheric composition) is what this book has to offer. Johnson's final chapters, on Priestley's final years in America and his important role in the late Jefferson-Adams correspondence is also particularly fascinating (Johnson points out that Priestley is mentioned in their retirement letters much more often than any other public figure).

There are minor problems with the book: several times in the opening pages I noted chronological errors ("1850s" for "1750s","seventeenth century" for "eighteenth century") and several typographical mistakes ("slock" for "stock" in a Priestley quote, among others). Johnson's endnotes are not indicated in the text, which is a shame since they are frequently very amusing. The bibliography, at least, is nicely done, and on the whole this is a very good introductory account of a fascinating public figure and his interactions with people who tend to be much more familiar to American readers (Franklin, Adams, Jefferson).

Scott Charged!

Raymond Scott has finally been officially charged with the theft of the Durham First Folio, British news outlets are reporting. Scott was charged today with two counts of theft and two alternative charges of handling stolen goods. He'll go before Durham magistrates on 10 February.

More to come, I'm sure.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike Dies

The Associated Press is reporting that author and critic John Updike has died at age 76.

Monday, January 26, 2009

More Awards

The Newbery and Caldecott Awards were announced this morning at ALA Midwinter:

Newbery: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (Dave McKean, illus.)

Caldecott: Susan Marie Swanson, The House in the Night (Beth Krommes, illus.)

NBCC Book Award Finalists Named

The National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2008 awards this weekend. They are:

- Dexter Filkins, The Forever War.
- Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War.
- Jane Mayer, The Dark Side.
- Allan Lichtman, White Protestant Nation.
- George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776.

- Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.
- Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family In An American Century.
- Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul.
- Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
- Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

- Rick Bass, Why I Came West.
- Helene Cooper, The House On Sugar Beach.
- Honor Moore, The Bishop’s Daughter.
- Andrew X. Pham, The Eaves Of Heaven.
- Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

- Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard.
- Vivian Gornick, The Men in My Life.
- Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds.
- Reginald Shepherd, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry.
- Seth Lerer, Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.

- Roberto Bolaño, 2666.
- Marilynne Robinson, Home.
- Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project.
- M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart.
- Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge.

- August Kleinzahler, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City.
- Juan Felipe Herrera, Half the World in Light.
- Devin Johnston, Sources.
- Pierre Martory (trans. John Ashbery), The Landscapist.
- Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

MHS Trustee William Saltonstall Dies

I awoke this morning to the very sad news that William L. Saltonstall, a former Massachusetts state senator, longtime philanthropist, and good friend and leader of the Massachusetts Historical Society, died at his home on Friday night. He was 81 years old. A full obituary is in today's Boston Globe.

I first met Mr. Saltonstall when I started working at MHS, and feel compelled to write a few words about a man I found to be unfailingly gracious, kind, and interested in the people around him. He had an impish sense of humor and could always be counted on for a clever quip; I've never seen anyone else's eyes actually twinkle the way his did when he drew a smile from his listeners, as he did with great frequency.

While I was still working part-time at MHS and part-time at a bookshop, Mr. Saltonstall came into the shop one day and I greeted him as I normally did at the MHS front desk. He stopped and looked at me for a second, then said "Well Jeremy, I almost didn't recognize you, you're out of your natural habitat." We laughed, and he said he'd come in to check for any copies of his father's book Salty, since he liked to purchase copies of that for his grandchildren. We didn't have any that day, but he bought something else; when I told him the total he smiled and said "Yes, I guess I'd better pay the sales tax, since I voted for it."

A gentleman of the highest order, who will be greatly missed by all who had the privilege to know him.

[Update: I've received word that a memorial service for Mr. Saltonstall will be held on Saturday, 31 January at 11 a.m., St. John's Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms MA.]

Links & Reviews

- From BibliOdyssey, beautiful illustrations from the journals of Jörg Franz Müller, an Alsatian gunsmith who sailed to Batavia in the 1660s with the VOC (Dutch East India Company). Fascinating anthropological and natural history drawings. I particularly like the papaya.

- Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker on the early history of American newspapers, at a time of peril for the medium.

- Raymond Scott is to be the subject of a book, according to a report in today's Sun (to be taken with the same grain of salt with which we take every report from the Sun). The book, which will be created by the publisher Tonto books, is to be called (naturally) Shakespeare and Love . Scott told the paper "As Oscar Wilde once said, 'There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about', which is to say, to be in the public eye is merely a bore, but to be ignored is a tragedy. As to the title of the book, Shakespeare and Love, I suppose it is a love story because you can be in love not just with a person, but also with an inanimate object. I am in love with my fiancee, the Cuban girl Heidy Garcia Rios, and now I am also in love with Shakespeare. If it was made into a film, perhaps George Clooney could play me as I have a few grey hairs now!" [Ed: Shakes head, rolls eyes].

- More on the McLellin discovery in the Salt Lake Tribune.

- WBEZ news reports that the Newberry Library has acquired about 5,000 rare books from the collections of the McCormick Theological Seminary. [h/t RBN]

- The Special Collections Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will be closed from 26 January until at least 2 March, to allow for a move into the newly-renovated Morris Library.

- The Guardian ran a very interesting piece this week on the intersections between OCLC, library catalogs, search engines, and biblio-social-networking sites.

- The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has mounted a digital edition of "The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln." Not a huge amount of useful background material to explain what you're seeing, but useful for some, I'm sure.

- The Washington Monthly has collected short pieces from various authors and political commentators offering reading suggestions for President Obama. [h/t James Fallows]

- In the Boston Globe today, a piece on Woburn's lovely public library building as authorities seek ways to expand without harming the aestethic value of the library.

- The Independent reports on a battle royale brewing between booksellers in the book town of Hay-on-Wye.

- Egyptian police have seized what they believe are stolen pages from an Indian illustrated Mughal-era manuscript held at Cairo's Islamic Arts Museum, and arrested an Australian woman who was trying to smuggle the pages out of Egypt.


- David Waldstreicher reviews Ira Stoll's Samuel Adams for the Boston Globe.

- Richard Cox reviews David Hall's Ways of Writings at Reading Archives.

- Russell Shorto reviews Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air in the NYTimes. I'm reading this book at the moment, so I haven't read any reviews yet, but did want to pass the link along.

- Cullen Murphy reviews Kitty Burns Florey's Script and Scribble in the WSJ.

- John Carey reviews two new books on Darwin for the Sunday Times: Darwin's Island by Steve Jones and Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

This Week's Acquisitions

Almost forgot I'd visited any bookshops this week, but stopped in at Brattle late last Saturday and at Raven in Harvard Square on Monday:

- A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster by Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel (Martino Reprint, 2000). Brattle.

Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts by Johann N. Neem (Harvard University Press, 2008). Brattle.

Worlds of Print: Diversity in the Book Trade; edited by John Hinks and Catherine Armstrong (Oak Knoll, 2006). Brattle.

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (Yale University Press, 2005). Raven.

Jonathan Edwards by Perry Miller (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). Raven.

Writing Early American History by Alan Taylor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Raven.

Caleb Williams by William Godwin (Penguin, 1988). Raven.

Friday, January 23, 2009

And Speaking of Forgeries ...

If you've bought a signed book on eBay from "bev103162smith," be warned: it's probably fake. A federal grand jury has indicted Forrest R. Smith III, 47, of Reading, PA on charges that he forged authors' signatures in books and sold them on eBay, making more than $300,000 in the process. More than 400 buyers are believed to have been affected.

Among the signatures Smith is believed to have forged are those of
Truman Capote, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, John Irving, Norman Mailer, James Michener, Annie Proulx, Anne Rice, Philip Roth, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, and Tom Wolfe. Prosecutors believe Smith had rubber stamps made of authentic signatures and used the stamps to enhance the books with signatures. He's believed to have purchased books using the eBay name "bigdaddy_books" as well, some of which he later resold as signed.

Smith's scheme is believed to have begun in 2002 and lasted until December 2008, when investigators closed in. Prosecutors have not yet revealed how Smith's forgeries came to light; a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office said more information would be revealed at trial.

More as it comes.

Book Review: "The Terror"

I'm not sure whether reading Dan Simmons' The Terror during some of the coldest weather Boston has seen in a decade was a good idea or a poor one. It certainly helped with the atmospherics: one night a week or so ago I was reading in my living room, blankets tucked around me as the wind howled ferociously outside and wind chills dipped to around -10. And in the book, the temperatures without the wind were almost fifty degrees below that mark, and the characters were marooned on a ship frozen in thick sea-ice, never quite getting dry and frequently losing bits of themselves to frostbite when they ventured outside. Certainly stopped me from complaining about the cold for a day or two.

Simmons' book is a fictional ending to a real story, the famed Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, which sailed from England in 1845 aboard the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Neither the ships nor the 128 men who comprised their crews were ever seen alive again, although remnants of the expedition and some human bones were later discovered near Canada's King William Island (and in August 2008 Parks Canada announced a new search for the wrecked ships using side-scan sonar).

Using the known facts about the expedition and what had to have been some heavy-duty background research, Simmons has woven together the story of the expedition from its first moments in the ice through the bitter end. Drawing on Inuit mythology, he adds a certain supernatural twist: a beastly critter on the ice who begins to stalk and prey on the expedition's crewmen and seems impervious to all human effort. It's a rich story, filled with the gory details of an Arctic expedition gone incredibly, disastrously wrong.

While the book (which clocks in at 766 pages) could perhaps have been edited down a bit, and while I did find a creeping anachronism or two, I was overall greatly impressed with The Terror. I recommend it, but while you're reading, keep a warm blanket handy for when things get chilly.

Real Version of Hofmann Document Located

A fascinating report out of Utah, where a collector and dealer in rare documents believes he has discovered a long-lost notebook written by an early Mormon leader, William McLellin. This would be an important find under any circumstances, but because the fabled "McLellin Collection" was an important component of the forgery schemes of Mark Hofmann back in the early 1980s, the find carries even more weight. The rediscovered 226-page volume was written in 1871-72, and is believed to be the framework for a memoir McLellin planned to write about his experiences with the early Mormon church.

The discoverer, too, is of interest: Brent Ashworth, a Provo collector, was swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and many rare documents by Hofmann, and he says he's been looking for McLellin items ever since. He told television station KSL "The information, I should say, walked in the door, not the journal. And I was able to track that down and to get back to the source and pick it up." He purchased the journal last summer "from a family in the eastern United States." Linda Sillitoe, who co-authored a book about the Hofmann case, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders," told the Daily Herald that there's some "poetic justice" that Ashworth was the one to locate the real McLellin document after all these years. Ashworth himself calls it "kind of ironic."

LDS historians released a statement this week about the discovery: "In recent years, a number of historical documents have been found that have added to our understanding of Joseph Smith, the time in which he lived, and the challenges he faced. The Church has welcomed and encouraged this process. While the Church is not pursuing the acquisition of the McLellin manuscript, we are pleased the long-lost document has been found." The volume was known to exist (it was photographed in 1929) but until now its whereabouts were a mystery.

Ashworth told the press he is pursuing publication of the notebook, which, contrary to Hofmann's claims, contains no explosively anti-Mormon statements (McLellin was excommunicated in 1838 over differences with other church leaders). In fact, Ashworth asserts, what is most surprising about the document is McLellin's expressed faith in Smith's version of how the Book of Mormon was revealed to him. Other McLellin papers, including an earlier journal, were discovered in the LDS archives after the Hofmann case, and several volumes of them have been published in recent years.

Hofmann remains in prison, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Edited to add further reading about the Hofmann case:

Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer
Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders

Not Live from New York

Well, it had been my plan to bus down to New York this morning for the Bibliographical Society of America's annual meeting in the afternoon, so that could report back firsthand on the papers, including Timothy Stinson's "Knowledge of the Flesh: Using DNA Analysis to Unlock Bibliographical Secrets of Medieval Parchment," which has garnered quite a bit of press coverage. Unfortunately a stomach bug intervened yesterday afternoon, and although I feel mostly fine this morning, I didn't think eight hours (on a bus) there and back again to New York seemed like a wise plan. I'll read the papers in published form, but if anyone does make it to the meeting, firsthand dispatches are always welcome.

I'll be working from home today, and will use the opportunity to finish up some projects around the house (while napping frequently, in all likelihood).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bye Bye, E.O. 13233

President Obama (isn't that a great phrase?) couldn't possibly have gotten off to a better start with the library/archives/history community than he has. One of his first acts as president was to revoke Bush's Executive Order 13233, replacing it with a new Executive Order governing the disposition of presidential and vice presidential papers. Obama's order effectively restores the language of Reagan's 1989 Executive Order 12667, but explicitly covers "Vice Presidential records" and guarantees no endless delays in declassification by mandating that a president or former president requesting a delay provide "a time certain and ... reason for the extension of time." It also prohibits the heirs of former presidents from asserting privilege over documents, limiting that power to living former presidents.

In a press release, the administration said "This order ends the practice of having others besides the president assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the president will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the attorney general and the White House counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution."

A good move.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm Learning to Tweet

After successfully resisting Twitter for quite a while, I've finally given in. So if you need one more way to see what I'm up to in between blog posts, here I am. I'm definitely still getting the hang of it, and I confess I'm not entirely convinced there's much of a point. It kind of reminds me of the way AOL Instant Messenger away messages worked when I was in college (the way they may still work for people in college today, for all I know): a quick way to pass along brief notes, funny links, &c. I haven't quite figured out what use I'll put Twitter to, but I'm sure it will involve books somehow. It may make for a good place to throw little quotes and things that don't make it into my reviews, or quick takes on things I'm reading as I'm reading them. We'll see.

Anyway, feel free to "follow me" on Twitter, or you can add the feed to your RSS reader and stay tuned that way.

Other people's "tweets" are fairly amusing, and I'm amazed at some of the folks who use the site regularly: "Wait Wait" host Peter Sagal, comedian Paula Poundstone, political commentator (the original and much-missed Wonkette) Ana Marie Cox, and some other interesting people to follow, including LT's Tim Spalding and fellow book-bloggers Michael Lieberman, Ian Kahn, Joyce Godsey, Benjamin Clark, and Laura of bookn3rd fame.

Volumes from Elbridge Gerry's Library at Auction

I worked on Elbridge Gerry's library in September, and after I've spent so much time with a collection I start to keep an eye out for anything in the news about that particular reader or his/her books. That paid off today, when I caught a press release about an auction on 29 January which will include a set of volumes from Gerry's collection.

Central Mass Auctions, Inc. of Worcester will be selling Gerry's thirteen volume Journals of Congress : containing their proceedings from September 5, 1774, to [November 3, 1788] (Philadelphia : From Folwell's Press, 1800-1801), of which just 400 copies were printed for the use of Congress.

The lot description of Gerry's volumes in the catalogue of his collection reads "75. Journals of Congress, from 1774 to 1788. 13 vols. half bound in red." But beyond that we knew very little about the books. Now, thanks to the auctioneers, we can add a bit more to our knowledge. They've uploaded some images of the volumes, the bindings of which look a bit the worse for wear (but no matter). I was much more interested to see the other pictures, since they tell us something of where the book has been since it sold at Gerry's auction in 1815.

The volumes contain the bookplate of Edward Everett (1794-1865), a leading 19th-century politican and orator (perhaps best known for delivering the speech before Lincoln at Gettysburg) whose papers are here at the MHS. There's also a note by Edwards in the first volume which reads "This Copy of the Journals of the Continental Congress belonged to Elbridge Gerry, Vice-President of the United States with President Madison in his second term. E.E." It's not clear whether Everett purchased the volumes directly from the Gerry sale or obtained them later, but either way this is a set with remarkable provenance and I hope it finds an appropriate home.

I've changed the book's LT record to reflect the updates.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: "The Graveyard Book"

Nobody Owens lives in a graveyard. That's the premise of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (2008), his latest fantastical volume. In this unconventional reworking of Kipling's "Jungle Book," Nobody (or Bod, familiarly) grows up with the ghostly residents of his graveyard, these kindly folks having taken him in as an infant after the rest of his family was brutally murdered. Bod's pursuers never stop searching, however, and as the boy grows, guardians must find the delicate balance between protecting the boy and allowing him to make his own way in the world.

There was much about this story that I liked very much. Gaiman's handling of the graveyard folks was deft (managing characters from many different time periods at once is a tricky proposition), and Bod's struggles to come to grips with his own humanity was lovely. But I felt like there were far too many knots left untangled when I came to the end of the book (I won't outline them all here since most of them would spoil the ending), and those unanswered questions bothered me.

The text is complemented nicely by Dave McKean's eerie illustrations. All in all, a good book, which could have been improved with a bit more backstory.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe

Ed and Edgar should probably be your one-stop shop for all things Poe today, but among the other things to read this morning are William Niederkorn's "Poe at 200" post at Paper Cuts, which includes a link to a great slideshow of Poe-related images. And over in The Guardian, a Poe quiz (I had to guess at a couple, but managed 9 of 10 correct).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin"

Considering the impending bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin I'm sure many will be looking for a quick, readable introduction to the man and his most famous book. Along with my December 2006 recommendation of Janet Browne's Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography, I'll suggest David Quammen's nice little volume The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), an installment in W.W. Norton's "Great Discoveries" series.

Quammen's book is classic armchair science history, breezy and succinct like his volumes of shorter essays (which I also tend to like). He's able to distill Darwin's career (and particularly that long portion of it during which he grappled with his revolutionary evolutionary ideas) into a slim book just 250 pages long, and filled with humorous asides, well-chosen anecdotes and a generous helping of book history thrown in for good measure. Things get a little crammed in the penultimate chapter when Quammen tries to extend the lens and look at evolutionary biology since Darwin's day, but aside from that (which probably had to be done) there's not much wrong with the book.

Some of the more interesting tidbits Quammen tosses into the mix in these pages describe a few of Darwin's experiments, including suspending duck feet in water to see whether snails would cling to them (and thus possibly be carried to other places), getting his entire family to play music for earthworms in order to measure their response (there wasn't any), or soaking dead pigeons in saltwater to see if seeds in their gullets would still sprout after the soaking (they did).

A good introduction to Darwin and his works.

NEA: People are Reading Again

The National Endowment for the Arts released its latest report on Americans' reading habits this week. The 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, administered in May as part of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, drew more than 18,000 responses, and the preliminary results are reported in Reading on the Rise [16-page PDF].

For the first time since the survey began in 1982 this year's findings show a modest uptick in the number of Americans who reported having engaged in "literary reading" (novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online) over the last year (from 46.7% in 2002 to 50.2% this year). Raw numbers of readers are also up by 16.6 million to 112.8 million in 2008. Outgoing NEA head Dana Gioia trumpets what he calls a "particularly inspiring transformation," a 21% increase from 2002 in the number of 18-24 year-olds self-reporting engagement with literary reading. Most other age groups also reported increases, as did all major ethnic groups, both men and women, and all education levels.

Other notable figures from the survey include the finding that 84% of adults who read literature online also read books, confirming a trend many of us had suspected based on anecdotal evidence.

These numbers are cause for at least mild celebration, but there are less positive figures lurking beneath (and also, as I'll discuss momentarily, some reasons to be less than jubilant about the overall findings). Reading rates of both poetry and drama continue to decline sharply (down 31% and 28% from 2002 respectively), and even with the modest increases shown here only a hair less than half of all Americans said they hadn't engaged in any form of literary reading in the last year.

The report has been widely praised, including by Nick Basbanes (who has the same problem I do with the idea that reading non-fiction somehow "doesn't count"): "While I have no complaint whatsoever with this conceptually - read what you like, as far as I'm concerned, it's all the same to me - but to suggest that if what you like happens to be, let's say, a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin or Emily Dickinson, or a penetrating history of the Great Depression, or a trenchant work of art criticism, then it doesn't track, according to this paradigm, even if the name of the author you admire is David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman, you still do not qualify as a 'literary reader.' So does that make a person who prefers nonfiction to fiction any less of a reader than someone who devours romance paperbacks they pick up at the supermarket, or more to the point, does that offer a balanced report card of a nation's reading habits? I don't believe so, which is why I think these surveys should look more thoroughly at the kinds of books that people read on a regular basis, and not just as a subset of what's passing out there these days as 'literary' works."

Carolyn Kellogg also has some concerns about the report, including a correlation made by Gioia between "offline pro-reading programs and increased reading rates." This, Kellogg writes, "seems tenuous. What other factors were considered? Did libraries expand, increasing access to books? Did people have more leisure time from 2002 to 2008, more time to sit and read?"

But Caleb Crain has the most striking and I think appropriate criticisms of Reading on the Rise, in a post he titled "Why I Remain Pessimistic." He notes that while the numbers have risen, they're still lower than they were in 1982, 1985 or 1992, and that even these modest increases may be off based on self-reporting "fudge factors," combined with the fact that the 2008 survey was administered in a different month (May, rather than August) and that the 2002 findings included the period immediately following 9/11, which presumably threw everything a bit off kilter, including reading habits. Crain: "If you look at the NEA's graph of the percentage of adults who read literature between 1982 and 2008, the outlier isn't 2008. It's 2002. In fact, if you ignore the 2002 results, you're looking at a gentle but almost uncannily straight descending line. One possible explanation of the graph above: Reading has been declining in America for decades, but the 2002 results were worse than they ought to have been, because in the aftermath of September 11 the nation was panicked out of its usual literary diversions. Between 2002 and 2008, the interruption of 9/11 corrected itself, and many people returned to literature, but not all of them."

I agree with Caleb's words of caution here, and I think it's probably wise to wait for the full report on this data, to be published later in 2009. Positive preliminary findings these are, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Those of us who value reading for its own sake still have much work to do and many people to convince.

Links & Reviews

- OCLC backed down this week, announcing that their planned policy changes will not go into effect as scheduled. Instead they'll be convening a Review Board of Shared Data Creation and Stewardship "to represent the membership and inform OCLC on the principles and best practices for sharing library data." Tim has more, and there's a full roundup of reaction here. Great news for our side. Data wants to be free.

- I've been watching "City of Vice" on DVD - a BBC4 crime drama set in 1750s London with Henry Fielding and his Bow Street Runners. Excellent casting; a little light on the set designs/production effects, but a fun "historical CSI" show if you're in the mood for such things. There's also an online game, which looks entertaining but for which I haven't the time just now.

- Via Everett Wilkie, a clip of Mr. Bean in the library. So wrong, on so many levels. Certainly not for the biblio-squeamish.

- Another library director caught with his hand in the till: Revere (MA) librarian Robert Rice Jr. has resigned after allegations that he improperly used library funds to purchase, among other things "a watch and home furnishings." Full story in the Boston Herald.

- Carolyn Kellogg points out the really amazing Danteworlds, an interactive complement to the Divine Comedy. I think I've linked to this before, but it's worth seeing again.

- Laura notes this Wired piece on Tom Stinson's work on DNA testing of medieval manuscripts. Stinson's speaking at the BSA meeting in NYC this coming Friday, which I intend to attend, so I'll have a full report after that.

- The Guardian reported this week on an upcoming auction of some items which suggest Dickens may have fathered an illegitimate child by his sister-in-law (the items include a ring given to Dickens by Tennyson, some letters, and an estate inventory).

- Mark Godburn of The Bookmark (North Canaan, CT) distributed to Ex-Libris a hilarious "catalog description" of an online sales listing from 2109. Michael Lieberman passes it along.

- This YouTube video made the rounds this week, but I'll include it here just in case you missed it. Macmillan's marketing team gets creative on the book-creation process.

- Over at the OUP blog, author and OED-reader Ammon Shea comments on the first American dictionary.

- Biblio's Bloggins finds an excellent Petrarch quote: "I cannot get enough books. It may be that I have already more than I need, but it is with books as it is with other things: success in acquisition spurs the desire to get still more."

- There was an article in the BC newspaper this week about that school's participation in the Boston Library Consortium's digitization initiative through the Open Content Alliance/Internet Archive. [h/t RBN]

- More photos and reporting from the Great Poe Debate, including a video clip of Ed's grand entrance. Also, "Who Owns Poe?" in the LATimes.

- Laura Grimes, writing on the Oregonian book blog, seems to find delight in overdue library fines. Reason unknown.

- Student journalist Zac Bissonette has some horribly misguided and short-sighted ideas about how colleges and universities could make up budget shortfalls (basically, he suggests selling off the rare books). Shudder.

- Paul Collins notes his New Scientist article on metal airships: copper or brass balloons, steel blimps, aluminum dirigibles, you get the idea.

- In the NYTimes on Thursday, Charles McGrath profiled the Library of Congress, particularly focusing (as one would) on the new display of Jefferson's library.

- From BibliOdyssey, images of 17th-century Japan from Arnoldus Montanus' 1669 book on the subject.

- Emory University has acquired a collection of Flannery O'Connor materials accumulated by Sally Fitzgerald, the AJC reports.

- The West Sussex Record Office in Chicester, England will be opening an exhibit later this year to highlight what they're calling the "first ever map of the moon." Among the papers of Thomas Harriot (~1560-1621) are several drawings of the moon as seen through a telescope, the first of which is dated 26 July 1609 (several months before we know Galileo was making drawings of the moon through his telescope). The exhibit of Harriot's moon maps will open on 24 July. More via the BBC.

- Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., former head of the American Philosophical Society, an expert on Benjamin Franklin, and the author of books on Philadelphia doctor John Morgan and the city's College of Physicians, died on 2 January. His obituary appeared in the Philly Inquirer on 12 January.


- Michael Dirda reviews Paul Malizewski's Fakers for the WaPo.

- Katherine Powers reviews Evelyn Lord's The Hell-Fire Clubs for the Boston Globe.

- In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain writes on the Ludlow Massacre, a 1914 event in which more than 75 striking coal miners and family members were killed. Crain examines this event historiographically, including a review of Thomas G. Andrews' new book Killing for Coal.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Franklin

It being the 303d anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, I thought I should post a quick update on the progress of the "LT-ing" of his library catalog, which we're entering here. Of the 3740 bibliographic records listed in and Wolf and Hayes' The Library of Benjamin Franklin, we've entered (as of this evening) 2211. We're running at an average of 25 records added and edited per day, so that means we've got another two months or so to go. Slowly but surely!

Book Review: "The Early American Table"

Trudy Eden's The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008) is an enlightening, if fairly specialized, examination of how culinary culture, food security and contemporary understandings of the human body's operation shaped and were shaped by the experiences of English colonists in North America.

Eden's study tracks the gradual change in conception of the body as a humoral machine, in which one's personality, status and basic nature were controlled directly by food (and a number of other factors) to the conception of the mechanical body as scientific exploration led to a more complete understanding of the body's operations (the heart as pump, for example). By situating this paradigm shift as a bridge between English and American cultures during the early colonial period, Eden demonstrates the importance of the changing conceptions on how Americans (and the English) viewed their food its impact on their lives.

I was particularly taken with Eden's examination of the descriptions of American food supplies in many of the pro-colonization propaganda pieces written in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, which ran headlong into the wall of reality in Jamestown when the colonists refused to eat "American" food because they felt it would convert them into savages and sap their "Englishness." It was in part the Jamestown colonists' rejection of corn as a staple crop which served as a major factor in their troubled early years, Eden writes, jumping off arguments made earlier by Karen Ordahl Kupperman and others. Contrast that to New England, where the Pilgrim and early Puritan colonists quickly embraced local food items (for the most part) and generally had a less difficult time of it.

The latter portion of the book examines colonial food culture as seen through the writings of Cotton Mather and William Byrd II (whose meticulous recordkeeping makes a reconstruction of his rather bizarre eating habits possible), and ends by briefly mentioning slave diets and where they fit into the American ideal of a people secure in their food supply and generally well-provided for. At points these later sections feel haphazardly tossed into the structural mix, but this notwithstanding each section is worth reading in its own right.

A more comparative approach might have been useful; I would have liked more on not only the slave diets but also native perceptions of food culture (which of course differed wildly by region, with the southern tribes taking a much different approach than the tribes of the north woods). There is no mention at all of how French or Spanish colonial experiences differed from those of the English. But perhaps Eden's saving that for the next book.

This Week's Acquisitions

- The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson (Riverhead, 2008). Amazon.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, 2008). Amazon.

Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town by Sumner Chilton Powell (Wesleyan University Press, 1970). Brookline Booksmith.

Angels & Insects: Two Novellas by A.S. Byatt (Vintage, 1994). Brookline Booksmith.

Discourses on Livy by Niccolo Machiavelli; trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (University of Chicago Press, 1998). Brookline Booksmith.

Library World Records by Godfrey Oswald, 2d ed. (McFarland, 2008). McFarland.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hakimzadeh Gets Two Years

Farhad Hakimzadeh, millionaire businessman entered a guilty plea in May to 14 counts of theft over a massive series of book-mutilations at the British Library and the Bodleian, was sentenced today to two years in prison, the BBC reports.

Passing sentence, Judge Peter Ader said: "As an author, you cannot have been unaware of the damage you were causing. You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess. I have no doubt that you were stealing in order to enhance your library and your collection. Whether it was for money or for a rather vain wish to improve your collection is perhaps no consolation to the losers."

Civil proceedings continue. More on all this soon.

John Mortimer, Rumpole Author, Dies

The creator of one of literature's best characters, Rumpole of the Bailey, has died. Sir John Mortimer, a prolific writer of books and screenplays, was 85 years old. Obituaries and tributes are pouring in from both sides of the Atlantic: NYTimes, BBC, Telegraph, Guardian. A Guardian blog post has clips from various interviews with Mortimer over the years.

I've read and enjoyed many of the Rumpole books, and I highly recommend them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poe Via Podcast

The Great Poe Debate went off without any hitches (or bodily harm, it seems) on Monday night, with an audience of ~400 people, and many kudos to the Free Library of Philadelphia for making the debate available via podcast in record time. You can listen here. It's a great event, very funny and informative.

Ed recounts the scene for us, promises pictures soon, and, naturally, claims victory. He also suggests that the debating trio wants to take the Debate on the road, so stay tuned for more details on that. And, he and Jeff Jerome (of Baltimore-Poe fame) will square off in a Baltimore courtroom this spring to argue the merits of their city's cases. So stay tuned for more details on all those things as the Poe Wars move into their next phase.

There's a roundup of Great Poe Debate news stories here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Common-place

There's a new issue of Common-place, excellent as always. It includes, among many other goodies, a review of Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates by MHS friend and fellow Meredith Neuman, and a really fascinating essay on reading by Edward Gray (which I naturally found myself nodding along to).

VA Supreme Court Hears Declaration Arguments

Yesterday's arguments before the Supreme Court of Virginia regarding the Wiscasset Declaration of Independence went off as scheduled, the Times-Dispatch reports. Maine's assistant attorney general argued that "Public documents belong to the government, they don't belong to people," maintaining that the 1776 Salem imprint of the Declaration should be returned to the town of Wiscasset (which in 1776 was Pownalborough, MA). Attorneys for Richard Adams, the collector who now owns the document, argued that since there is no evidence that the Declaration was in town custody from 1776 through 1994 (when it was found in the attic of a former town clerk's family home), the state has no grounds to claim it.

Adams' lawyers argued yesterday that the copy of the Declaration hand-copied into the town's record books by then-clerk became the official copy of record, and that since there is nothing to indicate what town officials wanted done with the printed copy, the broadside's title is clear. Thomas Knowlton, Maine's lawyer, "
told the justices that to prove it is a public town record, Maine need only show that Russell, a private printer, was acting in an official capacity when he printed the copies and that the town had possession of it for as little as one day."

The Supreme Court of Virginia is the court of last resort for Maine, which cannot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court since there is no federal issue at stake in the case. A ruling is expected before the end of February.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Former Lincoln Museum Head Pleads Guilty

I'm really glad this guy wasn't stealing books. Richard Beard, the former director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, entered a guilty plea on Monday in relation to the theft of a $40 box set of "House" DVDs from a Springfield Target store in August 2008.

Beard's decision to enter a guilty plea came just a day before his trial was scheduled to begin. Judge John Childress ordered Beard to pay a $500 fine, attend psychological counseling, and serve a six-month term of probation, according to an AP report. Prosecutors had "asked for a sentence that included a $500 fine, one year probation and 100 hours of community service," the State Journal-Register adds.

Monday, January 12, 2009

And Yet More Raymond Scott News

Shelf:Life has declared today Raymond Scott Day, and justifiably so. There's more news this evening on the second front in the case, Scott's trial for stealing books from a Waterstone's shop in Gateshead back in September.

The Northumberland Gazette reported tonight that Scott changed his plea to guilty today just before his trial was set to begin. The Chronicle adds that the judges ordered him to pay a £255 fine (£90 plus £165 in costs). Scott was told he must pay the minimum £5 per week until the fine is paid in full, or risk going to jail for non-payment. Scott later told reporters that he will not pay the fine "because the amount was totally inappropriate and if they want to send me to prison for non-payment then so be it. Was not Gandhi imprisoned by the British?" Wow.

Today in court Scott's attorney admitted what we've all suspected was probably coming: "... there is a question as to his psychiatric mental health at this time and at the time that this offence was committed."

Court action is still pending for a theft from another arrest in November for a theft in Newcastle (Scott's attorney asked that the case be turned over to Gateshead Magistrates' Court for sentencing, and that Scott will agree to plead guilty to those thefts as well). And of course the investigation into Scott's role in the Durham Folio case continues.

Raymond Scott Loses Legal Bid for Folio

It may have been a bold move, but it has ultimately proven unsuccessful. Raymond Scott (the British bookdealer arrested after the recovery of Durham University's First Folio in July) filed a civil suit back in October seeking to have the book returned to him pending the resolution of police investigations into its provenance (it's currently being housed at Durham University). On Friday a Newcastle Crown Court judge dismissed Scott's claim after attorneys for Durham's chancellor Christopher Higgins (the subject of Scott's suit) pointed out that the book remains in police custody, and is merely being held at Durham in the appropriate environmental conditions. Scott would have to sue the police for its return, not the university, they said.

Scott, who represented himself in court wearing "his favourite Cuban holiday outfit in honour of his 'Cuban copy' - topped off with a baseball cap signed by Michael Schumacher and Tiffany sunglasses," [picture here] said after the university's argument "If I have made a mistake in naming Professor Higgins I apologise. ... I have to agree they are not in a position to release it to me. It does appear as if I have mis-timed this. I was a bit impetuous when I went to the county court . . . I suppose my blood was up to a certain extent, by the very fact it had been returned to Durham University." And then he lapsed into Shakespeare: "The police investigation is into its seventh month now. Rather like the Prince of Denmark, I have borne the whips and scorns of time, and the law’s delay."

The judge ordered Scott to pay the costs of the case, which he reduced to £5000 from £8111. Asked his reaction to that order, Scott replied: "They are entitled to a pound of my flesh so long as they don’t take any of my blood" (another Shakespeare reference, paraphrasing "The Merchant of Venice").

A bail hearing is set for later this month, as a strange case only continues to get stranger.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Review: "Blindspot"

Celebrated historians Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and Jill Lepore (Harvard) have written a novel. Blindspot, published by Doubleday's Spiegel and Grau imprint, is, the authors write, "A revolution - a turn away from our work as historians, that took us back to it. A different kind of history. Only when we read it did we discover: Blindspot was our own declaration of independence." The duo, whose non-fiction works I have read and found much favor with, clearly had great fun writing this book, and of course no one can begrudge them a bit of amusement. Writing fiction can be an enjoyable exercise, and it is clear that they took much delight in the process. But there is much about this book and the way it was written (and by whom), which must give any reader, perhaps most of all those of us who take history seriously, reason to reflect.

Its authors maintain that Blindspot is "a twenty-first century novel in eighteenth-century garb." By which I guess they mean it's a book modeled on earlier works, but written explicitly enough that modern readers don't have to read between the lines quite so much as our predecessors did to grasp the bawdy references. The narration alternates between the first-person perspectives of Stewart Jameson, a debt-fleeing Scots portrait painter who's taken refuge in 1760s Boston, and Fanny Easton, a fallen-from-grace girl from the top echelons of Boston's society who, having disguised herself as the boy Francis Weston, takes up as Jameson's alluring and sensible apprentice. Her perspective we get through her letters to a female friend in New York (although as they get more explicit, and thus entirely unsuitable for sending through the mail, we learn that we're reading letterbook copies, most of which are never sent).

Lepore and Kamensky's training and historical sensibilities suit them well in outlining the social contexts of Boston during the years following the end of the French and Indian War through the passage of the first of the revenue acts which would lead to the Revolution. Their depiction of the city and its major figures is generally well-drawn and detailed. Jameson and Easton, eventually joined by Jameson's friend the Anglo-African scholar Ignatius Alexander, find themselves caught up in the web of contradictions that was mid-1760s Boston, embroiled as it was in arguments over tyranny and slavery, taxes and politics, &c. They must solve a murder in order to free an innocent woman from prison, and of course they must fall in love (this is a novel, after all, and the conventions run their course, the fact that Jameson thinks Easton is a boy being of little matter for the first three-quarters of the book).

The novel is at its best when playfully pulling in the conventions of the 18th century's best creations, including some ingenious wordplays and riddle. The language could have been tempered a bit, it being flowery and overwritten (particularly in the beginning) even by the most grandiloquent standards. It is particularly unlike most early American fictional works, which tend to be much less ornate than their English brethren (The Power of Sympathy, The Coquette, Wieland, for example).

What made me twitchy about this book was the authors' surprisingly cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy. As they write in the introduction to their online historical notes (not printed in the book, a galling omission, since it could not possibly have taken many pages to add), Lepore and Kamensky write "We quoted, we borrowed, we took liberties. Above all, we invented." They also changed things around, and that is where their effort foundered with me. The book includes many extracts from the Boston Gazette, a real newspaper. When I started reading I wondered if the authors had taken the extracts directly, or if they'd made them up. So I checked the original newspapers, and found that the novel's snippets were dated on the paper's off-days (it was printed once a week, on days other than the dates found in the book). The snippets weren't real, the dates weren't real, but the paper was. Why not just create a fictional paper and remove the confusion?

The online notes are a must-read, since they are the only place where Lepore and Kamensky announce their self-appointed changes (and mostly superfluous) to the historical chronology. They have a garrison of British troops arrive in Boston in 1764, rather than 1768. They move the governor's residence to Cambridge, and they switch the date of implementation of the Sugar and Currency Acts to 8 October 1764 (they both took effect in September, but neither, let alone both, on 24 September as Lepore and Kamensky maintain). None of these have any material effect on the story, so why make such changes? They turn Samuel Bradstreet (a real person) into a different character inspired by James Otis Jr., and they create a fictional murder trial of slaves by twisting the facts of an earlier trial around to suit their purposes.

Quibbles, some might say, and perhaps that's so. Perhaps I'm letting the facts get in the way of their story. But professional historians, no matter what they're writing, have a responsibility to scholarship and to the historical profession at large. If one wants to write fiction, that's fine, but do so without muddying the historical record by making unwarranted changes to the facts. Create a fictional newspaper, rather than confusing people by being unclear about your sources. Don't use real people's names unless you're going to tell their stories accurately (or, at the very least, plausibly).

Lepore and Kamensky have, in several interviews about their book and in their website, used the phrase "a different kind of truth" to describe Blindspot. Kamensky told the Boston Globe's Samuel Jacobs "I don't think fiction is more true than history, but I don't think the novel is fake. I think it is differently true. It is like asking whether a poem is more true than a wall." I shuddered when I read that, and of course the first thing that came to mind was Samuel Johnson's famous retort to Boswell's about Bishop Berkeley's ideas about the non-reality of matter. Boswell: "I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'" I don't recommend Ms. Kamensky try that with the nearest wall, but I suspect the result would be much the same.

I'm sorry, Ms. Kamensky, but your novel is fake. Some lines, some characters, some conventions may be drawn from reality, but what you have created is a story. Not an awful one, mind you, but a fictional story just the same. It is different from history, and yes, it is less true. Indeed, historians create a narrative, but it is their responsibility to do so while staying faithful to the facts they can uncover. This "blurring of fact and fiction," as Gordon Wood called the trend in a 1991 review of another leading historian's dip into the languid waters of storytelling*, deserves our notice, and our vigilance (witness the alarming frequency of the discoveries of fake memoirs). A sentence from Wood's review is impossible to avoid including here: "If we cannot recover the truth about the past with finality and completeness, then must we resort to the techniques of fiction in order to fill in the shadows and embody the ghosts? Are those the alternatives?"

I enjoy historical fiction, very much. And there were elements of Blindspot that were historical fiction at its best. But there were also elements which were historical fiction at its very worst, and overall, I have to say that both history and fiction deserve better treatment than they've received here.

I'll look forward to the next historical works from both Lepore and Kamensky, but I sincerely hope that this will be their last foray into fiction. Their talents are sorely needed on the other side of the fence.

* Wood, Gordon S. "History as Fiction," chapter 7 in The Purpose of the Past. NY: Penguin Press, 2008. Review of Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, first published NYRB, 27 June 1991. As I said in my review of Purpose of the Past, I disagree with some of Wood's comments about Schama's book, but on this point we are in complete agreement.

Book Review: Dahl, "Collected Stories"

If all you know of Roald Dahl is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and maybe one of his others (Matilda, Witches, James and the Giant Peach, &c.), I must recommend that you visit some of his short stories. I've just finished the Everyman's Library edition of his Collected Stories, and oh, what fun they are. Creepy fun, to be sure (I wasn't sure I would be able to continue reading them before bed after a few nights of incalculably strange dreams), but fun nonetheless.

The lesson of this volume is perseverance. The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first ten stories, written during the World War II years, all have to do in some form with aircraft combat or soldiers in exotic places. They're not awful, but they are barely comparable to what follows. Stick with it (or skip the first 150 pages). Beginning with the eleventh story, "Nunc Dimittis" (1947) and continuing clear through the very last in the volume, "The Surgeon" (1986), these pieces are Dahl at the very top of his game. Suspense, revenge, satire that bites like a steel trap, and a remarkable ability to hold the punch line and resolution until the very last paragraph, often the very last word.

Everybody gets it in the neck with Dahl - just when they think they've gotten away with something, fate's pendulum swings round and puts things to rights again. From the unscrupulous antiques dealer trying to pull the wool over the eyes of some country yokels ("Parson's Pleasure", which was absolutely painful to read) to the woman who thinks she's managed to create the perfect cover for an illicit acquisition ("Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat") to the young man who belatedly and unfortunately discovers the pleasures of carnivorism ("Pig"), and so on, the bill always comes due.

It's hard to pick favorites from a volume like this, when so many of the stories are so deliciously good, so perfectly paced that the final blow often induces a slight wince for the victim (deserving or otherwise) of Dahl's final twist of the knife. A few particularly cringe-inducing or really absorbing pieces, other than those mentioned in the preceding paragraph, include "Vengeance is Mine Inc." (utterly hilarious), "Taste," "Lamb to the Slaughter" (brilliant), "A Dip in the Pool" (in which our main character is too smart by half) "The Hitchhiker" (delightful) and "The Bookseller" (which is, quite simply, perfect).

A very nice volume, well collected and ably introduced by Jeremy Treglown.

Declaration Case in Court Again

In the matter of the Wiscasset Declaration of Independence: after a lower court in Virginia ruled against its position back in February 2008, word was that the state of Maine would be appealing the decision (which held that the Declaration rightly belonged to its current owner). There's an update on the case today in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: arguments in the appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court of Virginia on Tuesday.

It sounds to me like Maine's going to be making much the same argument they made before the trial judge last year, so we'll see if the higher court is more convinced. Somehow I suspect not.

Links & Reviews

First, more Poe. Ed's got a list of additional Philly events this week, the Globe notes a couple events happening here in Boston, and Paul Lewis has an essay in the Globe on Poe's Boston connections.

- Caleb Crain is in the NYTimes with an essay on radical children's literature. More about the essay and the genre at Steamboats.

- For your viewing pleasure, a Stephen Frey documentary on the Gutenberg printing press. Nicely done. [h/t LISNews]

- Carolyn Kellogg reports on some major doin's in the Providence public library system: a non-profit consortium has offered to take over several branch libraries to avoid closures. I need to read up on this some more, but Kellogg's piece is a good starting point.

- Paul Collins notes a possible (additional) trouble spot for Border's and other chain book-retailers/distributors: lawsuits from small publishers. There's also a "Stray Questions" piece with Paul over at Jacket Copy [h/t Laura]

- Laura's got a really lovely gallery of photos (with commentary) from a recent tutorial on quill-pen cutting.

- J.L. Bell comments on Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air.

- Jill Lepore has a piece in this week's New Yorker on presidential inauguration speeches [full text not yet online]

- Also from the New Yorker, Justin Vogt reports on a really bizarre dispute at the State Department over the official documentary history of the department, "Foreign Relations of the United States."

- Nick Basbanes has further comments on the Hitler's library discussion which has been raging this week over on Ex-Libris, clarifying particularly the question of books taking from the collection by Walter Pforzheimer.

- Mike Widener posted on the Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog this week about the Lewis Morris collection recently added to LT; I can add that the John Worthington collection is now online as well. Two excellent additions to the Libraries of Early America project, and my many thanks to Mike for working with me to make them happen.

- Richard Seaver, a famed New York editor, translator and publisher, died this week at age 82. His obituary appeared in the NYTimes on Wednesday.

- BibliOdyssey's offering this week is jewels, the illustrations taken from the Kleinodienbuch der Herzogin Anna von Bayern, a series of one hundred gouache sketches of jewels commissioned by Duchess Anna and Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in the 1550s. They've also got images from the Ripley Scroll, a 15th century alchemical manuscript.

- Tim's got a lengthy Thingology post outlining the first major points of objection against the proposed new OCLC policies.

- FaceBook + Jane Austen = ?? (AustenBook, of course). Note: this will only be funny if you are familiar with Facebook. (h/t VSL:Web)

- An ExLibris thread this week somehow turned into reminiscences of Philadelphia bookseller George Allen, and someone passed along this autobiographical essay Allen wrote about the book business.


- Richard Cox reviews Nina Burleigh's Unholy Business and Sharon Waxman's Loot.

- In the NYTimes, Christopher Dickey reviews James Bamford's latest work on the NSA, The Shadow Factory. I haven't read this one yet, but the earlier books on the same subject were quite good.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

This Week's Acquisitions

A few things from Commonwealth, one more from the Brattle sale, plus an order from Hamilton's $2.95 catalog (trouble-making thing).

- The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian (Norton, 1991). Commonwealth.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Norton, 1995). Commonwealth.

Journal of the proceedings of the Society, which conducts the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, October 3, 1805, to July 2, 1811 (Boston Athenaeum, 1910). Commonwealth.

Horae Bibliographicae Cantabrigienses: A Facsimile of Dibdin's Cambridge Notebook, 1823; With Readings from the Library Companion, 1824; edited, with an introduction, by Renato Rabaiotti (Oak Knoll, 1989). Brattle. A really nice little book, and the Brattle's got a few more copies on sale through 24 January.

The Political Education of Henry Adams by Brooks D. Simpson (Univ. SC Press, 1996). Edward R. Hamilton.

Sea Venture: Shipwreck, Survival, and the Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World by Kieran Doherty (St. Martin's, 2007). Edward R. Hamilton.

For Love and Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter by Robin Young (Basic Books, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton. I'm acknowledged in this one, though I can't for the life of me remember why. Something to do with "Taps," I think ...

Voltaire In Exile: The Last Years, 1753-78 by Ian Davidson (Grove/Atlantic, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton.

Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia by Susan Dunn (Basic Books, 2007). Edward R. Hamilton.

Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician by Alyn Brodsky (Truman Talley, 2004). Edward R. Hamilton.

Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Aaron Burr and the Judiciary by Joseph Wheelan (Carroll & Graf, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton.

The Suspicion of Virtue: Women Philosophers in Neoclassical France by John J. Conley (Cornell University Press, 2002). Edward R. Hamilton.

Poe, Poe, Poe!

As Mr. Poe's bicentennial week begins (we'll mark his 200th birthday on 19 January) the Poe Wars are getting more contentious by the day, in anticipation of the grand event, the Great Poe Debate in Philadelphia on Monday night (13 January). Ed says the library usually podcasts their events, so hopefully even those of us not able to make it down to Philly on Monday will be able to hear the ruckus (that is, if the shouts don't reach us in real time).

Some leadup press includes Meg Frankowski's piece in the Philadelphia Daily News, "Boston, Philly, Baltimore go toe-to-toe over Poe," a column by Steve Wood in the NJ Courier-Post (with slideshow) and a Baltimore Magazine article by John Lewis. And then there's Philadelphia magazine's "Dead Poet Propriety."

And Ed's last major print volley before the debate is an op/ed in the Philadelphia City Paper, "Goodnight Rocky, Goodnight Ben." He's posted the unedited version here.

My own modest contribution to the Poe battles is the MHS "Object of the Month" for January, which features some newspaper advertisements for a pair of Boston theatrical productions staring Poe's parents (and then examines Poe's later relationship with Boston).

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Judge Rules Comstock Civil Suit Can Proceed

Murdered book collector Rolland Comstock's adopted daughter can proceed with a civil suit against her mother - Comstock's ex-wife - a Missouri judge ruled on Thursday. While Alberta Comstock's attorney argued that the civil suit should not proceed until (and if) criminal charges are filed against his client, judge Michael Cordonnier said that the civil suit could move forward even in the absence of criminal charges.

The attorney for Faith Stocker, who filed the civil suit, said he believes they have enough evidence to proceed with the civil case, even as Green County sheriff Jim Arnott continues his investigation.

Books on the Radio

Some recent book-related radio segments:

- Monday's "On Point" (WBUR) featured Samuel Johnson biographer Jeffrey Meyers (Samuel Johnson: The Struggle) for the whole show. Listen here. [h/t John; Joyce] A good discussion of Johnson's life and legacy.

- NPR's "Talk of the Nation" ran interviews last year with the authors of the Atlantic/Grove "Books that Changed the World" series. The full list (eight segments) is here. They include Karen Armstrong on the Bible, Simon Blackburn on Plato's Republic, P.J. O'Rourke on Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine. [h/t Joyce] I missed these at the time, somehow, but I have been enjoying these books, and the interviews make for good listening.

- Over on BBC4, Melvyn Bragg has a four-show series this week on Darwin's life and works, and on Friday they'll air a show which tracks historian Robert Prescott's quest to find the ultimate resting place of the Beagle.