Monday, February 28, 2011

Book History Panels at the Society of Early Americanists Conference

I'm off to Philadelphia on Wednesday morning for the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Society of Early Americanists, which runs Thursday-Saturday 3-5 March. Very appropriately, there are some book history and digital humanities panels on the program [PDF]. I'm particularly fond of the Early American Libraries Roundtable in Session Four (which I helped organize), but will certainly be attending the others as well (well, one per session anyway).

Watch for tweets from me and others throughout the conference; we'll be using the #sea11 hashtag.

Thursday, 3 March

Session One (8:45-10:15)

Preserving History in the New Nation:
Chair: Charlene Mires, Rutgers-Camden & Director of MARCH (Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities)
  • "Patriots and Antiquarians: Preserving the Revolution in the Early Republic," Alea Henle (University of Connecticut)
  • "Patriots in the Attic: Heritage and Virtue after the Revolutionary Moment," Simon Gilhooley (Cornell University)
  • "An Ancient Landscape for a New Nation: Sites, Cities, Collections," Whitney Martinko (University of Virginia)
Session Two (8:45-10:15)

Early American Sentimentalism and Religion:
Chair: Wendy Roberts (Northwestern University)
  • "The Emotions of Anti-Revivalism in James Walcot's The New Pilgrim's Progress, or, the Pious Indian Convert," Laura Stevens (University of Tulsa)
  • "On Mediocrity: Sentimental Modes and Pious Versifiers," Meredith Neuman (Clark University)
  • "Tears Elect: Religious Influences in William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, Abram Van Engen (Trinity University)
  • "Sentiment, Religion, and the Concept of Religious Enthusiasm in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Historical Novels," Lawrence Zellner (SUNY Stony Brook)
Spectacular Rebellions and Secret Histories: The Haitian Revolution's Literary and Cultural Impact:
Chair: Thomas W. Krise (University of the Pacific)
  • "The Price of Revolution: Toussaint Louverture's Buried Treasure and the Secret Evaluation of Haitian History," Christen Mucher (University of Pennsylvania)
  • "Interrogating Toussaint in a Trans-Atlantic Context: Fabienne Pasquet's La deuxième mort de Toussaint Louverture," Mariana Past (Dickinson College)
  • "Dancing on the Volcano: The Haitian Revolution and Intercultural Performance," Peter P. Reed (University of Mississippi)
  • "Sophia Peabody's Cuba Journal: Uncovering Secret Histories of the Circumatlantic and the U.S.," Rita Williams (University of Delaware)
What's Coming - Digital Databases, Editing, and Publication:
Chair: Philip Barnard (University of Kansas)
  • “The Digital Humanities and Early Americas Digital Archive: Recent Developments and Directions,” Ralph Bauer (University of Maryland, College Park)
  • “Bridging Media and Editorial Approaches: Digitizing the Bicentennial Edition of Charles Brockden Brown’s Novels,” Raymond Craig (Kent State University)
  • “Scholarship in the Digital Age: Digital Publication Models and Trends,” Mark Kamrath (University of Central Florida)
Session Four (3:00-4:30)

Collaborative Networks in Early America:
Chair: Sean X. Goudie (Pennsylvania State University)
  • “The Severed Hand of the Law: Crime and Newspaper Literature in the Eighteenth-Century Anglo-Atlantic,” Gabriel Cervantes (Vanderbilt University)
  • “Collaboration & Information Networks in Three Eighteenth-Century Gazettes,” Joseph Chaves (University of Northern Colorado)
  • “Map Quests of the American Atlantic World: Networks, Enclaves, and the Invention of The American Atlas,” Martin Brückner (University of Delaware)
  • “Imperial Networking: The American Philosophical Society and the Long Expedition, 1819-21,” Robert Gunn (University of Texas at El Paso)
Early American Libraries Roundtable:
  • “Never a Library Fine: John Jay and the New York Society Library,” Jennifer Steenshorne (The Papers of John Jay, Columbia University)
  • “Common Knowledge: An Overlap Study of Library Company Catalogs from the 1790s,” Cheryl Knott Malone (University of Arizona)
  • “Cotton Mather’s Forgotten Library: Publishing the first American Bible Commentary Then and Now,” Reiner Smolinski, (Georgia State University)
  • “Early Impressions: A First Look at Bermudian Book History,” Jeremy B. Dibbell (LibraryThing)
  • “Reconstructing the 1829 Auction Sale of Thomas Jefferson’s Final Library,” Endrina Tay, (Thomas Jefferson Foundation-Monticello)
  • “An American Reader in London: Rufus King and the Use of Books in Diplomacy,” David J. Gary (CUNY-Graduate Center)
Offensive Women: Female Transgression in the Print Culture of Early America:
Chair: Richard Frohock (Oklahoma State University)
  • “The Transgressions of Ann Carson, the Most Offensive Woman in the Early Republic,” a joint presentation by Susan Branson (Syracuse University); Larisa Asaeli (Texas Christian University); and Dan Williams (Texas Christian University)
  • “Witchcraft, Power, and Death: Dangerous Women in Northern Mexico in the Late Colonial Period,” Yolopattli Hernandez-Torres (Lycoming College)
  • “The Ever-Curious Public: Charlotte Temple and the American Criminal Narrative,” Tim O’Neil (Oklahoma State University)
  • “A Most Rigid Censor of Female Conduct: Politics, Ideology, and American Womanhood in Sansay’s The Secret History,” Alison Tracy Hale (University of Puget Sound)
Friday, 5 March

Session Six (10:30-12:00)

The Transatlantic Literary Marketplace:
Chair: Christopher Apap, Oakland University
  • “John Neal’s Paratexts: Selling the Book to the American Reader,” Joshua Ratner(University of Pennsylvania)
  • “Irving’s Geo-Political Sketch Book,” Lydia Fash (Brandeis University)
  • “Paulding’s Humorous Response to English Critiques of America,” Maura Jortner (Baylor University)
  • “The History of American Literary Hoaxes,” Tracy Hoffman (Baylor University)
Saturday, 5 March

Session Twelve (3:00-4:30)

What is the Future of the History of Books?
Chair & Respondent: Paul Erickson, American Antiquarian Society
  • “Anachronisms: Winthrop, Savage, Hawthorne,” Patricia Roylance (Syracuse University)
  • “Is There Paper in our Future? Material Textuality and Early Print Nationalism,” Jonathan Senchyne (Cornell University)
  • “Can We Have Sex in the Archives?,” Jordan Alexander Stein (University of Colorado at Boulder)
See the conference website for full details on the meeting.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: "A New Nation of Goods"

Before I even say a word about the content of David Jaffee's A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) let me just note that it is a very nice book. From the vibrant colors on the jacket to the weight of the paper (thick, glossy stuff) and the size of the book (a bit larger than a "normal" hardback) to the quality of the illustrations (black and white integrated into the text, with a section of color plates in the middle), this is an excellent example of the physical book at its finest.

Now, on to the book itself. Jaffee writes in the preface that he's out to highlight "the significant role of provincial artisans in four crafts - chairmaking, clockmaking, portrait painting, and book production - to explain the shift from pre-industrial society to an entirely new configuation of work, commodities, and culture" (p. ix). He posits what he terms a "Village Enlightenment" (which he seems to have first coined in a 1990 WMQ article) in the United States after the Revolution, a transformational process which saw the "formation of a market for cultural commodities in printed form; it signifies the erosion of a hierarchical structure of authority, in which local culture was controlled by clerical or a college-trained elite; and it points to the emergence of a social organization of knowledge suitable to the requirements of rural folk in the rising republic" (p. 48).

Through the use of well-chosen case studies and much archival research, Jaffee explores key figures in his four areas of interest: book production and printing, clockmaking, portraiture, and chairmaking. Most of the people in these pages may not be household names today, but Jaffee argues that they played a key role in "refashion[ing] large luxury goods such as tall clocks and weighty imported literary tomes into cheap shelf clocks and popular biographies" (p. ix). From clockmaker Eli Terry to schoolmaster and literatus Silas Felton to chairmaker Lambert Hitchcock and portrait artist Ralph Earl, we meet a cast of interesting, entrepreneurial characters from the American "hinterlands" (mostly the upper Connecticut River valley) who, Jaffee maintains, laid the groundwork for the shift to American industrial culture in the mid-19th century.

This is a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary study, drawing on the book history work of Mary Kelley, Cathy Davidson, David Hall and others, as well as recent scholarship in Jaffee's other areas of emphasis. The narrative is readable and interesting, although there are some organizational aspects I might have done differently (a few sections of the text seem to have been inserted in places that quite fit right). I was perplexed by an odd error: Jaffee, talking about Ralph Earl's c. 1775-76 portrait of Roger Sherman (which is a wonderful image), writes that the "plain Philadelphia Windsor low-back chair on which he was seated linked him to his recent role in the Constitutional Convention" (p. 81), but the Convention was, at the time the portrait was painted, well in the future. Presumably Jaffee is referring to the Continental Congress.

Overall, a well-made and fascinating look at post-Revolutionary American entrepreneurship and commercial culture.

Links & Reviews

- The Washington Post reports on the National Archives' recovery team, investigators tasked with tracking down and returning items stolen from the archives. The story also contains an update on the case of former NARA curator Leslie Waffen, whose home was raided by federal agents last October. Waffen "has not been charged in the matter, although the inspector general's office is building a case against him that will include evidence that he sold sound and film recordings on eBay." The NYTimes editorialized on archives thefts this week as well.

- HarperCollins kicked up a hornet's nest (great list of links there) this week when the publisher announced that libraries would only be allowed to lend out e-books 26 times. Authors, librarians and others have chimed in to protest this policy change (with Neil Gaiman calling it "incredibly disappointing"). HarperCollins responded and set up an email account to receive additional feedback. For all the latest on this, follow the #hcod hasthag on Twitter.

- David Rothman has a long essay in the Chronicle about his vision for a national digital public library.

- The Boston Athenaeum's new Edward Gorey exhibit opened this week. Excited to go check this out when I can.

- The GPO and Library of Congress announced this week that they're working to digitize all "public and private laws, and proposed constitutional amendments passed by Congress as published in the official Statutes at Large from 1951-2002. GPO and LOC will also work on digitizing official debates of Congress from the permanent volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873-1998."

- At Book Best, Bill Lucey interviews Nancy Bass Wyden about the Strand's continued success and the future of bookselling.

- In the Yale Daily News, an update on the recent Voynich manuscript findings.

- A wonderful post at Wynken de Worde, on an interesting find among the headlines in a seventeenth-century English book.

- If you missed any, catch up on all the great "Fraud Week" posts over on the AAS' Past is Present blog.

- Google announced this week that it was tweaking its search algorithm in an attempt to demote "low-quality" pages that had been appearing in peoples' search results. For an excellent discussion of this topic, listen to the most recent "Digital Campus" episode (released just prior to Google's changes).

- Sam Kean has an interesting essay in the January Humanities about Isaac Newton's alchemical researches.

- American University in Cairo Press will host a Tahrir Book Fair in late March.

- There's an interview with Jasper Fforde in The Scotsman (about the newest BookWorld novel, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, along with much on other topics as well).

- The NYTimes article about the future of marginalia in a digital world, while perhaps a bit less nuanced than it might have been, at least promoted the Caxton Club's 19 March symposium "Other People's Books: Collecting Association Copies" (with attendant publication published by Oak Knoll).

- Booktryst notes the digitization of the National Library of Wales' beautiful copy of The Laws of Hywel Dda, a compendium of Welsh law.

Reviews

- Helen Castor's She-Wolves; review by Miranda Seymour in the NYTimes.

- Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles; reviews by Tristram Hunt in the Telegraph and Stephen Howe in the Independent.

- Andrea Wulf's The Founding Gardeners; review by Miranda Seymour in the Telegraph.

- Jed Rubenfeld's The Death Instinct; review by Seth Stern in the WaPo.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: "A Discovery of Witches"

I'm a fan of Deborah Harkness' non-fiction works, so when I learned at ALA Midwinter that she'd written a novel (A Discovery of Witches, just out from Viking), I was both excited and worried (as I'm sure I've mentioned, I tend to be skeptical of historians writing fiction and novelists writing history). When I read the text on the back, I got a little more worried. Witches, daemons, and vampires? "Fantastical underworlds stirring"? "... an intimacy that violates ancient taboos"? Oh boy. Nonetheless, I picked up a copy at ALA, got it signed, and added it to my "to read" pile.

And then I read it. All 579 pages in about four nights. Harkness's work - the first in a trilogy, it would seem - is pure literary brain-candy, but unlike many works of its type, it's very well written and chock full of fascinating bits from Harkness' researches into alchemy and early modern science (which I strongly suspect may feature even more strongly in the next volume, though you'll have to read this one to find out why). Combine that with discussions of evolutionary genetics, secret chivalric orders, and magic, and you've got A Discovery of Witches.

The book's parallel universe is populated by cast of witches, vampires, and daemons (collectively referred to as creatures), who live mostly quietly alongside we humans (sort of like the angels in Danielle Trussoni's Angelology). The main character and narrator, Diana Bishop, is a very powerful witch, but she hasn't quite realized the potential reach of her powers. Until, that is, she calls up an enchanted manuscript in the Bodleian Library that hasn't been seen for 150 years and which might, just might, contain the secret of the origins of the three types of creature, all of whom want to get their hands on it.

Bishop finds herself allied with Matthew Clairmont, a vampire geneticist who's also interested in the manuscript's contents, and naturally romance ensues. But inter-creature romance is that ancient taboo warned of above, and there's a price to be paid for witch-vampire fraternization (a price even worse than meeting your vampire beau's notoriously witch-hating vampire mum at her castle near Lyon, or bringing him home to meet your witch aunts in their haunted and rather vindictive house).

Some of the plot elements here are a little bit campy (vampire/witch yoga classes?), but only in the best possible way. Harkness' good writing and sense of humor keep the story moving, and the pace is for the most part just quick enough to hold the reader's interest while still taking up some time (not everything happens over the course of a single day). Harkness' attention to sensory details like smells, tastes and textures can be a bit overbearing after a while, but I also found that these touches allowed me to more fully immerse myself in the story.

I can't refrain from mentioning the role books play here: sometimes they even rise to the level of characters themselves. Beyond the enchanted manuscript, the other Bodleian texts Diana examines, plus Matthew's lovingly-described and fantastic home library (a centuries-long lifespan and inordinate amounts of cash help with that) as well as the Bishop family grimoire all play important roles.

One of those books that I wanted to rip through quickly so I could find out what happens, but also wanted to read very slowly so that I didn't have to be done too fast. I'll be waiting - impatiently - to find out what comes next.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Don't Miss "Fraud Week"!

The AAS blog Past is Present is running a great series, "Fraud Week." Read the intro here, or the first installment, about infamous George Washington forger Robert Spring. More to come all week, so don't miss the posts. Good stuff.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jefferson Books Identified at Washington University

Big biblio-news this morning: some 74 volumes from Thomas Jefferson's retirement library have been found at Washington University in St. Louis, among books donated to the university by Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen and her husband Joseph Coolidge. The cache makes Washington University the third-largest holder of extant Jefferson books, after the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia. Read the Monticello press release and blog post for more.

You can browse the Jefferson books at Washington University in the Jefferson LibraryThing catalog: click here for the list.

Many congratulations to Anne Lucas and Endrina Tay, good friends from Monticello who made and verified the discovery. Fantastic stuff!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: "Crossroads of Empire"

Ned Landsman's Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) is the latest installment in the excellent Regional Perspectives on Early America series. Landsman's concise treatment of the Middle Colonies, which differed markedly from their southern and northeastern neighbors in everything from demography to settlement patterns to governmental, commercial, religious and social structures, makes for a fine addition to the series.

The first three chapters of this book treat the basic settlement and early history of the Middle Colonies (what would become New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware), noting the key distinction between these colonies and the others: that the territory involved was never the domain of a single European power, so the settlements tended to be more diverse. "New Netherland, sponsored by one of the most heterogeneous national states in Europe, contained a mixed population of Dutch and German-speakers, French-speaking Protestants from the Low Countries known as Walloons, Swedes, Danes, Africans from many lands, English, Scots, and Jews, among others. The largest element in the population of New Sweden was probably Finnish. Long Island, with portions claimed by New England and New Netherland, housed significant numbers of Dutch Reformed, New England Congregationalists, English Quakers, Baptists, and other sectarian groups" (p. 20).

Landsman examines the development of New York and Pennsylvania as "alternate possibilities that emerged within the Restoration empire at a time when neither the haphazard settlement schemes of the Chesapeake region nor the strict religious uniformity of New England were viable colonial options and when colonial constitutional arrangements were carefully considered in the name of order, balance, toleration, and - increasingly - trade" (p. 57).

The fourth chapter focuses on the rise of the Middle Colonies as an Atlantic trading hub, which allowed the creation of much more varied economic system in the region than in the northern or southern colonies, and made the area keenly dependent on the interconnected nature of the Atlantic economy. Landsman then transitions to two chapters on the religious pluralism of the region in its various forms and on the important (and sometimes contradictory) roles played by the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies.

Finally, Landsman turns to the factional and fraught political climate of the region in his last chapter, noting the trends of "consistently competitive politics with persistent partisan divides, ever-increasing popular participation in the political process, widespread claims of political liberty, and some of the earliest assertions of aggressively populist or even democratic political values" (p. 182).

Solid, well-sourced, and very readable. Recommended.

Links & Reviews

- Don't miss Rick Gekoski's Guardian column "Reading is Overrated." Hear, hear.

- Borders' bankruptcy filing this week prompted Edward Champion to put together a list of local indie alternatives for all 200 of the closing Borders stores.

- The ABAA documentary "Bibliomania" is now on YouTube. Good stuff.

- Jennifer Howard reported this week that the AAAS has formed a new Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, charged with developing an answer to this question: "What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in Humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century?" It's quite a cast list, and I'll be very interested to see what they come up with.

- Also from Jennifer Howard (by far the best humanities reporter on the beat), a behind-the-scenes look at the Autobiography of Mark Twain, the University of California Press' surprise bestseller.

- The family of civil rights leader James Forman has donated his papers and book collection to the Queens College Civil Rights Archive.

- From the BBC this week, an interesting video on the discovery of Button Gwinnett's autograph in a Wolverhampton church record.

- A New Rochelle, NY man has been arrested after Long Island librarians realized he'd been stealing from libraries and selling the books on eBay for 11 years. Rudolph Cecera, Jr. is due in court on 25 February.

- At Library Sphere, "Why understanding the Digital Humanities is key for libraries."

- Glasgow University's Robert Burns Centre has been awarded a £1 million grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to publish a scholarly edition of Burns' works through Oxford University Press.

- A new exhibit at Stanford, "The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries," will run through 15 May.

- Melville's manuscript of Billy Budd, three books from Emily Dickinson's library, and a Maine account book of British prize goods captured in the War of 1812 are among the newly-digitized items from Harvard's Houghton Library.

- From BibliOdyssey, Buffon's illustrations of quadrupeds.

- An interesting essay by Mark Bernstein on how Internet bookselling and short-run printing are creating a "second reading revolution."

- Typographers Matthew Carter and Scott-Martin Kosofsky have digitally revived a (lovely) Hebrew typeface from the sixteenth century (Le Bé).

- Voting for this year's Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title has opened at The Bookseller; the winner will be announced on 25 March. Read more about the shortlist here.

Reviews

- Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches; review by Nick Owchar in the LATimes.

- A new edition of William Godwin's plays, and a companion volume by the editor, David O'Shaughnessy; review by Jennifer Breen in the TLS.

- Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup; review by Walter Isaacson in the NYTimes.

- Edward Lengel's Inventing Washington; review by J.L. Bell at Boston1775.

- Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth Denlinger's Shelley's Ghost; review by Duncan Wu in Times Higher Education.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

This Week's Arrival

Just one book this week:

- The Popes of Avignon by Edwin Mullins (Bluebridge, 2011). Publisher.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: "The Watery Part of the World"

Michael Parker has built his novel The Watery Part of the World (Algonquin Books, 2011) by stitching together two historical facts: the 1813 disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston (Aaron Burr's daughter) in a shipwreck off the North Carolina coast, and the 1970s departure of two little old white ladies and a black gentleman from a barrier island losing its battle with the encroaching sea.

Connecting these two tales, and constructing from them a haunting story about ties - to family, to place, to home - and about the interconnectedness of lives and loves, Parker's book makes for a lovely, lyrical read. His depiction of the almost-otherworldly barrier island lifestyle, with every human action subject to the whims and caprices of wind and wave, is almost entrancing.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Review: "A Dodo at Oxford"

The editors sure must have had some fun with this one! Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson's A Dodo at Oxford (Oxgarth Press, 2010) is, purportedly, the first volume of a diary kept by an Oxford student in 1683 - but this isn't just any Oxford student; our anonymous diarist is the owner of what may be the very last surviving dodo, inherited from a mysterious Dutchman who met a bad end. The diary covers only March to May (at the end of which the student and his dodo are, it would seem, dodo-homeward-bound), during the course of which the dodo's vital statistics, eating habits, tool use, sleep patterns, and noises are carefully chronicled.

The diary is presented here in facsimile, with many editorial annotations in the margins to explain various things going on in the diary, as well as people mentioned and the collection of random detritus found within the book (receipts, bookmarks, postcards, a spider, &c.). These marginal notes, along with several appendices at the end of the book, go into some depth about seventeenth-century book production generally and at Oxford in particular.

Our diarist doesn't just chronicle his dodo's doings, but also those of certain friends, including the ailing Mr Tompkyns and Mr Flay, whose oft-recounted dreams might seem vaguely familiar to modern readers, if their meaning is teased out a bit.

Full of wit, whimsy, and a fair helping of book history. Who could ask for more?

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Memoir of the Northern Kingdom" Now Available

As some of you may remember, back in December I posted a short note here about a longer post I'd just filed on the MHS blog about William Jenks' 1808 pamphlet Memoir of the Northern Kingdom, which is a sort of counter-factual history positing the breakup of the United States into a Northern Kingdom (controlled by England), a southern monarchy (controlled by France) and the Illinois Republick (a "last bastion" of republican government). It's a thinly veiled critique of Jefferson's diplomatic and economic policies, and a fascinating read.

In reading the essay I noticed a casual reference to the MHS, and that sent me into Jenks' papers there, where I found a few more mentions of he Memoir among Jenks' diaries and correspondence, including the anonymous letter he sent with the manuscript to the publisher. I also did some newspaper searching to suss out anything I could be the reception of the pamphlet, and found some interesting advertisements as well as some evidence that many copies were probably purchased at a sheriff's auction of the printers' inventory (and likely met a sad end). For all that, go here.

Fast-forward to 4 February, when bookseller Garrett Scott (who's always got great material, by the way) emails to say he's going to be listing a copy of Jenks' pamphlet, and asks to use some bits from my MHS blog post. I agreed, of course, but then just had to buy the pamphlet myself. It arrived on Thursday, and on Saturday I took it over to the NEHGS to have it scanned, since I very much want folks to be able to access the text in a straightforward way.

I'm now happy to report that the images are available via the Internet Archive, here, and I've made a transcription as well, which I've posted as a PDF.

This copy of the Memoir was deaccessioned from the collections of the Long Island Historical Society (now the Brooklyn Historical Society), and used to have a name on the title page, but it's been excised, eliminating the record of the pamphlet's early owner.

I'm delighted that Jenks' text will now be able to reach a wider audience - enjoy!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Links & Reviews

- The Massachusetts Archives has recovered a 1775 Joseph Warren letter probably stolen decades ago. It had ended up in the James S. Copley library, and when archivists noticed the listing in the auction catalog, they arranged to purchase the letter for $8,000. J.L. Bell notes that the postscript, instead of referencing Henry Knox as suggested in many of the news articles, probably refers to "General Thomas" (Dr. John Thomas, commanding the troops at Roxbury when Warren wrote).

- More from Ed Pettit on the potential closure of the Poe House in Baltimore. If you haven't yet, make sure you sign the petition calling for a restoration of funding.

- New carbon-dating tests suggest the mysterious Voynich Manuscript was written on parchment dating from ~1404-1438, about a hundred years earlier than previously thought. More from the Daily Mail.

- Lots of wonderfully bookish things going on on the West Coast this week. Rebecca Rego Barry has dispatches from the California Book Fair (Day 1, Day 2); Ian Kahn's had a series of posts covering the Pasadena Book Fair, the CODEX Foundation Symposium, and the CA Book Fair in San Francisco (start here, then go here and here); Richard Minsky posted about CODEX on the FB&C blog (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4); and Chris Lowenstein has another Pasadena report here.

- Whitney Trettien did a great job with the Google/Bing search kerfuffle, noting that publishers of dictionaries, maps, and other reference books have often done things similar to what Google did in order to identify copyright thieves.

- Bob Fleck at Oak Knoll has a fascinating post about the process he went through to reprice all of his books after running them through vialibri to find out today's "going rate."

- The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was profiled in the WSJ this week. In other Egypt news, reports this week indicated that thefts from the Egyptian Museum may have been worse than previously reported.

- Another fond remembrance of Brian Jacques, from Alison Flood in the Guardian.

- The National Library of Finland has launched a new game-based crowdsourcing effort for text verification of its digitized newspapers and periodicals.

- Also on the crowdsourcing front, the Transcribe Bentham project has added 1,200 more documents to the queue for transcription.

- Harvard University has joined the HathiTrust.

- Sad news out of Portland, OR this week, where Powell's announced layoffs of 31 employees.

- New blog! Antipodean Footnotes, from Anthony Tedeschi in Dunedin, NZ. Link added. [h/t @john_overholt]

- From the Chronicle, a report on how e-books without page numbers were causing scholars headaches. A day later, Amazon announced that an upgrade to its Kindle software will give readers a choice between "real" page numbers and its location numbers.

- An interesting new database: London Lives: 1690-1800. Searchable transcriptions of some public records for the period. [h/t @Boston1775]

Reviews

- Ben Tarnoff's Moneymakers; reviews by Michael Washburn in the NYTimes and Carolyn See in the WaPo.

- Andrea Wulf's The Founding Gardeners; review by Jonathan Bate in the Telegraph.

- Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles; reviews by John MacKenzie in the Scotsman; Michael Kenney in the Boston Globe, and Brendan Simms in the WSJ.

- A whole slew of recent books about the King James Bible's 400th anniversay; review by Arnold Hunt in the TLS.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Week's Acquisitions

- Letterwriting In Renaissance England by Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe (University of Washington Press, 2005). Harvard Bookstore.

- Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West by Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton (Cornell University Press, 2000). Harvard Bookstore.

- The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano (NYRB Classics, 2002). Harvard Bookstore.

- I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony, 2002). Raven.

- Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony, 2002). Raven.

- Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees (New Hampshire University Press, 2011). Publisher.

- The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann (Viking, 2011). Publisher.

- Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories; edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Library of America, 2010). Amazon.

- Redwall by Brian Jacques (Philomel, 2007). Amazon.

- Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Amazon.

- Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). Publisher.

- A new Telemachus, this a very pretty little two-volume edition published at Berwick in 1765. eBay.

- Memoir of the Northern Kingdom, Written, A.D. 1872 by the late Rev. Williamson Jahsenykes, LL.D. and Hon. Member of the Royal American Board of Literature, in six letters to his son [by William Jenks] (Quebeck, A.D. 1901 [Boston: Ferrand & Mallory, 1808]). Garrett Scott. (More on this one soon).

Book Review: "The Tiger's Wife"

Téa Obreht, named one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty in the New Yorker's 2010 fiction issue (at 25, she was the youngest of the lot), bursts onto the literary stage with her first novel, The Tiger's Wife (Random House). Weaving a rich tapestry of stories drawing on the deep cultural heritage of the Balkans, Obreht offers her readers a chance to escape into a very different place, of deep scars but deeper love, where superstition and reason both have their place.

Obreht sets up the story with three separate threads: the first, set in the present, features a young doctor, Natalia, grief-stricken at the loss of her beloved grandfather. The second tracks her grandfather's long acquaintance with the "deathless man," a mysterious traveller who Natalia thinks might have led her grandfather on his final journey away from home. The third thread, set during the grandfather's childhood, is that from which the title of the book is drawn (and you'll just have to read it for more, because I'm not going to spoil it for you).

I read this book extremely (and uncharacteristically) slowly, mostly because I didn't want to be done with it. It's clearly a labor of love, and the way Obreht subtly connects her three threads, each so very different from the others, made for excellent reading. I enjoyed her ability to shift between magical tales and the gritty reality of the post-conflict Balkans, as well as the fascinating characters she's created and the captivating stories she tells.

Highly recommended, and keep your eye on Obreht. I feel confident there's more where this came from!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Further thoughts on the McSweeney's series

After having a chance to read and ruminate a bit more on the McSweeney's "Some Good News from the World of Books" series, some thoughts. While I know this series was designed to look for the "silver lining," as it were, I think the rosy picture painted by some of these essays offers an incomplete view of things as they are. The points that follow are by no means a comprehensive list of the possible counterpoints that could be raised, but do address what I see as some areas where additional perspective is necessary.

On Ben Shattuck's piece on libraries - the uptick in library usage and circulation figures are great, but the severe funding decreases (resulting in branch closures, layoffs, cutbacks in acquisitions budgets, &c.) that are accompanying these trends should not go unmentioned. Readers can't use libraries if they're closed.

Also, libraries may face the serious problem of not being able to lend any items manufactured outside the U.S. from their collections under a new interpretation of the "first sale" doctrine promulgated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (see the ALA's brief about this issue [PDF]). While the Library Copyright Alliance's Jonathan Band suggests [PDF] that libraries are probably safe in continuing to operate as usual for the time being, if the Supreme Court were to uphold the Ninth Circuit's ruling it could prove disastrous for library operations.

Libraries also face the looming threat of just what they're going to do about managing the rise of e-books. The collective "head-in-the-sand" attitude of many (though certainly not all) in the library world to the rise of digitized and born-digital materials is, sooner or later, going to have to end, but by then I fear it may well be too late. I've said for a long time that I suspect libraries will end up being full of computer terminals (for access to the vast majority of material) and rare book rooms (for we happy few who delight in such things) - that may be coming sooner than most librarians care to contemplate.

Joseph Sunra Copeland's essay on U.S. book production offers some interesting figures, but the numbers and discussion barely extend much past 1975, which seems slightly surprising. I've read it several times, and I still feel like I'm missing something. And while it's certainly interesting to note that increased numbers of books are being published, questions must be raised about whether the quality is rising along with the quantity.

Should we care about this? Is a title published by any given vanity press inherently less "important" than a title that would have been published by, say, a university press had the press not been shuttered due to budget cuts? In 90% of cases, I'd venture to say, the answer is yes. I'd rather see 10 titles a year that have been vetted by good editors, designed with some careful consideration, and produced well, than a million that have been churned out like biblio-sausages in some printing warehouse with no intermediation at all. Numbers aren't everything - or shouldn't be, anyway.

I have minor quibbles with some of the other essays in the series, but that's enough for now. I may add additional comments about these or future installments as events warrant.

The McSweeney's empire itself is a great example of what's working very well in the publishing world of today, and I wish it continued success. I certainly appreciate their efforts in starting this conversation.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Baltimore's Poe House May Close

The city of Baltimore has cut funding to the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and the site may have to close as early as next year if a solution is not found. I can do no better than to repeat the comments of "Philly Poe Guy" Ed Pettit, who told the LATimes "What a travesty, that Baltimore won't fund the house, the site in their city of the most famous American writer ever. That is just absolutely, astoundingly stupid."

Hopefully there's a solution here, whether it's national park status, restitution of city funding, or something else entirely.

More on what the loss of funding means for the site here, and there's an online petition for the house as well. I've signed; you should too.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Some Good News From the World of Books"

All week, McSweeney's is running a series called "Some Good News From the World of Books," which I highly recommend digging into when you can. It's good stuff so far, and I suspect there's much more to come.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Remembering Brian Jacques

I was shocked to learn this morning of the death of Brian Jacques, whose Redwall books I read repeatedly during my grade-school years. While I haven't kept up with the series recently, my copies of the first ten or so books bear the evidence of my frequent expeditions into the wonderful, rich universe Jacques created for his readers.

I don't know exactly how old I was when I first came to know Jacques' work, but I remember starting to read Redwall with my mom (having borrowed it from the library on the recommendation of Karen Given, our librarian extraordinaire), but quickly taking the book over and reading it myself, since a little bit each night just wasn't fast enough.

From the first pages, I was hooked. Jacques' imaginary world drew me right in, and I devoured the text, along with the wonderful small headpiece illustrations at the start of each chapter. The characters became just as real to me as anything, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the death of one of my favorites was the first time a book ever made me cry.

There were two others out at the time (Mossflower and Mattimeo, which means I must have started reading them around 1990, since Mariel of Redwall hadn't come out yet), and I quickly read those too, before cycling back through the trio of books until new volumes in the series appeared. Those I obtained as soon as possible, and read them immediately.

Jacques' books have long been a staple of my book recommendations for various young cousins and acquaintances just starting to read on their own, and they will continue to be. I'm sorry that there won't be any more additions to the series, and my thoughts now are with Jacques' family as they mourn his passing.

Farewell, and rest in peace, king of storytellers. You'll be much missed.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Book Review: "Dead End Gene Pool"

Wendy Burden's Dead End Gene Pool (Gotham, 2011) is a darkly comic look at the tragic dysfunctionality of the American super-rich. The great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Burden spent much of her childhood in what her semi-exiled mother called "Burdenland," a parallel universe inhabited by the very wealthy.

Shuttled from one house to another depending on the season, Burden and her brothers grew up in the lap of luxury, but luxury with a sharp undercurrent of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental instability, and not a whole lot of TLC. While they wanted for (almost) nothing material, to hear Burden tell it there certainly wasn't much love or human understanding to be experienced.

This might have been an extremely depressing book (and is, in parts), except for Burden's keen sense of the absurdities she witnessed and her ability to bring out the humor in situations that some of the rest of us might not have been able to laugh off. Sharp, poignant, and hilarious, this memoir makes for great reading.

Links & Reviews

- I know where I'll be on the morning of 24 February: the contents of the now-shuttered Boston municipal print shop are going to be auctioned off. Will certainly be fascinating to watch.

- As protests continued to rock Egypt, Bibliotheca Alexandrina director Ismail Serageldin reported that the library was being protected by the city's young people. And in Slate, Simon Schama writes on the necessity of protecting Egypt's cultural heritage.

- The Utica Observer-Dispatch highlights strategies some upstate NY used booksellers are using to adapt to the internet age.

- Kindle Singles rolled out this week, and Husna Haq asks in the CSM if they will "revolutionize reading".

- SkyRiver has responded [PDF] to OCLC's motion to dismiss the anti-trust suit filed against it.

- I honestly don't understand why this story is being hailed as some huge discovery; was there any question that salacious poetry sold well in the 18th century?

- A new auction record for Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) was set at Dominic Winter this week; the copy made £61,100.

- In Lyndhurst, Hampshire, a 65-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of forging Winston Churchill's signature on books and memorabilia he then sold on eBay.

Review

- Jed Rubenfeld's The Death Instinct; review by Susannah Meadows in the NYTimes.

- Two recent books on the Wars of the Roses; review by Helen Castor in the TLS.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

This Week's Acquisitions

Two arrivals this week:

- Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War by Andrew F. Smith (St. Martin's, 2011). Publisher.

- Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden (Gotham Books, 2011). Publisher.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Pullman on Libraries

I have been watching the #savelibraries protests with great interest, but am ashamed that I've not had a chance to post anything yet about this important movement. Thankfully Philip Pullman said it much better than I ever could have, so I pass along his 20 January speech "Leave the libraries alone. You don't understand their value."

Read the whole thing. It's not only lovely writing, but also a powerful argument on behalf of public libraries and their importance to people at all stages of their lives, as well as a stinging indictment of what he calls the "greedy ghost of market madness" that has crept into the library world.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Book Review: "Winged Obsession"

Probably my favorite section of Peter Laufer's 2009 book The Dangerous World of Butterflies was on the super-smuggler Hisoyashi Kojima and Ed Newcomer, the undercover agent who finally put him in prison. Now Jessica Speart has added to the Kojima story with her own full-length book, Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler (forthcoming from William Morrow).

Speart goes into much greater depth on Newcomer's pursuit of Kojima, as well as on some of the other undercover operations Newcomer was handling at the same time (including a fascinating investigation into the brutal killing of hawks by racing enthusiasts, which would make a book well worth reading in its own right). Supplementing her narrative with some of the evidence collected against Kojima, including saved Skype conversations, emails and other recordings, Speart's account really makes clear just how obsessed Kojima grew with Newcomer over the course of the operation, and how Newcomer was able to put that obsession to good use.

Bringing the story even more up to date, Speart traveled to Kyoto and met Kojima, hearing his "side of the story" and finding herself sized up as a possible accomplice in the continued smuggling of protected butterflies.

In the grand tradition of The Orchid Thief, this journalistic account reads like a good thriller. Speart's done her research on butterfly collecting and smuggling as well as wildlife protection efforts, and it shows. Highly recommended.