Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Links &c.

- Michael Lieberman at Book Patrol has short post about the Grolier Club, including a list of their upcoming exhibitions (at least two of which I might have to journey down to NYC for ...)

- ABE has opened some new "rooms", branching out into Science Fiction and Fantasy now, as Reading Copy reports. They also have a new "Not-Book", 1985: Things are Looking Up by G. Orwell. (If you haven't seen their Not-Book advertising campaign, check it out here, they're quite enjoyable).

- At Reading Archives, Richard Cox comments on (some recent) portrayals of archives in fiction.

- Oooh! Ed at The Bibliothecary points out that Stanford's "Discovering Sherlock Holmes" series has begun again: they'll post a Strand facsimile of a new Holmes story each week. Speaking of Holmes, I made a wonderful and unexpected book-find yesterday: a copy of Conan Doyle's Round the Fire Stories (some very creepy and wonderful non-Holmes writings that I read gazillions of times when I was younger but hadn't found for sale in a while). Found, incidentally, at Rodney's in Central Square, Cambridge.

Henry Owen Collection Goes to National Library

News Wales reports that 5,000 books from the Henry Owen Collection have been gifted to the National Library of Wales to ensure that they remain available to the public. Owen served as the first treasurer of the National Library.

Owen (1844-1919) accumulated "a vast collection of books and manuscripts particularly in the field of history and archaeology but also including the cream of 19th and early 20th century literature. When he died in 1919 this collection was bequeathed to Haverfordwest, with the exception of 500 books and the bulk of his manuscript materia, which went to the National Library. Although a committee was set up to look after the collection it has been long defunct and today the books are stored in the basement reserve store of Haverfordwest Library , except for those works particularly relating to Pembrokeshire. These are in the Local Studies section of the library and will stay in the county."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Big (and Bad!) News from the BL

While I hope this is just a case of necessary lobbying to avoid budget cuts, I thought it important enough to pass along anyway. The Independent reports today that if planned budget slashes ("up 7 per cent of its £100 million" budget) are enacted, services would have to be drastically reduced.

A plan to cope with the cuts calls for reduction of operating hours by a third, charging admission for researchers in the BL's reading room, the closure of all public exhibitions and the National Newspaper Archive, as well as a permanent reduction of the collections by 15%. A spokesman for the Department of Culture told the paper "The cultural sector has had huge real-terms increases in funding since 1997. Clearly, this cannot go on indefinitely."

The report quotes several angry members of the House of Lords, including Lord Bragg, who called the library of "massive importance in a society ... that depends more and more on information, creativity and brains. It needs to be nourished, not hobbled." In a letter to Chancellor Gordon Brown, Lord Avebury adds "It is difficult to fathom the mind of a Government that sets out to wreck a world-class public institution, as you would if the British Library is forced to make these cuts."

Scholar AN Wilson has weighed in over at This is London, saying "I'm astounded by this. It's outrageous because the British Library is our national library and technically anybody should be able to use it for free. The Department of Culture should not cut its budget, especially when the sum we are talking about is a tiny proportion of what it is spending on the Olympic Games."

To protest the proposed cuts, the staff of the BL is planning a system-wide strike on Wednesday, noting "The strike is not aimed at the Library but at the Government, and other public service institutions will be affected." All reading rooms will be closed for the day.

As I said at the outset, I hope this is simply a move by the BL to head off cuts by predicting (probably accurately) some possible consequences. I hope, too, that it works. Charging for use of the reading room at the BL would truly mark a sad day for the world.

Update: Stolen Russian Book Recovered

Earlier this month I noted the theft of an 1892 copy of The History and Masterworks of Byzantium Enamel from the Institute of History and Material Culture's library in St. Petersburg. ITAR-TASS reports today that the book has been recovered; it was found inside a plastic bag at the Pushkin Children's Library.

"'Library personnel though[t] that the bag looked suspicious and called the police,' a city police source told ITAR-TASS. The source attributed the find to the thorough investigation. 'When the list of suspects became very short, the thief preferred to get rid of the stolen item,' he said."

Sounds a bit more like luck to me ... but at least the book has been found. Police say the investigation into the theft is ongoing; no suspect has been apprehended.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Book Review: "Giotto's Hand"

Aside from An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears also has written a few books in an "Art History Mystery" series, including Giotto's Hand. It took me a couple chapters to realize I'd read this one before, but since I couldn't remember the ending I went ahead and read it again. Like the others in the series (but not like Fingerpost or Scipio) this is a fairly light read - and as in all of Pears' books, the writing is interesting and witty, with good characters. Incidentally, for some reason I found it hard to read Mary Verney and not see Stepanie Cole (Diana from the BBC show "Waiting for God") in the role - for some reason she just seems a perfect fit. If they ever make a movie ...

This made a perfect paperback read for a few daily commutes. Not as challenging or provocative as some of Pears' other stuff, but adequate nonetheless.

ephemera Interview with Ivo Meisner

Over at ephemera (link added to sidebar), they've got a short but very interesting interview with Ivo Meisner, president of the Manuscript Society and owner of Book Den East on Martha's Vineyard.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book Review: "Something That Will Surprise the World"

Williams College Humanities professor Susan Dunn has collected some of the best-known letters and essay excerpts from some of the framers in Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers. Collections like this are of some limited use in certain cases, but their necessarily subjective nature severely hobbles their usefulness.

Dunn's omission of Benjamin Franklin is rather odd (she includes writings from Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson and Madison), and while for the most part I found her introductions to the writings of each author fairly good, I felt she over-simplified Hamilton and Madison to dangerous degrees (two-page caricatures of these men - and the others - are hardly adequate).

Distilling the massive collections of the framers' writings into less than a hundred pages apiece is
an effort perhaps destined to the same litany of complaints - why not this letter over that? Why excise this paragraph here? It's simply not an easy thing to do. Dunn has carried it off fairly well, but if you seek a full picture of any particular character here, seek out the wider context.

Book Review: "The Creation"

As I said back in August when I reviewed his Nature Revealed, E.O. Wilson is one of the scientific writers whose works I enjoy most, and I've finally gotten to spend an afternoon with his most recent book: The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006, W.W. Norton & Co.). Written in the form of an open letter to a (fictitious) southern Baptist minister, Wilson's appeal is a heartfelt and science-based call for a joining of the scientific and religious forces in cooperation to halt and reverse human-caused destruction of the planet's ecosystems.

Like Owen Gingerich in God's Universe (review), Wilson is able to make a coherent argument without resorting to personal assaults on those who view things differently. His premise - that all humans have an interest in preserving the Earth's diversity, and ought to work together to do so - is simple, and expressed here in clear, understandable language. Beyond this, Wilson revisits some of the points he makes more expansively in Consilience and other works regarding the apparent biological basis behind some elements of "human nature."

In several of the later chapters, Wilson suggests several ways in which education of biological sciences can be improved, and also offers some ideas about how to allow children to connect with nature (this section reminded me much of my own childhood). Finally, he argues that the time has come for human beings to make a fundamental decision: we will work together to stop the destruction of the planet, or will we continue along our present path? By overcoming what he calls "metaphysical differences," Wilson maintains, the former can be achieved.

Highly recommended for anyone whose interests run to the protection of biological diversity and those who can offer reasoned discussions on its behalf.

Links &c.

- One of BibliOdyssey's posts this week was made of up some gorgeous insect illustrations from an album created c. 1660-80 by English artist Alexander Marshal (162?-1682), better known in his own time for his watercolors of flowers and fruits.

- At Upward Departure, Travis has written up a two-part post (one, two) on the thefts made by Sandy Berger from the National Archives. The first discusses the actual thefts, while the second considers the sentences as compared with several others handed down in recent years.

- Ed's got some great new posts over at The Bibliothecary, including a list of some of his upcoming reviews, and some comments on the short film "Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man," about the fellow who now runs Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Looks like quite a character, I'll have to watch the movie.

- AHA Today notes the banning of Wikipedia as a citable source by the Middlebury College history Department. Seems about right to me; I agree with both the department chair ("Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation") and a Wikipedia spokesperson ("Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources"). I tend to use Wikipedia extremely sparingly, but on occasion it can be reasonably useful. Smart move by Middlebury, I say (although I do like the commenter who asks why citing Wikipedia was ever okay...).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Book Review: "Changes in the Land"

William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England is a brief, coherent and well-written look at the drastic changes wrought in the ecology of what is now the northeastern United States during the first century or so of European settlement. By examining the pre-contact use patterns of Indian tribes, Cronon is able to make useful conclusions about how those patterns changed over time and the impact those changes had on the ecological balance of the region.

From agricultural techniques to the dynamics of the fur trade to the rising demand for lumber (for starters), Cronon offers a remarkably thorough survey for such a brief book (just 170 pages). His style is concise and clear: "eminently readable" in the good sense of that phrase, not the pejorative. I found his juxtaposition of Indian and colonial concepts of property rights quite well done, and the discussion of colonial firewood consumption was staggering (one estimate puts it at one acre of forest per year per household!, some 260 million cords between 1630 and 1800).

Aside from the text, I will take the opportunity to rave about Cronon's citations, which are both extensive and useful. His bibliographic essay is notable for its broad scope (although I wish he'd taken the opportunity of the twentieth-anniversary edition to add some of the more recent scholarship that's appeared since Changes in the Land first appeared).

An important book, well deserving of the many praises which have been sung of it in the past and will continue to be sung of it in the future.

Early Gospel on Papyrus Donated to Vatican

The oldest existing copy of Luke's gospel and one of the earliest known copies of the Gospel of John have been presented to the Vatican library by American businessman Frank J. Hanna. The 144-page Greek manuscript known as Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV is believed to have been written c. 175-225 CE, and contains "about half of each of the Gospels of Luke and John" according to Vatican archivist Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

Tauran officially presented several pages of the manuscript to Pope Benedict XVI in an audience with the Hanna family on Monday, although the papyrus was actually handed over to the Vatican back in November. In preservation work on the codex since then, Vatican experts have discovered "
new fragments from the external pages of the text itself" which had been subsumed into the rough binding.

"Claudio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Library, told Catholic News Service Jan. 23 that the new acquisition includes the oldest existing copy of the Lord's Prayer, which is found in Luke 11:1-4."

Bodmer VIII, comprising
the First and Second Letters of St. Peter, was presented to Pope Paul VI by Bodmer in 1969. At his death in 1971, Bodmer's remaining manuscripts were willed to a foundation in Switzerland, from which Hanna acquired XIV-XV. The Bodmer papyri were discovered in Egypt in 1952.

(h/t William Klimon, Ex-Libris)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Smiley-Stolen Map Returned to Yale

Another shoe has dropped in the E. Forbes Smiley case, Kim Martineau reports in today's Hartford Courant. A 1524 Hernán Cortés woodcut map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico has been returned to Yale University from a New York map dealer who purchased the item from Smiley. The map is believed to have been stolen from Yale in May, 2005 when Smiley requested to see it, and has been missing since.

It seems that Smiley took the map to New York City, where he sold it to Harry Newman of the Old Print Shop for "mid-five figures," according to Newman. Newman originally thought that the map he'd purchased was safe, but after a close examination realized that it matched a picture of the stolen Yale copy. He returned the map "before Christmas, for the last weeks of an exhibition on the mapping of early Mexico," Martineau notes.

"The case is closed, but another mystery remains. Smiley confessed to stealing Harvard's copy of the Cortés map, but no one knows how two facsimile reproductions found their way into the book the map came from. Harvard discovered the two facsimiles - and its missing map - after Smiley's arrest.

New York Public Library, it turns out, is missing a Cortés facsimile. Did Smiley steal it and put it in the Harvard book to disguise his earlier theft? If so, what about the second facsimile?

Four maps handled by Smiley have turned up since his sentencing, including Harvard's 1578 world map by British explorer George Best and New York's 1535 world map by Carthusian monk Gregor Reisch. Federal authorities insist Smiley cooperated in good faith. A U.S. attorney's spokesman said he couldn't comment on whether charges might be brought, but it appears unlikely."

Of course it does (argh!). How many more stories like this are going to have to dribble in over the next x number of years before the "federal authorities" realize that what they got out of Smiley was only the tip of the iceberg?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Book Review: "Thinking with Objects"

I've become quite interested in the history of science in recent years and have consequently been trying to read somewhat more extensively in that area. My latest foray into the subject is Domenico Bertoloni Meli's Thinking with Objects: The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Meli argues that by examining the relatively common tools used in scientific experimentation during the seventeenth century (by which he means things like the lever, the inclined plane, the pendulum, &c.) we can come to a more complete understanding of scientific study that combines the practical and the theoretical and is less prone to anachronistic conclusions.

Through a thematic and roughly chronological overview of how various scientists (from Galileo to Newton, give or take a few) used and understood objects in their studies of physical phenomena, Meli offers what must be considered as comprehensive a study of this topic as has ever been undertaken (or is likely to be undertaken in the future).

The part of this book I found most intriguing (probably not surprisingly) was Meli's examination of the changes in scientific publishing through the seventeenth century, and the different choices of format, language, and writing style utilized in presenting works of scientific interest. The analysis of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica was also very enlightening.

Clearly the result of meticulous research and extensive study, I suspect this work will stand the test of time as a fine examination of the role of objects in mechanical study during the seventeenth century. Recommended for anyone curious about such things.

Links &c.

- Michael Lieberman has a good post at Book Patrol on the "disappearance of the book middle-class" (that is, books priced $25-75 in used bookshops). "Within the last 10 years, the influx of technology, the advent of online bookselling and widespread internet connectivity, has brought into the market millions upon millions of books that were simply unaccounted for. The book resale market has become a petri dish of supply and demand economics. Here the true free market is deciding price points. This flood of available material has taken many of the books in the $25-75 price range and reduced them to $1-$15 books. Is this just a natural evolution of free market capitalism?"

Michael goes on to suggest that there are probably more "non-new books available for sale today that are priced under the cost of shipping the book to the buyer than the total amount of books available to the public 10 years ago." Given the number of people who sell books on Amazon for pennies (a business model which I confess I still cannot wrap my head around), I'd be willing to bet Michael's right.

On the flip side, of course, rarer items only get rarer, and collectors' ability to snap up any Aldine or Elzevier or [insert your niche passion here] is unparalled in today's searchable age. So prices go up up up on the high end, down down down on the low end ... and as Michael notes, "it is our friends in the middle who are being squeezed out." An interesting trend to watch, and one I've noticed very sharply in the last couple of years.

- The good folks at Bytown Bookshop had a "great day for buying" on Sunday; looks like they got some nice goodies! And at Lux Mentis, Lux Orbis, Ian's got some very interesting new Stephen King items and notes some upcoming book fairs he'll be attending.

- Over at Reading Archives, Richard Cox comments on the recent NARA report over the Sandy Berger case.

- I've added a sidebar link to viaLibri, a book search aggregator which looks through many of the online databases. I like that it's got year and price range searchability, those are always useful tools.

- Oh, I almost forgot ... the Brentano's in Copley Place mall (for those of you in/near Boston) is closing (since Borders just opened another store right up the street) and their entire stock is 40% off or more. This coming Friday's their last day, so if you're in the area, there are some bargains to be had.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Audubon Brushes to be Displayed

The John James Audubon Museum in Henderson, KY will soon have a new and important attraction: some rare paintbrushes used (and probably also handmade) by the master artist himself. The Evansville Courier & Press notes that the brushes were purchased by the museum from Christie's last fall, along with a handwritten Audubon manuscript (for "a little more than $20,000").

"They're six little tufts of hair that would fit easily in the palm of your hand. The largest is about the size of the end of your little finger and the smallest could be used to apply a woman's eyeliner. The green cloth cover of the flat folding case that holds them shows the wear of many openings and closings. ... Upon close study, one can see they're bound together with windings of colored threads, in much the same manner a person tying a fly for fishing would bind feathers and hair to create a fishing lure. And then they were forced or pulled some way through the small ends of shafts of feathers from large birds. ... A handle or stick would have been inserted into the larger, open end of the quill to allow a person to hold them for painting."

The brushes are believed to have been passed down through the Audubon family until the 1920s, when they were purchased by collector Grace Phillips Johnson. Upon her death in 1977 many of Johnson's Audubon items were sold to an unidentified purchaser, who consigned at least some of materials to Christie's late last fall.

Audubon's brushes and the accompanying manuscript (covering one of Audubon's trips from Henderson to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri in 1811-2) will be unveiled at the annual meeting of the Friends of Audubon on January 29, after which they will be put on regular display.

GA's Earliest Declaration of Independence Found

A clerk's copy of the Declaration of Independence, believed to be the "earliest-known official copy of the [document] recorded in the state of Georgia," has been discovered in the Georgia State Archives, according to reports. The copy was made in March, 1777, after an authenticated Declaration was sent to the state on orders of the Contintental Congress. That original copy has been lost.

Vicki Gavalas, a spokesperson for the GA secretary of state's office, said that the document "was carefully copied with the signatures of the signers. The scribe copied John Hancock's signature very big as it was on the original document. Georgia was in the midst of the Revolutionary War. We believe the document was sent to the state capital of Savannah. But Savannah was occupied. It may have been written in an encampment."

Reference archivist Greg Jarrell found the Declaration in a rebound volume labeled (incorrectly) "State Officers Appointments 1789-1827, Part 2." Archives director David Carmichael said of the find "The people who rebound the book [in 1945] put the wrong title on the cover. No one thought to look in the particular volume for such a document."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Book Review: "Mr. Foreigner"

Since reading Matthew Kneale's English Passengers this summer (review) I've been on the lookout for other books that he's written: Mr. Foreigner is the first once I've come across, and unfortunately I didn't find it nearly as enthralling (I was, in fact, glad that it was so short). It's a dark, interesting tale (and one I'm fairly surprised hasn't been optioned for a movie yet, since it would fit right in with contemporary filmmaking) of an Englishman's difficulties in Japan - but without a single sympathetic character and with rather too many glib stereotypes. It just wasn't my cup of tea. That said, there are still a couple Kneale titles out there that I haven't found yet, and I'm definitely going to give him another chance when the opportunity presents itself.

A Trio of Sunday Links

- From Ekthesis (link also added to sidebar), a very interesting post on Coptic bookbinding. (h/t fade theory)

- Ian at Lux Mentis, Lux Orbis comments on a rather odd new feature from WorldCat: "Watch WorldCat Grow (LIVE)" which updates every eight seconds to show the most recent record uploads to OCLC. Ian: "The excitement is almost palpable."

- Joyce notes that today is the anniversary of the publication of William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, widely considered the first American novel; it debuted in 1789. This is another one that I read first in an Early American Lit class, and like Wieland, still has some potent themes.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

In the Archives

The latest issue of Common-place (a free and generally interesting e-journal of historical interest) contains a short but fascinating essay by James Fichter, an assistant professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Fichter's research into American shipping during the late eighteenth century takes him archive-hopping from The Hague, to Capetown, to Mauritius, to Jakarta and beyond, and in this piece he describes his experiences in each repository.

Fichter recounts researcher nirvana in the digitized super-efficiency of the Dutch Nationaal Archief and the exasperating state of affairs in Mauritius, where - due to little financial support and hence sub-part storage methods - "some volumes turned out to be little more than cover and binding, others a maddening Swiss cheese of fragmentary layers, the shreds of one page intertwined with the remnants of the next, too fragile to disentangle, too jumbled to read." (All is not lost, however; the day is saved by the arrival of ... an ice-cream truck).

A recommended read.

University of Texas Joins Google Books

The University of Texas at Austin - the fifth largest academic library in America - becomes the latest major research library to join Google's Book Project; at least one million volumes from the UT collections will be digitized. A major focus of the digitized UT collections will be books from the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, which "chronicles the rich history, politics and society of the region and includes the works of notable Latin American authors."

Fred Heath, vice provost and director of libraries at UT, says of the move "Intellectual discovery is at the heart of the scholarly research process. The best collections of information are only as useful as the quality of the tools available for discovering and accessing that information. Joining with Google’s Book Search program will mean that the intellectual content of our collections are discoverable by a much wider range of scholars and students."

Items Missing from Tulane

From an ILAB bulletin: the following items were discovered missing from exhibit cases at the Latin American Library, Tulane University.

- Facsimile edition of Codice Murua: historia y genealogia de los reyes incas del Peru del padre mercenario Fray Martin de Murua. Editorial Testamento, 2004.

- Collection of Pre-Columbian Stamp Seals (five small clay stamp seals)

- Copper plate engraving (1814) of the "Miraculous Image of Nuestra Señora del Carmen" by Manuel López López. The plate's verso contains a short musical score, among other miscellaneous markings.

- Calaveras engravings by Mexican satirical artist José Guadalupe Posada. (2-3 thin sheets of approx. 15 x 9 with drawings of Mexican scenes featuring skeletons)

- Original sketches for jewelry designs by Margot van Voorhies, Taxco, Mexico, ca. 1950s. (eight small colorful sketches of jewelry designs approx. 2 x2 )

- Manuscript document: Libro de Hidalguía de Juan de Aguilar, 1622. (Darker brown leather cover with designs etched into cover& first pages of book has painted colorful images of a Virgin and a coat of arms on vellum with rest of volume handwritten in old Spanish)

The items were discovered missing within the last week. If you have any information, please contact Hortensia Calvo.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Book Review: "Crome Yellow"

Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, came as quite a pleasant surprise to me, having only read his Brave New World previously (and not enjoying it overmuch). In this novel (first published in 1921), Huxley offers a brilliant and witty portrayal of the English social scene after World War I in the form of a biting, yet light, satire (it reminded me quite a lot of Evelyn Waugh).

There is not a great deal of "plot" in this short novel, much of which is given over to conversation between Priscilla and Henry Wimbush (the occupants of Crome, an old estate) and their eclectic collection of guests: Denis, the erstwhile poet; Gombauld, the rakish painter; Mr. Barbecue-Smith, a "self-help writer" of prodigious output (he writes 1,500 words per hour by channeling his subconscious); and ladies Jenny, Mary, and Anne (the targets of various masculine attempts at seduction, most of which manage to go spectacularly awry). The conversations center on some of the great issues of modern times, however: human contact, study, emotion, and the vagaries of love.

Henry Wimbush's composition of a massive history of the Crome estate provides some excellent vignettes when he shares selections from those learned volumes with the assembled cast. These interjections are typically hilarious (one example concerns a predecessor's fixation with privy location), and provide an elegant counterpoint to the goings-on.

If you haven't read Huxley beyond Brave New World, I highly recommend starting with Crome Yellow. It may have lost a bit of its edge in its eighty-some years of existence, but it's still sharp enough to cut.

One Bookstore I Probably Wouldn't Enter ...

I'm not entirely sure whether this story is true or not, but it seems to be just strange enough to be real. If so, remind me not to stop by there if I'm ever in Oklahoma City.

Stolen Torah Returned to France

By way of followup to a brief mention back in August: Israel's Arutz Sheva reports that a thirteenth-century manuscript Torah stolen from the Bibliotheque Nationale by a former curator has been returned to France following a January 3 ruling by the New York State Supreme Court (sorry I'm a little behind the eight-ball on this story).

The former curator - Michel Garel - had sold the manuscript (through Christie's) to collector Yosef Goldman; when Garel was convicted of the theft, the Bibliotheque Nationale sued Goldman to recover the document. Goldman, in turn, sued Christie's for a refund of the money he paid.

"After complex negotiations between French officials, Christie’s and Goldman, the manuscript was returned to the library, and Goldman received a refund. Library officials said that Goldman purchased the manuscript in good faith and had already resold it when its theft was discovered. France also reportedly agreed to cover some of Goldman’s legal expenses."

(h/t Shelf:Life)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Book Review: "The Library as Place"

The Library as Place: History, Community, and Culture is a collection of essays edited by John Buschman and Gloria Leckie. Designed to "provide diverse and wide-ranging perspectives on the role and place of different kinds of libraries as cultural institutions as well as the library as a physical, social, and intellectual place within the hearts and minds of its clientele and the public at large" (p. 4) the essays cover a great deal of scholarly ground.

While many of the selections included here were too theory-based for my liking (just not my cup of tea), some of the essays were very worthwhile and enlightening nonetheless. I enjoyed Adam Arenson's study of early "social libraries" (athenaeums and other institutions) and his comparison of those facilities with the first true "public" libraries (beginning with the establishment of Boston's in 1859). The differences not only in collection priorities but also in terms of aesthetic design were striking. Thomas Mann's excellent argument for the continued usefulness of research libraries is an important addition to the debate over digitization and library priorities. Perhaps most novel (and thus most intriguing) was Adriana Estill's distillation of the role of the high school library in the first three seasons of the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." As she notes, the episodes of those first seasons "consistently addressed the cultural and social negotiations around reading, literacy, research, and, pivotally, the library's meaning as place (p. 235).

A well-chosen compilation of library scholarship; as always with such things some pieces are far more exciting than others, but for those whose interests run to deep discussions of library philosophy, this book's for you.

Book Review: "Alchemy & Mysticism"

Art publisher Taschen printed a whole slew of 25th anniversary editions back in 2005, one of which was a translation of Alexander Roob's Alchemy & Mysticism. When I came across the book remaindered last summer I thought I'd take a leaf through the nearly 600 pages of text and images. I have now completed my perusal. Unfortunately I found the text well nigh incomprehensible, but I'm not sure whether this is a function of the subject itself or just the translation. The images (from early alchemical and mystical texts, mainly) were interesting enough (and are beautifully reproduced here), but the accompanying captions and expository paragraphs left something to be desired.

A Few Good Links

- The Boston Globe has a short article on the "Crooks, Rogues & Maids Less Than Virtuous: Books in the Streets of 18th-Century London" exhibit which I mentioned recently.

- Over in the New York Times Home & Garden section, Elaine Louie profiles what must be quite a gorgeous newly-renovated townhouse somewhere in Boston's Back Bay, home to art book dealer Elmar Seibel. The designers, Louie reports, focused their plans around Seibel's 14,000-book collection, and the result is a "vertical staircase that wraps itself around a tower of books that goes up three floors." Unfortunately, there's no picture of the staircase itself.

- Joyce notes an odd story that doesn't seem to have gotten much mainstream coverage yet: apparently a Bonn University literature professor received a suspended sentence for stealing more than $325,000 worth of rare books from the University library and reselling them at auction. Another case of book theft not being taken seriously, it appears.

- At Upward Departure, Travis comments on the Between the Covers thefts, noting that while this appears to be a "theft of opportunity" (making it likely that thief will attempt to resell the books), the items themselves aren't unique enough to make them "instantly recognizable" as stolen. Good points both.

- Independent columnist Miles Kington offers some (fairly tongue-in-cheek) tips on how to write a book review. (h/t Reading Copy)

- For the first time, the Washington Post's website is going to be running a serialized novel - that of longtime Post business reporter David Hilzenrath. The "book", Jezebel's Tomb, is described as "a thriller set in the present-day Middle East. It features a journalist who investigates a bombing and tries to track down a mysterious 2,000-year-old document that may hold a dangerous secret. It is a biblical mystery reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code." Hilzenrath's manuscript was turned down by several publishers last year, so he decided to try this route ... an interesting strategy. The first two installments are now online, with others to follow each Monday and Thursday. I haven't started reading it yet, but I'll give it a shot. (h/t GalleyCat)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Book Review: "Conceived in Liberty"

In the ninety-one pages - including notes - of Conceived in Liberty: The Struggle to Define the New Republic, 1789-1793, University of Kentucky historian Lance Banning manages to provide as good a brief exposition of the key half-decade after the ratification of the Constitution as any I've read. Slightly more scholarly than Joseph Ellis' take, Banning's three essays here explore the roots of the first party conflict, which Banning terms "the most ferocious, and perhaps the most instructive in all of American history." It was certainly the most imporant in terms of its lasting consequences. A very good introduction to the period's key debates and characters.

On Charles Brockden Brown

The ever-alert Joyce at Bibliophile Bullpen notes that today marks the birthday of Charles Brockden Brown, widely recognized as the first American novelist (it's also Ben Franklin's 301st birthday; I remarked on his tricentenary last year so will give today's musings over to Brown).

Brown, born in 1771, is best known for "Americanizing" the Gothic genre of writing - shaping the European style into a distinctly American form (substituting caves and dark forests for the haunted castles, &c.). His Wieland (1798) is a fascinatingly strange tale of psychological mayhem that holds up well even after more than two centuries. I first read it in an Early American Lit class and have enjoyed it several times since.

Lots of Brown links and information here and here.

Napoleon Not Poisoned, Study Says

To throw in a bit of historical intrigue: a new study in the January issue of Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology finds that Napoleon Bonaparte died of stomach cancer - not arsenic poisoning - LiveScience reports.

Drawing on "current medical knowledge, autopsy reports, Bonparte's physician [sic] memoirs, eyewitness accounts, and family medical histories," a team headed by Robert Genta of University of Texas Southwestern has determined that "gastrointestinal bleeding was the acute cause of death" for the deposed and exiled ruler. By comparing the 1821 autopsy reports of two lesions found in Napoleon's stomach with images of benign and cancerous ulcers, the team concluded that Bonaparte's lesions were in fact cancerous, and Genta notes "Even if treated today, he'd have been dead within a year."

No word in the summary about the source or the impact of the arsenic discovered in Napoleon's hair back in the 1960s.

New Coleridge Translation Discovered

James McKusick, dean of the University of Montana's Davidson Honors College, believes he's found a previously unknown work by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "a substantial partial verse translation of Goethe's landmark tragic play, Faust, written in 1808." The Montana Forum reports that Coleridge's translation appears to have been made around 1820, and was published anonymously.

McKusick says of his find "Faust is generally agreed to be the greatest dramatic work of its time in any language, and the fact that it is translated in English by one of the leading poets and German translators is intrinsically important because it means this work came into English culture at an important point in the retelling of this legend clothed in the most beautiful language imagined."

The linked article goes into great detail about how McKusick and others have worked for decades to prove that the translation is that of Coleridge. Apparently the "smoking gun" came through the use of "stylometric analysis," in which texts are analysed for word count, use frequency and other stylistic devices that are unique to any author. Seems an interesting little story in and of itself; I'll be surprised if we don't see a book someday about the process.

McKusick's findings will be presented at a conference in California this March, and an edition of the translation (the first attributed) will be printed in September by Oxford University Press. It will be accompanied by "findings and supporting documentation" by McKusick and his research partner, Frederick Burwick.

Forbes on the '06 Top Ten

Bouncing off the Fine Books & Collections preview, Forbes has a profile of the most expensive books of 2006, noting that records were set for atlases (the 15th century Ptolemy for $4 million); French literature ($644,000 for a signed copy of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell); and Australian books ($689,000 for Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales).

As noted previously, the 2006 "top ten" includes five atlases. The Forbes piece is accompanied by a nice photo slide show.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Book Review: "Salt: A World History"

Salt: A World History is the first Mark Kurlansky book I've read, although I was assured by several people who saw me reading this one that his Cod is also an interesting history. In Salt, Kurlansky traces the story of humanity's uses for the title compound through the centuries, detailing the various ways it's been harvested, commodified, and used in different cultures (and cuisines).

While an interesting light "armchair history," the book tends to skip about, and after a while proved slightly repetitive. The loose style, sometimes chronological and sometimes (vaguely) thematic, enhanced the repetitiveness. Nonetheless, the material was fascinating, and the number of connections that Kurlansky was able to make between the salt industry and other emerging products was quite impressive.

Aside from narrative history Kurlansky spices Salt with recipes and quotations from historical and contemporary sources - these at times are useful, but at other points seem to disturb the flow. That's not to mention the fact that more than a few of the recipes are downright stomach-turning (making me thankful there were no accompanying photographs).

While it has stylistic flaws, and is marred by its lack of citations (though there is a reasonably extensive bibliography), I did enjoy this book.

Update on Book Theft

As mentioned yesterday, Between the Covers Rare Books suffered a theft over the weekend at the New Jersey Book Fair. Further information on the books stolen can be found here. Also see this page (username: stolen, password: books) for images and full descriptions of the items.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Miscellany

- Art Garfunkel has posted a list showing every book he's read from 1976 through the present . Fairly impressive, actually! (fade theory; The Book Depository)

- Richard Minsky, the author of American Decorated Publishers' Bindings 1872-1929, decided to sell the collection which he accumulated in writing the book ... on eBay. But Scott at Fine Books Blog reports that a university purchased the collection before the auction was completed. Smart move. (Lux Mentis, Lux Orbis; Fine Books Blog)

- Dante's gotten a nose job. Based on a 1921 model of the poet's skull (taken without permission), "Reconstruction artists Francesco and Gabriele Mallegni from Pisa University used computer technology and forensic techniques to simulate muscle with plaster, plastic and other material." They discovered "that Dante probably did have a hooked nose but it was pudgy rather than pointy and crooked rather than straight, almost as if he had been punched." (The Bibliothecary, where Ed comments "Dante comes out looking like some irrascible, old guy who'd kick your ass for looking at him the wrong way. 'You talkin' to me, guelph.'")

- Paul Collins comments on Beatrix Potter-mania (jumping off this interesting National Post piece) and points out his new article in New Scientist, about Edgar Allen Poe's revivifying cousin George, who went about suffocating rabbits and dogs and then bringing them "back to life" with a respirator pump. There's also an NPR segment.

- Tom Congalton of Between the Covers Rare Books reports that "about a dozen" books from his stock were stolen from the New Jersey Book Fair over the weekend. He writes: "among the stolen books were several Hemingway's [sic] including the limited and signed Farewell to Arms, a trade editon of the same title in jacket, Men without Women in jacket, an unjacketed by inscribed reprint of In Our Time, a Raymond Chandler Farewell, My Lovely, and some
others." Will provide updates as necessary to this case.

- Over at Library History Buff, Larry has created a web-list of biograpies relating to American "library people," and is working on an international page as well. He's also created a list of other library history buffs.

- Kit Bakke reviews Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury in the Washington Post. Her take on it is fairly similar to mine.

- In the Louisville Courier-Journal, some books inscribed by Martin Luther King Jr. are profiled today; he signed the books to activist Anne Braden and her family, and they now reside at the University of Louisville.

- The New York Sun notes that five new bookstores have recently opened in the Big Apple: an outlet for German art publisher Taschen, and one for photography publisher powerHouse Books; a new "authoritative" jazz bookshop (Jazz at Lincoln Center) and two independent shops (Park Ave. Corner Shop in the Upper East Side and Adam's Books in Park Slope). All are profiled.

Book Review: "The Angel of Darkness"

Caleb Carr's The Angel of Darkness is positioned as a sequel to his earlier psychological mystery The Alienist, and features many of the same characters (including a brief cameo by Theodore Roosevelt, the orthodox psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kriezler, whiny journalist John Schuyler Moore, and female detective Sara Howard). This volume is narrated by Stevie Taggart, who debuted in the earlier book but is brought to center stage in this one. It is a gruesome tale of murder and gang warfare in turn-of-the-century New York: sort of a "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" for the late 1890s. Like its predecessor, this is a riveting book, and held my interest well. Not quite as good as The Alienist, true, but fine in its own right.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Florence Flood Video Online

The University of Utah has provided digital access to "The Restoration of Books, Florence 1968", a 39-minute video shot in the aftermath of the infamous floods. The original purpose of the film, made by Roger Hill for the Royal College of Art (London) was to aid U.S. fundraising efforts. "It shows library collections devastated by the November 1966 flood and several of the restoration techniques employed by the conservators who went to the rescue," notes College and Research Libraries News.

Book Review: "The Audacity of Hope"

My general opinion of Barack Obama is quite favorable, and since I fully enjoyed his first book, Dreams from My Father, I expected I would also like his second and newest work, The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006). It had been sitting on my shelf waiting for me since November and I finally pulled it off this week and had a read. It was not a disappointment. Once again Obama's elegant writing style is on full display, as is his knack for turning a good phrase. While he does not turn the book into a policy handbook full of detailed proposals or concrete plans for change, he offers something that I would argue may be even more important: a different way of approaching politics and shaping political debate.

If I picked out every excerpt from this book which spoke to me (and which I have jotted down in my reading notes) I'd be typing all day (and would entirely ruin the book for you). But I think this two-paragraph selection sums Obama's message up fairly well (p. 22):

"It's not simply that a gap exists between our professed ideals as a nation and the reality we witness every day. In one form or another, that gap has existed since America's birth. Wars have been fought, laws passed, systems reformed, unions organized, and protests staged to bring promise and practice into alignment.

No, what's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem."

Obama's desire to refocus American priorities is one of the most refreshing things about the man. While it may come across as overly idealistic to call for increased funding for eduction, sci/tech research and energy independence, all these things are areas in which we must do better as a nation. As he notes after commenting on the recent pork-filled highway bill, "what's missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency." Difficult to argue with that, somehow. His analysis of various policy areas (from immigration to foreign policy to health care) is instructive without being boring; hopeful without seeming laughable.

The Audacity of Hope goes far beyond Obama's policy chapters, as lucid and useful as they are. He also discusses, in a very personal way, the adjustment process to becoming a senator of some celebrity. The difficulties it created for his family life - this is a man with two young children - come through loud and clear, and as in his first memoir, it's apparent that this man still carefully thinks about his actions and the impact they will have on those around him.

Barack Obama's hopeful optimism, and his certainty that we can do better as a nation if we're able to rise above petty grievances and slights to achieve meaningful results is a message I think Americans are yearning for in these times of turmoil and partisan bickering. His exposition of those beliefs in The Audacity of Hope is a good one, and I recommend it without reservation.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Early Map of Scotland Sold at Auction

A map called the first accurate depiction of Scotland (printed 1583) sold for £22,000 at an Edinburgh auction, The Scotsman reports. The chart, which was created in manuscript form by Alexander Lyndsey in 1546, was printed by Frenchman Nicholas de Nicolay, and is known as the Nicolay Rutter. Beyond a chart of the Scottish coast, the map also contains "nearly 200 items of information and advice about tides, courses and havens, soundings and hazards."

The buyer was an "unnamed London dealer."

I enjoyed the first comment beneath the article too and can't resist sharing it: "What an absolute waste of money! You can get a Tom Tom for £150, and it shows you all the new streets as well."

(h/t Shelf:Life)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Blog of Note

Travis McDade, whose book The Book Thief I reviewed recently, has a blog! Upward Departure (a deliciously appropriate name, by the way) focuses on book crimes and sentencing. I've added a link on the sidebar and will make it a regular read.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

London Library in Dire Straits

St. Bride Library in London's Fleet Street district is in need of a major financial boost to fund a restoration of its building, the BBC reports. The library, which opened in 1895, houses nearly 200 collections related to printing, including "thousands of valentines, greetings cards, menus and posters, more than 1,100 printed ballads from the 19th century and the largest collection of British type specimens in existence." Letters from Charles Dickens to his printer and a rare copy of Johnson's Dictionary are among the items held by the library.

The foundation which runs the library says
£7 million is needed for the restoration and redevelpment project; to date, just £410,000 has been pledged.

If you're so inclined, you can support the library here.

(h/t fade theory, who also links to a video clip from the BBC about the library).

Dispatches from AHA

I did not get down to the American Historical Association's annual meeting in Atlanta last week, but wanted to pass along a few updates from the meeting. History News Network has a good series of reports from the convention, including the arrest of a prominent historian for jaywalking, the passage of the AHA's first-ever antiwar resolution, and the presentation of a senior scholar's award to David Brion Davis. Inside Higher Education also has a writeup of the actions taken on the war and on the failure of a resolution brought to oppose university speech codes.

Importantly, the AHA Council has ordered that the antiwar resolution be ratified by an electronic vote of the full AHA membership, since it was not introduced soon enough to be printed in organzation publications prior to the meeting. "Supporters said that the war is a national crisis that calls for a response from historians, but critics said that the association was risking its political stock by taking a stance that could appear to be dictating what professors should think about a controversial issue."

"In an interview Sunday, Arnita R. Jones, executive director of the AHA, said that there were two reasons the Council voted to accept the resolution conditional on a ratification vote by the full membership. One is that the anti-war resolution was not submitted early enough to be published in the AHA’s newsletter, so it was unclear whether all interested parties were aware of it. In addition, she said that the Council noted the 'intrinsic importance' of the issue.

Jones said that in the seven years in which she has been executive director, the AHA Council has never previously sent a resolution to the full membership (which tops 14,000) for a vote in this way. She said that the Council was not motivated by a desire to block the resolution, and that she expected the resolution to be passed."

There has been no timetable set for the full membership vote. I am torn over the text of the resolution and will carefully consider my vote before I cast it. While I certainly agree with the substance and the message of the resolution, I am not certain that taking this kind of political stance is something the AHA should engage in as an organization. But there is much to think about here, and this will certainly not be an easy decision.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book Review: "Miracles in Enlightenment England"

Jane Shaw's new book Miracles in Enlightenment England (Yale University Press) is an important new survey of the debate over miracles in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She argues that what this debate shows is not a measured, steady trend toward skepticism, but rather a broad, wide-ranging discussion over the potentiality of miracles within the Protestant religious culture of post-Restoration England.

Shaw discusses three different streams of thought which arose regarding miracles: first, the doctrine of the cessation of miracles, which argued that miracles as such did not happen after the first few years of the Christian church, and that unexplained occurrences of contemporary times could be explained instead by the imposition of divine "providence" (in effect replacing the miraculous with the providential); second, the re-emergence of miracles or similar events among various Protestant sects (i.e. the Quakers, the Baptists) and in the monarch's "healing touch"; and thirdly the development of a "middle way," as early scientists and clerics sought a way to explain or prove the existence of miracles in some empirical way based on evidence and probability.

These three developments came under fire from the deists in the late seventeenth century, an attack which culminated in Hume's 1748 essay On Miracles (in which he declares them impossible). This debate between deists and what Shaw terms apologists is examined closely, and what Shaw finds is that in the end, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, a huge range of opinions regarding the plausibility of miracles continued to exist.

Shaw offers an excellent scholarly treatment of the works of Valentine Greatrakes, who was the subject of A Small Moment of Great Illumination (review) which I read recently. Her commentary on the role of the Royal Society (Boyle, Oldenburg, &c.) as important arbiters of the miraculous as well as the discussion of some of the leading divines of the day (Stillingfleet, Burnet) is most interesting and well done.

This book is well researched (witness the copious notes and excellent bibliography), well written, and clearly argued. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the beginnings of the Enlightenment and/or English social-religious-political culture in the Restoration period.

New Zealand Art/Book Heist

According to the New Zealand Herald, Auckland University was the scene of a well-organized robbery over the holiday break: when librarians returned to campus last Wednesday they discovered that someone had broken through an unalarmed window and forced their way into a special collections area where the materials were being displayed. The item known to have been taken are a Charles Goldie painting (only recently returned to NZ from Canada), seven poems by Colin McCahon (purchased in 2001 and removed from secure hangings) and an unbound Oxford Lectern Bible (acquired in 2004 and taken from a glass case).

"Ferner Galleries managing director Helene Phillips said it sounded as if the items had been stolen to order. 'If they are stolen to order, then they have probably disappeared into a collection and we probably won't see them again. If they have not, then their resale is almost impossible.' Ms Phillips said all three items had cultural significance and she hoped that would prevent collectors buying them. 'It would be a sad day for New Zealand when we start to see our cultural heritage being stolen to order and hidden for ever.'"

An investigation into the thefts is ongoing, and police are reportedly reviewing security tapes and following fingerprint evidence.

(h/t Jim Carmin on Ex-Libris)

Culling the Classics

I have not been intentionally neglecting to mention now-infamous Washington Post article from last Tuesday "Hello Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway?" which has sparked much debate in the book and library communities; I've just been waiting for a spare moment in which I could write about it coherently (and at some length, for which I apologize).

The article, for those who've evaded it until now, is about the weeding policies of the Fairfax County (VA) public library system. Using new computer-generated statistics about circulation and demand, libraries in the system are systematically reviewing all books that haven't been checked out in at least two years ... and then deciding whether to keep them on the shelves, discard them, or transfer them to another branch within the system.

Weeding and replacement of collections is something that libraries have always done, of course, but as the article notes, the Fairfax system is "taking turnover to a new level. Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves - and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone - even if they are classics." A sidebar reveals that among the books up for potential discard at one or more branches are The Works of Aristotle, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jane Eyre, and Doctor Faustus. Incredible.

Importantly, librarians may use their discretion when it comes to tossing books; they are not bound by the monthly computer printout to abandon Aristotle (thankfully we don't have to close up all the library schools and turn the stacks over to the robots just yet). County system director Sam Clay's comment is probably indicative of the philosophy, though: "We're being very ruthless. A book is not forever. ... We don't want to keep what people don't use much of." True, to a point, but ruthlessness and librarianship aren't generally considered synonymous, at least not in my book.

More troubling than Clay's quote is that from Leslie Burger, the newly-elected president of the American Library Association. She told the Post "I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us. There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire." Ugh. Yes, popular materials and bestsellers are what have the buzz and what get the long 'hold' lists. But they fade, and fade quickly. Libraries - and especially public libraries - have a long-term duty to the community that goes far beyond making sure no one has to wait more than two days for the latest James Patterson potboiler (no offense to Mr. Patterson intended, of course). Burger is rather far off the mark here, it seems to me.

As Michael Lieberman notes in his excellent post on this, "Luckily there was one breath of fresh air." Arlington County library director Diane Kresh told the paper "Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages. The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community." Kresh, who served for thirty years at the Library of Congress, has begun a new program "that gives forgotten classics prominent display" and works to increase their circulation.

Kresh's approach seems, to me, the far better one. Why not, instead of buying 80 copies of Sue Grafton's S is for Silence (as per a search of the Fairfax county system catalog this morning), buy oh, 40 copies of that and replace aging copies of the classics with new ones? I'd be willing to bet that many of the classics that haven't been checked out for a while are older copies which have seen better days. Perhaps sprucing up the shelves wouldn't be a bad idea (and would nicely complement a classics-promotion program). New copies and some emphasis might make an important difference for many of these books.

I should note that Mr. Clay has responded to the Post article with a statement on the library's website, which notes in part "Recent media reports have misled readers to believe that we’ve eliminated all copies of classic titles from our branches. This could not be further from the truth. Although we occasionally have to trim the number of copies we offer in a particular branch, we definitely keep multiple copies of these works in the Fairfax County Public Library. ... I want to assure you that we take our stewardship of public property very seriously. We make every effort to manage the public’s investment in library materials in a prudent, reasonable and rational way." I don't doubt this in the least, and I suspect the Post article was slightly overreactive. However, I think that public scrutiny of decisions and policies in public libraries is not only healthy but vital, and perhaps this exposure will make a difference when a librarian is asked to decide whether to relegate Marlowe to the book-sale table.

Rare Book Stolen in St. Petersburg

ITAR-TASS reports that a rare 1892 edition of History and Monuments of Byzantine Enamel has been stolen from the Institute of History and Material Culture's library in St. Petersburg. The report quotes a police officer: "An unidentified wrongdoer climbed a scaffold to reach a second storey window, slipped through it, and stole [the book] from an unguarded room."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Review of Note

Our good friend Ed (of Bibliothecary fame) has a review of Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. The Clarke I quite enjoyed, and I'm impatiently awaiting the arrival of the Kirk. Ed liked both.

On the Borrowing of Books

Rabbi Berel Wein has a compact little essay in today's Jerusalem Post about the time-honored tradition of book-borrowing and the future of the printed word.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hogarth and Defoe at the BPL

I finally managed to get my act together and stopped by the Boston Public Library yesterday to see "Crooks, Rogues, & Maids Less Than Virtuous: Books in the Streets of 18th-Century London," a new exhibit jointly mounted by the BPL and UMASS Boston. Centered around the library's William Trent Collection of Defoe and Defoeana (displayed publicly for the first time here), the exhibit examines the genesis of the novel in the book culture of London.

Aside from the (many) early editions of Defoe's works (and some by Swift and Pope as well), the exhibit also includes some excellent broadside examples, sensational and salacious pamphlets and fantastical travel accounts (including a lovely edition of Psalmanazar's history of Formosa). Several Hogarth prints enhance the cases and complement the texts nicely.

Highly recommended if you're in the Boston area.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Book Review: "Auto-da-Fé"

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé, published in German as Die Blendung and translated here by C.V. Wedgwood, is considered a great masterwork of twentieth-century fiction. That reputation, I humbly suggest, is well deserved. While it is certainly one of the more bizarre pieces of writing I've read in quite some time, it was also one of the most provocative and intriguing.

Dr. Peter Kien, a leading sinologist, is the reclusive and introverted protagonist, whose life revolves solely around his great personal library and the work to which use he puts its contents. In a move he sees as crucial to the protection of his books, he marries his housekeeper, a gold-digging harpy who ends up slowly evicting Kien from his own flat and forcing him into the streets of Vienna. The plot twists and turns sharply from there, and comes to involve a red-headed and abusive caretaker, a devious hunchback, Kien's psychiatrist brother, and a gang of hapless policemen.

Canetti's fictional world is - to a rational reader - totally ridiculous, with the characters behaving in ways that seem completely strange and incomprehensible. And yet the internal rationales they provide for their actions somehow seem perfectly reasonable. It is a sick, twisted, violent and unpleasant place, filled with misunderstandings and betrayals; everyone, as Salman Rushdie blurbs on the back cover of my copy "get[s] it in the neck." It doesn't seem real, and yet ...

Not a fast read by any stretch, but the language is clear and concise (and excellently translated, I suspect without knowing German). A fascinating, enthralling tale.

To Talk of Many Things

I was out for the count yesterday with a nasty little cold, so here are a few of the things I missed, in short form (along with a few from today):

- The New York Times has a profile of a few independent bookstores in New York City which is worth checking out if you'll be in the area.

- Map thief E. Forbes Smiley reported to the federal prison 'camp' at Ayer, MA on Thursday to begin serving his 3.5-year sentence, the New Haven Register notes.

- Business Week has an article on building a home library, complete with a slide show of some positively drool-inducing examples. (h/t Lux Mentis, Lux Orbis).

- In the guise of a TLS review of a recent biography of HW Longfellow, Christopher Benfey takes a long look at the poet's life and reputation. A fascinating read. (h/t The Book Depository)

More soon. There are are few articles I haven't gotten through yet that I'm sure I'll have some comments on.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Revew: "The Book Thief"

The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman (Praeger, 2006) is an account of the theft of numerous rare books and manuscrips from the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscripts Library in the early 1990s, as well as the multi-year quest to bring the culprit to justice. Travis McDade, currently the Assistant Professor of Library Administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's College of Law, has written what must be considered the definitive monograph on this case, barring any further developments (much of Spiegelman's haul has still not been recovered, and since the man is now out of jail again, more shoes could yet drop).

What is remarkable about the Spiegelman case, McDade argues, is that the crime was taken very seriously by federal judge Lewis Kaplan, who went out of his way to depart from federal sentencing guidelines and add to Spiegelman's jail term. This was based largely on the efforts of Columbia librarians and other scholars, who through written and oral testimony made clear that Spiegelman's crimes should not be examined simply in light of any monetary value the stolen objects had, but also in terms of the cultural and scholarly implications.

McDade notes that this book began as a research paper, and it still retains that sort of feel. He does not have the talent of Nicholas Basbanes or Miles Harvey for telling a good story; thankfully the Spiegelman drama holds enough water on its own to make this book interesting even through a writing style which is somewhat clunky. Additionally, another round of copy-editing might have improved the book, which contains multiple typographical and grammatical errors. Nonetheless, for those concerned with the protection of our cultural heritage from people like Spiegelman, McDade has written a book well worth reading.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

OED Enlists British Public

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are once again taking it to the streets, asking the public for help in finding earlier usages of forty common (for Britain, at least) words and phrases. Results will be aired on the BBC show "Balderdash and Piffle" in a segment called "The Wordhunt". A similar segment met with some success last year.

OED chief editor John Simpson said of the effort "Wordhunters made some remarkable discoveries in the last series. They found wordhunt words tucked away in football fanzines, LPs, school newspapers - just the sort of sources we can't easily get our hands on."

The full list of sought words is here, and if you are inclined to hunt some words yourself, you can submit the evidence via email.

Vegetarian Cookbook/Ephemera Collection Goes to Radcliffe

The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge (MA) has acquired the vegetarian cookbook and ephemera collection of Jim Whitten, a third-grade teacher from Suffield, CT. Over the last six years - after becoming a vegan himself - Whitten has been accumulating materials relating to vegetarianism, and his collection now comprises "more than 200 American and British volumes and periodicals dating from the 17th century to the present, as well as menus, autographs of well-known vegetarians, even a plastic guitar pick belonging to the late Linda McCartney," according to the Boston Globe.

Whitten decided to sell the collection about a year ago, and Radcliffe purchased it to complement its 150,000 volume culinary collection. Ever the collector, Whitten is now purchasing signed poetry books, many by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.

(h/t Bibliophile Bullpen)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

John Quincy Adams' Mendi Bible

In keeping with today's trend, I just learned that when Deval Patrick is sworn in as the first black governor of Massachusetts tomorrow, he will also be using a book of particular historical importance: a Bible given to John Quincy Adams by the Amistad captives.

The Boston Globe reports that the Bible - now in the possession of the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy - was presented to Adams following the Supreme Court decision which set them free and allowed their return to Africa. In an inscription, the men wrote that the book "has been a precious book to us in prison, and we love to read it now we are free." Adams responded in a letter of gratitude which reads in part "It was from that book that I learnt to espouse your cause when you were in trouble."

Beverly Morgan-Welch, head of the Museum of African American History in Boston and co-chair of Patrick's inaugural committee, told the Globe "This Bible is a quintessential American symbol, one of democracy, and the inner workings of freedom, and our system of laws, and the abolitionist movement, and it represents a real victory for Africans who stood up for themselves. The Bible was given to Adams by these freed African men because they so appreciated that Adams was not just their legal advocate, but he believed in their freedom, and here we are, how many years later, and we are installing Massachusetts' first African-American governor."

A very good and accurate account of the Amistad case is to be found here, and if you've never read JQA's unbelievable Supreme Court argument, I urge you, do so.

Thomas Jefferson's Koran

The representative-elect from Michigan's 5th district will make history in more ways in one when he is sworn in tomrrow. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, will also be the first to use Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Koran in his swearing-in ceremony. According to the Washington Post, Ellison contacted the Library of Congress' rare book division early last month; "He wanted to use a Koran that was special," said Mark Dimunation, the division chief.

Jefferson's Koran is a copy of the George Sale translation printed in the 1750s. It was part of the former president's library which he sold to the government after the War of 1812 to reconstitute the Library of Congress (after it was burned by the British). The copy survived an 1851 fire and contains Jefferson's customary initals.

Ellison's decision to hold a copy of the Koran in his swearing-in ceremony prompted an anti-Muslim screed from his Virginia colleague Virgil Goode (who represents the area where Jefferson was born). "Ellison will take the official oath of office along with the other incoming members in the House chamber, then use the Koran in his individual, ceremonial oath with new Speaker Nancy Pelosi," the Post reports.

I suspect, Virgil Goode notwithstanding, that Thomas Jefferson wouldn't mind in the slightest.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book Review: "American Bloomsbury"

Novelist and memoirist Susan Cheever's new American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work is a glimpse into one of America's most influential literary communities, that which flourished in and around Concord, Massacusetts from the late 1830s into the early 1860s. Cheever's title characters form the core relationships, but other greats of American literature make cameo appearances: Longfellow, Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes are among them.

This is not a particularly serious book; it is full of glib colloquialisms (Emerson as the "sugar daddy" of the group, Fuller as "bitchy" just for example), odd throwaway paragraphs, unwarranted speculations, and long passages of description which may or may not be entirely fabricated (it's hard to say, since none of them are cited in the sparse citations which, typically for Simon & Schuster, go unmarked in the text). Cheever's habit of occasionally jumping into the narrative with a short personal interjection is both unwelcome and unnecessary, and I found her wistful, whiny final chapter on Concord today entirely ridiculous. Also, a line on p. 150 regarding the presidential election of 1852 is off somehow - Van Buren was decidedly not the incumbent in that election.

The most troubling aspect of Cheever's writing was a narrative style in which she jumps about relentlessly, resulting in what she herself (p. xiii) calls "a series of overlapping scenes in which some incidents are repeated, sometimes more than once." Keeping a sense of chronology is nearly impossible, and at several points (chapters 30 and 31, also p. 178) the sequence of things is quite unclear. Including a few more referential dates here and there would have been very helpful in this regard, but a less schizophrenic structure would have improved the book in a more significant way.

Cheever's subjects are fascinating people, and their interactions with each other form an amazing story. I only wish that this author had worked harder at telling it well.

Renaissance Chess Strategy Found

ANSA reports that a 48-page study of chess dating from around 1500 has been discovered in an Italian library. The manuscript, De Ludo Scacchorum ("On the Game of Chess"), by mathematician Luca Pacioli, was cited in other works but was feared lost itself. It was found by book dealer Duilio Contin amongst the books of the last count of Coronini in the library of the Palazzo Coronini Cronberg (Galizia). The heavily-illustrated text was apparently acquired by Coronini in 1963.

Pacioli, whose authorship of the chess treatise has now been confirmed by experts, was an early tutor to Leonardo da Vinci and is considered the "father of modern accounting" for his 1494 work Summa, which outlined the double-entry system used by Venetian merchants.

I'm not a chess player, but it's always fascinating to see re-emergences like this.

(via Shelf:Life and UPI)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Book Review: "Patience and Fortitude"

It is fitting, perhaps, that my first review of 2007 is a book I should have read long, long ago. Nicholas Basbanes' Patience and Fortitude is the author's second book after the wonderful A Gentle Madness, and it does not disappoint. Basbanes, as always, covers a significant amount of ground in this volume, but I found it nearly impossible to set this book down even for a moment or two once I started reading.

Taking its name from the pair of stone lions who guard the entrance to the New York Public Library's main building, Patience and Fortitude shows through countless examples how those two virtures are essential to the selection, creation and maintenance of great libraries (in any form, although it must be noted that having a little money doesn't hurt either). Basbanes takes his reader on a marvelous tour through the great libraries of the past (Alexandria, Glastonbury, Pergamum) to those of the present day (Harvard, Library of Congress, British Library, etc.) with his characteristic style and wit. Through interviews with book people of all stripes, Basbanes brings the culture of books alive - who can resist the lure of the printed page when it is described by such a master?

The dramatis personae of this book are far too varied and numerous to list, although I found the sections on Barry Moser, Umberto Eco, and the many emigre booksellers who came to North America before and during the second world war most personally intriguing. Basbanes' treatment of the great San Francisco library controversy of the 1990s is focused and fair, and his discussion of the role that technology and digitization will play in the library of the future is among the best I've read. While I read it straight through from cover to cover, the organization of the book is such that you could easily read a section here or there as your interests led (but you'll be sucked in, of that I have little doubt).

As always, I will issue my perennial quibble that the notes are not indicated in the text, although they are excellent and accompany a tremendous bibliography (from which I've just made a list of a number of books that I need to read). But this is another great offering, and one any book-lover should not let sit on the "to be read" shelf any longer.

Anniversaries and Birthdays

Don't miss the great Bibliophile Bullpen list of today's birthdays and anniversaries, for which January 1 seems to be a red-letter day! The start of Pepys' diary (1660), the marriage of James Fenimore Cooper (1811), the first issue of Garrison's "The Liberator" (1831) and the date of the New York Public Library's incorporation (1849) are just a few of the notable moments.

Historical Herbal Yields Possible Cures

In an article in the British Medical Journal this month, a team of doctors at the Mayo Clinic plan to outline some potential "new" medical discoveries they've made using a 300 year-old herbal text (Ambonese Herbal) by Dutch naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (Rumphius), the AP reports. Eric Buenz, 29, examined the book and then traveled to Samoa to collect a tree extract the herbal claimed could cure diarrhea. "What they found was that the potion, made from the nuts of the atun tree, works a lot like an antibiotic, killing various types of bacteria."

Rumpf, who traveled to the Pacific with the Dutch East India Company, collected plants on the island of Ambon in the 1650s, and had written a manuscript text on his findings which burned in a fire thirty years later. A second draft of the herbal, dictated by Rumpf (he'd gone blind) was lost when the ship carrying it was sunk by the French. The third time was the charm, and eventually a seven-volume herbal was published. Buenz "stumbled upon" a partially-translated edition of the text in Hawaii and began searching it for unknown treatments.

The Mayo Clinic has now obtained a patent on the atun nut extract.

I haven't heard of Rumpf before, but his story sounds fascinating! Must do a little research on this fellow, I think ...

[here's a bit more on him. Sheesh, what luck. Anybody know if there are biographies of him out there?] [[Darn, looks like the last one was published in 1944 ... and it's in Dutch.]]