Friday, June 30, 2006

Book Review: "Brunelleschi's Dome"

Ross King's fictional works (Ex-Libris, Domino) are among my favorites, so I figured I should finally try some of his non-fiction as well. Brunelleschi's Dome focuses on architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the design/construction of the massive dome over the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy. The scope of this achievement is remarkable; what Brunelleschi was charged with doing seems prohibitively difficult even today, let along in the fifteenth century.

In the tradition of Dava Sobel, Simon Winchester and others writing somewhat "popular" histories, King's work is without copious notes, and there are perhaps some conclusions drawn here that aren't based firmly in existing evidence (mainly for dramatic effect, I think). On the whole, however, King does quite a nice job of describing the decades-long process of making Brunelleschi's plans for the dome a reality - from the obvious logistical hurdles that had to be overcome in order to obtain the necessary materials (and then haul multi-ton slabs of stone hundreds of feet into the air and get them situated just so), to the political manuevering and beyond.

I don't mind recommending this book, and look forward to reading King's other non-fiction.

In Praise of Archivists

Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) columnist Bill Clark devotes his essay this week to Kris Anstine, who Clark describes as "the person who normally answers the phone at the University of Missouri’s archives office and fields the questions from folks like Ol’ Clark who know just enough about history to be dangerous."

"No question seems to be too tough for him. He makes the caller look like a genius, and when you apologize for bothering him he says: 'That’s not a bother; that’s my job. If you don’t call, I’ll be unemployed.'"

Clark's zeal for archives is quite something: "What fun it must be," he writes, "to answer the phone and not fear the toughest of questions, knowing you have 14,000 square feet of documents and, in MU’s Special Collections Department, 50,000 rolls of microfiche."

It's always nice from an archival or reference standpoint to know that you've made someone's day by finding that information they've been seeking. It's even better when they take the time to recognize you for what you do (because who doesn't enjoy a little praise every now and again?).

Responses to the Smiley Case

The Martha's Vineyard Gazette has a story today about the E. Forbes Smiley map theft case, which includes some valuable comments from author Nicholas Basbanes and several rare book librarians about the impact of Smiley's actions on the community of collectors, librarians and others who study rare maps.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hauck Sale Surpasses Expectations

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the sale of Cornelius J. Haucks "History of the Book" collection at Christie's this week blew away the estimates - the auction sessions brought in more than $10.5 million in bids, more than double the pre-sale number of $4.5 million. Francis Wahlgren, head of Christie's book and manuscripts department said of the sale "We haven't felt such electricity in the air during a book auction in many years."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Book Review: "Patriotic Fire"

I had no idea that Winston Groom (most famous, of course, as the author of Forrest Gump) also has written military histories. I just finished his newest offering, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans, and wanted to just say a few words about it.

First, I should say that I quite enjoyed this book as an account of the battle, as well as a short biographical sketch of many of the major players (Jackson and Laffite, of course, but also several of the British commanders as well). Groom has a well-deployed talent for battlefield description and narrative, which requires a certain kind of writer to do adequately. He tells a good story here, puncutated with parenthetical asides linking the events of 1814-5 to the present through members of his own family. I learned several things in this book, most notably that the British tried to bribe Laffite to join their side and help them take New Orleans before he took up common cause with Jackson and the American troops.

Unfortunately, now I must grouse. Groom completely eschews footnotes for this book, and his quasi-bibliographical essay at the end explains little about which sources were used to make which statements (not to mention that many of the sources he uses seem to be early biographies of the participants - not usually the most authoritative sources). I also found some of Groom's hyperbole slightly annoying, as well as his justifications for some conclusions on which prior authors are divided; he basically says he picked the interpretation that made the most sense to him.

For serious scholars, there are undoubtedly better options for books on the Battle of New Orleans. If you're looking for nothing more than a good armchair read, however, you could do worse than Patriotic Fire.

Edinburgh to Host Audubon Exhibit

The National Library of Scotland will host an exhibit from July 4-October 15 titled "Birds of a Feather: Audubon's Adventures in Edinburgh", according to the Edinburgh Evening News. The display will include a volume of Audubon's Birds of America on loan from the Renfrewshire Council, as well as several loose plates from the collections of the National Museums of Scotland.

"The NLS exhibition invites visitors to step back in time to a Georgian drawing room, to learn how the production of the world-famous book started in Edinburgh, and to meet seven influential figures who Audubon encountered, including Sir Walter Scott, Lizars, William MacGillivray and Robert Knox.

The exhibition also offers an insight into the painstaking engraving work that enabled Audubon's glorious illustrations to be reproduced to the highest standards possible in the 1820s."

Ten of the 425 plates in the Birds of America were engraved by one of Edinburgh's own, William Home Lizars.

Hauck Collection Selling at Christies

The Cornelius J. Hauck "History of the Book" collection of more than 700 rare books and associated items is selling this week at Christie's in New York; the first two rounds of sales were completed yesterday, with a final session this morning. The items, which had been housed at the Museum Center of Cincinnati since 1966, are being sold to fund other operations and acquisitions.

Hauck's collection, which was created over the course of several decades in the middle of the twentieth century, was the subject of a New York Times profile last week, which notes "The sale features books in all forms, including ancient papyri fragments, Persian manuscripts, European books of hours and Hebrew manuscripts, as well as book-related curiosities, like the only known round bookbinding of the Renaissance, made in leather in 1590 by Caspar Meuser of Dresden for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg." Another book of interest is a 1907 edition of a work "by William Blake, translated into German, that artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte bound with tanned frog skins."

If you didn't make it to Christie's for the viewing (or for the sale), you can see the items here in their online catalog (or order the paper version). They've really done a marvelous job with the catalog, which is probably the most many of us will get to see of these beautiful items (check this guy out!).

Reports coming out of the auction house during yesterday's session were very positive (at least for those who sell rare books). One person who'd been inside reported that most items were selling for 2-3 times their mid-estimated prices, with some estimates overshot by significantly more. I'll have updates on this as available.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WSJ Profiles LibraryThing!

The Wall Street Journal has a really well-done and accurate article out this morning on LibraryThing (and the article's even free for the next month, so click while the clicking's good!). Tim has some comments on the story up on the LT blog as well. I love to see the site getting such fabulous press; LT deserves it!

Also see another recent LT article, in Poets & Writers.

Will Harry Potter Die?

J.K. Rowling hinted this week that she might kill off her title character in the final installment of the seven-volume Harry Potter series, the NYT reports. The author admitted that "at least two" major characters will die before the end of the final volume, but she declined to say whether Harry is one of those. Shades of Arthur Conan Doyle here perhaps, but remember, popular demand forced a (rather miraculous) resurrection of Sherlock Holmes .... In an interview with Britain's Channel 4, Rowling said that she wrote the final chapter of the series "long ago", but has tweaked it slightly as she's composed the book.

No word yet on when the seventh volume will be released. Meanwhile, I'd better get busy; I've still got the fifth and sixth volumes to read!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Bank Archivist Featured on NPR

It's really amazing how often archives, books and libraries feature in the news once you start looking for them!

On NPR's "Morning Edition" today, correspondent Guy Raz profiled Mary Beth Corrigan, the archivist for PNC/Riggs Bank. The story concerns the Riggs archive, an extensive collection of ledgers and documents dating back to the mid-nineteenth century (and including the accounts of 23 presidents and other high government officials, as well as countless other recognizable names). Corrigan was hired in 1998 to examine this vast archive, a process which she hopes to complete by the end of this year.

The profile is an interesting one, highlighting some interesting checks written by Abraham Lincoln (as well as his regular monthly deposits for $2,083, his presidential salary) and the movement of actual gold bullion in late 1867 to the Russian government as payment for Alaska (something new and dear to my heart; the transaction's major broker William H. Seward is a favorite research subject of mine and a fellow Union alum).

Some members on the Archives email lists today took offense that Raz says Corrigan is "selling herself short" after she describes herself as the archivist. "You see," continues Raz, "she's what you might call a history detective." They perceived Raz' comment as somehow slighting the archival profession, which seems a bit excessively sensitive. Personally I'm just glad to see people like Corrigan getting discussed on national news programs!

Book Review: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

To accompany the release of his new novel The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl has edited and written the introduction to a new Modern Library edition of Poe's detective stories. The Dupin Tales comprises "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter", as well as a few selections from Voltaire, Vidocq and Leggett which feature pre-Dupin "detectives."

While I had read the Dupin stories before (and enjoyed them for the classics they are), it was quite nice to have them in this form, and I enjoyed reading them again - particularly accompanied by Pearl's introduction and the other excerpts that were included in this volume. This makes an excellent companion to Poe Shadow, and serves as quite a good reminder that the dectective genre largely was born of the mind of Edgar Allan Poe.

At the author event the other night, Pearl remarked briefly on this book, noting a blurb on the front cover from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle calling Dupin "The best detective in fiction ... Dupin is unrivalled." This was Conan Doyle's response, Pearl said, to a question about whether Dupin or Sherlock Holmes was the greater detective.

If you've not read Dupin (and you like detective fiction), you should. Even if you've read the stories before, they're always worth another look ... particularly on a dark, rainy night like we've been having so many of lately.

Smiley Case Wrapup

Kim Martineau of the Hartford Courant wrote a long and excellent piece for yesterday's paper on the E. Forbes Smiley map-thefts case, which I highly recommend.

"Eyewitness" Exhibit Opens at NARA

A new exhibit to document history from a first-person perspective has just opened at the National Archives in Washington. According to an AP writeup, "the material for the archives exhibit comes from letters, photos, paintings and audio and video recordings," and ranges from a 1775 George Washington letter to a video interview with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) conducted just last week.

If you're not near DC, you can still view the exhibit here, in online form.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Book Review: "Dark Bargain"

Lawrence Goldstone is perhaps better known for his excellent literary memoirs, cowritten with his wife Nancy (Used and Rare, Slightly Chipped, Warmly Inscribed), than he is for his historical writing; his latest book, Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Constitution is a perfect example of why Mr. Goldstone should stick to writing about books.

Between the generalizations and oversimplifications ("to a significant and disquieting degree, America's most sacred document was molded and shaped by the most notorious institution in its history"; "only twenty-two years old, George Washington had helped ignite the first world war") and the anachronistic judgmental pronouncements that he slathers on throughout the book, Goldstone's work in Dark Bargain is, as the Publisher's Weekly review put it, the type of "book that gives 'popular history' a bad name."

The major theme - that self-interest, parochialism, and slavery played a role (if not a preeminent one) at the Constitutional Convention - is neither new nor augmented here; it is handled far better by more serious writers: Gordon Wood, Forrest McDonald, Jack Rakove, Bernard Bailyn and Eugene Genovese, among others. Goldstone's work seems overly deriative from that of Paul Finkelman, another writer who writes obsessively of the impact of slavery on the formation of the American government.

All in all, an eminently forgettable book which I cannot recommend.

Meacham Reviews Wood and Brookhiser

In today's NYTimes book review, author Jon Meacham (whose recent book American Gospel I have not yet read) examines two recent books on the Framers (or Founders, whichever you prefer). One is Brown historian Gordon S. Wood's Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, which is still making its way to the top of my reading pile; the other is Richard Brookhiser's deplorable What Would the Founders Do? (about which I've made my hardly positive views known).

Meacham manages somehow to write favorably of both books, while recognizing Wood's as the more important (his phrase, but I agree). Of Brookhiser's, he writes "That sound you hear in the background is the groaning of professional historians. But Brookhiser has written an enjoyable and informative book." On that I'll beg to differ, since I found myself alternately grinding my teeth at Brookhiser's gall at attempting divination and wanting to throw the book across the room for its utter inanity.

Meacham doesn't mind this exercise in retrospective mind-reading: he writes a "judicious examination of what our ancestors confronted and how they handled the challenges of their time can do us no harm, and might just help us, as we make our way through what George Eliot called the 'dim lights and tangled circumstance' of the world." The key word there is "judicious" - which Brookhiser clearly is not; also, Meacham is right in that we can examine "how they handled the challenges of their time" - what makes Brookhiser's book so repugnant to me is that he thinks we can examine how they would handle the challenges of our time.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Book Review: "Fight Club Politics"

I've posted a review of Juliet Eilperin's Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives here at Charging RINO.

Book Review: "Author Unknown"

An English lit professor at Vassar, Don Foster has been called "the world's first literary detective" for his role in the analysis of various texts to determine their authors. His 2000 book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous is a compilation of some of the most high-profile cases he's been involved with, from the attribution of a Shakespeare poem for his dissertation project to the discovery of journalist Joe Klein as the man responsible for Primary Colors and the rejection of Clement Clarke Moore as the composer of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Literary attribution/forensics is a growing field, and Foster's discussion of its usefulness is extremely interesting. Peppered with wry asides and wordplays, Foster makes what must be a somewhat tedious process of textual analysis seem quite exciting (as it undoubtedly is when dealing with such important subjects). While I enjoyed several of these episodes more than others (the sections on Shakespeare, Joe Klein and the Unabomber were the most fascinating, I thought), the entire book is very much worth a read.

Foster does an excellent job of describing the ups and downs of this type of work, and the constant danger of being one-upped by the discovery of a "new suspect" once an attribution has been made ... or, in the case of contemporary events, having your suspect lie and deny their involvement even as their writing gives them away, as Joe Klein did when Foster fingered him as the author of Primary Colors.

As more and more texts find themselves in electronic form, I suspect that Foster's field will continue to not only grow, but democratize - it will become increasingly difficult if not downright impossible to write anonymously if enough of your words are publicly known and available. As Foster writes in the epilogue, "Until writers can find some other medium than their own language in which to cloak their anonymity, there will always be someone to study the anonymous, or misattributed, text and say - 'Gotcha!'"

Matthew Pearl and "The Poe Shadow"

Last evening I went out to Cambridge to an author event with Matthew Pearl, who has just released his second novel, The Poe Shadow. I absolutely devoured Pearl's first book, The Dante Club, so I'd been looking forward to the second one for quite a while, got a copy as soon as it came out and read it right away. I was quite pleased with the book, which blends actual archival research into the facts behind Poe's mysterious and much-discussed death with Pearl's considerable talent at constructing a suspenseful and thrilling narrative. The author has been praised as a real up-and-comer in the "literary thriller" field, and his second work will do nothing to diminish that praise, I suspect.

Pearl spoke last night at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, in the midst of a very Poe-esque downpour. He didn't read much from the book, but mainly discussed the process of writing historical fiction, how he came to choose the topic, etc. Even after a month of book-tour schtick he was clearly still interested in the book, and even managed to throw out a number of good laugh lines. There was quite a nice crowd in attendance, and many excellent questions (there wasn't even one of those people who usually appear at book events and make a complete nuisance of themselves by filibustering the author with a long, complicated and obnoxious question for which they refuse to accept any reasonable answer).

If you get a chance to hear Pearl speak, I'd definitely encourage you to go - he's doing events all around the country/world these days (I think he said he was flying somewhere in Europe today but I can't remember the exact place). His website contains all that info, and even includes some "secret chapters" that didn't make it into his books. He is certainly an author I recommend highly, and I will await his next book just as impatiently as I anticipated Poe Shadow.

MLK Jr. Documents to be Donated

To cap off a week which has seen a number of unexpected events relating to archives and documents, there was news late yesterday that a collection of Martin Luther King Jr. manuscripts scheduled to sell June 30 at Sotheby's has instead been purchased by "a coalition of business, individuals and philanthropic leaders led by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin," according to a brief in the LATimes.

The collection contains more than 10,000 items, including early drafts of many of King's speeches, sermons, and letters, as well as books from his personal library. It was purchased by the Atlanta group for an undisclosed sum, and will be donated to Morehouse College, Dr. King's alma mater.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Map Thief Pleads Guilty

E. Forbes Smiley, a dealer "specializing" in early New England maps, admitted on Thursday the theft of 97 rare maps from at least six libraries around the world, worth more than $3 million in the antiques market but worth far more as cultural artifacts. The Hartford Courant has the most detailed coverage of yesterday's court appearance, while the LATimes and NYTimes also run pieces on the story today.

Smiley admitted to mutilating atlases and stealing maps over the past seven years from the Boston Public Library (34 maps), the New York Public Library (32), the Beinecke and Sterling Libraries at Yale (2o), Houghton Library at Harvard (8), the Newberry Library in Chicago (2) and the British Library (1). He was caught red-handed at Yale last year, after security cameras captured him removing a world map from Gerard de Jode's Speculum Orbis Terrarum, a 1578 atlas, and librarians spotted a dropped X-acto blade on the floor near Smiley's desk. When confronted, Smiley's briefcase was found to contain three maps stolen that day from the Yale; another was in his jacket pocket. Following those events, the FBI opened a full investigation of Smiley, who eventually cooperated in their investigation.

Yesterday, Smiley appeared first in federal court, pleading guilty to just one charge of "theft of major artwork." He told the judge "I did know at the time, and I do know now, that this was wrong. I very much regret my actions." He later went to state court and submitted a guilty plea on three theft charges there.

Smiley had "faced up to 60 years if convicted of all state charges, but in a combined state and federal plea agreement, he is expected to spend no more than 71 months in federal prison." He will also have to pay $1.8 million in restitution to the libraries he stole from as well as the dealers he sold to (who've had to buy back the stolen maps from customers so that they can be returned to their rightful owners). Eleven of the maps have not been returned. Smiley will be sentenced in September; until then, he's out on bond.

There are special places in hell reserved for people like Smiley; 71 months in jail (even with the loss of his professional reputation) hardly seems adequate for the damage he has done. As the Courant said in an editorial earlier this week, "Smiley will get no sympathy here. ... When it comes to crimes against property, this is about as low as one can go. Monetary value is beside the point. It's one thing to steal mere objects out of greed, but quite another to pilfer irreplaceable treasures, hugely important to the study of history, that belong not to one victim, but to civilization."

Of course, one hopes that these events will prompt better security at the harmed insitutions, and make those who collect and purchase rare maps much more cautious about their provenance - that can be the only possible good to come of this.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

UK Archives Search Engine Unveiled

The UK National Archives has released a new Global Search engine, which examines more than 28 million records from various archival repositories around the British Isles. It's quite a neat site, and I really like how they've done their subject headings - these were based on conservations with users, and it shows. The advanced search option allows searching by individual database, and seems very easy and adaptable.

Just in a few minutes of playing around on this site, I've already discovered some military records on my great-grandfather, who served in World War I; my family didn't know these records were extant. Quite exciting! Certainly try out the site, and use the feedback form at the bottom to let the Archives know what you think of it.

Newberry Library Acquires Map Collection

In 1982, staff of the Chicago History Museum packed up almost 1,400 maps and atlases that didn't fit its collection policy; a portion of the collection which was purchased last year for $120,000 by the Newberry Library will now be made public in an online catalog. According to the Chicago Tribune, the maps purchased by the Newberry range wildly, from eighteenth-century maps of Boston, New Orleans and the Ohio Valley to street maps from the 1970s.

Among the rarer items are a 1675 map of Newfoundland, the manuscript map of the Ohio Valley dating from the 1790s, and two large colored DeCordova maps of Texas from 1857 and 1860.

The Newberry Library's press release notes that the items will all be searchable in its Cartographic Catalog via the phrase "Purchased from the Chicago Historical Society, 2005." Says curator Robert Karrow, "We are so pleased that we were able to work with the Chicago History Museum to keep these wonderfully rich maps here in Chicago for scholars and map enthusiasts to study and enjoy." The library has approximately 300,000 maps in its collections.

The rest of the History Museum's deaccessioned maps have now been sold to other buyers (mainly via auctios at Swann Galleries), netting about $500,000 total for the institution.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Genetic" Testing for Rare Books?

This article is getting quite a bit of play in the archives/rare books world today, as well it should. Penn State biology professor Blair Hedges has developed a new technique for dating old books, prints, and maps; his "print clock" method "is similar to molecular-clock techniques used to time genetic mutations," according to the AP report.

Basically, this technique relies on comparative examinations of "line breaks" and other variations in illustrations and text. Hedges maintains that "breaks occur at a constant rate over time, irrespective of print runs," based on atmospheric deterioration of the wood, copper and other materials used to create the printing plates. Hedges studied woodblock-printed maps from Bordone's Isolario, the printers' devices from the same book, and also copperplate engravings. On the latter, Hedges concluded that the "the plates deteriorated 1 to 2 micrometers per year due to corrosion. The rate is similar to known rates for the atmospheric corrosion of copper."

This seems like an interesting system, although its application at this point may be fairly limited. Clearly it requires a rather large number of exemplars of known, dated samples to allow for comparison with the undated subject sample - many undated or unknown items today are simply not likely to have such a deep resource pool. Nonetheless, in some limited cases it could have its uses, and it's excellent to see the interdisciplinary approach taken by Professor Hedges.

Hedges' full article was published on Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Berès Collection Surpasses Estimates

With the increased attention drawn by his donation of a Stendhal manuscript to France, book dealer Pierre Berès had a very good day at the auction house yesterday - his collection's sale grossed almost twice the $7.5 million it was estimated to bring in, according to Reuters.

"Inside the crowded Drouot auction hall in central Paris, the scene resembled an updated version of one of Balzac's novels of money and avarice as an auctioneer dispatched one treasure after another to a floor of impassive bidders," the report notes.

The single most expensive piece sold is described as a "16th century collection of bird paintings" (if anybody knows more specifically what that was I'd love to hear it), which sold for $1.5 million. Other items included a presentation copy of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Alexandre Dumas, and corrected Balzac proofs.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Book Review: "84, Charing Cross Road"

I finally took the time (not very much was necessary, since it's less than a hundred pages long) to read Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road ... my only regret is that I didn't do so sooner. What a lovely little book! The collected letters from nearly two decades of correspondence between a New York writer and the staff of a used bookshop in London, 84 is at times both hilarious and sad, witty and wistful. By the end, I felt as though I knew the characters myself.

One of the most delightful things about these letters is Miss Hanff's personified descriptions of the books she receives from Marks & Co. Upon the arrival of a copy of Samuel Pepys' diary: "He says to tell you he's overJOYED to be here, he was previously owned by a slob who never even bothered to cut the pages." Or this, in a letter from May 8, 1960: "Mr. De Tocqueville's compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country. ... [C]ame home and read a couple of newspaper stories about the presidential hopefuls - stevenson, humphrey, kennedy, stassen, nixon - all lawyers but humphrey." I laughed out loud at several of those, and at other points where the persnickety customer berates (good-naturedly, of course) the poor staff for sending her inferior or abridged editions of items she's requested ... even as she constantly seems to be sending them presents.

Anyone who has known the pleasure of a newly-arrived book or formed a bond with those who supply them will enjoy this little gem. I am certain I'll return to it often.

Stendhal Manuscript Donated, Saved from Auction Block

The NYTimes notes that a rare manuscript version of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, scheduled to sell at an auction today in Paris, has instead been donated by its owner to the French nation. "Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres hailed the gift by Pierre Berès as a 'generous gesture' that helped to 'bring to the national collection an essential piece of 19th-century literary history.'" Other items from the 93-year-old Berès' collection which will be sold at Drouot today include works by Balzac, Rimbaud, and Proust. The sale's value is estimated at $7.5 million.

Getty May Return Looted Antiquities

The Getty Museum will offer to return as many as twenty-one art objects currently in its collections to Italy as part of negotiations over looted art and artifacts, the LATimes reports. This is the ongoing saga of thefts and illegal transactions well documented in the new book The Medici Conspiracy, which I reviewed last week.

According to the Times story, an internal museum audit "last year found that 350 [in addition to 52 already claimed by Italy] objects had been acquired from dealers either convicted or implicated in the trafficking of looted antiquities. The number was far greater than publicly known and had not been disclosed to Italian authorities." Now that the information has become public, there is some question about whether the Italians will accept the return of just a few items; they have previously said that at minimum they want the 52 identified items returned (although there is speculation that the Getty and Italy could reach an agreement similar to that entered into by the Met in New York, whereby some objects are returned in exchange for long-term loans of similar items).

This story continues to develop on several fronts, not just at the Getty but also in Italy itself, where former Getty curator Marion True is on trial for conspiracy in relation to the purchase of stolen artifacts.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Conservators Tackle Redwood Items

Several thousand rare books and other items belonging to the Redwood Library in Newport, RI suffered damage in December when a fire broke out in a building adjacent to a storage facility where the materials were temporarily housed. On Friday, the Providence Journal reports, several members of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (in the area for the organization's annual meeting), visited the library to examine and assess the damaged objects as part of an "Angels Project" to provide free conservatorial appraisal.

Redwood Library (the nation's oldest continuous lending library, founded in 1747) will use the appraisals to assist them in seeking bids from conservators to perform necessary repairs.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Book Review: "Bibliotopia"

Steven Gilbar's Bibliotopia (subtitled or, Mr. Gilbar's Book of Books & Catch-all of Literary Facts & Curiosities) is an amusing and interesting collection of lists about books, authors, and other literary trivia. Decorated with appropriate and lovely illustrations by Elliott Banfield, Bibliotopia is a well-designed and useful miscellany, often reminiscent of those by Ben Schott.

Gilbar's work is the kind of book to set on a bedside table or guest bedroom bookshelf, good for dipping in and out of at random. The absence of a table of contents makes sense for this type of collection, but somewhat diminishes the book's usefulness as a reference guide (as does the inexplicable omission of most - but not all - author names from the index).

I must mention a couple small areas of concern: Gilbar incorrectly dates the development of paper to 405 A.D. (page 3); the date typically given for that event is 105 A.D., and even that has been proven too late (by about two hundred years) by archaeological investigations during the last decade. In the same entry, Gilbar makes the overly trite statement "With the coming of the steam-driven printing press, wood-based paper transformed society: before then a book was a rarity and most people could not read." Neither books nor literacy were as uncommon before the mid-nineteenth century as that sentence seems to suggest. Finally, Gilbar falls prey to the dangerously seductive trap of conflating book "format" with book "size", on page 7; determing format is rarely as easy as simply measuring the book's height.

Those minor issues aside, Bibliotopia is a worthwhile diversion for the literary-minded; there are chuckles, "hmm" moments, and interesting new bits of knowledge aplenty to be found within.

Book Review Archive

Before I start adding new book reviews, here are links to those I've posted previously, with the newest at the top:

- The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson & Cecilia Todeschini (on the illegal antiquities trade).
- What Would the Founders Do? by Rick Brookhiser.
- Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr (a biography of Robespierre).
- The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly.
- Book by Book by Michael Dirda.
- Unspeak by Steven Poole (on political language).
- Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.
- Rough Crossings by Simon Schama.
- The Divided Ground by Alan Taylor (US-American Indian relations after the Revolution).
- A Revolution in Favor of Government by Max Edling.
- Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.
- The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra.
- Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama.
- 1776 by David McCullough.
- Independent Nation by John Avlon.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Greetings! Welcome to what I hope will be an interesting, fun and informative new undertaking. My goal for this blog is to have an outlet for my literary musings, which range wildly. I have been blogging for about a year and a half over at Charging RINO, which suffices for my political rants and ramblings, but lately I've wanted another place where I can pass along news, reviews and commentaries about book culture, librarianship, archives, etc. So here we are!

First of all, I guess I should say a bit about myself. I graduated from Union College in 2004, having majored in political science. I worked there for a year in the Special Collections Department before moving to Boston in August '05 to begin a dual-master's program at Simmons College (library science with an archives management concentration, and history). Here in Boston, I work part-time at Commonwealth Books, and also at the Bostonian Society, where I'm assisting with a grant-funded project to catalog and digitize the Society's collection of Boston-related prints and paintings.

I am a voracious reader and collector of books on many subjects, from the rare to the brand-new (with subjects centering around history, books on books, biography, and natural history). Aside from Commonwealth, I make regular or semi-regular visits to many of the other used bookstores in Boston and Cambridge, and nearly always manage to find something I can't live without (much to the dismay of my grad-student budget). My catalog is now almost completely online, thanks to LibraryThing, a site which is one of the best tools out there for the modern reader. I wrote a more complete review of LT recently, which can be found here; I really can't say enough good things about it, and recommend it highly. Beware, however, of its wiles - if you aren't careful, you'll find yourself working for hours ... and I often do.

My book reviews for several months have been posted at Charging RINO, but given the particular audience there I comment almost exclusively on books of current events, history, or biography. Since I read in so many other areas, this will provide a place for reviews of those works; I'll also comment on articles from the library/archives literature that catch my interest, and will provide links and thoughts on other media pieces dealing with book culture as events warrant.

Part of the reason I hadn't begun this blog before today was my inability to come up with a name for it that I liked. That problem was solved last night as I read a delightful little book: Wayne Wiegand's History of a Hoax: Edmund Lester Pearson, John Cotton Dana, and 'The Old Librarian's Almanack'. In the early part of the last century, Pearson and Dana conspired to "reprint" a 1773 almanac that didn't actually exist; the author of that work was one Jacob Bean, or (as he signed the title page), Philobiblos ("lover of books"). It seemed perfect for this endeavor, so I've appropriated the term, with all credit to Pearson and Dana.

In the interests of not making this first post any longer than it's already gotten, I'll stop here for the time being. I hope you'll visit again; feel free to email me or post comments with news stories I've missed, book suggestions, or any other thoughts you might have.