Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Renehan Sentenced

Whoops, almost let one of our theft cases slip by!

Edward Renehan, who pleaded guilty in May to the theft of several letters from the Theodore Roosevelt Association, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison. U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin also tacked on "two years of supervised release, ordered him to pay $86,700 in restitution to the Manhattan gallery through which he sold the letters, and ordered that he forfeit $86,700 and any rights or interest he may have had in the stolen letters to the United States."

Chin observed before handing down the sentence that a prison term was "warranted in part because Renehan held a position of trust with the Theodore Roosevelt Association" (he was the interim executive director when the thefts occurred).

Renehan faced up to 30 months in jail; his attorneys had requested no jail time and a sentence of probation. Sentencing on state charges filed against Renehan for another theft was supposed to occur yesterday; I haven't seen reports on how that worked out, but the state judge had indicated that the federal and state sentences would run concurrently, so 18 months is probably it. Not bad, considering the alternative.

[Update: I'm informed Renehan's state sentencing has been postponed until 15 October].

LT Logo-Design Contest

I've just posted over at LT about a contest to design a logo for the brand-new Libraries of Early America project. This is a joint effort between LT and a whole bunch of great institutional partners to use the power of LibraryThing in order to make all known pre-1825 American libraries accessible, searchable and useable. To start, we'll be focusing on individual and family libraries, but that may expand as time and resources permit.

We're looking for a simple but elegant project logo, so if you are a designer, or know any, and want to win some LT stuff (plus the glory of having your design used for this project), check out the details here and submit away.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Need NetFlix?

I have four free month trial cards from NetFlix, and since everyone I know already has an account, I figured I'd throw them out there. If you want one, send me an email (philobiblos at gmail dot com) and I'll send you the activation code. First come, first served.

Links & Reviews

It's that time again.

- John Hodgman's "Massachusetts, 'Bulwark Against the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ': A brief guide to the most important state in the union," which is a chapter in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, can be read in today's Boston Globe. A mildly irreverent but entirely amusing look at the Bay State, written by one who knows it well.

- Ed's got the latest on the progress of the Poe Wars; he recently went into the belly of the Baltimore beast for some interviews.

- John Overholt has news on the upcoming (and eagerly awaited) "Johnson at 300" Symposium coming up at Harvard next August.

- Via AHA Today, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is now online. It includes information on all known slave voyages, estimates on the size and scope of the slave trade, a large collection of scanned documents, maps, and illustrations, plus a significant names list. Great project.

- Also from today's Globe, Jonathan Gottschall has an essay on the importance of Homer's works on various fields of modern scholarship, from archaeology to linguistics to anthropology.

- Author Dorothy Gallagher had a poignant essay in Friday's NYTimes, "What My Copy Editor Taught Me."

- In a Guardian piece, Antonia Fraser comments on the craft of writing historical biography.

- J.L. Bell recounts a great anecdote about Sam Adams destroying his correspondence during the Revolutionary War.

- Paul Collins points out the new blog from the Times (London), Times Archive Blog.

- LISNews discovers some historical books about libraries and librarians on Google Books.

- From the Southtown Star (IL), Susan DeMar Lafferty writes about a growing movement in public libraries to scrap the Dewey Decimal System in favor of a more 'intuitive' classification system (a movement which has much in common with LT's Open Shelves Classification idea).


- Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello continues to achieve much press attention; the author was on NPR this week to discuss the book, and James Smethurst reviews the book in today's Boston Globe.

- Louis Masur reviews John Demos' The Enemy Within, also in today's Globe. My review here.

- In today's NYTimes, Jill Abramson reviews Woodward's The War Within.

- Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder is reviewed by Mike Jay in The Telegraph.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Event of Interest

On 13-15 November, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin is hosting what sounds like a fascinating symposium: "Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, & Institutions." The description reads in part "The symposium will encourage writers, archivists, agents, library directors, and scholars to examine the ways in which they are both actively and passively engaged in creating a literary and personal past for future generations to study."

Speakers will include writers Denis Johnson, Tim O'Brien and Amy Tan; manuscript dealers Glenn Horowitz and Rick Gekoski; and a number of archivists and library directors from institutions in the U.S. and England. Dana Gioia, the current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, will deliver the keynote address.

I won't be able to attend, since that weekend is the big Boston Book Fair, but it does sound like an excellent event.

This Week's Acquisitions

No new books this week, although I think just about every magazine/journal I subscribe to sent along a new issue.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: "Ptolemy's Gate"

As I expected, I had just as tough a time putting down the last volume of Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy as I did with the first two. In Ptolemy's Gate, the conflict between magicians and commoners bursts into the open as the magicians begin to lose their grip on power. Nathaniel's fortunes are waning along with his influence in the halls of power, and Bartimaeus' essence has been stretched to its limits by prolonged servitude. As Nathaniel seeks to unravel the great conspiracy which threatens the existence of the government, Kitty Jones re-enters his world and the two find themselves the victims of a very deep, very dangerous plot. With strong and malignant forces loose in London, Stroud's three protagonists find it necessary (no matter how distasteful) to cooperate for the greater good.

A fine conclusion to the series, with a healthy number of plot twists (most if not all of which were entirely unexpected). And for all those who are sick to death of happy endings, you needn't worry about that this time (and that's all I'll say about that). Truly an excellent series, and one which deserves more widespread attention.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Battle Over Cardiff Books Rages

The BBC reports that the plan to sell books belonging to the Cardiff City Library remains controversial, with Cardiff University stepping in to request an opportunity to purchase the books before the collection is broken up at auction. Authorities at the university said they are "prepared to commit resources and to seek external funding for cataloguing, conservation and public access and display," and also extended a longstanding offer to receive the materials on deposit so that it can be kept together and available for use. A member of the Cardiff council said they "would be seeking an urgent meeting with the university's vice chancellor to discuss the issues raised."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Elbridge Gerry's Library

He's best known for his namesake, the dreaded gerrymander, but there's much more to Elbridge Gerry than that: as a delegate to the Continental Congress he signed the Declaration of Independence; as a delegate to the 1787 Convention he did not sign the Constitution (he wanted a Bill of Rights, and disagreed with various other elements of the final document). Reconciled to the new federal system he served in the House of Representatives for the first two congresses, then was one of the three diplomats caught up in the messy XYZ Affair in the late 1790s.

Home in Massachusetts, Gerry ran unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1800, 1801, 1802 and 1803, then served two terms as governor (1810 and 1811) before being defeated again in 1812, partly over the redistricting controversy which resulted in that famously-contorted legislative district. Gerry's final post was as the fifth Vice President of the United States; he was elected to that office in the fall of 1812 (serving under James Madison) and became the second VP to die in office on 23 November 1814.

Gerry's library, or at least a major portion of it, was sold at auction the following spring by Boston's Francis Amory. The catalog for that sale, Catalogue of a Collection of valuable and scarce Books, Being part of the Library of the late Elbridge Gerry, esq. To be sold for the benefit of the Widow and Minor Children of the deceased, at the store of Francis Amory, No. 41, Marlborough-Street, On Tuesday morning, 18th April [1815], Commencing at Nine o'clock, exists in very few copies: those at the Clements Library and the MHS are the only listings in WorldCat. The MHS copy caught my eye one day as I was retrieving another book from an adjacent shelf, so I took a look and decided the contents would work well as a Legacy Library.

The product is here: 325 titles, most of which I've been able to identify with a reasonable amount of certainty based on the number of volumes and place of publication (I don't say it enough, but ESTC is amazing). If you sort by entry date, the books will be listed as they appear in the catalog.

Gerry's library is (not surprisingly) less scientific than some of the contemporary ones I've worked on (Jefferson, Priestley, &c.), with even more of a focus on government, philosophy, and literature and less emphasis on natural history and agricultural matters (although there's still a bit of that here). He liked Goldsmith and Defoe, Sterne and Smollett. And he had quite a few compilations of state and federal laws. Religious titles are few and far between.

As always, any additions are welcomed, and as I have not managed to trace even one of Mr. Gerry's books down to the present, records of any extant Gerry holdings would be much appreciated.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: "The Golem's Eye"

I seem to be constitutionally incapable of taking a break between volumes of a series. No sooner had I finished Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand than I picked up the second book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, The Golem's Eye. And to think, my plan was to take a month's break in between (that lasted about eight seconds).

Stroud's characters, including the overly-ambitious Nathaniel/John Mandrake, the wonderfully-irreverent Bartimaeus (whose footnoted asides remain one of the best parts of the book), and erstwhile Resistance figure Kitty Jones continue their adventures, taking on vicious dark magic in the form of a very destructive golem, a demented demon stuck inside the skeleton of a long-dead prime minister, and hordes of werewolf cops. Their powers and capacities for good will be stretched to the limits as they struggle against their enemies known and unknown, and, occasionally, against each other.

A bit more darkly comical than The Amulet of Samarkand, which I enjoyed, but with perhaps a touch too much adolescent angst (there were a couple Harry Potter volumes in the middle of the series where this bothered me too). Nonetheless, it was another fine installment in the series and I look forward to the third (which I'll probably pick up later tonight).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Review: "The Algerine Captive"

Royall Tyler is one of the most fascinating characters of early American literature, and his only finished novel, The Algerine Captive (first published in 1797) is an amusing, witty and biting satire of American social and political culture during the early republic and a stinging indictment of African slavery. Tyler's narrator is Updike Underhill, a buttoned-down New Englander who, in the opening chapters of the novel, reminds the reader of no one so much as Ichabod Crane, a scholarly naif who seems destined to a long life of being the butt of others' jokes. But when he agrees to serve as a doctor aboard a slave ship, and is then captured by Barbary pirates and forced into slavery in Algiers, the humor fades and Underhill is forced to confront his assumptions and examine the stark differences between American culture and the North African society in which he involuntarily finds himself.

Tyler must have done a remarkable amount of research for this book - his description of the treatment of newly-captured slaves is gripping, and his several chapters on the customs and culture of Algiers are fascinatingly detailed, even if there may be slight factual errors.

Not surprisingly, Tyler's work, focused as it is on a conflict between the United States and Islamic nations, has grown in popularity over course of the last few years. The edition I read was published in 2002 by Modern Library (and includes an excellent introduction and very useful notes by Caleb Crain). Like few other examples of early American fiction, it retains a sense of timeliness and occasional humor, and its message continues to resonate.

Book Review: "The War Within"

Bob Woodward's insta-histories has become sort of a habit of mine; since Bush at War (2002), which seems a lifetime ago, I've read each of the volumes as they have appeared, at their own regular and predictable pace: Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial, (2006) and now The War Within (2008, just out from Simon & Schuster). Woodward's journalistic prose remains much as it always has been (these books are basically really long newspaper articles), but the lack of bells and whistles serves only to underscore the important subjects at hand.

Like State of Denial, which I called "eminently depressing" in my review, The War Within does not put the current presidential administration in a particularly good light. And considering the havoc they've overseen, it could hardly be otherwise. In this book, which covers events from late 2005 through the early part of this year, Woodward examines the debate (my own adjectives for which would include incoherent, haphazard, unmanaged, ...) over Iraq strategy which consumed the American political and military leadership during that time - except for when it was completely ignored and events allowed to drift with the bloody tides of increasing violence and continued political turmoil in Iraq.

What comes through most clearly from this book is the extent of the dysfunctionality which paralyzed the Bush administration through much of 2006, as its various players worked to answer what Woodward calls "the big question: if it's not working, what do you do?" As we know now, the final answer to that was implement a surge of troops into Baghdad and push hard(er) there for security ... but this was far from a foregone conclusion, and as Woodward reveals here was not even the solution being sought by the commanders on the ground.

As depressing as its predecessor, but no less important, The War Within tells a cautionary tale of how not to manage a war. The two men who are vying to inherit this war would do well to read it, and labor mightily not to repeat the mistakes recounted herein.

Links & Reviews

- The FBI has recovered the second book stolen from the Hayes Library, according to media reports. Word now is that the Freeman Code was found in Texas, not in England as originally thought (although authorities aren't saying how it got there). Also from these reports we learn that the Maxwell Code, the other item stolen from the library, was defaced by the thieves: the title page containing Hayes' signature was torn off and has not been found.

- Much more information is emerging about the much-disputed plan to sell off books in the collections of the Cardiff Library. One of the opponents, Andrew Prescott, has a lengthy blog post on the topic, and Ian Gadd passed along some relevant URLs to the SHARP list (see here, here, here and here). Sounds like a real mess to me.

- Ed notes the latest volley in the Poe Wars, fired by Baltimore's ABC affiliate.

- A lawsuit brought by several groups, including the American Historical Association and Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, has resulted in a finding [PDF] that the Vice President is, in fact, part of the executive branch and that his office, the EOP, and the National Archives must "preserve throughout the pendency of this litigation all documentary material, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof created or received by the Vice President, his staff, or a unit or individual of the Office of the Vice President whose function is to advise and assist the Vice President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the Vice President, without regard to any limiting definitions that Defendants may believe are appropriate." This is a good thing. More from Jeanne at Spellbound Blog, and the NYTimes.

- Laura is off on her trip to London for her book history course, which sounds tremendously exciting. Before she gets there, though, she's visiting Ireland, and offers some wonderful pictures from Cahersiveen. I know we all look forward to reading more dispatches from across the pond.

- The Guardian's Poem of the Week is William Blake's "Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau."


- Patricia Cohen reviews Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family in the NYTimes. The same book is reviewed by Edmund and Marie Morgan in the new NYRB and also by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

- In the Times, Peter Ackroyd reviews two recent books on magic in England: Steve Roud's London Lore and Alec Ryrie's The Sorcerer's Tale.

Make Way for ... Snapping Turtles?

As I walked home from work Friday evening I came upon a small group of people milling around behind the Museum of Fine Arts, looking at something (actually quite a few little somethings) in the grass at the edge of the street. I quickly realized they (the little somethings, not the people) were snapping turtle hatchlings, eleven of them at that point. They had emerged from their nest hole (under some bushes along the edge of the currently-excavated MFA parking lot) and crossed the sidewalk, but still had to negotiate a high curb, then two lanes of traffic, then somehow climb over another six-inch curb and make their way across a busy bike path before getting to the (relative) safety of the Muddy River. That's a pretty tall order when you're an inch and a half long!

One of the people had a box in her car, so she went to get that and the rest of us corralled the hatchlings. No, there wasn't any danger of being bitten: the babies were quite calm and just wanted to be on their way - even in the box, they seemed inexorably pointed toward the water. Once the first bunch were ferried across the street and had trundled into the river we thought we'd better check the sidewalk once more; as we re-crossed the street we could see immediately that we weren't done. Three more hatchlings had emerged and were on the sidewalk. So one other guy (a student at one of the nearby colleges) and I decided we'd settle in for a while and make sure the rest of the turtles made it across the street safely. We sat down and waited, and as the hatchlings continued to emerge (about one every fifteen minutes for a while), we plucked them up before they got too far out into the path of passing pedestrians, bikers, or skateboarders.

By 7:00 (two hours after I'd first stopped), we had released eleven turtles and had nine more in the box ready to go. Many people had stopped to see what was going on. I got a kick out of their reactions: some were delighted and wanted to take pictures, others shrieked and ran off. One guy asked if I had "bought them in Chinatown" (um, yes, I often purchase boxes of baby turtles and sit on the sidewalk with them ...). Somebody called the Boston Herald, and they sent a staff photographer over to make the turtles famous. The product of that is here - the picture is great, although I wish whoever wrote the text would have been a little more careful (obviously trying to help a large adult snapping turtle isn't a particularly smart idea without some preparation, but these little guys weren't going to bite anybody).

After we hadn't seen another new hatchling for about half an hour (and it was getting fairly cold and dark), the two of us still there agreed to call it a night. I didn't think the turtles would move at night (at least I hoped they wouldn't), but I got up early yesterday and went over to check the nest again. Things remained quiet, and when I shined a light down the nest hole I couldn't see anything to indicate there were any more on their way out. I stopped back a few more times over the course of the day on Saturday, just to check, but all seemed well. Hopefully at least some of the new turtles will manage to escape the Muddy River's herons and other predators (including grown-up snapping turtles) and make it through the winter.

The rest of my pictures are here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

This Week's Acquisitions

A visit to the Brattle after last week's post, plus a long jaunt through the Cambridge shops today, caused some trouble (there were a few good buys to be had at Raven). Among the visits I made today was to see James and Devon Gray on Arrow Street near Harvard Square; I had a long, pleasant chat about books and book-things with Devon, and really enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere and the chance to look through their beautiful stock (I restrained myself there, although I was sorely tempted by a gorgeous copy of Nehemiah Grew's Musæum regalis societatis: or a catalogue and description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society, and preserved at Gresham Colledge).

Here's what I ended up with:

- William Godwin as Novelist by B.J. Tysdahl (Athlone Press, 1981). Brattle.

Cabot Bibliography: With an Introductory Essay on the Careers of the Cabots Based upon an Independent Examination of the Sources of Information by George Parker Winship (Burt Franklin Reprint, 1967). Brattle.

The Founding of Harvard College by Samuel Eliot Morison (Harvard University Press, 1995). Brattle.

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey (Knopf, 2008). Brattle.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead, 2008). Book cart.

Cotton Mather: A Bibliography of His Works (3v.) by Thomas J. Holmes (Crofton Publishing, 1974). Colophon Book Shop.

Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life by Charles C. Calhoun (Beacon Press, 2004). Raven.

Heyday by Kurt Andersen (Random House, 2008). Signed copy. Raven.

The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft; edited by Claudia L. Johnson (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Raven.

Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes by Richard Watson (David R. Godine, 2007). Raven.

Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World : Massachusetts Merchants, 1670-1780 by Phyllis Whitman Hunter (Cornell University Press, 2001). Raven.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Manuscript Score is Mozart's

The Jean Remy Library in Nantes, France has announced that a partial musical score in its holdings has been authenticated as coming from the hand of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The single sheet, more than a third of which is missing, has been in the library for more than a century, but handwriting experts have only now concluded that Mozart wrote it (although the donor gave it to the library along with other Mozart letters). The fragment is believed to come from a Mass Mozart began composing but never completed.

Ulrich Leisinger, head of research at Salzburg's International Mozarteum Foundation, confirmed the document's authenticity, saying "His handwriting is absolutely clearly identifiable. There's no doubt that this is an original piece handwritten by Mozart." Only about 100 Mozart drafts are known, according to the AP report.

At the bottom of the page here, you can listen to a piano rendition of the fragment by Harvard's Robert Levin, although other musical scholars caution that playing the piece may not be so simple: "Musicians must work out the key signature and clef based on other clues in the music. The tempo is also mysterious. And there is no orchestration." Jean-Louis Jossic, deputy cultural director of the city of Nantes told the Guardian "If we gave it to four, five or six different musicians, we would have 10 different versions." Nonetheless, the library has commissioned a performance of the piece, to be held in January.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Second Book Stolen from Hayes Library Located

By way of updating the Hayes Library Theft story, federal authorities report that they have located the first book stolen by Joshua McCarty and Angela Bays, the 1798 Freeman Code. This is the one sold by McCarty to a Philly book dealer and by them to a buyer in England (although investigators will only say at this point that the book is in "another country").

McCarty and Bays appeared in federal court in Toledo yesterday, where a judge (wisely) refused to grant McCarty an "unsecured bond and electronic monitoring." Prosecutors are preparing a case for a federal grand jury. The third trio member, Zachary Scranton, has an arraignment date tomorrow.

The Toledo Blade article also includes photos of McCarty and Bays, and lays out some new rare book procedures now in place at the Hayes Presidential Center (the barn door seems to be closing at long last).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More on Brubaker Sentence

The Great Falls Tribune has a more complete story out on the Brubaker sentence handed down yesterday. Zachary Franz reports that while federal sentencing guidelines called for a 30-37 month jail term, prosecutors had asked the judge to reduce that to 24 months based on Brubaker's "cooperation" with the investigation. The judge, Sam Haddon, denied that request, saying "I'm not going to grant that level of reward because, frankly, Mr. Brubaker, you haven't earned it." Haddon said that Brubaker's cooperation "was no more than should have been expected of him."

Kudos to Judge Haddon for that.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: "The Enemy Within"

Distinguished Yale historian John Demos tries his hand at popular history with The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World (just out from Viking). In his preface, Demos calls this a "broad-gauge summary and synthesis of the entire subject," noting "synthesis itself was an unfamiliar process for me. I have previously made my way as a historian of very specific times, places, and events. My aim in all my other projects has been depth more than breadth. Those priorities are reversed here; the coverage is nothing if not broad."

That's certainly true. In four large sections, Demos examines various phases of witchcraft history and witch-hunting: Europe in the early modern era, the American colonies prior to Salem, the Salem events themselves, and America in modern times. Each of those sections contains a broad overview chapter, bookended by vignettes focusing on specific cases, characters, or objects (Cotton Mather and Rebecca Nurse or profiled, for example, as is the Malleus Maleficarum).

Through the first three segments of the book, Demos is on firm ground as he surveys the general trends in witch-hunting across the centuries through the crisis at Salem. His historiographical analysis of that phenomenon is fascinating, although it suffered much from the lack of scholarly apparatus in the text (just because a book is being written for a popular audience doesn't mean it can't have footnotes, I say, for the umpteenth time - or at least a thorough bibliography).

In the final section, Demos extends the witch-hunting metaphor to the present day, testing various possible "witch-hunts" (the Anti-Masonic movement, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, &c.) against its criteria to see which fit. As final chapters often do, this part of the book seemed forced and somewhat strained: even Demos admits that not all of his examples work well. His conclusions, at least, do work: for all that the reality of witches may be more "fictive than actual," the psychological impulses at the root of witch-hunting are "all too real. More than anything else," he concludes, "this constitutes the enemy which has through the centuries exacted such a terrible toll. To reduce its power is no easy task. Yet by deepening knowledge of both self and society, we create at least an opening for change. To that most important process 'history' offers its own hopeful, if uncertain, contribution."

Like Demos as a writer, as a reader I tend to prefer narrower studies to works of broad synthesis - I think much of my (minor) discomfort with this book stems directly from that mindset. That said, this is fundamentally a strong book, by one of the foremost authorities in witchcraft scholarship. I think it does just what it's meant to do.

More on Hayes Theft Case

Travis has more details on the Hayes Library thefts I wrote about yesterday. I didn't think it could get worse ... but it does. Yikers. Read the whole thing.

He quotes my final paragraph on the subject, and says later "But back to Jeremy’s original paragraph. I almost never blame the library in these thefts, and neither does he. We both work in libraries and know how difficult they are to keep safe. But a rare book library’s main vulnerability should never be the front door. A thief should never follow the proper procedures and get away with the loot. If he sneaks in the back door or tazes the librarian or shinnies up a dumbwaiter shaft - that’s one thing. But a person who checks out a book from the staff should never then be able to steal the thing, particularly not when that person acts so suspiciously.

I’ve seen a lot of crimes. I’ve never seen a more clear cut example of buffoonish criminals being abetted by a dismally ill-prepared library staff."

I agree. It's really amazing. And sad. I hope the Hayes library gets their books back, but I also hope that they've learned a thing or two (or twelve) from this experience. I've worked in, oh, five rare book repositories now, and in every one of them basic security has been priority one. It has to be.

Brubaker Gets 2.5 Years

There will probably be more details available shortly, but the Great Falls Tribune reports succinctly that James Brubaker was sentenced this afternoon to two and a half years (thirty months) in prison, and was "ordered to make payments to libraries he victimized, ranging from $5 to the Bozeman Public Library to $21,600 to Western Washington University."That's more than I expected he'd get, but not nearly enough.

More as I get it.

[Update: Some reports say that Brubaker's been ordered to pay $23,000 total in restitution, which is significantly lower than the $200,000 his thefts have been valued at].

Book Review: "The Amulet of Samarkand"

Harry Potter meets Jonathan Strange and Pullman's Lyra in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, the first volume of which is The Amulet of Samarkand. While I don't know where the series is going yet, I'm really looking forward to the trip. With this book, Stroud manages to carve out a niche in the ever-more-crowded "wizard fiction" genre by offering up some fresh perspective and some unforgettable characters.

Young Nathaniel (or, to use his official wizard name, John Mandrake), an apprentice wizard, finds himself caught up in matters somewhat over his head when he (accidentally) stumbles across a plot to overthrow the government. Thankfully he's got a cantankerous and not-entirely-unwilling djinn of great age - that would be Bartimaeus - at his beck and call. Together the unlikely duo must infiltrate the plot, reap vengeance for an untimely death or two, and manage to get out alive.

I found Stroud's take on the parallel wizarding universe well conceived and well written, and the style of narration (alternating between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus) worked nicely. I really enjoyed the djinn's sarcastic and witty footnoted asides, but then I have a great affinity for such things. Dark, original, and engrossing throughout. Good stuff.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hayes Library Thefts (Plus Updates)

- First, there's a new theft case to report. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (Fremont, OH) was hit by book thieves earlier this summer, losing two early books of Northwest Territory laws: Laws of the Territory of the United States North West of the Ohio, (published in 1796, this is known as the Maxwell Code), and Laws of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio, (published in 1798, and known as the Freeman Code). These volumes, both early Cincinnati imprints (the Maxwell code is considered the first book printed in what would become Ohio), are quite rare, and together are valued at c. $130,000.

This was a remarkably brazen theft (or actually, pair of thefts). On 27 June, Joshua T. McCarty, 31, and Angela K. Bays, 19, (both of Columbus, OH) visited the library and requested the books (which were boxed together). Somehow McCarty managed to get the books into the women's bathroom (?), which he was seen exiting. A library staffer confronted McCarty and thought that he had recovered the items, only to discover later (in early September, in fact) that the text block of the Freeman code had been removed from its "cover" and was missing.

Here's where it gets weird. On 25 August, Zachary A. Scranton, 21, (of Marysville, OH) entered the library and requested to view the Maxwell Code. According to the Columbus Dispatch report, "He was unable to provide identification, but he agreed to turn over his backpack as collateral. When library staffers were distracted by other business, Scranton fled with the book. The backpack was found to be stuffed with paper towels." Investigators say McCarty paid Scranton $300 to steal the item.

According to court documents, cell-phone records show a call from Scranton to McCarty on the day the Maxwell Code was stolen. McCarty says that he sold the Freeman Code "to a collector in England for $35,000 through a rare-book dealer in Philadelphia." The Toledo Blade reports that the Maxwell Code was recovered in Columbus this week.

Each member of the trio has been charged with charged "with stealing from a museum an 'object of cultural significance' more than 100 years old or valued at more than $100,000." They'll be arraigned in federal court next week: "McCarty and Bays are scheduled to appear Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Toledo. Scranton is scheduled to appear Wednesday. Bays and Scranton were released on bond, but McCarty remained in jail in Toledo yesterday," says the Dispatch.

McCarty's got quite a rap sheet already. He was arrested in 2007 for the theft of more than $20,000 worth of maps from Canaday Old and Rare Books in Harrisburg, PA, as Tony Campbell notes (no word on the disposition of that case) and the Dispatch adds that he was just indicted (4 September) "on charges of forgery, receiving stolen property and possessing criminal tools. The indictment alleges that McCarty obtained a check stolen from bookseller TextbooksRus and used it to forge a check for $562 in December. He has not made a court appearance on the charges."

It's unclear just how tough prosecutors will be on the two accomplices, but they certainly ought to take the opportunity to throw the book at McCarty, who is clearly exhibiting a pattern of brazenly illegal behavior here. The maximum punishment for the charges filed so far is a ten-year prison term and a $250,000 fine, although it seems possible that conspiracy charges could also be filed. Stay tuned on this one.

Before I move on, though, a word about the Hayes library's security procedures (or severe lack thereof). The media reports about this case note that "the library ... now requires a photo ID from anyone reviewing rare books. Such requests were previously left to the discretion of staff members." After all the thefts we've seen in the last few years, any library which has rare books/manuscripts in its collections and is not taking even minimal precautions like checking photo IDs, keeping permanent records of visits and items examined, keeping a staff member in the room with visitors at all times (how did McCarty get the book into the bathroom?!) and not allowing outside materials into the reading room (Scranton's backpack should have been taken away as a matter of course) frankly has no business being responsible for such materials.

- Now, on to other recent theft news. You'll remember Lester Weber, the former curator of the Mariners' Museum who pleaded guilty in June to charges of theft, mail fraud, and filing false tax returns (his sentencing is set for 7 November). Weber's wife, Lori Childs, has now also entered a guilty plea, the Daily Press reports. She admitted Wednesday to filing a false tax return for 2005, and will face up to three years in prison when sentenced on 15 December. The U.S. Attorney's office prosecuting the case says "Weber and Childs filed U.S. individual income tax returns, which failed to list any of the receipts earned through the sale of items on the eBay Web site. For the tax year 2005, Weber and Childs failed to report approximately $50,307.02 in proceeds made to the eBay sales, and identified total income of $40,800 on their joint U.S. income tax return."

- And there's news on yet another of the theft cases we've been following this year: James Brubaker, whose guilty plea on charges of interstate transportation of stolen property plus possession and sale of same, was finalized in late June, will be sentenced tomorrow, the Great Falls Tribune notes (remember, Travis has predicted a 15-21 month sentence, although I hope he's really lowballed that). The Tribune story (which has good background on the case) quotes a police investigator as saying that about 800 of the 1000 books recovered from Brubaker's home back in December have been identified as the property of about 100 specific libraries; authorities plan to begin returning those materials after Brubaker's sentence is handed down.

So that's where we are today. I'll have more on Brubaker's sentence tomorrow as soon as I hear something, and will continue to follow the McCarty case as it moves forward.

Links & Reviews

Since we've had some major developments in several theft cases in the last few days I'll have a separate roundup on those later today. Here are the rest of the week's links:

- Author David Foster Wallace is dead at age 46, of an apparent suicide. Coverage from the NYTimes, LATimes.

- Google announced that it's begun a newspaper digitization project; their plan is to make newspaper archives searchable and browseable. AHA Today offers up links to some other similar projects. Digitizing newspaper archives is a good idea, but I wish they'd make sure their current efforts are on the right track before bouncing off and doing other things. Google Books still needs work, folks.

- Mick Sussman's NYTimes essay "Attack of the Megalisters" is getting lots of buzz in the biblioblogosphere, and rightly so; it's a good piece.

- The Houghton Library blog points out the new (and delicious-looking) Harvard University Press publication Audubon: Early Drawings, available this month.

- A short talk by Marcus Rediker - given at Mt. Vernon this summer when he accepted the George Washington Book Prize for his book The Slave Ship: A Human History - is reprinted in The American Scholar.

- The proposed Harry Potter Lexicon was ruled a copyright violation this week, giving JK Rowling a major legal victory. Coverage from TeleRead, Boston Globe, Jacket Copy, Reuters, The Guardian, GalleyCat.

- Paul Collins examines John McCain's frequent use of the phrase "my friends," and profiles a band of spelling reformers.


- Bob Woodward's The War Within is reviewed by Josiah Bunting III in the Washington Post.

- Also in the Post, Fergus Bordewich reviews Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello.

- Olivia Judson reviews Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum in the NYTimes.

- Gavin Menzies' latest pseudo-historical tome, 1434: The year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance, is reviewed by Damien Thompson in The Telegraph. Thompson: "Menzies is an exponent of misinformation disguised as scholarship with the aid of footnotes, dodgy citations and even dodgier logic."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

This Week's Acquisitions

- The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library by Marcus Tanner (Yale University Press, 2008). Yale.

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008 by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Barnes & Noble.

Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America by Meredith Mason Brown (LSU Press, 2008). Book cart.

Early New England: A Covenanted Society by David A. Weir (Eerdmans, 2005). Book cart.

The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North by Mark E. Neely, Jr. (Harvard University Press, 2005). Book cart.

A Catalogue of Books and Pamphlets Unrecorded in Oscar Wegelin's 'Early American Poetry, 1650-1820' by Roger E. Stoddard (Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1969). Gift of the author, inscribed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What I've Been Up To

This week's been a busy one of playing catch-up, which is why I've been posting so rarely. Among other things, I've been adding some more books to the Mather Family Library in LT. Some of those were the books now owned by Harvard which had belonged to various Mathers; the rest were about 100 titles purchased by Cotton Mather in 1682 when Harvard was getting rid of some duplicates from its library. I'll say this for him, Cotton was a pretty savvy book-buyer at age 19. A bit precocious, too; in 1683 he wrote that he had "A Library exceeding any man's, in all this Land" (which was probably true, to be fair).

Adding the titles proved somewhat labor-intensive since I was trying to make sure they weren't already in the catalog (which they were if the copies still exist - some of them are at the American Antiquarian Society, and some of them have gone back to Harvard).

There's still much information about the Mather libraries to add, so that will be an ongoing project. I've also received some new and very interesting library lists from various early American political figures, so look for those additions on the horizon. I think the library of Elbridge Gerry will be up next, and I'll start on that this weekend.

And, as our friend from BiblioHistoria notes in comments below, the Legacy Libraries have gotten some exciting coverage in this month's rare book magazines: there is a feature profile of the project by Jonathan Shipley in Fine Books & Collections, and I just discovered tonight that there is a News & Views piece on the effort in Rare Book Review as well! And I'm delighted to see that this blog makes Bruce Tice's list of rare book blogs ... I'm flattered to be in such good company there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stolen Israeli Document Recovered in Germany

I'm way behind this week as I've been trying to finish up some non-blog projects; hopefully this weekend will give me a chance to catch up. In the meantime, I did want to pass along some good news: the AP reports that a document discovered missing nearly a decade ago from Tel Aviv's Rambam Library has been discovered at the German National Library, and will be returned to Israel.

A 1793 manuscript treatise on Jewish law, The Book of the Levite's Worship, went missing from Tel Aviv around 1998. It was put on sale at Christie's a year later, but didn't sell at auction and was later purchased by an "unidentified dealer" and disappeared until 2005, when a "manuscript specialist at Israel's national library in Jerusalem received a copy of a book being held by the German National Library and realized it was the Levite's Worship."

It has now been determined that the manuscript in Germany is that missing from Tel Aviv, and the Germans have agreed to return it to Israel.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Palin and Libraries

I thought we were done with this, but the McCain campaign has apparently decided to make a bigger issue of Sarah Palin's involvement with the Wasilla Public Library during her time as mayor. They've released a 1,500-word memo on the subject, which says little more than what we already knew, except to note that when Palin asked the "rhetorical question" about banning books, the librarian was in the midst of revising the library's book-challenge policy following a contentious debate over the issue in 1995.

This is an important point, and as I said in my original post, it must be noted that while the question was asked (and we can debate the merits of asking such a question at all), no books were banned, and no list of potential books "to be banned" ever existed. Those bloggers and others who insist on perpetuating those myths are doing themselves and the country a disservice (and unfairly maligning Ms. Palin).

My opposition to Sarah Palin's candidacy remains as strong as it has been since the day she was announced, and I think that her justification for asking the question of the librarian remains somewhat suspect, but let's keep our eye on the ball. There are bigger issues out there where Palin's actions more clearly call into question her judgment and suitability for high elected office. Let's focus on those.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Book Review: "The Forger's Spell"

It takes only one glance at Han van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries for even a rank amateur like me to tell say they're not very good (and don't even come close to holding a candle to Vermeer's own works). And yet for several years van Meegeren's paintings were hailed as Vermeer's "masterpieces." Why and how this came to be is the story told in Edward Dolnick's excellent new book, The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (Harper).

van Meegeren, a mediocre Dutch artist whose own work failed to gain any critical traction, turned to forgery in the late 1930s as a way to get back at the experts and make a little money. He managed to do both, in spades. After expending significant effort in figuring out how to make 20th century forgeries look and feel like 17th century paintings (he discovered that if he blended his oils with bakelite they exhibited the correct hardness, then bent them over his knee to obtain craquelure, and sprinkled the surface with India ink to dirty them up a bit), van Meegeren and various unwitting intermediaries began putting his paintings in front of expert eyes.

Dolnick's book alternates between several interconnecting storylines: that of van Meegeren himself as he creates and markets his paintings, that of the experts who fell right into his carefully-set trap and raved (and I mean raved) about the faux Vermeers (as well as those few who saw through them), and the collectors who wanted the paintings for their walls. Once war broke out, these included Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and even Der Fuehrer himself - imagine, Germany's top Nazis squabbling over paintings (needless to say, Hitler won those feuds).

The narrative portions of the book are quite good, but Dolnick's analysis of forgery in general and van Meegeren's forgeries in particular are also an important contribution to forgery literature. He examines the bizarre way in which forgers hook their victims, making them see what they want to see and getting them to buy into it with enough vehemence to provide a full-throated defense (and giving subsequent forgeries a chance to succeed). It's not just art, of course: we've seen this happen in a wide range of cases, from William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare relics to Denis Vrain-Lucas' implausible autographs to Hardy Rodenstock's bottles of "Thomas Jefferson's wine." Dolnick argues that the tendency of experts to believe more in their own capabilities than in the answers provided by scientific tests (and in the occasional inability of scientific tests to provide clear-cut answers in any case) make forgeries possible even today.

Forgers can still do their thing, Dolnick argues, but "the problem for van Meegeren and most forgers is that, even as they try to travel into the past, they bring the trappings of their own world with them. Their peers don't see anything awry because they share the same blind spots, but sooner or later a new generation will come along and giggle" (p. 221). One scholar has determined that if forgeries make it through their initial debut, they have, on average, a forty-year lifespan before the giggles start. But then there's those which survive even the generations - it is often said, rightly, that the best forgers are completely unknown, since their works are still hanging on the walls.

The forgeries of van Meegeren didn't make it long enough to hear the giggles: the forger confessed to police after they discovered links between his financial records and those of Mr. Goering. Collaboration with the Nazis was viewed as a pretty serious offense in post-war Holland, and van Meegeren was staring down the barrel of treason charges when he suddenly announced to his investigators that those Vermeers discovered in various Nazi vaults and hanging in reputable museums across the country were less than a decade old, and all the product not of the famous Vermeer, but of a modern-day "nobody." At first the police didn't even believe van Meegeren, but he showed them, by painting another "Vermeer" right in front of their eyes. Tried for fraud, the forger received a one-year sentence, but died before entering prison. He was seen at the end not as the huckster he was, but as a hero of Holland for making fools of Goering and Hitler (Goering, when he learned in prison that his prized Vermeer was a fake, is said to have shouted "No! No! No!").

A fascinating study of one of the most important art forgeries of modern times. Highly recommended.

Book Review: "The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes"

Its title notwithstanding, The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes isn't really a joke book. It's a collection of miscellaneous pieces from McSweeney's Internet Tendency which all have something (loosely defined) to do with books, or fictional characters, or authors. Most of them are funny. Some are not. John Hodgman penned the introduction, which was funny. Darby Larson penned "Don't Read This or You Might Get Poked in the Eye With a Dagger," which was not.

Among my favorites: John Moe's "Winnie-the-Pooh is My Coworker," Ann Asher's "A Lost Scene Involving Louis, a Turkey Character Cut During the Final Edit of Charlotte's Web," Laurence Hughes's "Lady Macbeth on Ambien," and Ben Joseph's "Celebrity Biographies Written by a Guy Who Cannot Distinguish Fiction From Reality."

If you're a fan of McSweeney's-humor, and didn't catch these as they came through the site originally (or if you just want to have them all in one place), this is a book for you.

More on Old South Thefts

I found out a little bit more about the thefts from Boston's Old South Church first reported yesterday. I'm not at liberty to report everything, because the investigation is ongoing, but we know that the books and manuscripts were stolen from a display case in the church. The thefts were discovered yesterday, but are now believed to have taken place before then. One of the books is currently being retrieved for eventual return to Old South; it is believed to have been sold to a Boston-area bookshop in August.

As I can pass more information along, I will do so.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Stolen Books Alert

The following notice just came across the wire:

Stolen from Old South Church in Boston on September 7, 2008.
Contact: Helen McCrady, 617-425-5145

Missing Volumes
1. A Complete Body of Divinity, by Samuel Willard (a large book) (MDCCXXVI)
2. John Hull's Notebook (1652) including Mr. Thatcher's Artillery Election Sermon (1671), handwritten
3. Psalms Carefully Suited to the Christian Worship (1818)
4. Bible, inscribed "A. B. Phillips the gift of Mama 1800 or 1802. Mariam Mafore's (sp.?) book given her by the Rev. Mr. Allen Cummings Jan. 1, 1762"
5. Memoirs of the late Susan Huntington of Boston, by Benjamin Wisner , Pastor of the Old South Church in Boston (1829)

Missing Pamphlets
1. The Preface ...giving a summary account of the occasion of the following sermons (concerning the earthquake) "The Old South Church from H.A. Hill 1888".
2. Original Manuscript Sermon, by Dr. Eckely, former minister of Old South Church, for Rev. M. Manning
3. A Charge to a Pastor, by D. Samuel Blair (autographed, handwritten)
4. Sermon Preached, by Thomas Thatcher at the Old South April 24, 1670 (handwritten)
5. Letter to Hamilton Hill from Peter Thatcher (April 23, 1888)
6. Autographed notes of address, by Rev. Joseph Sewell (handwritten)
7. Sheet with seal, Thomas Prince (handwritten)
8. Funeral Sermon on my d. Mother w deceased at Middleboro, by Thomas Prince (1737, handwritten)
9. Remarks on Cause and Effect in connection with Fatalism and Free Agency, by Rev. L. Wood

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: "Fragile Things"

Neil Gaiman's 2006 collection of short stories and poems Fragile Things is a wide-ranging compilation of genres, tones and qualities. Some of the selections here ("Sunbird," "October in the Chair") were spectacular, others were unbelievably creepy, and the points of a few eluded me entirely. Throughout, though, Gaiman's versatile ability to tell a good story is evident.

Accompanied by a short introduction to each piece, most of which were published in other forms before this, Fragile Things is probably required reading for the Gaiman fan, but may not be the best introduction to his work.

Links & Reviews

- As Ed points out, the Poe Wars resumed this week with a story in the NYTimes. Great stuff. Ed and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome are set to square off in a 13 January debate in Philly which promises to be impressive - I hope they'll webcast it.

- The Somerville (MA) Public Library has received a $2,500 grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to fund a conservatorial study of its collections. From the way things are described in a Globe profile today, it sounds like it's high time for that.

- The online vote for the "Oddest Book Title" resulted in a victory for Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, which garnered 13% of the vote. Coming in second with 11% was People Who Don't Know They're Dead, and How to Avoid Huge Ships took third with 10%.

- Ian Kahn found a nice first edition of Dibdin's Bibliomania at the Baltimore book fair. I'm still looking.

- Michael Lieberman notes what looks like a really hauntingly beautiful book of photographs, The Library of Dust.

- There's a lovely digital exhibit of flower photography, Herbarium Amoris: A Tribute to Carl Linnaeus. [h/t: VSL:Science]

- In noting the photo-blog Shorpy, Laura offers up a wonderful picture of Boston's Old Corner Bookstore, which is currently (and sacreligiously) a jewelry store.

- The AHA Today blog notes a new digital project from the University of Richmond, Voting America: United States Politics 1840-2008.


- In the NYSun, Caleb Crain reviews Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words. Caleb also notes that he has an essay on Wilkie Collins in the 11 September London Review of Books.

- Chelsea Cain reviews Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter for the NYTimes.

- Also in the Times, Blake Wilson reviews Christopher Buckley's Supreme Courtship.

- Michael Dirda reviews Neal Stephenson's Anathem in the WaPo, which he calls "much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull."

- Joyce Carol Oates has an essay review of Christopher Benfey's and A Summer of Hummingbirds and Brenda Wineapple's White Heat in the NYRB.

- In the Times, Renée Winegarten's Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant: A Dual Biography and Angelica Godden's Madame de Staël.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Book Review: "Lincoln's Assassins"

Assassinations don't really make good fodder for coffee table books. But James Swanson and Daniel Weinberg give it the old college try with Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution (William Morrow, 2006). More than 250 images from the aftermath of the assassination are included here: photographic portraits of the assassins, printed materials showing the diffusion of the news about Lincoln's death, the capture, trial and execution of the conspirators, plus artifacts from the period. Among other previously-unpublished material, Alexander Gardner's haunting photographs from the execution are published in their entirety and in the correct order for the first time, the authors claim.

The photos are preceded by a short narrative introduction to the events which followed the assassination; that includes long excerpts from contemporary newspaper accounts which recount in full graphic detail the deaths by hanging of the eight conspirators.

Macabre doesn't even begin to describe this book, but it is well designed and described. It will be of interest to the serious Lincoln assassination buff.

This Week's Acquisitions

A dangerous week for book acquisitions. Oak Knoll's 30th anniversary sale proved irresistible, and a recent catalog from Edward R. Hamilton, the bargain-dealer from CT, also contained a few well-priced goodies. The list:

- Catalogue Of The American Library Of The Late Mr. George Brinley (a two-volume reprint by Martino Publishing, 1999). Oak Knoll.

Property of a Gentleman: The Formation, Organisation and Dispersal of the Private Library, 1620-1920; edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Oak Knoll, 1991). Oak Knoll.

How Much Is That in Real Money?: A Historical Commodity Price Index for Use As a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States by John J. McCusker (AAS, 2001). Oak Knoll.

'Mr. Zenger's Malice and Falshood': Six Issues of the New York Weekly Journal, 1733-34; edited by Stephen Botein (AAS, 1985). Oak Knoll.

Handlist of Library Catalogues and Lists of Books and Manuscripts in the British Library Department of Manuscripts by R.C. Alston (Bibliographical Society, 1991). Oak Knoll.

Fielding's Library: An Annotated Catalogue by Frederick G. Ribble and Anne G. Ribble (Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1996). Oak Knoll.

Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading; edited by Robin Myers, Michael Harris, and Giles Mandelbrote (Oak Knoll, 2005). Oak Knoll.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton.

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett (Free Press, 2007). Edward R. Hamilton.

Nelson's Purse: The Mystery of Lord Nelson's Lost Treasures by Martyn Downer (Smithsonian, 2004). Edward R. Hamilton.

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton.

The Book in America by Richard W. Clement (Fulcrum, 1996). Edward R. Hamilton.

Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg (William Morrow, 2006). Edward R. Hamilton.

Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World; edited by Page Talbott (Yale University Press, 2005). Edward R. Hamilton.

Book Review: "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (first published in 1974) is an extended meditation on the natural world and its inhabitants, written by a young author with much to say. Its language is poetic, and sometimes lovely, although as Dillard admits in her 1999 afterword, "I'm afraid I suffered a youth's drawback, too: a love of grand sentences, and fancied a grand sentence was not quite done until it was overdone. Some parts seem frivolous." At times the language is just too much, and the stream-of consciousness perspective too frustrating.

When Dillard's prose sparkles, it is brilliant, as she recounts learning to "stalk muskrats" and muses on red-spotted newts, dragonfly larvae and the other wonderful discoveries that can be made in a freshwater pond or creek. I can't even say how many summer days my cousins and I spent as children catching newts in the farm ponds, building crayfish corrals, or stalking spring peepers with flashlights (and then bringing their cacophonous little selves into the house and letting them make their great racket indoors until, sleep-deprived, we finally tired of their chirps).

But for all the lovely moments in this book, there were long stretches where I just lost interest in the meditative, flowery language and wanted something to happen. I could have done without all the personal philosophizing. Perhaps one just has to be in a certain mindset to experience this book as Dillard intended it to be experienced - it may be one that must be read under only certain conditions in order for it to work well.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Auction Report: Bloomsbury

Bloomsbury London held a Bibliophile sale yesterday, and the full list of results is available here. There were some bargains to be had, but there were also a few items which surpassed expectations:

- Lot 27, a third edition of Thomas Gage's New Survey of the West Indies (1677) bound with other travel accounts, made £3,000 (it had been estimated at £600-800).

- Lot 37, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten's Journal ou Relation Exacte du Voyage de Guille Schouten, dans les Indes (1618), described as "a disappointing copy of a rare book," sold for £4,600 (estimate £300-400).

- Lot 57, a very rare copy of Pufendorf's De Rebus a Carolo Gustavo ... (1729), including the "folding panoramic view of Stockholm on 13 joined sheets (c.4 metres in length), which depicts the funeral ceremonies of Charles X Gustav," fetched £3,800.

- Lot 172, Lord Byron's copy of an 1803 edition of Swift's Tale of a Tub, inscribed to the poet by his friend John Cam Hobhouse, made £3,200. The estimates on this (£400-600) seem quite low.

- And from the "are you kidding?" department, Lot 402, a first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone which looks like it spent a couple years in an elementary school library (oh wait, it is an ex-library copy). It made £2,200, for reasons entirely passing understanding.

Bloomsbury London's next sale, Maps and Atlases, will be held on 11 September. There will be a Bibliophile Sale at Bloomsbury New York on 17-18 September, featuring a whopping 803 lots and including a large collection of Oziana, a first American edition of Jefferson's Notes, among other goodies.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

But Now It's Personal

I don't usually delve into the political world over here, but since Sarah Palin apparently thinks it's okay for politicians to interfere with libraries, I figure the librarians deserve a chance to bite back. Only fair, right?

Both Time and the New York Times have run articles which mention that, as the newly-elected mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin "approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books."

Here's how Time tells it, quoting Palin's mayoral predecessor, John Stein. "Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. 'She asked the library how she could go about banning books,' he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. 'The librarian was aghast.' That woman, Mary Ellen Emmons (now Baker), couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving 'full support' to the mayor."

The NYTimes version is similar. "Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. 'They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,' Ms. Kilkenny said. The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to 'resist all efforts at censorship,' Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later [in 1999], declined to comment for this [NYTimes] article. In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were 'rhetorical.'"

Rhetorical or not, the idea is repulsive.

Today's Anchorage Daily News includes a full feature article on this story, which notes "The stories are all suggestive, but facts are hard to come by. Did Palin actually ban books at the Wasilla Public Library?" They report that in December of 1996, the town librarian told a reporter for the Wasilla Frontiersman "that Palin three times asked her - starting before she was sworn in - about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose."

The ADN piece has more from Kilkenny, who says that at a city council meeting in the fall of 1996, Palin asked the librarian "
What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?" Kilkenny recalls Baker's response: "Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, 'The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'" Asked about these stories, Palin told the Frontiersman that her inquiries were "rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head 'about understanding and following administration agendas.'"

So, she argued, she just wanted to find out if she could get people to follow orders based on her "agenda." Wow.

The ADN found no evidence to suggest that books were ever actually removed from the library shelves, which is a good thing. And there is nothing to suggest that Palin had a specific "list" of books she wanted banned (that given here is demonstrably false, as other commenters note). But the facts remain. Baker is said to be on vacation currently (which I'm sure she's more than a little glad of), and I would certainly like to hear her side of the story at some point. It will be interesting as well to see if the McCain campaign ever lets Palin take questions from the media: if that happens I'd certainly be interested to hear what she has to say about all this too.

The major issue at stake here is not really whether Palin "banned books," since it seems like that step wasn't ever taken (although, as I said above, the idea of it is plenty repulsive, and it's fairly obvious that if the librarian hadn't stood up, the situation may have turned into something very different). More deeply, the question goes to her management style and to her apparent view that others should just blindly hew to her "agendas" (her word, not mine). And, frankly, that's not a management style I'm comfortable with.

Plan to Deaccession Cardiff Books Panned

The BBC reports that a plan by library administrators in Cardiff, Wales to sell off various rare books has led to the formation of a group (Cardiff Heritage Friends) to oppose the move. The library council plans to review as many as 18,000 items (some dating back to the 15th century) for possible deaccession, with proceeds going to fund technological improvements across the library system. An initial 139 items, said to be the most valuable portion of those to be sold, is up for appraisal currently.

Cardiff University special collections librarian Peter Keelan said he was in talks with the city library council about possibly purchasing some of the books, "but the prices they could fetch at auction would be beyond what we could afford. Nothing has come of the discussions yet but we have the capabilities of looking after books of that age - we have books going back to 1508 - and so if the council says they cannot afford to keep them and care for them, we could. It would also mean people from all over Cardiff could see them." Describing the city's collection of early printed books, Keelan said "There is nothing else here in Wales as the library in Aberystwyth concentrates more on Welsh texts. Students would have to go to London for their research. If these books disappear from Cardiff, research will grind to a halt."

This is the dilemma increasingly faced by libraries like Cardiff's: great and important rare books, but insufficient funds to adequately house, maintain, catalog or secure them. An injudicious deaccessioning process, though, is just cutting off the nose to spite the face (what good are improvements when there is no reason left for researchers to come to the facility?). It is possible that some arrangement can be made with the University to keep the books in Cardiff for research purposes, which would be ideal - if it becomes entirely necessary to sell certain items, I hope it will be carried out through an open and deliberative process, taking into account the views of researchers and residents.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, Legacy Libraries

I've a post on the LT blog about the first anniversary of the Legacy Libraries/I See Dead People's Books effort. I can't believe it's been a year since we started with Jefferson, and I'm very impressed with how far we've come in that short time (27 libraries completed, 32 more underway, for a total of 47,773 books cataloged as of this morning).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Book Review: "The Heretic's Daughter"

Kathleen Kent's debut novel, The Heretic's Daughter (releasing this week from Little, Brown) is a very impressive first book indeed. It tells the story of Martha Carrier, one of those hanged as a witch at Salem in 1692, through the eyes of her 10-year old daughter Sarah who, along with four of her five siblings, was jailed alongside her mother on suspicion of witchcraft. Kent turns their harrowing real-life experiences into an absorbing study of family loyalty and the social brutality that marked the New England witchcraft scares of the late seventeenth century.

Kent pulls off a feat that is notoriously tricky to do, narrating a book from the perspective of a young child. She allows Sarah to control the narrative, not endowing her with wisdom or foresight beyond her years but capturing the innocence and incomplete understanding of the events happening around her as her family is dragged into the drama of the witchcraft accusations.

The characters here are all human, real in their grittiness and their faults, their spirit and their power. There are no caricatures here, but portraits. Kent's deep research into the people and the Puritan culture of the time is evident in every page, and my only serious gripe with this book is the lack of a historical note explaining the departures taken from the historical record. I read an ARC, though, so hopefully this fault is remedied in the final published version.

I don't recall reading a better fictional treatment of the Salem crisis, so for those interested in the period or the subject matter, I do suggest this one.

See You on the Radio

Yesterday I was on Clare Graves' BBC Scotland program "Book Cafe" to discuss the LT Legacy Libraries project. You can listen here for the next few days, should you so desire. I'm on in the first 15-minute segment, along with Thomas Wright, author of the new book Oscar's Books (on the reading habits of Oscar Wilde) and Stuart Kelly, one of Britain's best-known book journalists. It was a fun discussion, and I learned that Wilde, like Jefferson, was a big fan of the Ossian poems, which is pretty cool.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Book Review: "Nabokov's Butterfly"

Rare book dealer Rick Gekoski's Nabokov's Butterfly (published in England as Tolkien's Gown) is a delightful collection of short essays centered around various important books of the twentieth century, from Joyce's Ulysses to Kerouac's On the Road to Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Gekoski's anecdotes about his experiences with these books, their authors and their (sometimes bizarre) publishing histories are enlightening and amusing from first to last: he sold Graham Greene's copy of Lolita to Bernie Taupin the day after he acquired it (and, it seems, has regretted it since); he played a bit-part in J.D. Salinger's famous lawsuit against would-be-biographer Ian Hamilton (and dared to suggest a hilariously appropriate resolution to the same); and he tries to get at the heart of such important bibliophilic questions as why it is that people find pristine copies of certain books so utterly irresistible.

One of the (not uncommon) moments at which I laughed out loud while reading this book was after Gekoski quoted his catalog description of the copy of Sylvia Plath's The Colossus and Other Poems inscribed from Plath to her husband Ted Hughes just months before her death. Following the quote, he writes "If you don't immediately feel how exciting this book is - if you haven't in some form or another, just whispered 'that is so fabulous!' to yourself - I'm afraid you don't have the makings of a book collector. I'm not even sure I would like you very much." Harsh? Perhaps, but probably quite fair.

A nicely-designed volume, with beautiful endpapers featuring color images of the books discussed within, this is a highly enjoyable book from one of the leading lights of the current trade in modern literary fiction.

Amazon + Shelfari = ??

I wanted to give the dust a bit of time to settle before I discussed Amazon's acquisition of Shelfari, which was announced back on 25 August in a Seattle Post-Intellingencer report. Word of this purchase, for an undisclosed sum, comes just three weeks after the news that Amazon acquired ABEBooks (and with it, ABEBooks' 40% share in LibraryThing). Not being a Shelfari user, my only interest in this acquisition is in its impact on LT. So far, what we're seeing is that this acquisition will only serve to make LT better at doing what it already does so well.

Lots of links to add, most notably the major LT talk thread about this news, which includes nearly 350 posts of discussion and responses from LT users. Here's Shelfari CEO Josh Hug's blog post on the acquisition, and further posts/articles from Book Patrol, TechCrunch, Mashable, The Millions, Marketing Vox, O'Reilly radar, the New York Times, Library Journal, &c. A followup report in the Post-Intelligencer focuses on the LT criticisms of Shelfari.

As a strong LT partisan, I don't think anyone will be surprised that I firmly believe LibraryThing has the best system in place now and the most potential for growth moving forward. Tim lists LT's openness, dynamism, and independence as its major positives, and I think that's just about right. I have no doubt that LT's vibrant and active user community, along with Tim, Abby and the rest of the staff over there, will be up to whatever challenges this new development presents, and I look forward to continued involvement there for many years to come.

For anyone interested in the full implications of this, do check out the LT talk post, and feel free to add suggestions and comments there.