Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year-End Reading Report 2008

Hard to believe it's already that time again.

I read 117 books in 2008 (these 110, plus six that I borrowed or deaccessioned), for an average of one every 3.1 days. That's down again from last year, a trend I have to attribute to the fact that I've been spending more time with the Legacy projects (which, while great fun, means I tend not to read quite as much) and less time on the train.

This was another very good reading year; in fact, it was so good that I've decided to dump my "bottom five" lists for fiction and non-fiction, since I didn't read enough bad books to make lists of them. I'll just give the good ones this time (in no order within the lists)

Fiction Top Five
- The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (review)
The Late George Apley: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir by John P. Marquand (review)
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (review)
- The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (review)
The Black Tower by Louis Bayard (review)

Non-Fiction Top Five
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard (review)
The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace (review)
The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson by Kevin J. Hayes (review)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (review)
Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature by D. Graham Burnett (review)

Yale University Press gets my Publisher of the Year Award for the second year running; they continue to impress with the consistent quality of their publications.

Happy New Year to all, and may your 2009 be filled with good books and good cheer.

2008 Farewells

The book world lost some giants this year. I've listed this sampling by date of death, and added a link to a major obit where I could find one. Librarians, book collectors, and bibliographers are bolded. I'm sure I've missed some important ones, and apologies for those omissions. Thanks to Joyce for her additions to my list.

- Fraser, George MacDonald, d. 2 January - historical novelist. Times Obit.

- Hoch, Edward D., d. 17 January - detective novelist/short-story writer. NYTimes Obit.

- Truman, Margaret, d. 29 January - mystery novelist. WaPo Obit.

Whitney, Phyllis A., d. 8 February - novelist/children's author. NYTimes Obit.

- Robbe-Grillet, Alain, d. 18 February - novelist. NYTimes Obit.

- Moore, Robin, d. 21 February - author. NYTimes Obit.

- Pollak, Michale, d. 27 February - bibliographer. DMN Obit.

- Buckley, William F., Jr., d. 28 February - author/publisher. NYTimes Obit.

- Clarke, Arthur C., d. 19 March - science fiction author. NYTimes Obit.

- O'Faolain, Nuala, d. 9 May - journalist/author. Telegraph Obit.

- Elder, Will, d. 15 May - Mad Magazine cartoonist. NYTimes Obit.

- Bruccoli, Matthew, d. 4 June - bibliographer/collector. NYTimes Obit.

- Disch, Thomas M., d. 4 July - science fiction author. NYTimes Obit.

- van de Wetering, Janwillem, d. 4 July - detective novelist. NYTimes Obit.

- Berès, Pierre, d. 28 July - bookseller/collector. NYTimes Obit.

- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, d. 3 August - author/historian. NYTimes Obit.

- Mosel, Tad, d. 24 August - playwright. NYTimes Obit.

- Giroux, Robert, d. 5 September - editor/publisher. NYTimes Obit.

- Mcdonald, Gregory, d. 7 September - crime novelist. NYTimes Obit.

- Wallace, David Foster, d. 12 September - author. NYTimes Obit.

- Lemay, J.A. Leo, d. 15 October - historian/author/biographer. UDel Memorial Page.

- Kavanagh, Pat, d. 20 October - literary agent. NYTimes Obit.

- Mitchell, Herbert, d. 25 October - Columbia University librarian; collector of images. NYTimes Obit.

- Hillerman, Tony, d. 26 October - detective novelist. NYTimes Obit.

- Wharton, William, d. 29 October - painter/novelist. NYTimes Obit.

- Terkel, Studs, d. 31 October - author/oral historian. ChiTrib Obit.

- Crichton, Michael, d. 4 November - author. LATimes Obit.

- Leonard, John, d. 5 November - author/critic. WaPo Obit.

- Friedlaender, Helmut, d. 25 November - rare book collector. NYTimes Obit.

- Adams, Thomas R., d. 1 December - librarian/bibliographer. ProJo Obit.

- Sterling, Dorothy, d. 1 December - children's author/historian. NYTimes Obit.

- Ackerman, Forrest J., d. 4 December - collector of science fiction books and memorabilia. LATimes Obit.

- Waugh, Hilary, d. 8 December - mystery novelist. AP Obit.

- Pinter, Harold, d. 24 December - playwright. NYTimes Obit.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: "Free For All"

Like Scott Douglas' Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian (review), Don Borchert's Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library (Virgin Books, 2007) is an anecdotal memoir of the author's work-life at an urban branch library. The tales tend toward the amusing, but Borchert (again, like Douglas) focuses a bit too much on the salacious, disgusting, and negative at the expense of positive experiences (there are a few of these, but they disappear under the preponderance of stories about drug dealing, fights, strange things in the book drop, and crazy patrons).

If you're after a reasonably funny look at the daily ins and outs (mostly outs) of the life of a public librarian, this book, or Douglas', is right up your alley. I'm sure that for many employees at libraries like Borchert's, this rings true. For my part, I'm glad that it seems so alien to me - I'm sure I couldn't go to work every day knowing that any of the things that Borchert recounts could possibly happen on a regular basis.

Book Review: "Savage Peace"

Ann Hagedorn's Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is unlike any book I can recall ever having read. The story of a single year, told using many different characters and many different aspects of cultural, political, social and economic life. Hagedorn doesn't stop at chronicling the political turmoil surrounding the debate over Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, nor does she simply comment on the racial tensions of the time, or the fight over women's suffrage, or the Red Scare, or the flu pandemic, or the fixed World Series, or the effort to confirm Einstein's theory of relativity. No, she tackles all of these topics, and more.

With the pacing of a suspense novel (and the cliffhanger chapter endings of one, too), the narrative flair of a good journalistic essay, and the deep research of a classic historical tome, Savage Peace manages to bring together several disparate genres at once, and does so brilliantly. At first I was unnerved by the attempt to bring together so many different leading characters in such an unfamiliar way, but after a few chapters I was absolutely enthralled. The book is 450 pages long (exclusive of notes and index), but I read it in under two days, and it felt like much less than that.

My one concern is the notes, which, while perfectly fine, are unmarked in the text, making it burdensome to find them. Overall, though, a true pleasure to read. I suspect that any of the specific topics covered here may be covered in more depth elsewhere, but I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in saying that you'll find no better overall treatment of the period than Hagedorn's. It's also possible that others with more knowledge of the era than I (my focus is generally much earlier) may have quibbles or concerns with Hagedorn's book that I missed entirely - but that's their point to make. I enjoyed the book very much, and am bound to look at Hagedorn's earlier works while I await her next.

Book Review: "The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown"

The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith (Henry Holt, 2008), is one of at least three current and forthcoming books being published around the 4ooth anniversary of the wreck of the Sea Venture, an English ship carrying supplies, settlers and leaders for the nascent Jamestown colony which made an unintended stopover at Bermuda in 1609. While I think the title/subtitle of this one may be slightly shy of the mark, Glover and Smith have written a very good introduction to the subject.

The authors range far beyond the shipwreck itself to discuss the early history of the English colonization of North America in general and of Jamestown in particular, including a decent treatment of the Virginia Company's propaganda campaign (drawing on Mancall's masterful Hakluyt's Promise - review) and of the dreadful struggles within the early colony which just about did the project in. But their main subject is the shipwreck, which resulted in England's ultimate claim to Bermuda as a colonial outpost based on its prime strategic location, easy defensibility, temperate climate, and abundant resources. It's no small wonder that some of the victims of the shipwreck wanted to stay on Bermuda rather than go to Virginia, where Jamestown's residents were living on shoe leather or resorting to cannibalism.

Glover and Smith also examine the way the Sea Venture wreck was memorialized in literature, and its ultimate impact on Britain's colonial aspirations. While I would have liked to have seen more examination of the time the colonists spent on Bermuda (including George Somers' scientific explorations of the island), and of Bermuda's role in the colonial system during the aftermath of its discovery, I cannot fault the authors for writing the book as they did. And I will applaud them for their excellent source notes, which would be enhanced only by a full bibliography.

Book Review: "Post Captain"

When I read Master and Commander (review), I wasn't sure how long I would go before I picked up Post Captain, the second of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books. Needing some fiction to read for the holiday travels, though, I snagged a copy, and will say that O'Brian's got me fully hooked now. Adding some dramatic flesh to Maturin's character helped, as did the more three-dimensional treatment of Aubrey in this book than the last. Even the battle scenes seemed much improved.

Since I don't go in for plot synopses in my reviews I'll quit there and just say that I suspect I'll be back for more O'Brian before very much time passes.

Book Review: "Word Freak"

Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) chronicles a year of the author's life as he sinks deeper and deeper into the mindset of professional Scrabble. Not content with observing the culture from the outside, Fatsis jumps in with both feet, determined to earn an "expert" rating from the National Scrabble Association. You'll have to read the book to find out if he does that, but his adventures along the way make for amusing (if somewhat esoteric) reading.

For those of us who enjoy the occasional casual game of Scrabble with friends or family, some (or many) of Fatsis' anecdotes may be a bit of a shock. It's difficult to imagine being so dedicated to the game as to spend years memorizing "good" words (of a certain number of letters, containing a given number of consonants, &c.), but many of those at the top of the game's professional hierarchy do just that (of course, many of them also seem to do little but play Scrabble). The rules for professional play are a little different than those we amateurs are used to (a timer? blech!), and the obsession with ratings and points and missed opportunities all seems a bit mad to me. But then that's why I'm not a professional game-player, I suppose.

Mixed in with the personal quest and the tournament anecdotes are a history of Scrabble's checkered past (no pun intended), plus commentary on the great lexicographical debates over acceptable words and other such matters. I was glad Fatsis threw these in, since I got a bit bored with his recaps of specific games and memorization methods.

If you're a Scrabble fan, I recommend this book. If there's any danger that reading it might cause you to quit your job and start making flash-cards of all allowable five-letter words, though, maybe you'd better leave it alone.

This Week's Acquisitions

Before I get caught up on reviews, last week's arrivals: an order from Colophon, a review copy or two, and some presents.

- Stephen Daye and His Successors: The Establishment of a Printing Plant in what was formerly British North America and the development of the Art of Printing at the University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1639-1921 (Harvard University Press, 1921). Colophon.

For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress by John Young Cole (LC, 1978). Colophon.

This Solemn Mockery: The Art of Literary Forgery by John Whitehead (Arlington Books, 1973). Colophon.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Bermuda by André Raine (Macmillan Caribbean, 2003). Gift.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil by Steven Nadler (FSG, 2008). FSG.

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam (PublicAffairs, 2008). Gift.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Links & Reviews

This week's acquisitions post will have to wait until I get back to Boston (tomorrow) since I forgot to catalog some things before I left. In the meantime, some links and things.

- Paul Collins notes an 1895 plan to install roller-skate access ramps on buildings.

- In the NYTimes, David Streitfield writes on book-bargain-hunting-guilt.

- Nick Basbanes has a personal anecdote and other comments on the death of Harold Pinter.

- At Britannica Blog, Gregory McNamee writes about Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells," one of my favorites.

- The Times Archive Blog has compiled a list of the top twenty stories from the Times archives for 2008.

- Carolyn Kellogg has a short profile of the Harry Ransom Center, at Jacket Copy.

- Tim points out uClassify, which seems very interesting. He has some ideas for LT/library data mashups using the site, and offers a prize for the best one.


- Richard Cox reviews What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven (Ashgate, 2008).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Recommended Articles

I've read a few very interesting print articles recently (holiday travels are great for things like this) which I want to recommend, even though I can't link to the full text of them:

- Wayne Franklin, "Financing America's First Literary Boom." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society Volume 117, Part 2 (2007), pp. 351-378. [Abstract (scroll down a bit)]

- Sandra Rebok, "Enlightened Correspondents: The Transatlantic Dialogue of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander von Humboldt." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Volume 116, No. 4 (2008) pp. 328-369. [Abstract]

- Lúcia Lima Rodrigues and Russell Craig, "Recovery Amid Destruction: Manoel de Maya and the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755." Libraries & the Cultural Record 43:4 (2008), pp. 397-410. [Abstract]

- Edward A. Goedeken, "The Literature of American Library History, 2003-2005 ." Libraries & the Cultural Record 43:4 (2008), pp. 440-480. [Abstract]

Obama to Use Lincoln Bible at Inauguration

At his swearing-in ceremony on 20 January, President-elect Barack Obama will place his hand on the same Bible used by another president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, according to media reports this morning.

The Bible, purchased specifically for Lincoln's first inaugural since Lincoln's family Bible was still in transit to Washington from Springfield, is now in the collections of the Library of Congress. "The Bible is part of the Library of Congress' upcoming Lincoln exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. The exhibit will travel to five US cities in fall 2010: Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Omaha, and Sacramento."

Emmett Beliveau, executive director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said of the choice "The president-elect is committed to holding an inauguration that celebrates America's unity, and the use of this historic Bible will provide a powerful connection to our common past and common heritage."

A fine choice, I think.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Article in L&CR

Since I have now seen a hard copy of the journal itself, I guess it's fair game to note (begging your indulgence for the personal announcement, of course) that my article "'A Library of the Most Celebrated & Approved Authors': The First Purchase Collection of Union College" is in the current issue of Libraries & the Cultural Record (43:4, 2008, pp. 367-396). The piece, which is a portion of my Simmons thesis, won the 2008 Justin Winsor Award for the best library history essay. The award is sponsored by the ALA's Library History Roundtable.

My copies of the journal arrived today, a very nice early Christmas present.

Speaking of the Justin Winsor Award, applications for the 2009 prize will be accepted through 15 January. Full info here.

And speaking of Justin Winsor, the prize I offered way back in March still goes unclaimed, but the offer stands!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review: "Stephen Daye and His Successors, 1639-1921"

Harvard University Press seems to have issued the short publication Stephen Daye and His Successors, 1639-1921 (1921) as a sort of memento or publicity effort.

Printed on fine laid paper, with drawings and initials by George Trenholm, the book includes brief unsigned essays on the first printers in Cambridge and Boston, "the university press of today" ("Underlying all the activities of The University Press, of course there are always those basic business principles which its clients have learned to take for granted: courtesy, fair dealing, and truthfulness - simply the gentleman's method of doing business"), the publication and printing process, certain historic Cambridge landmarks, the monthly journal then published by the Press (The Printing Art), and on the reference library collected at the press' Cambridge headquarters.

While any of the topics covered in these short pieces are treated at greater length in other places, this slim volume provides a suitable introduction and offers a welcome window into the publishing atmosphere and processes of the early 1920s.

Book Review: "The American Journey of Barack Obama"

The editors of LIFE magazine issued a particularly timely coffee-table book this fall, The American Journey of Barack Obama. They did so in October, so the text does not indicate the ultimate result of the presidential campaign ... but no real matter, since the book's point is the long, strange trip which brought Obama to the campaign in the first place. The introduction begins this way: "Some lives, no matter an observer's political, philosophical or cultural orientation, so inarguably and objectively fascinating that to gaze upon them - to see the twists and turns, the lucky breaks and the hard knocks, is a riveting please. Barack Obama's is one of those unlikely, preposterous lives."

With short thematic-chronological capsule essays broken up by pages filled with the lavish photographs for which LIFE is justifiably famous, this book examines Obama's biography visually, chronicling his life through pictures of its characters (many of whom, including his Kenyan step-grandmother, his mother, the candidate himself, and his wife and daughters, have exceptional smiles).

Following the photographs are twelve essays about various aspects of Obama's life by various journalists, historians and others: Richard Norton Smith contrasts Obama and Adlai Stevenson, author Bob Greene muses on Obama's now-lost-forever anonymity, and in an essay that brought tears to my eyes (not for the first time in recent months), editor David Shribman described watching his politics-averse daughter be won over by the candidate who spoke to her and to many of us in a way that resonated in a very powerful way.

A well-produced book, a delight to browse and read.

Links & Reviews

- At Cliopatria, a very interesting video demonstration of the reconstructed Antikythera Mechanism, plus a roundup of links related to the reconstruction and to Jo Marchant's new book on the Mechanism, Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer.

- The Folger Shakespeare Library has launched a new feature which allows users to search across the Library's digital collections. More info here. I like this idea very much (and the images are excellent).

- Some holiday humor: from McSweeney's, Sigmund Stern offers "The Gutenberg Christmas Catalogue, 1608", and Forrest offers up a memo relating to the economic downturn and its impact on the Twelve Days of Christmas.

- Nick Basbanes points out a 1997 essay by David Halberstam on the New York Society Library.

- J.L. Bell notes the news from this week that the New England Historic Genealogical Society will sponsor a scholarly edition of Hannah Mather Crocker's never-before-published Reminiscences and Traditions of Old Boston (finished in 1827). The editors are seeking an image of Crocker to use in the book, so if you can help them out with that, please do.

- has released its annual top ten list of most-sought out-of-print books. Once a Runner tops the list again, although its reign ends this year since it's scheduled for a reprint in 2009.

- The Times reports that three small sketches were discovered on the back of da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" when it was examined in September. An infrared camera revealed a horse's head, a partial human skull, and a drawing of the infant Jesus with a lamb drawn in black stone or charcoal on the wooden panel, all mostly rubbed away. Specialists at the Louvre say they're being "very careful" about attributing the drawings to da Vinci, but that the images do resemble Leonardo's work.

- Paul Collins announces the release of the newest Collins Library book, a collection of the essays of "eccentric Victorian naturalist and surgeon Frank Buckland," Curious Men.

The 19 December NYTimes featured a review of the Morgan Library's current exhibit, "Protecting the Word: Bookbindings of the Morgan."

- Britannica Blog reported this week that beginning in January, the Encyclopedia's "Great Books" series will be available online at libraries (by subscription) through Ingram's MyiLibrary e-book platform. There will also be opportunities for private purchase.

- Lew's got some Christmas cards made by bookplate designers, plus some Christmas-related bookplates.


- In the NYTimes, Anthony Gottlieb reviews Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic.

- In the WaPo, Michael Sims reviews the new bios of Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, concluding "If you know Johnson's work and want to see it in context, turn first to Meyers. If you want to peer inside a person and his era, you may prefer Martin. Both biographers emphasize the heroism in Johnson's determination to rise above poverty, ailing flesh and torturing obsessions. In doing so, they reveal the alloy of genius and paradox molding a man whose sheer force of personality has flourished from Grub Street to the Internet."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Book Review: "Heyday"

If you're in need of a nice long historical fiction novel to read over your holiday break, I can do little more than to recommend Kurt Andersen's Heyday (Random House, 2007). It's a sprawling, adventuresome look at American culture of the late 1840s, with its utopian communities, growing cities, racial and social tensions, and endless temptations.

Andersen's major characters - memorable all - include erstwhile English émigré Benjamin Knowles, freethinking actress Polly Lucking and her former soldier brother Duff (whose troubles neither began nor ended with traumas sustained during the war with Mexico), plus the carousing Timothy Skaggs, a fascinating writer/photographer/astronomer (whose earlier adventures would make a delightful prequel, should Andersen feel up for it). This quartet, once united, find themselves caught up in a series of cross-continental adventures which, improbable as they may be, make for a fun read (after a rather slow start to the book, it picks up pace quickly).

I enjoyed the cameo appearances by various historical figures (including Poe, Darwin, Pinkerton, Tocqueville, and Lincoln's law partner James Herndon, among others), although as they kept happening the effect wore a little thin. I do wish that Andersen had included a note about his research (obviously extensive) and how he incorporated the historical details into his story.

All in all, an absorbing and detailed book, which I enjoyed a great deal.

This Week's Acquisitions

My accidental collection of private library catalogs continues to grow.

- The Library at Mount Vernon by Frances Laverne Carroll and Mary Meacham (Beta Phi Mu, 1977). ABE.

The Library of James Logan of Philadelphia: 1674-1751 by Edwin Wolf II (Library Company of Philadelphia, 1974). Oak Knoll (via ABE).

Weber Gets Four Years

Lester Weber, the former curator of the Mariners' Museum who entered guilty pleas in June to charges of theft, mail fraud, and filing false tax returns, has been sentenced to four years in prison, the Newport News Daily Press reported yesterday. Weber admitted to stealing more than 3,500 documents and other items from the museum and selling them on eBay.

Weber's wife, Lori Childs, also entered a guilty plea related to the case in September (for filing a false tax return) - she was sentenced on Friday to a 15-month prison term.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith told Weber "You broke the trust of the public," adding "'What stands out about this case,' was not only the 'surreptitious and dishonest' manner of the crime, but also the repetitive nature of it over a long period of time. 'You did this ... because of your greed and furthering your own pocketbook,' Smith said."

Smith's sentence of 48 months is greater than the 33-41 months called for in federal sentencing guidelines ... it's nice to see a judge putting Travis' favorite phrase, "upward departure," to good use. Weber was also ordered to return the $172,357 he made on the eBay transactions. He and Childs have been ordered to report to prison within 45 days, the Daily Press notes.

The most unfortunate element of this case is that very few of the items stolen by Weber and sold have been recovered. But I have to say I'm delighted that Judge Smith handed down such a strong sentence.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Review: "The Tales of Beedle the Bard"

I don't suppose J.K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard needs any introduction from me (if it does, you probably need to finish the seventh book ... go do that, then come back and we'll talk), so I'll just offer some brief musings on the book. It's short (I just read it in less than an hour, and I wasn't reading quickly), since Beedle the Bard only had five tales, but Rowling fleshes out the stories with short commentaries by Dumbledore which provide a bit of historiographical and literary background to the stories and place them within the cultural context of their time (they're quite funny, too).

I'm a sucker for annotations and footnotes (real or otherwise, I loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange all the more for its copious references), so I enjoyed those portions of Tales the most. The stories, while fascinating, mean more with Dumbledore's additions, although of course these were written before his untimely end and before the Tales' importance is felt in the final volume of Harry Potter's adventures.

A pleasant distraction from the afternoon's snowstorm, and a suitable addition to the HP canon (not to mention a welcome cash cow for Rowling's Children's High Level Group charity). A nicely designed volume, too (even though I ended up opting for the trade edition and not the deluxe, which I couldn't quite justify to myself).

Book Review: "Mirth of a Nation"

Some of the essays in Mirth of a Nation, a collection of 140 short humor pieces edited by Michael J. Rosen (2000) have gotten a bit dated with the passage of almost a decade (ah for the days when Bill Clinton jokes were funny), but there are enough goodies in here to make the volume worth a leaf-through.

The contributions of Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Christopher Buckley, Ian Frazier, and Jon Stewart are among the most amusing selections here, and the front and back matter (introduction, notes, &c. are also very funny).

Not recommended for reading straight through (the topics are pretty similar, it might get a little old), but good for the occasional dip.

Auction Report: Sotheby's

Sotheby's London held a few sales on Wednesday, including a large collection of E.H. Shepard illustrations for Winnie the Pooh. The illustrations (plus a couple of the Pooh books) fetched 1.2 million GBP, beating expectations and setting records for Shepard drawings. Full results are here. The top seller was this illustration of Pooh and Piglet tracking a woozle; it fetched 115,200 GBP, almost doubling its high estimate.

There was also a sale of English Literature, History, Children's Books and Illustrations, for which the results are here. The total for that sale was 901,913 GBP. Some highlights:

- A first edition of Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) from the library of Sir Christopher Sykes made 63,650 GBP.

- A first edition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects (1773) sold for 11,250 GBP.

- An extra illustrated commemoration volume of the life of Lord Byron containing some 170 manuscripts, mezzotints and engravings fetched 37,250 GBP.

- Beatrix Potter illustrations continued to sell very well: one sold for 67,250 GBP, and three more fetched over 20,000 GBP.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Biblio-Sites Get Some Ink

Today's Boulder Daily Camera has a great feature about the three major book-cataloging websites (LibraryThing, Shelfari and GoodReads). It's a nice, in-depth piece that examines many of the different aspects of the sites and their varying focal points. The Legacy project even gets a shout-out (thanks Tim!).

[h/t PKS]

More Libraries of Early America

I'm more than delighted to report that the response to our Libraries of Early America project announcement on has been uniformly positive and extremely fruitful. I've added several suggestions so far to the Collections to be Added page, and still have a few more to enter there (including some really interesting libraries from the western part of that country at that time - i.e. Michigan).

I took a short break from Franklin this week and entered one of the newly-suggested collections, that of Lewis Morris (1726-1798), a Signer of the Declaration of Independence. His books are now at the Yale Law School library.

Many more to come, but keep the suggestions rolling in!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Six Decades of Scrabble

Sixty years ago yesterday, New York architect Alfred Butts and his friend James Brunot registered the name "Scrabble" as a trademark. And the rest, as they say, is history (and interesting history at that). The Independent ran a birthday retrospective on Tuesday which is worth reading, both for the history of the game and for the sidebar feature highlighting famous Scrabble fans, including Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Scrabble is one of our favorite family games, and although it has led to the occasional shouting match, it's always great fun. [h/t Reading Copy]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Grafton on Hitler's Books

Anthony Grafton has a long, excellent review in The New Republic of Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Books, of which he writes "Ryback's reconstruction is accomplished mostly by weaving back and forth among individual books and other records, from Hitler's own writings to contemporaries' memoirs, as he seeks to show us how books shaped one of the twentieth century's most terrible minds. His effort is worthwhile: one finishes this short, packed book with a firmer take on the sort of intellectual--or pseudo-intellectual--who persuaded the best-educated nation in Europe to make war on civilization and try to exterminate the Jews. But deep insights remain elusive."

He adds "Ryback's useful book brings us a little closer to the mind of the monster. But it could have revealed more than it does. Far too often Ryback interrupts his analysis of the books and their contents, printed and handwritten, to tell us about his own adventures in researching them: only a few of these peeps into his workshop clarify the material. Too seldom does he take the opportunities this material offers to penetrate more deeply into Hitler's psyche. ... This book sticks too close to Hitler, in the end, to tell us as much as it could have."

It continues to surprise me a little bit that for all my interest in historical libraries, I have zero desire to read Ryback's book, or study Hitler's collection. Not even a little bit.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review: "Lessons in Disaster"

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon M. Goldstein (Times Books, 2008) is the ultimate result of what was to be a collaborative retrospective analysis of the Vietnam era begun in 1995-96, prior to Bundy's death. That book was never published, but Goldstein drew on the project to create Lessons in Disaster, which he describes as "an original work that is informed by my experience with Bundy but which draws conclusions that are my own" (p. 23). His goal with this book, Goldstein writes, was to "distill what I believe are the pivotal lessons of Bundy's performance as national security adviser with respect to the vital question of American strategy in Vietnam" (p. 23-24).

The attempt succeeds admirably. This, like Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and McNamara's In Retrospect, is a remarkably disturbing and candid look at the decision-making processes that led the United States into the Vietnam conflict and kept us there. Goldstein takes us through Bundy's actions and decisions during the critical years of the early Sixties when he served as national security adviser to JFK and then LBJ, but he also manages to carry Bundy's thoughts forward until the years near the end of his life when he began to reexamine those decisions and the impact they had, with the benefit of hindsight. Goldstein concludes "With respect to the question of Vietnam, undoubtedly his most consequential encounter with history, Bundy in retrospect had embraced a quality he had lacked when in high office three decades earlier. He had finally learned humility" (p. 227).

Goldstein's examination of Bundy's relationships with Kennedy and Johnson, plus the other advisers in both administrations (particularly during the difficult transition following Kennedy's assassination), was detailed and captivating. And the lessons he has drawn from Bundy's experiences are important ones both for their historical interest and as cautionary tales for the present and future. As I read this, I couldn't help but wonder which officials from the current administration will be writing or inspiring books like this in the coming decades. Some things never change.

Libraries of Early America: Project Announcement

Cross-posting this from Thingology to maximize saturation:

I've posted the following announcement on several rare book/library/American history listservs this morning as the official rollout of the Libraries of Early America project, an offshoot of the Legacy Libraries effort specifically for libraries created in America before c. 1825. Note: I've "blog-ified" the announcement here by adding additional links.

Have you ever wondered what books Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had in their personal libraries? How about 18th-century Virginia musician Cuthbert Ogle, or four generations of Mather family members? Or the most active female book collector in Virginia during the colonial/early national period, Lady Jean Skipwith?

A new project will make it possible to search, compare and study these and other Libraries of Early America. Using the book-cataloging website, scholars from institutions around the country (including Monticello, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society and others) have begun the process of creating digital catalogs of early American book collections - the project covers anyone who lived in America and collected primarily before 1825.

Is your institution home to any personal library collections or library inventories/book lists? Have you run across early American library catalogs (manuscript or printed) in the course of your research? We have begun compiling a list of collections to be added and are happy to receive further submissions.

Also, if your institution's holdings include books from any of the personal libraries already completed or underway, we would be very interested to hear of them so that the records can be added to the database. While it will be impossible to catch every single book ever owned or read by these individuals, we intend to make these catalogs as complete as possible, so every title helps.

For more information, links, and so forth, please visit the Libraries of Early America group page. Feel free to ask any questions or offer any suggestions you have on the project, and if you'd like to volunteer, we'd love the assistance.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Links & Reviews

- Some big news this week which hasn't gotten much play is the resignation of National Archivist Allen Weinstein. Weinstein cited health concerns (he has Parkinson's disease) as his reason for leaving the post. Deputy Archivist Adrienne Thomas will serve as acting archivist until a successor is appointed. Weinstein's resignation takes effect on 19 December.

- Ed's got the details of the Great Poe Debate, scheduled for 13 January in Philadelphia. He'll speak for Philadelphia, Jeff Jerome will debate for Baltimore, and Boston College's Paul Lewis will attempt to carry the day for the Hub.

- Nick Basbanes has some commentary on the MassHort "fire sale." He concludes "The founders and earliest benefactors of this venerable institution - some of the giants of nineteenth-century Boston society- must be turning over in their graves. The Athens of America, indeed." Basbanes' 2004 Boston Globe op-ed on the earlier sales from the Horticultural Society (and their later repercussions) can be read here.

- From BibliOdyssey, images from De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines, a sketchbook made by the sixteenth-century Portuguese Renaissance man Francisco de Holanda.

- Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg offers a very useful book-related gift suggestion.

- Karen Schneider has posted her thoughts on the new OCLC policies. Tim had a Thingology post on the issue this week as well.

- Others were all over this, but in case you missed it, Google's now scanning magazines too. Jeanne's got a list of the titles which seem to be covered, plus a roundup of coverage. Color me suspicious for the moment since I've seen what a muddle they've made of serials so far.

- Ian's started a Lux Mentis, Booksellers Facebook page. I'm a fan, you should be too! Earlier this week, Ian posted a great piece on the latest outbreak of Bowdlerization Syndrome (in New Rochelle, NY, where school officials literally ripped out pp. 64-70 of Girl, Interrupted. Joyce comments on this ridiculous story as well.

- Emily Yoffe, Slate's "Human Guinea Pig," tries her hand at costumed historical interpretation.

- At Shelf Space, Rachel from Old Saratoga Books writes on the personality traits of used books, including bookplates, inscriptions, found objects, &c.

- Paul Collins catches some photographic bookshelf investigation.

- Salon's 2008 Book Awards are up.


- David Blight reviews Richard Goodwin's Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South for the Washington Post.

- Steve Coates reviews Garry Wills' new translation of Martial's Epigrams, in the NYTimes.

- Kamensky and Lepore's Blindspot is reviewed by Michael Kenney for the Boston Globe.

- I didn't even know it was out yet, but Michael Cox's The Glass of Time, a sequel to The Meaning of Night, is indeed out there and The Little Professor has a review.

- Rowling's Tales of Beedle the Bard is reviewed in the Sunday Times by Frances Wilson.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Indiana Gets Lincoln Collection

The world's largest private collection of Lincoln memorabilia, housed until this summer at the Lincoln Museum (Fort Wayne, IN), will now be donated to a consortium of Indiana repositories, including the Indiana State Museum, the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, the Indiana Historical Society, Indiana State Library and Friends of the Lincoln Museum.

Included in the collection are 7,000 prints; 5,000 photographs; 350 documents signed by Lincoln; 18,000 rare books and pamphlets; 200,000 newspapers and magazine clippings; and 350 sheet music titles. It has been valued at more than $20 million. An endowment will be established to provide for maintenance and accessibility.

The Indiana group successfully beat back bids from D.C. and Illinois organizations.

There's Still Time!

LT's announced the second SantaThing: Secret Santa for Book Lovers. Sign up, here, pay $25 and choose books for another LTer. Someone does the same for you. LT orders the books and has them shipped to you.

And there's a bonus feature: if you're looking for a chuckle, the 'legal prose' at the bottom of the signup page is absolutely hilarious.

Signup continues until noon on Monday, 15 December.

This Week's Acquisitions

The only major acquisition this week was (one of) my delayed purchase(s) from the Boston Book Fair (I'm still dithering on the other one), an 1805 first edition of William Henry Ireland's Confessions ... Containing the Particulars of his Fabrication of the Shakspeare Manuscripts, from John R. Sanderson of Stockbridge, MA. This copy is in the original boards, with a later vellum spine and what appears to be the original paper label pasted on the spine. The text block is untrimmed, and the pages are quite bright and nice, not foxed like many copies of this book I've seen. It's a good addition to my collection of forgery books, which also includes several other W.H. Ireland titles.

Other arrivals (mostly review copies):

The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era by John P. Kaminski (University of Virginia Press, 2008). UVa Press.

- The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 26: Catalogues of Books; edited by Peter J. Thuesen (Yale University Press, 2008). Yale.

The American Journey of Barack Obama by The Editors of Life Magazine (Time-Life, 2008). Time-Life (LTER).

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2008). Amazon.

Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet (HarperEntertainment, 2008). HarperCollins.

Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert (Virgin Books, 2008). Amazon.

Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum by Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger (Athenaeum, 2006). Gift.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Auction Report: Sotheby's & Bloomsbury

The results are in from yesterday's Fine Books and Manuscripts sale at Sotheby's New York; the sale, in 247 lots, brought in a total of $3,342,440.

A first English edition of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) made $22,500. A ca. 1773 Jeffreys and Faden imprint of John Mitchell's "Map of the British and French Dominions in North America" beat its estimates soundly, fetching $170,500. Likewise for Henry Popple's 1733-34 "Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements Adjacent thereto," called the "first large-scale map of British possessions in America." That sold for $104,500.

A copy of Gil Blas from George Washington's library sold for $52,500. A playbill for the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre on the night of 14 April 1865 made $4,375. A bound collection of three Thomas Paine pamphlets, including the rare first edition of The American Crisis No. 1 ("These are the times that try men's souls") sold for a higher-than-expected $158,500. A Shakespeare Fourth Folio fetched $104,500, as did an 1811 Beethoven letter.

As far as the MassHort books, I haven't calculated the total haul for them, but the 1526 Herball made $86,500, while the Hortus Sanitatis didn't meet its estimate, fetching $98,500. It appears that just thirteen of the twenty-five MassHort lots sold (lots 212-237).

Meanwhile, Bloomsbury New York's 10 December sale of Important Books, Manuscripts, Literature and Americana also went off this week. Results are here. Looks like it was a pretty quiet day over there. A 1520 Apianus world map fetched $50,000. The original typed draft of Aleister Crowley's The Book of Thoth sold for $30,000. A copy of the first publication of Poe's "The Raven" in book form made $19,000, but the unpublished Poe manuscript failed to sell. A trifecta of presidential letters written by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson fetched $32,000, $28,000 and $36,000 respectively. The big seller was a John Jeffreys American Atlas (1776), which made $80,000.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Furniture Historian's MHS Discovery in the News

The NYTimes has a story in Friday editions on an important find made recently at the MHS by Kemble Widmer, a furniture historian from Newburyport, and his colleague Joyce King, a historical researcher. Nathaniel Gould's account books, which form part of the Society's Nathan Dane Papers (finding guide here), reveal that Gould was a much more active furniture maker than previously thought; the entries in the books, as the Times piece puts it, "could change attributions of carved mahogany, walnut and cedar objects for scores of museums, private collections and stores."

Widmer and King broke their public silence about the findings for this piece (and a separate article in Friday's Boston Globe), and will publish the full results of their study in this year's American Furniture, out this month.

Signs of the Times Watch

I've tried to stay away from posting the very depressing news from the newspaper and publishing industries (except for my lamentations over the book-mags), but I feel I should mention yesterday's announcement from NPR that "News & Notes" and "Day to Day" will be cancelled in March of next year. Fine programs both. They'll be missed.

The title of Laura's post about this sums it up perfectly.

More on MassHort Book Sales

The Boston Globe has an update to yesterday's post on the sale of books from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. There are, in fact, 27 MassHort books in today's Sotheby's sale, in 25 separate lots.

MassHort board chair Betsy Ridge Madsen said of the sales "Obviously, we're very sad to have to do this. They're beautiful books, but we see this as the only way to go forward to clean up our debt." She added, according to the Globe, that "the books were rarely used by the society's 8,000 members and that duplicates of all but three are owned by Harvard University. She said the money would be used to maintain the society's lectures, plant sales, and its library in Wellesley, where it still stores more than 500 rare books and a collection of more than 12,000 volumes." "We did a member survey, in which we asked members what was most meaningful about their membership, and the rare books were their lowest priority," Madsen concluded.

If that's the case, then I don't disagree that the books should find better homes, although I regret strongly that an important collection is being broken up piecemeal like this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Bibliophilic Evening

Tonight the Ticknor Society* hosted a delightful event at the Boston Public Library: Society members Roger Stoddard, Thomas Horrocks and Nicholas Basbanes discussed their recent publications and then talked about their personal writing styles and answered many questions from the audience before signing copies of their works.

Stoddard, who worked in the Harvard library system for many years before retiring in 2004 to work on his many bibliographic projects, brought along his 2007 book Jean-Charles Brunet, Le Grand Bibliographe: A Guide to the Books He Wrote, Compiled, and Edited and the Book-Auction Catalogues He Expertised (Quaritch). Stoddard's enthusiasm for Brunet was evident, and it was really great to hear his tales of research and discovery in bibliography.

Horrocks, the current Associate Librarian for Collections at Houghton, talked about his Popular Print and Popular Medicine: Almanacs and Health Advice in Early America (UMass Press, 2008), and Basbanes discussed his two most recent books, Editions and Impressions (Fine Books Press) and A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 (Yale University Press, 2008). He talked mainly about the composition of the latter, the first history of a single press that he's undertaken.

A very nice, well-attended talk, and a fine way to spend a rainy evening.

* If you live around Boston, you really should consider joining. Dues are super-cheap ($20 a year) and the Society arranges a number of interesting events each year.

MassHort Selling More Books

Back in August I noted a story about the continued financial difficulties faced by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. I wrote then: "The Horticultural Society famously sold off much of its rare book collection in 2002 for $5.45 million; the chairman of the board suggested yesterday that more of the Society's books may be deaccessioned to get them out of this particular jam. I hope it doesn't come to that, but things really don't sound good."

Well, it seems that shoe has dropped. Scott Brown reports that at least six books with MassHort bookplates will be on the auction block at Sotheby's on 11 December. These include a 1491 edition of the Hortus Sanitatis, which the auction house calls the "most comprehensive and richly illustrated medical or natural history publication of the fifteenth century." That alone is estimated to sell for $100,000-150,000. It was given to the Horticultural Society in 1947 by J.D. Cameron Bradley. Another Bradley donation, the first edition of the first illustrated herbal in English (the Grete Herball, 1526), is expected to fetch $40,000-60,000.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mr. Milton

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton. On the occasion, The Guardian offers a Milton quiz and a video of Philip Pullman reading a small portion of Milton's most famous work, Paradise Lost.

NPR ran a segment this weekend noting some of the other Milton celebrations, including a 12-hour live reading of Paradise Lost by the faculty of Cambridge University's English department. You can listen to podcasts of that here, and Christ's College also has mounted a Milton 400 webpage with other lectures, added materials and Darkness Visible, a digital companion to Paradise Lost.

In Forbes, two Milton biographers write on the poet's financial status. And the Chronicle of Higher Ed recommends a visit to Dartmouth's Milton Reading Room, which includes annotated digital versions of many Milton works.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Five Years for Brazilian Book Thief

A Brazilian court has sentenced Laessio Rodrigues de Oliveira to a five-year prison sentence for the theft of several rare books from the Institute for Research Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro. A report on the sentencing (in Portuguese) was translated by Rizio Bruno Sant'Ana (Curator of Rare Books at the Mario de Andrade Library in Sao Paolo) and posted to Ex-Libris.

Oliveira was arrested in 2004, and stolen books from several other Brazilian institutions, including the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, the Historic Archive of Blumenau (Santa Catarina),
and the Mario de Andrade Library (Sao Paulo), were found in his home at that time.

Book Review: "A Lion Among Men"

I keep reading Gregory Maguire's books, and about fifteen pages into each one I start to question why that is. They're mildly interesting, but the newest, A Lion Among Men (William Morrow, 2008), just like its predecessor (Son of a Witch, my review here) consists almost entirely of backstory and reminiscences, rather than any actual events in real time. The occasional flashback is fine, but really, a whole book of them?

Here we find Brrr (we know him better as the Cowardly Lion) on a plea-bargain-mandated mission from the Emerald City to discover the whereabouts of the lost son of Elphaba (Liir) and of the Wicked Witch's spell-book, the Grimmerie. In the course of his investigation he comes to the Cloister of St. Glinda to question the old oracle Yackle. The two engage in a lengthy back-and-back sparring match of flashbacks, in which we learn much more about their pasts than is necessary.

I don't see the point anymore. And I stopped caring a long time ago. No more Maguire for me.

That said, the cover illustration, a portrait of Brrr by Douglas Smith, is absolutely delightful.

More Bad Biblio-Mag News

Once again Ian is the bearer of sad tidings: he writes "Following on the heels of Fine Books & Collections' decision to abandon print for a digital existence, it appears that Rare Book Review has also ceased publication. Published since 1974, RBR 'is to be "mothballed" with immediate effect!'."

Another dark day.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Links & Reviews

- Michael Dirda provides the 10 Commandments of Book Giving.

- In the NYTimes today, a piece by Rebecca Cathcart on the release of 920 newly-processed boxes of material at the Reagan Presidential Library. The 750,000 pages of documents relate to Reagan's 1980 presidential bid.

- Also in the Times, guest columnist Timothy Egan urges publishers to be a little more discriminating, and Annette Gordon-Reed goes on the record with Deborah Solomon for a short Q&A.

- An early and uncommonly large fragment of the Gospel of John on papyrus (c. 200 AD), failed to sell at Sotheby's on 3 December. I guess everyone was saving their pennies for this.

- Speaking of Q&A, Kamensky and Lepore have another one, in the Wall Street Journal.

- Some authors have given Barnes & Noble their "three favorite" books.

- Paul Collins points out his NYTimes essay on George Leonard Herter, who he terms the "all-American cranks." Collins also makes this comparison between Herter and one of our own contemporaries: "think John Hodgman, but with a gun."

- Richard from Bytown Bookshop reports that Johnny Depp's production company has bought the rights to Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante. If he ends up making the movie, I sure hope it's better than the book. Also, Richard's headline made me chuckle.

- From BibliOdyssey, images from the Landauer Twelve Brother's House manuscript, showing medieval craftspeople at work.

- One of my favorite authors, E.O. Wilson, was on NPR this week with his co-author Bert Hölldobler. The duo were discussing their new book, The Superorganism.

- Rick Ring has more on the death of Thomas R. Adams.

- Larry Nix has a "tribute to library historians" up on his Library History Buff blog.

- Jessamyn recommends a New Yorker piece (here) about Anne Carroll Moore, who "more or less invented the children’s library."

- This coming Tuesday marks the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth. Writing in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin examines Milton's political and literary legacies.

- Alex Beam comments on the Google-authors deal.

- From among the end-of-year lists: the LATimes has a special Favorite Books 2008 section; the Boston Globe has its top fiction and non-fiction lists; the WaPo his its top ten titles (five fiction, five non-fiction; and the NYTimes narrows its list this week to the top ten (also five and five).

- [Update: I'm adding Orhan Pamuk's essay in the current NYRB, "My Turkish Library," which I hadn't read yet when I first posted. It's very nice.]


- In the NYTimes, Toni Bentley reviews Ian Kelly's new biography of Casanova.

- Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes was Wrong is reviewed by Paula Woods for the LATimes.

- For the Times, James Robertson reviews Marcy Norton's Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World.

- In the WaPo, Jonathan Yardley reviews Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

- Adam Gopnik has a delightful review essay on two recent biographies of Samuel Johnson. John Overholt pointed this out and has some links to other reviews of these titles.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

This Week's Acquisitions

A good week for bargains (unfortunately). I stopped by the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale this morning, and visited at Commonwealth and the Brattle yesterday (where I found some new review copies plus some Oak Knoll goodies). Along with a few Christmas gifts, not listed here for obvious reasons, I picked up:

- The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde (Viking, 2004). Harvard Bookstore. An upgrade from the paperback edition, which will now be deaccessioned.

- Dracula by Bram Stoker (Back Bay Books, 2005). Harvard Bookstore. I realized I didn't have a copy, for reasons entirely passing understanding.

- The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski (Faber & Faber, 2003). Harvard Bookstore.

- Book Traveller by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1975). Gift.

- Fifty Books in the Collection of the Boston Athenaeum (Athenaeum, 1994). Gift.

The George Washington Library Collection by Stanley Ellis Cushing (Boston Athenaeum, 1997). Gift.

Political Moderation in America's First Two Centuries by Robert McCluer Calhoon (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Brattle.

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers (Basic Books, 2008). Brattle. One of what I'm sure will be the umpteen gazillion new SJ bios coming out soon.

Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by Edwin Burrows (Basic Books, 2008). Brattle.

- The Great Design: Two Lectures on the Smithson Bequest by John Quincy Adams (Smithsonian, 1965). Brattle.

Blindspot: A Novel by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (Spiegel & Grau, 2008). Brattle.

Libraries and Founders of Libraries by Edward Edwards (Burt Franklin Reprint, 1969). Brattle.

The Reach of Print: Making, Selling, and Using Books; edited by Peter C. G. Isaac and Barry McKay (Oak Knoll Press, 1998). Brattle.

A Book of Booksellers: Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade, 1991-2003 by Sheila Markham (Oak Knoll Press, 2007). Brattle.

The Poetical Works by John Trumbull (G. Olm, 1969. Facsimile of the 1820 Hartford edition). Commonwealth.

Bibliographical Essays: A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames by Bruce Rogers, George Parker Winship et al. (Harvard University Press, 1924). Commonwealth.

The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction With Other Memorabilia : The Library, First Works, Presentation Volumes, Manuscripts, Likenesses, Works of Art, Household and Personal Effects, and Other Association Items of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley (Wedgestone Press, 1984). Commonwealth. Since I seem to be creating quite a collection of personal library catalogs.

The Papers of William Hickling Prescott; edited by C. Harvery Gardiner, Jr. (University of Illinois Press, 1964). Commonwealth.

Now I have to behave for a while.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Book Review: "The Age of American Unreason"

Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2007) is one of the most frustrating books I've read in a long time. It wasn't that I disagreed with the premise (while I take issue with some of her arguments - and how she goes about making them - I am in general agreement on the fundamental message of the book); what bothered me most is that Jacoby has fallen into one of the very traps she decries. She's written a book in which many people like her will find some points of agreement, but which is unlikely to gain any converts. Honey vs. vinegar and all that: you're unlikely to persuade someone to change their behavior by belittling their intelligence and tossing insults at them.

Perhaps better titled the Ages of American Unreason, this book examines the history of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America, beginning - she suggests - in the heady days of the early republic. In the first several chapters (following a fairly lengthy introduction), Jacoby discusses early instances of these dangers rearing their heads: in the Second Great Awakening, in the debate over Darwinian evolution beginning in the late 1850s, in the spread of "social Darwinism" later in the 19th century, communist philosophy in the middle of the 20th century, and then the spike in fundamentalist Protestantism beginning in the mid-1900s. She argues that we are currently in an age of American Unreason, but her examples stretching back to the very roots of the nation suggest that perhaps our own time may not be so unique after all.

That said, Jacoby begins her book by suggesting that the current state of unreason is different from all those that have come before: "This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly great damage than its historical predecessors did on American culture and politics" (xi). She provides numerous examples of this, combining bits from some scary public opinion surveys about the extent (or lack thereof) of civic, literary, scientific and general knowledge with personal anecdotes which serve to buttress her argument but not in any meaningful way.

Some of Jacoby's points are important, and well-argued. She has an excellent point about the current education system at every level, which is not functioning as it should. I agree entirely that the shift toward "practical education," which has resulted in the continued specialization and narrowing of educational tracks that creates college graduates who've never taken courses outside their major, is not a good thing. I join her in lamenting the fact that right-wing fundamentalist ideologues have succeeded in creating doubt in many minds about the state of scientific debate over topics like evolution and global warming. Yes, people ought to spend more time with books and less time in front of the t.v., or video games (I particularly liked her section on the relative benefits of reading versus playing video games, p. 251-252).

But there were times when I was turned off by Jacoby's finger-pointing rhetoric. The media are not to blame for every ill of society (although to be sure the bear the blame for some), nor are political centrists (who, she argues with no basis whatever, "place all opinions on an equal footing and make little effort to separate fact from opinion", p. 211).

My main point of contention with Jacoby (aside from that nasty shot at centrists which was just uncalled for) is with her generalizations about certain elements of modern culture. She dismisses the rise of young adult fiction glibly, thus: "If a girl hadn't outgrown Nancy Drew by around age twelve, there was something wrong with her. When you were old enough to turn to books for an exploration of the mysteries of sex and adulthood, you turned to adult fiction by adult authors writing about adults" (p. 266-67 That might have worked fine, and might continue to work fine, but why denigrate a genre of literature (some of which is awful but some of which is quite well done, just like any other genre) that can speak to young people from a perspective closer to their own?

Jacoby seems to have a particular hatred for blogs, which again seems rather gratuitous. Here's her generalization: "Blogs spew forth, in largely unedited form, the crude observations of people who are often unable to express themselves coherently in writing and are as inept at the virtual conversation skills required for online exchanges as they must be at face-to-face communication" (p. 272) Wow. Sure, that's true of some blogs, just as it's true of some books, &c. But I've been reading and writing blogs for several years now, and I think I can safely say that there's a healthy subset of perfectly intelligent and intelligible blogs out there, which I find quite coherent and not at all crude. I've even met a few of the writers in person, and can report that they manage to carry on a conversation quite nicely, thank you very much. Of course by Ms. Jacoby's standards, maybe I can't, so who am I to judge?

Jacoby goes out of her way to lament the "decline of conversation" (I have to send this chapter to my mother, who agrees wholeheartedly with the author on this point), by providing a perfectly silly personal anecdote: apparently she spent one night in a college dorm recently after giving a talk, and was surprised not to have been kept up all night by loud noise. First of all, having lived in a college dorm (for much longer than one night) recently, I can say that perhaps that night might have been the exception rather than the rule. Second, I don't think that the kind of noise which tends to keep one up at night in college dorms is the kind of intelligent conversation Jacoby seems to have been craving anyway. It was passages like this that made me a little bit crazy as I was reading this book. I don't think her message is a bad one, but I think she should have buttoned it up a bit more, laid off the generalizations and unwarranted attacks, and been a little more concerned with persuasion than with bloviation and self-centered retrospection.

Jacoby's final chapter, usually, as she notes, the one reserved in this type of book for proposed solutions, doesn't go in for that. Perhaps she figured out that anybody to made it to the last chapter probably didn't need to make many personal changes (since most people who did had rolled their eyes and given up on the book chapters ago). Instead, she discusses the need for "reality-based leadership," and "adult self-control," both of which are, rather obviously, desirable things. I'd like to know how Jacoby's feeling these days, now that the American people delivered a fairly stinging rebuke to the stunning anti-rationalism of the soon-to-be-departing Bush administration and its would-be successors and elected the first intellectual president in forty years. Perhaps she's allowing herself a little breather. I sure hope so.

Yes, America's got troubles. Many of them stem from what is to many of us a shockingly widespread unwillingness to accept fact as fact, and from our increasingly sound-bite-based culture which puts a premium on brevity and glibness at the expense of exposition. We do need to turn off the t.v., or at least push back against the trash which currently fills the airwaves. We do need to make sure that our education system does what it needs to do. On some level we need real leadership to make these things happen, and one hopes that perhaps that force for change has finally arrived. On another level, there are choices each of us can make in our own lives to improve our own way of life and the culture as a whole. Read more, game less. Talk more, text less. And so on. Simple things. Life is choices.