Thursday, September 30, 2010

The State of Things

There look to be a whole slew of interesting auctions coming up in late October-early November, so I'll be working up a preview post for those this weekend (making this a preview-preview, I guess).

In the meantime, some updates:

I'm continuing to add to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence wiki as new source material is found; this week I've updated the North Carolina delegates based on copies of their wills, and I've gotten some good leads on ways to get the probate files for the six delegates who died in Philadelphia (and whose probate files seem to be stuck in some sort of bureaucratic morass). Hopefully those leads will pan out and I'll have some new information on those shortly. About eighty titles from the library of one of those delegates, Francis Hopkinson, are at the University of Pennsylvania library, and I've been in touch with librarians there about additional materials on his book collection that might be extant.

On Monday I went down to Providence to look at the estate inventory of Stephen Hopkins in the City Archives. That was quite the experience, but when all was said and done the inventory contains a short list of books, which I'll be adding to LT shortly (hopefully today or over the weekend).

While I was in Providence I took the opportunity and visited the John Carter Brown Library, where I got to hold in my hands Richard Mather's copy of the Bay Psalm Book (online here) and a (thus-far unidentified) partial book containing shorthand annotations (and lots of them) by Roger Williams. They've also got an Internet Archive scanning station set up there, and are scanning a range of their printed books and manuscripts (including collections of imprints related to Haiti, Argentina, and Peru). I really like how their scans look, with full color and the actual page edges showing (example).

And of course I couldn't leave the city without visiting a bookstore, so I went to Cellar Stories and browsed around there (for not nearly as long as I would have liked). I'll have to go again and plan to spend half a day in their stacks, I think.

All those things, combined with making plans for the upcoming research trip to Bermuda and being hip-deep in the wonderfulness that is the second volume of the History of the Book in America are why things have been fairly quiet around here. Stay tuned for auction previews and hopefully more Signers news shortly.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: "The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet"

It's difficult to believe that The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet (Plume, 2010) is the fifth book in Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series - but it's true, nonetheless. This time our hero and his faithful sidekick find themselves caught up in a plot against the king (oh, no, wait, that's every Captain Alatriste book ...). Kidding aside, I'm sorry to say that the books do seem to be getting a little bit formulaic, but perhaps that's the point.

Slightly slower-paced than the last couple in the series (most of the action is concentrated in the last twenty pages of the book, with just a few spurts of activity - and blood - scattered through the first 300 pages), this book doesn't add too much to our understanding of Captain Alatriste (except to gain a slightly better sense of just how stubborn he is and how brutal he can be), but we do learn a bit more about our narrator, the young and still-smitten Inigo (though as this book closes there's some question about just how far he'll carry that particular torch).

Worth reading if you're into the series.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: "The Last Stand"

Nathaniel Philbrick is far from his usual source material in The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Viking, 2010), but his skill at crafting a good story is on display nonetheless. This detailed reconstruction of Custer's last campaign, as told from the perspectives of Custer, his fellow commanders and those who served under them, as well as from the point of view of their Indian opponents, is a fast-paced, highly readable and always-captivating account of how Custer and his 7th Cavalry managed to find themselves on the losing side of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Philbrick has gone out of his way here to create as accurate a picture of the battle and the days leading up to it as can possibly be drawn. Given the logistical difficulties involved, this in itself is no small feat. By profiling Custer and those around him, as well as Sitting Bull and those in his circle, Philbrick shows just how the campaign shaped up, how Custer was undone both by his own ambitions and the various incapacities of those around him (and just how much good intelligence matters when you're out in unfamiliar territory!).

The book is made even better by Philbrick's personal observations about the land and territory around the battlefield; his descriptions of the topographical oddities that Custer and his men faced around the Little Bighorn valley definitely enhance the text in an important way; I felt like I understood the situation much more clearly after reading of his visit to the area.

Another interesting element of The Last Stand is Philbrick's treatment of the battle's aftermath, as we see those involved making their cases, spinning the events to reflect them in the most favorable light. Philbrick argues - and I think quite convincingly - that Custer's widow Libbie played a key role in creating the "last stand" motif.

No ground-breaking new interpretations of the battle or significant new sources are brought to bear here, but Philbrick knows how to tell a story well, and sometimes that's all that matters. His text, coupled with the large number of well-designed maps and lengthy sections of photographs, made this book work for me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Links & Reviews

- This coming Thursday, 29 September, the Ticknor Society will host author Katherine Wolff for a talk, "Boston's Early Bibliophiles and Their Athenaeum." Info here.

- From today's Globe, an interesting piece on slavery in the American north, including comments on several recent books.

- Houghton Library launched a new special collections request system this week.

- There's a new issue up of "Republics of Letters" (in fact it's been out for a while, but I just noticed. Sorry about that).

- A new blog from the ABAA. I've added a sidebar link.

- SHARP has started a LibraryThing account, where they'll be listing books of interest to members.

- Ron Chernow, writing in the Times, comments on the Tea Party's attempt to claim the imprimatur of the founding generation.

- Browse through the CUNY Digital Humanities Guide when you've got some time; there's some amazing stuff there.

- More than forty of Garth Williams' original illustrations for Charlotte's Web (including the image used for the cover) will be sold at Heritage Auction's 15 October sale.

- In today's Globe, an interview with John Hodgman - not surprisingly, much of it is about books.

- Google Books staffers want you to report books that come up in GBS searches that should be full-view, but aren't. And it actually looks like they're being fairly responsive. This probably would have been more useful several years ago, but maybe better late than never?

- The BBC's documentary on Raymond Scott will be aired in the US by Smithsonian Networks.

- Many headlines this week about a bawdy poem supposedly by John Milton - but, funnily enough, the actual scholars working on the project pretty much reject the idea that Milton had anything to do with it.

- Big news from Zotero this week as they officially announced Zotero Everywhere (which promises to be awesome).

- Oak Knoll Fest XVI: Celebrating the Book Arts, Artists' Books and Fine Press Printing will be held 1-3 October. Info here.

- The New England Archivists will meet on 5-6 November in Keene, NH (theme: Looking Inward/Looking Outward: Changing Roles and Expectations in Archival Settings). Info here.


- Eric Jay Dolin's Fur, Fortune, and Empire; review by Kirk Davis Swinehart in the WaPo.

- Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life; review by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review: "Corrag"

The 1692 Glencoe Massacre may not seem like a particularly good candidate for fictionalization, but Susan Fletcher tries her hand at it in Corrag (W.W. Norton, forthcoming). The eponymous narrator, daughter and granddaughter of women executed as witches, flees to the Scottish highlands and settles in the territory of the MacDonald clan, only to find herself imprisoned and facing death for successfully alerting the highlanders to the coming massacre.

Fletcher's book takes the form of Corrag's stream of consciousness narrative as told to Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite trying to find proof that the killings were ordered by King William III. Corrag slowly tells him the story he's after, but only in the course of recounting her life's story at her own deliberate pace. Leslie's letters to his wife (written following each day's conversation with Corrag) recap the day's revelations, and reveal Leslie's growing fascination with and respect for the young woman on the other side of the bars.

While there were sections of the book that I wished would move a little bit faster, on the whole I enjoyed the way Fletcher kept the story going (although I rather think Leslie might not have been nearly as patient with Corrag as she makes him, given that time was rather of the essence). All in all, this was a good read.

This Week's Acquisitions

The new arrivals:

- Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880 by Phillip Round (UNC Press, 2010). Publisher.

The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian (W.W. Norton, 1992). Harvard Bookstore.

- The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748; edited by Edith B. Gelles (Yale University Press, 2004). Raven.

- Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon (W.W. Norton, 2009). Raven.

McSweeney's Issue 6: We Now Know Who; edited by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2001). Harvard Bookstore.

A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America by David Jaffee (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Publisher.

Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil by Neil Miller (Beacon Press, 2010). Publisher.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: "The Jeffersons at Shadwell"

Susan Kern's The Jeffersons at Shadwell (Yale University Press, 2010) is a remarkable work of historical scholarship. By blending historical scholarship with material culture studies and archaeology, Kern has written what she calls "a history of people written from the things they used and the things they did" (p. 6).

The people under consideration here aren't just any people, though: Kern takes as her subjects the three generations of the Jefferson family that experienced life at Shadwell (a small plantation just a few miles from the mountain where Thomas Jefferson would construct Monticello), along with the slaves they owned and the wide variety of other people with whom members of the family associated (business and political colleagues, relatives, locals, and visitors).

Kern notes at the outset that she has some hurdles to face in the telling of this story, not the least of which are historiographical rumors and errors that have crept into the literature based on misreadings of long-ago excavations at Shadwell and on the carefully-crafted story of his background that Thomas Jefferson put into circulation himself. Shadwell was no back-country hovel, Kern argues, located in a remote part of the state where contact with "civilization" was infrequent. No, Peter Jefferson and his family were intimately connected with the elite class of Virginia planters through Peter's local and colony-wide political positions, his status as a wealthy landowner, &c.

Based on a careful study of archaeological evidence plus documentary materials (most notably Peter Jefferson's estate inventory, taken after his death in 1757), Kern offers a reconstruction of Shadwell as it would have been in its heyday, filled with imported luxury goods, kitchenware, books (there is an excellent discussion of the book as not just intellectual object but also as artifact on pp. 33-38), and other symbols of the Jeffersons' significant status. Maps showing the distribution of archaeological evidence, along with additional documentation from a wide range of family sources, are a wonderful addition. I found Kern's discussion of the costs of education (compared to the values of other articles and objects) particularly compelling: as Kern notes, "Of the items listed in Peter Jefferson's inventory, only slaves cost more than Thomas's annual education income" (p. 63).

The Shadwell slaves are treated at length by Kern, who devotes a chapter apiece to the slaves of the "home quarter" (house servants, cooks, craftspeople) and to those of the "field quarter" (generally engaged in tobacco farming). In each case she again includes evidence from surviving documents and from the archaeological investigations, which revealed some fascinating things (including information on cooking methods, medicine preparation, and leisure activities) on which the written record tends to be utterly silent. The slaves and their family connections are examined, and Kern traces them by descent through the various Jefferson family members they served.

Two chapters are devoted to Peter Jefferson's connections to the wider world as merchant, land speculator, miller, landlord, colleague, surveyor, and colonial officeholder. Kern ably discusses his circle of friends and acquaintances, including his ties with local and visiting Indian groups, who often stayed at Shadwell while enroute to the colonial capital at Williamsburg. Finally, Kern examines the carefully-constructed legacies of Peter and Jane Jefferson (as set out in their detailed wills), the marriage connections made by their children and the lasting relationships the siblings maintained with one another through their adult lives (and which continued into the next generation).

Kern argues (and I think quite rightly) that the total body of evidence shows the Jefferson family as a well-connected, stable, close-knit family group with strong ties to other Virginia gentry, and that some biographers' views of Thomas Jefferson as somehow breaking out of a frontier family to "make something of himself" are rather off the mark. She also suggests that a reevaluation of Jefferson's relationship with his mother is called for, and that the 20th-century myth that Jefferson "did not like his mother" is simply not borne out by the facts.

This well-researched, well-written, and wide-ranging book is microhistory at its best. From pottery shards to bookshelves, from the text of records written in family bibles to Thomas Jefferson's carefully-composed epitaphs for those he buried in Monticello's cemetery, Kern's clean prose offers valuable insight and vital contextual detail to our understanding of the Jefferson family. Accompanied by twenty pages of data tables and more than fifty pages of detailed (and very nice) footnotes, this is a book that anyone with an interest in truly "getting" Virginia plantation culture in the time of Jefferson, and the roots of Thomas Jefferson himself, should make room for on their shelves.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Book Thief Skips Bail

Apparently taking a cue from William Simon Jacques, (or at least singing the same tune), another UK book thief has skipped bail. The BBC reports that Sean Cowie, 25, entered a guilty plea in January 2009 relating to the theft of a T.S. Eliot first edition. He was then granted bail before sentencing, but disappeared until August of this year. Astoundingly, he was granted bail again and ordered to appear on 27 August for sentencing ... and, quel surprise, failed to show.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Auction Preview: Bloomsbury

Bloomsbury will sell the first part of the Richard Harris Collection of Natural History and Colourplate Books on 13 October in New York (a second part will be sold in London on 4 November). The New York section will consist of 172 lots (the descriptions for which include information on Harris' purchase of the work), and highlights include:

- A first edition of Audubon's Quadrupeds (1845-1854), estimated at $400,000-600,000.

- Ten volumes of the works of Daniel Giraud Elliot (1861-1895), uniformly cased (est. $200,000-300,000).

- A large collection of the color prints of Jacques Gautier D'Agoty (est. $200,000-300,000).

- Pierre-Joseph Redoute's Les Liliacees (1802-1816), est. $100,000-150,000.

- Gould's monograph on hummingbirds (1849-1861, plus the later supplement), est. $80,000-120,000.

- King Leopold I's copy of Gould and Sharpe's Birds of Asia (1850-1883), est. $70,000-100,000.

- George Brookshaw's Pomona Britannica (1804-1812), an illustrated treatise on fruit (est. $70,000-100,000).

- Priscilla Bury's Selection of Hexandrian Plants (1831-1834), by an accomplished amateur botanic artist (est. $60,000-90,000).

- Maria Sibylla Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), est. $50,000-80,000.

- McKenney's and Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836-1844), in original parts.

- Buffon's Histoire Naturelle de Oiseaux (1770-1786), a large-paper copy (est. $40,000-60,000).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: "American Insurgents, American Patriots"

T.H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010) is a timely look at the period between late 1773 and mid-1775: the period, he argues, in which the American Revolution was effectively begun (in this he agrees with John Adams, who wrote in 1818 that the Revolution had occurred in the "minds and hearts of the people" before the first shots were fired).

By defining a revolution as the "willingness of a sufficient number of people to take up arms against an unelected imperial government that no longer served the common good," (p. 10), Breen maintains that this threshold was met in America "sometime in mid-1774" (which may be true for some areas, but considering all the evidence Breen presents, seems fairly early for other sections of the colonies).

In general Breen's book makes for an absorbing read, and he's chosen some very apt examples to illustrate his points. His examination of colonial society and demographics at the time of the imperial crisis is well done, and I found his focus on what he terms "ordinary Americans" mostly useful (although I think his frequent reiteration of terms like "insurgency" and reminders of his thesis that the people were "ahead" of those we think of as their "leaders" got in the way of his argument at times). His use of case studies like the Boston Committee of Donations records (which document supplies received by the city after the Port Bill closed the harbor and supplies were shipped in from throughout the colonies), William Goddard's attempt to form a new postal system, Janet Schaw's account of loyalists being hassled in North Carolina, &c.) worked well, and provided an appropriate level of "personal focus" without relying on the usual "Founding Father" suspects.

That said, I think Breen at times keeps his focus too much on his idea that the "insurgency" started in the aftermath of the Intolerable/Coercive Acts, and does not give enough credit to the resistance methods developed during the latter half of the 1760s during the pushback against the Stamp Act and other parliamentary enactments (not to mention the Tea Party itself). His relation of public pressure against Massachusetts men who accepted royal commissions under the Massachusetts Government Act sounds awfully similar to the methods used against the Stamp Act commissioners a decade before, but Breen almost seems to go out of his way not to connect the two periods.

The most interesting section of the book for me was the seventh and eighth chapters, comprising Breen's discussion of the local committees of inspection or safety that were formed following the passage of the First Continental Congress' "Association." Just how that document ended up serving as something of a "working Constitution" with details (including the composition, size, and powers of the committees themselves) worked out at the local level - and how the committees managed to maintain almost universally a commitment to the rule of law and did not descend into arbitrary rule or violent chaos, is a remarkable story, and I think the one that Breen's book tells most effectively.

A few small errors marred the reading for me: Breen sometimes tries to have it both ways, as on p. 242 where he writes "In general terms, the Americans were all children of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. But one should not exaggerate his influence. Many Americans had never read Locke's work; quite a few would not have even recognized his name." But on p. 245, Breen begins a two-page discussion of Locke's impact, noting that the famous "Appeal to Heaven" inscription on an early Revolutionary flag originates with Locke: "Ordinary Americans had encountered the phrase in the pages of Locke's Second Treatise, where 'Appeal to Heaven' appears numerous times." Again, on the following page: "The Continental soldiers who justified their own political resistance through an 'Appeal to Heaven' did not have to rummage through musty libraries to read Locke's words. Nor did they have to rely on ministers ... or educated lawyers to tell them what [he] had written. A popular edition of the Second Treatise had just been issued by a Boston publisher ...". To be fair, Breen tries to thread the needle here by saying that Locke's works had been ignored prior to 1773, but this is hardly a universally-accepted notion.

Breen seemed to have particular trouble with Delaware representative Caesar Rodney, who on p. 133 is mistakenly transferred to Maryland and then twenty pages later misdescribed as "the oldest looking man in the world." John Adams, the author of that quote, had written to Abigail that Rodney was the "oddest looking man in the world." Not sure which is more flattering for the poor fellow, to be fair.

Minor missteps aside, Breen's book is an important reminder that the Continental Congress' debates and deliberations were only a small part of what was happening "on the ground" during the heady days of the early 1770s, and that there were other actors on the stage besides the men whose names we already know.

Links & Reviews

- In yesterday's Globe, Craig Fehrman writes on the lost libraries of authors, including comments on the library of David Markson (sold this summer at the Strand). It does not mention the very sad dispersal of the library of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. which I noted here back in 2008.

- Barron's ran an article about high-end book collecting this weekend, "Rare Books, Rare Prices." [If you're not getting the full text on this, click the second link on this page and it should work ...]

- The University of South Carolina acquired a c. 1240 manuscript Bible with extensive marginalia from the 2 June Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books sale at Christie's London. Read more about the Bible in the lot description.

- The Vatican Library has reopened after a three-year renovation. Browse a gallery of new photos here.

- In the Globe, notice of a new book on censorship in early 20th-century Boston, Neil Miller's Banned in Boston (Beacon Press).

- A copy of the Confederate Declaration of Independence will be sold at the 30 September Swann auction (which I'll preview more thoroughly this week).

- This picture of a library desk made of books made the rounds this week; isn't it lovely?

- A new exhibit at the Yale Law School library, "Superheroes in Court! Lawyers, Law, and Comic Books" was reviewed in the NYTimes on 14 September, and highlights are being featured on the library's rare books blog.


- An exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy; reviewed by Brian Gopnik in the WaPo. There's also a slideshow.

- Ilyon's Woo's The Great Divorce; review by Mary Beth Norton in the NYTimes.

Book Review: "Finch"

Almost as soon as I finished Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek, I felt like I had to turn right to the next (and final) volume in the Ambergris Cycle, Finch (Underland Press, 2009). As it happened I timed that just right, since the book takes place over the course of a week (Monday-Sunday) and I was able to read each day's section on the corresponding day. It certainly doesn't have to be read this way, but I'm glad I did it.

Finch takes place about a century after the events in Shriek: An Afterword, and is intricately intertwined with both that book and its predecessor, City of Saints and Madmen (in fact, the main character here even picks up and reads sections of Shriek at one point, and we learn that not all the characters from earlier times have entirely passed from the stage).

John Finch (not his real name) is an Ambergrisian detective, following orders from the fungal overlords who now control the city and who seem to be getting closer and closer to some new phase of their occupation and domination. Charged with investigating a very strange double murder, Finch finds himself pulled in increasingly strange and dangerous directions by what he begins to uncover. As his partner succumbs to a nasty and painful parasitical infestation, and shadowy characters with ties to the mysterious rebel powers and outside forces make themselves known, Finch must try to save what he can of his city, and himself.

Dark, brutal, and complex, this book shows off VanderMeer's skill at universe-building at its best, even though it might try to show off a few too many different narrative styles at once. Overall, if you like VanderMeer's works, give it a shot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

This Week's Acquisitions

A couple new books to report:

- Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America by Sandra M. Gustafson (UNC Press, 2000). Raven.

- Corrag by Susan Fletcher (W.W. Norton, 2010). Publisher.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Auction Preview: Christie's

Christie's London will hold a Travel, Science & Natural History sale on 23 September. Many of the top lots are expected to be artwork, instruments and globes, but there are a few noteworthy books, including a rare three-volume book of photographs of Mecca, Christian Snouck Hurgronje's Mekka (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1888-89). That's estimated at £10,000-15,000.

A number of other illustrated natural history books, and a few maps and atlases will also be on offer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Why Books?" at Radcliffe

Registration is now open for the "Why Books?" conference at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute on 28-29 October. It's a free conference, with lots of fascinating panelists and site visits. I registered this morning, and encourage anyone who's able to do the same.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Censuses are Great

I love book censuses. If I could design a dream job for myself, it might well involve traveling around the world to look at all extant copies of given books and write about them, their provenance, their stories, &c. (on my wish list to track, if someone out there wants to fund some research projects, are the Eliot Indian Bible, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, &c.). I also enjoy filling out the questionnaires that come around frequently about first editions of various works that other researchers are studying; they're always great fun.

Some books, blessedly, have already been the subject of detailed censuses*, so I figured I'd put a couple of them to the test and see what more I could find out about the Lord Hesketh copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and Audubon's Birds of America that are going to be on the auction block in December.

For the Shakespeare, I turned to Anthony James West's The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book. Volume II: A New Worldwide Census of First Folios (Oxford University Press, 2003). While Hesketh isn't listed in the index, the copy was pretty easy to identify as West 44, which West notes as "Purchased sometime after 1945 by a collector who died in June 1955" (Hesketh died 10 June) and "in the same family since." West viewed this copy in June 2000, and describes its contents, condition, and provenance marks in great detail. He particularly notes the panelled calf binding, rebacked, from c. 1690-1720, and remarks on the "cleanness and crispness of the text leaves" (while being careful to note that several prelims are in facsimile).

The Birds of America too has been the subject of a full census, in this case Waldemar H. Fries' The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon's 'Birds of America' (ALA, 1973; a revised edition was published in 2005, but since the Hesketh copy hadn't changed hands since then I used the one I had handy). Fries does list Hesketh as the owner of the Birds, reporting that it is the copy belonging to original subscriber Henry Witham, Esq. of Lartington, Durham. Fries quotes an Audubon journal entry from 3 December 1826, when the artist met and dined with Witham in Edinburgh (it was a successful evening; Witham subscribed for the Birds 15 days later).

This copy stayed in Witham's family for many years, passing from its original owner to his son Rev. Thomas Edward Witham and then to Witham's great-grandnephew Henry Thomas Silvertop. The Birds were sold at the auction of the estate of another Silvertop descendant, Charles A.J.O. Silvertop, on 3 July 1951 by Christie, Manson & Woods, London, when it made £7,000 (just for reference, its estimate in December will be £4-6 million). It was purchased by - you guessed it - Lord Hesketh.

One very interesting feature recorded by Fries is a note in Audubon's ledger about this copy: "Bound with locks June 1831". Fries found that when he examined the volumes, those original locks were still present on each volume, and that the first volume is inscribed "From Eliza Witham with sincere affection, June the 24th, 1831." There's even a picture showing the two locks on the front edge of the volume (making the Birds look a little bit like a gigantic diary).

So, if you were feeling as impatient as me about which copies these were, here's what we know about them (and there's more in West and Fries about each if you're so inclined), and this just shows one way in which book censuses can be very useful (as we saw with the Durham Folio case and others, they can also be handy in identifying stolen works, or for many other reasons).

* Another useful project would be a bibliography of book censuses: many of them are hidden in obscure journals and a good list of them would be terrifically useful.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: "The Qur'an: A Biography"

An installment in the "Books that Changed the World" series published Atlantic Monthly Press, Bruce Lawrence's The Qur'an: A Biography (2006) didn't quite do what I'd hoped it would. Rather than a history of the text's historical development, translations, influences, &c. (i.e. what I would have thought of as a "biography", and what other titles in this series generally focus on), Lawrence offers up a very abstract Introduction touching on the Qur'an's importance to Muslims, followed by a series of short profiles of people connected in one way or another with the Qur'an (from Muhammad to Osama bin Laden to early translator Robert Ketton).

While I was generally underwhelmed by Lawrence's work (when I wasn't just plain confused, since he alternates sharply between over-explanation and none at all), considering recent events a paragraph from his epilogue rang true: "There will be more headline stories about the Qur'an. Though they will likely concern its abuse rather than its use, it is its use that will finally matter most in the decades and centuries ahead. Scholars will continue to debate its style and content, its medieval and modern interpretations, and also its application in law and politics as well as interfaith dialogue."

There have got to be better books out there that will offer more of what I was looking for than this one did. I'll be on the lookout.

Links & Reviews

- This year's winners of the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest were announced this week: a hearty congratulations to Andrew Fink, Ryan Julian, Philipp S. Penka, and Bailey N. Pike!

- Writing at Salon, Laura Miller has another look at the lingering problems with some elements of Google Books by interviewing Geoffrey Nunberg.

- Great news this week that the WSJ will launch a pull-out book review section for its weekend editions.

- Over at Lux Mentis, Ian posts on the catalogue [PDF] of miniature books created this summer by his son, Aidan. It's a great collection, and the catalogue is expertly done.

- From "Talk of the Nation," a piece on "the joys" of reading more than one book at a time.

- The Transcribe Bentham Project launched its Transcription Desk this week, beginning a crowd-sourcing experiment that's being watched closely by editors and scholars around the world.

- From Vince Golden at AAS, a report on some new amateur newspapers they've acquired, and some background info on the genre.

- Via EMOB, a preview of "The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794," which promises to be a very useful resource indeed.

- A long-lost Walter Scott poem has been found in a collection of correspondence, and will be read publicly for the first time next week.

- In the BBC Magazine, Lisa Jardine asks "Is our relationship with books changing?" This is a strange piece, with more than one blatant factual inaccuracy and a conclusion which seems quite at odds with the rest of the essay.

- New from the University of Delaware, a digital version of the William Augustus Brewer Bookplate Collection, which includes some 3,040 bookplates to date.

- I recommend spending some time with "Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions," a new "cluster" of short articles at The New Everyday.

- A Boston Globe reporter book-shops in Greenwich Village.

- A South Korean scholar claims to have discovered the world's oldest known "moveable type."


- Robert Remini's At the Edge of the Precipice and David and Jeanne Heidler's Henry Clay; review by Heather Cox Richardson in the WaPo.

- Mary Roach's Packing for Mars; review by Janet Maslin in the Scotsman.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: "Shriek: An Afterword"

If you've read Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, you'll understand what I mean when I say that its quasi-sequel, Shriek: An Afterword (Tor, 2006) is a reading experience unlike most others. VanderMeer's fantastical universe with its mysterious and murky city of Ambergris comes to life in this book - fetid, dark, mysterious life.

Written in the form of an afterword to a work by controversial historian Duncan Shriek by his sister Janice, but with Duncan's own bracketed additions to the text included, Shriek effectively chronicles several decades of life in Ambergris from the perspective of a woman made bitter by the (fairly severe) obstacle course that life has thrown in her way ... and from the perspective of her brother, whose own track was hardly free of hindrances.

Janice's text is on its surface a defense of her brother and his historical theories about Ambergris (its origins and its fate), but, given her penchant for a good tangent, it's also a history of the city itself, a strong polemic against her brother's fellow historian, ex-lover and greatest critic Mary Sabon. And for us, her readers, it's a chance to discover more - a few hints and suggestions at a time - about just what's going on in Ambergris that makes it such a strange, vibrant, and utterly bizarre place. This, you understand, is a city where commercial publishing houses go to war, where historians find their homes are stopping points for tourists, where there are statues of opera stars and festivals for squid.

VanderMeer's grasp of the fantastical is astounding; one of the most fascinating things about this work is the way that he's built in such a strong sense of suspense, of growing darkness, of freakish creatures waiting for their moment to strike. Normally I can read a couple books at once, alternating between them as I liked; when I read this, I could pick up nothing else until it was done. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one if you like to travel off into dank, dark corners of a fictional world.

This Week's Acquisitions

Just one new book this week:

- Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing by Roderick Cave (BL/Mark Batty, 2010). Publisher.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Big Books on the Block

Sotheby's London is to sell the collection of Lord Hesketh in December, the Telegraph reports today. Among the titles to be sold are a copy of Audubon's elephant folio Birds of America and ... and! ... a Shakespeare First Folio.

The sale will be held 7 December. I'll have a full preview as we get closer to the date.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Signers' Libraries Wiki

To keep track of my research into the libraries of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence I've put everything I've found so far into an LT wiki, with links to the libraries I've already added, plus the relevant bits from the wills/inventories of others (or various notes/&c.). As you'll see there are some hefty gaps, mainly because I've still got lots of stones to turn (ahem, the entire North Carolina delegation ...).

Today's additions were the notes on Arthur Middleton (with many thanks to the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library) and James Smith (definitely the Signer who wins the Most Generic Name award; many thanks to the York County PA probate court archivists for their assistance).

Any citations, suggestions, &c. welcome, of course!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Book Review: "Parrot and Olivier in America"

Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf, 2010) is Peter Carey's fictional re-imagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's journey to America (the result of which was of course his famous Democracy in America). Carey's Tocqueville is recast as the sickly and tetchy Olivier de Garmont, but instead of his fellow aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont for a travelling companion, Garmont is granted John Larrit (aka Parrot), a cantankerous Englishman nearly 50 years old who provides both the comic relief and the narrative foundation of the novel.

Told in alternating chapters narrated by Parrot and Olivier, Carey manages to tease out each character's history (Olivier's as a coddled child of nobles during the aftermath of the French Revolution; Parrot's as a young printer's devil caught up in a forgery scandal and brought under the power of the mysterious Marquis de Tilbot). This early exposition takes up a quite a chunk of the novel - it's not until 100 pages in that our heroes even find themselves on board ship for America (Olivier to tour the prisons of the United States, Parrot assigned by Tilbot to keep a watchful eye on the young man while serving as his secretary). Parrot's story, at least, makes for fascinating reading, and as they set off across the Atlantic it's clear that he's got a major part to play (and some more secrets to share).

Carey handles the shifting perspectives well, and captured the two separate narrative voices expertly. Parrot's frustration(s) at his charge (who he quickly deems "Lord Migraine") are comical and understandable, while Olivier's fumings at his situation and his musings about all things American foreshadow his ultimate interest in a much wider range of cultural topics than how prisoners are treated.

Once the dynamic duo disembark in New York their relationship begins to morph into something very different from its French form, as they begin their travels around America to examine prisons and learn about the grand new experiment, the United States. Various adventures ensue, sometimes including both Olivier and Parrot, sometimes just one of the two - these mostly make for interesting reading, although a strange subplot involving characters from Parrot's early printing days strained credulity a bit.

Carey's writing is rich and lovely: I loved his description of a Philadelphia library and his descriptions of a New England town meeting and a Fourth of July celebration through the eyes of Olivier. I enjoyed his characters (and for their faults, liked each of them), and although I found a few of his tangents a bit disorienting, this is a book that I will recommend without reservation.

Book Review: "The Clerkenwell Tales"

I find that I'm working my way through the Peter Ackroyd corpus this year, and the latest to find its way to the top of the pile is The Clerkenwell Tales (Anchor, 2004). In the form of a send-up to Chaucer, Ackroyd has appropriated the well-known characters from the Canterbury Tales, given them identities and backstories, and put them to use here (one chapter is told from the perspective of each character).

The plot here is something like a political thriller set in London at the very end of the fourteenth century, during the turmoils at the end of the reign of Richard II. Secret societies, obscure religious sects, raving nuns, and the intrigues of London life are the stuff of Ackroyd's story, which is well-padded with fascinating historical details. But for all that, the book never quite managed to get off the ground for me. I liked it just fine, but I don't think it's going to be a book that sticks with me.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Links & Reviews

- Looks like there's going to be quite a big auction this week in Worcester, where the estate of Andrew Haswell Green will be up for sale in a four-day bidding extravaganza. The Globe previews the sale(s) today, and you can browse the catalogs here. There are some very interesting lots in Session IV, including presidential correspondence, some early Worcester material, and books.

- Ian's got dispatches from the Baltimore book fair (and surrounding restaurants!).

- September's "Fine Books Notes" is out: it includes Richard Goodman's piece on David Karpeles, Ian McKay on the Arcana Sale, and an expanded version of my review of Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance.

- At Fine Books Blog, Rebecca Rego Barry notes a new exhibit on paper money at Princeton and previews a new book by Roderick Cave, Impressions of Nature.

- Writing in the Independent, Saul Miller asks whether historians are the best writers of historical fiction.

- There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the biblio-blogosphere this week over the announcement that the third edition of the OED will not appear in print, but only online. In this case I really can't get too upset ... this is just the sort of thing that the internet is most useful for (and the online OED really is incredibly useful).

- Matt Richtel and Claire Cain Miller had a piece in the NYTimes this week about couples feuding over reading in digital v. print. I really hate the forced dichotomy.

- The preview for Skinner, Inc.'s fine books sale in November came this week, and it looks like the sale will include a 1776 broadside Declaration of Independence, this one from the Exeter, NH edition. I haven't seen the full catalog description yet, but the preview text indicated that it was found recently among the papers of a prominent judge from the Revolutionary period.

- In the NYTimes, Nick Bilton goes hunting for the perfect iPad case.


- The new interim issue of Common-place is up, with reviews of several recent books.

- Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes; review by Michael Dirda in the WaPo.

- William Poole's John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning, plus a new exhibit on Aubrey at the Bodleian (curated by Poole); review by Ruth Scurr in the TLS.

- A new edition of the Earl of Rochester's poems edited by Nicholas Fisher; review by Paul A.J. Davis in the TLS.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

This Week's Acquisitions

Here's what arrived this week:

- A trio by Jeff VanderMeer: Shriek: An Afterword (Tor, 2007); Finch (Underland Press, 2009); and The Third Bear (Tachyon, 2010). Amazon.

- A Gentleman as Well as a Whig: Caesar Rodney and the American Revolution by Jane Scott (University of Delaware Press, 2000. Amazon (used).

- The Jeffersons at Shadwell by Susan A. Kern (Yale University Press, 2010). Publisher.

- Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (Viking 2010). Publisher.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

CT/NH Signers' Libraries

I spent some more quality time with probate records this morning checking for the libraries of the Connecticut and New Hampshire Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here's what I found:


- William Williams (Windham District Probate, 1811). No mention of books.

- Samuel Huntington (Norwich District Probate; Will dated 28 June 1794; Inventory dated 5 February 1796). Wills to his nephew Samuel "my library." Inventory contains listings for "5 Geographical Maps" - value £1; "Library" - value £120.

- Oliver Wolcott. No probate file recorded, so a few more stones to turn over for him.

- Roger Sherman (New Haven District Probate; Inventory dated 16 September 1793). Devotes almost two full pages to books, so this one will get the full LEA treatment soon.

New Hampshire

- Matthew Thornton (Hillsborough County Probate; Inventory dated 27 July 1803). Inventory lists "A number of books," valued at $20 (total value of inventory $12,269.57).

- William Whipple (Rockingham County Probate; Inventory dated 15 November 1786). Total inventory value £928/9/6. No mention of books.

- Josiah Bartlett (Rockingham County Probate; Will dated 25 February 1795). In his will, Bartlett writes "My printed books on law Physick & Surgery I give to my son Ezra, all my other printed books I order to be equally divided among all my Children that shall be living at my decease."

I definitely want to do a little more work on Wolcott and Bartlett to see if we can't suss out any more about their libraries, and I've got lots of work now to do on Sherman. Any further advices or thoughts (on any of these or others) are always appreciated, of course!