Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Review: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"

Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk Books, 2011) is definitely one of the most, well, peculiar books I've read in a while. It's also one of the best stories I've read all year. Combining a fantastical, creepy plot with actual vintage photographs that he's integrated into the text, Riggs' dark tale should appeal to a wide range of readers.

Teen Jacob Portman thinks his grandfather's implausible stories about his stay at a children's home on a remote Welsh island were just stories, but when he travels to the island with his father, he finds that there was much more to his grandfather's life story than he could have ever guessed.

I don't want to give too much more of the plot away than that - read the book! It's a marvelous debut, and I will await Riggs' next book with much anticipation.

Links & Reviews

- From the Baltimore Sun, which continues to do a very decent job covering the Landau library thefts, a profile of NARA's Art Recovery Team and its inspector general, Paul Brachfeld.

- Ron Charles weighs in on this week's discussion of "Anonymous" the so-called (and idiotic) "authorship controversy" with a great essay in the Washington Post.

- Laura Massey has a great post about how early debates over Shakespeare's authorship (and the belief that Francis Bacon had hidden ciphered messages in the printed plays) led to the rise of modern cryptography.

- Over at Anchora, Adam Hooks has started a series on Shakespeare fakes with a look at the various editions (pirated, faked, forged) of Shakespeare's poems.

- The "Bright Young Things" series on the Fine Books Blog continues with an interview of the duo behind B&B Rare Books.

- A collection being called the "last great private library in New Zealand" (that of naturalist Arthur Pycroft, who died in 1971) will be sold at auction this week.

- From Nick at Mercurius Politicus, a fascinating meditation on the material aspects of signatures.

- A volume of Stafford County, VA court records for the years 1749-1755 has been voluntarily returned to Virginia by the Jersey City Free Public Library, where the book was recently found. It had been taken during the Civil War by a Union soldier. The volume's contents will be made available for researchers at the Library of Virginia.

- The ABAA Security blog has posted a list of a collection recently discovered to be stolen. If I get more information on the circumstances, I'll be sure to post.

- Anthony Horowitz, the author of the new Sherlock Holmes story The House of Silk (the first to be approved by the Conan Doyle estate) writes in the Telegraph about the enduring Holmes legacy, and about his experiences in writing a Holmes mystery.


- Richard Brookhiser's James Madison; reviews by Richard Beeman in the NYTimes and Jack Rakove in TNR.

- Denise Gigante's The Keats Brothers; review by Lesley McDowell in the Independent.

- Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens; review by Frances Wilson in the Telegraph.

- David Bellos' Is That a Fish in Your Ear?; review by Adam Thirlwell in the NYTimes.

- Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising; review by Kevin Boyle in the NYTimes.

Landau Accomplice Pleads Guilty

Accused document thief Barry Landau's "assistant," Jason Savedoff, 24, entered a guilty plea on Thursday to charges of theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork. Savedoff admits that beginning in December 2010, he and Landau "compiled lists of historical and famous figures, often noting the market value of documents signed by those figures, and Savedoff identified collections with valuable documents that they could target, according to the plea. They used different routines to distract librarians and would stash documents inside sport jackets and overcoats that had been altered to add large hidden pockets."

The AP reports that following successful thefts, "Landau would fill out a checklist noting from where the document was taken, whether inventory marks had been removed and whether catalogue cards or other “finding aids” had been removed to further conceal the theft. The pair would avoid documents that had been copied onto microfilm because of the risk of detection."

Savedoff faces up to fifteen years in prison when he's sentenced in February.

Landau's attorney, stupefyingly, said that he wasn't surprised by Savedoff's plea, arguing that Landau had no idea Savedoff was storing stolen goods in Landau's apartment (where thousands of documents were found during searches). "[Landau's] disappointed that Jason Savedoff appears to be shifting his illegal acts toward Barry," the attorney said. Good luck with that strategy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

This Week's Acquisitions

Here's what came in the mail this week:

- Best Little Stories from the American Revolution C. Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer (Cumberland House, 2011). Publisher.

- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday, 2011). Publisher.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: "Finding Everett Ruess"

Since reading Jon Krakauer's chapter on him in Into the Wild I've been intrigued by Everett Ruess, a young hiker who disappeared in the wilds of southeastern Utah in the fall/winter of 1934. Now David Roberts has given us a full-scale account of Ruess' life and legend in Finding Everett Ruess (Broadway, 2011). This book may be 380 pages long, but I read it over the course of a single afternoon, almost in one continuous sitting.

Like Krakauer's Christopher McCandless, whose story bears a whole series of uncanny resemblances with Ruess', this was a young man in search of something he never quite managed to find; Ruess was a smart, talented person with a gift for writing and art (his block prints are used at the heads of each chapter, and Roberts quotes a length from his letters, diaries, essays and poems).

What's different about Ruess' story is that his disappearance has remained unsolved. Was he murdered by local cattle rustlers? Did he fall to his death while hiking? Or did he simply head off into parts unknown, never to be heard from again? Roberts explores Ruess' four long hikes through the Southwest, but concentrates on the final journey and on its aftermath: the decades-long search for Ruess, his family's quest to come to grips with what happened, and on the discovery of a gravesite high in the mountains believed for a time to be Ruess' final resting place (subsequent DNA analysis later ruled out the possibility).

Roberts has been interested in Ruess' story for a long time, and the depth of this interest and his research into the young man is clear. It's a fascinating, unnerving, and deeply thought-provoking work. I recommend it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: "A More Perfect Heaven"

Dava Sobel has moved back in time a bit with A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernius Revolutionized the Cosmos (Walker & Company, 2011), taking her readers out of Galilean Italy and into Copernican Poland. She's also done something rather unconventional with this book, inserting a two-act play, "And the Sun Stood Still" into the middle of the historical narrative.

The play attempts to capture the interaction between Copernicus and Johann Joachim Rheticus as the younger Rheticus persuades Copernicus to finish his manuscript and publish the astronomical discoveries he's made. When I first started reading, I was skeptical of how this imaginative but necessarily conjectural endeavor would work ... thankfully Sobel's a writer with enough talent to pull it off, although I'm thankful that her editor persuaded her to add the contextual material.

By bracketing the play with narrative chapters outlining Copernicus' life and career up to the arrival of Rheticus, and then of his decline following Rheticus' departure (along with the publication history of De revolutionibus and an examination of its reception), Sobel manages to add heft to the dramatic interlude at the center of the book, while still granting her own fictional creation pride of place.

Links & Reviews

- The new issue of Common-place is out, filled with great articles and reviews as usual.

- There was a big meeting of the Digital Public Library of America this week, with the announcement of $5 million in additional funding. Key takeaways from Dan Cohen and Amanda French.

- The Yale Law Library has released a Flickr gallery of bookplates.

- Over at Antipodean Footnotes, a look at ownership notations in a copy of a 1476 edition of Legenda aurea sanctorum.

- A new exhibit on the Archimedes Codex is reviewed by Edward Rothstein for the NYTimes.

- From the Fine Books Blog, some trailers for upcoming films based (however loosely) on literature.

- A private notebook used by Bram Stoker in the 1870s has been discovered in the Isle of Wight, and will be published next year.

- From the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory, a short video of Robert Darnton discussing the future of books and libraries.

- Ben Breen at Res Obscua covers trompe-l'oeil illustration.

- In Wired, Robert McMillan writes about "Hamlet's BlackBerry," the "table" (featuring quotes by the Folger's Heather Wolfe).

- From the Union College newspaper (which I once edited), a look at the College's Special Collections.

- Also from Heather Wolfe, a post at The Collation about dating a Thomas Cromwell letter.


- Kimberly Cutter's The Maid; review by Sarah Towers in the NYTimes.

- Charles Mann's 1493; review by Toby Green in the Independent.

- Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick?; review by Kathryn Harrison in the NYTimes.

- Martin Hopkinson's Ex Libris; review by Raquel Laneri for Forbes.

- Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin; review by Jennifer Schuessler in the NYTimes.

- Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising; review by David Reynolds in the WSJ.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review: "The Twelfth Enchantment"

David Liss' latest novel is The Twelfth Enchantment (Random House, 2011), something of a departure from his usual historical fiction in that it presumes the existence of magical forces in Regency England (sort of like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Lucy Derrick, a young woman with lots of spunk but not much money, being forced into a marriage she doesn't want, suddenly discovers that not only is she very skilled at harnessing magical forces, but also that she's destined to play a role in a very important fight between the forces of good and evil.

More than anything else I found myself wanting more backstory. The plot is well paced and Liss has packed in enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, but I kept finding myself curious about one thing or another and wishing for more explanation. The secret book that Lucy must reassemble, the overall state of magical knowledge in England, the motivations of some of the major players: I wanted more explanation, more of the rich detail that Liss is so good at providing.

Featuring appearances (I won't say cameos since they're fairly substantive) by such real figures as Lord Byron, William Blake, and Spencer Perceval, Liss' novel takes the Luddite movement and puts it into a larger (more fantastical) context. It was a fun, escapist, read, but I just wish Liss had been able to tie up a few of the loose ends more tightly.

Auction Report: Recent Sales

- At Swann's 17 October Early Printed, Medical and Scientific Books sale, the top seller was a copy of Cristobal de Morales' Missarum Liber Primus (1546), which fetched $33,600.

- Full results for the sale of The Robert H. and Donna L. Jackson Collection Part I: 19th Century Literature on 18 October are here. All told, 142 of the 251 lots sold, and a world record was set for Trollope when the rare complete copy of Trollope's Ralph the Heir in parts sold for $88,900. The first edition Middlemarch in parts made $56,250, while the complete set of Pickwick Papers in parts was bid up to $31,250.

The autograph manuscript leaf of The Pickwick Papers and first edition David Copperfield in parts didn't sell, nor did Audubon's Quadrupeds in the original parts or George Eliot's brother's copy of her Scenes of Clerical Life.

- At Sotheby's The Library of an English Bibliophile, Part II sale on 18 October, 104 of the 155 lots sold, for a total of $2,607,976. Reserves seemed quite high; of the eight lots estimated at more than $100,000 just three sold: the Third Folio made $542,500; the first printing of Poe's Tales (1845) sold for $314,500, and the first issue Leaves of Grass fetched $230,500. A first edition in English of Newton's Principia (1729) sold for $110,500.

Bidding on some of the unsold lots got quite high: the First Folio reached $550,000, the first edition of Joyce's Ulysses was bid up to $420,000, and the first printing of The Great Gatsby was also up in the six-figures but passed.

- Results for the 18 October Bloomsbury sale of Books from the Library of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors are here; 164 of 171 lots sold. As expected, the top seller was Johannes Kip's Nouveau Theatre de Grand Bretagne (1713-1728), in three volumes, which sold for £42,000.

- PBA Galleries sold Nevada, California & Americana: The Library of Clint Maish, with additions, on 20 October. Full results are here. The top seller was a copy of JFK's Profiles in Courage, inscribed to Pamela Harriman, which fetched $6,000.

November preview coming soon.

This Week's Acquisitions (and Last)

Some recent arrivals:

- The Explorer's Code by Kitty Pilgrim (Scribner, 2011). Publisher.

- 1812: The Navy's War by George C. Daughan (Basic Books, 2011). Publisher.

- The Books of the Pilgrims by Lawrence D. Geller and Peter J. Gomes (Garland, 1975). The Americanist (via ABE)

- A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel (Bloomsbury, 2011). Publisher.

- The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies by Matthew Parker (Bloomsbury, 2011). Publisher.

- A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon; edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger (Bantam, 2011). Publisher.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Links & Reviews

Delayed links and reviews for this week, since I was away for the weekend (my sister got married!)

- Fine Books Blog starts a new series of short interviews with young booksellers by profiling Teri Osborn of William Reese Company.

- Jen Howard covers last week's ARL annual meeting.

- An important post from Dan Gregory on the Between the Covers blog, "The Closing of the American Bookstore."

- David Twiston Davies writes in the Telegraph about his decision to sell his book collection at auction.

- James Shapiro has an essay in the NYTimes about "Anonymous," Roland Emmerich's soon-to-open movie about the Shakespeare "authorship controversy."

- From Steve Ferguson at Princeton, Digitizing the Lapidus Collection, announcing digital versions of more than 150 books and pamphlets on liberty and the American Revolution.

- Nigel Farndale writes in the Telegraph about bookshelf-browsing and "showing-off" books.

- Missed from last weekend (and a must-read): Alexandra Horowitz asks in the NYTimes "Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?"

- Jen Howard writes for the CHE on authors' fears about what happens when their goes online.

- The Digital Public Library of America's website is now live.

- From the NYTimes, a look at how Amazon's now cutting out publishers and working directly with authors.

- Candice Millard talked to NPR about her new book Destiny of the Republic.

- Over at The Collation, Carrie Smith covers the great Tonson/Walker dispute over Shakespeare copyrights.


- Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve; review by Troy Jollimore for CSM.

- Dava Sobel's To Make a More Perfect Heaven; reviews by Helen Brown for the Telegraph and Mike Brown for the Washington Post.

- Three recent books on books in 18th-century Britain; review by Richard Sher at Reviews in History.

- Lawrence Wechsler's Uncanny Valley; review by David Ulin in the LATimes.

- Denise Gigante's The Keats Brothers; review by Christopher Benfey in the NYTimes.

- Jon Paul Stevens' Five Chiefs; review by Jim Newton in the LATimes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: "Catherine the Great"

Robert Massie's written yet another winner with Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House, 2011) a thorough but lively account of the empress' long life and career.

Massie's prodigious knowledge of Russian history serves him well here, but it's his ability to tell a good story that makes this book. He's able to blend healthy doses of diplomatic and military history with the larger-than-life personal tale of a powerful woman who rises to rule one of the largest countries on earth.

The most interesting sections for me were those concerning the bloodless coup that brought Catherine to power, her long-running correspondence with various Enlightenment figures, like Diderot and d'Alembert, and the fascinating samples from her correspondence and memoirs.

Clocking in at almost 600 pages this is, like most of Massie's previous works, not an insubstantial read. But he's paced it well, and I had a difficult time putting it down once I got started. With the minor criticism that the last few chapters felt a bit too rushed, this is by any measure a very well done biography.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Auction Report: PBA, Bloomsbury, Bonhams

- Results of the 6 October Fine Literature & Books in All Fields sale PBA Galleries are here.
The first edition Leaves of Grass failed to sell; the top lot ended up being the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which sold for $22,800. That Jessie Bayes illuminated manuscript of two Shelley poems fetched $18,000.

- Bloomsbury's 6 October Bibliophile Sale results are here.

- The results of Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale, held on 10 October, are here; some big(gish) prices in this one! The top seller proved to be a special, hand-colored copy of la Fontaine's Fables (1755-1759) produced for Louis XV; it sold for $122,500. The first edition of McKenney and Hall made $92,500, while the copy of A Noble Fragment with the original Gutenberg Bible leaf fetched $56,250 (as did the Nuremberg Chronicle). The second edition of William Wood's New Englands Prospect (1635) sold for $31,250.

The 1776 John Adams letter to William Cooper about the construction of Navy vessels and the suite of Robert Furber's 1730 Twelve Months of Flowers failed to sell.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Book Review: "James Madison"

He may be the "Father of the Constitution," but we haven't seen nearly as many James Madison biographies published in the "founders chic" era of the past decade as we have for some of his contemporaries (perhaps his time is coming, as we get into the bicentennial of "Mr. Madison's War," but we'll see). Rick Brookhiser has taken a whack at it with James Madison (Basic Books, 2011), which joins his previous biographies of Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and the Adamses.

Short (just 250 pages), sparsely cited, and drawn from a wide range of outdated texts and recent trade publications (only a handful of recent scholarly publications are cited, and the ongoing Papers of James Madison project is, shockingly, not among them), Brookhiser's book breaks no new ground. It skims the surface of Madison's life, but rarely penetrates into any particular aspect of the man's career or personality. His personal relationships are barely mentioned, while his professional relationships (with Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, et al.) are treated at only slightly greater depth.

Brookhiser's main point seems to be that we should see Madison as the father of modern politics, and he's correct to examine the man's role in the first party struggle of the 1790s (and to look closely and Madison's careful political strategizing throughout his career). But if you know anything about Madison at all, you'll probably come away from this book wanting more than you got. It felt to me like I was reading an abridged version of something that would have been better in a more complete original form.

The book was also marred for me by several errors, including, on the first page of the first chapter, the statement that Edmund Pendleton signed the Declaration of Independence; he did not. And the Federalist presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808 was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, not Coatesworth.

Useful perhaps to whet a reader's appetite for Madison or as a very basic introduction to his political career. But if you're looking for the man, look elsewhere.

Links & Reviews

- Former NARA curator Leslie Waffen entered a guilty plea this week, admitting that he stole nearly 1,000 early recordings from the National Archives, selling some on eBay (going as far back as 2001). Sentencing won't occur until next March.

- In today's Washington Post, a review of the Folger Library's "Manifold Greatness" exhibit, marking the 400th anniversary of the KJV.

- The October Fine Books Notes is out!

- Sarah Werner had a great post this week about women printers in early modern England.

- Over at 8vo, Brooke Palmieri highlights a wonderfully curious 1610 pamphlet, Rowland Vaughan's Most Approved and Long experienced Water-Workes.

- Erin Blake, writing at The Collation, examines the (wrong) assumption that copperplate illustrations indicate a higher-quality publication.

- Candice Millard talks to the CSM about her new book, Destiny of the Republic.

- From the Society of Early Americanists, recent and forthcoming publications of interest to early American historians.


- Sylvia Nasar's The Grand Pursuit; review by Justin Fox in the NYTimes.

- Ken Jennings' Maphead; review by John J. Miller in the WSJ.

- Lawrence Wechsler's The Uncanny Valley; review by David Ulin in the LATimes.

- Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life; reviews by Tom Sperlinger in the Independent and Judith Flanders in the Telegraph.

Book Review: "The Pilgrim"

Hugh Nissenson's The Pilgrim (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2011) is the tale of one Charles Wentworth—not the picareseque Charles Wentworth of the 1770 novel, but an earlier Charles Wentworth, whose struggles with himself, his fellow man, and God are chronicled here in the form of a "written confession."

Nissenson's Wentworth, the son of a Puritan minister, has practically seen it all even before he signs on to occupany Thomas Weston's expedition to Wessagusset in 1622: he's only in his early twenties then, but has already witnessed the (often gruesome) deaths of many of those close to him. And that's before he tries to live through a Massaschusetts winter with a bunch of ill-prepared, ill-provisioned adventurers.

While he's taken some liberties with the Wessagusset story, Nissenson's fictional account certainly could be a worse retelling of the ill-fated colonial endeavor. Wentworth's humanity comes through well in the way he recounts his own history, and I liked how Nissenson put his narrator's "scrivener's habit" of list-making to effective use.

Overall, I liked this well-researched and clearly-written novel.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Scott Sentenced to Probation, Community Service

William Scott, who admitted in January that he stole some 30 letters from the Drew University United Methodist Archives Center while working there as an undergraduate, has been sentenced to three years' probation and 300 hours of community service "by working with underprivileged people." The judge ordered Scott to write a letter to the court each month "describing the progress of his life," and to write letters of apology to 72 character witnesses.

Drew University has also reached a separate, civil settlement with Scott, who paid $7,500 in restitution for the stolen documents (all but one of which have been recovered).

Extremely unfortunate result, but not a particularly surprising one. While I have my doubts that letter-writing and community service are a severe enough punishment for what this guy did, hope springs eternal that he really has learned from the experience. Time will tell.

This Week's Acquisitions

Two arrivals this week:

- William Bradford's Books: Of Plimmoth Plantation and the Printed Word by Douglas Anderson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Amazon (used).

- Fabulous Finds: How Expert Appraiser Lee Drexler Sold Wall Street's Charging Bull, Found Hidden Treasures and Mingled with the Rich & Famous by J. Lee Drexler (Linden Publishing, 2011). Publisher.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review: "Maphead"

In his new book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (Scribner, 2011), Ken Jennings plots an often hilarious and always enlightening route through the past, present, and perhaps even the future of geographical and cartographical pursuits. A mix of research, reporting, and personal anecdotes (along the lines of what Nick Basbanes did for books in A Gentle Madness, or Bill Bryson's done with a whole host of subjects), Maphead makes for a tremendously good read.

Jennings begins with a short history of cartophilia, using his younger self as a case study but reaching far back into history to explain many peoples' love for and attraction to maps and the information they record. He talks to educators about geographical ignorance and its prevalence today (and about how over-reliance on GPS navigation isn't helping matters any in that department), and visits the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress. He profiles collectors, dealers, and thieves, meets hyper-travellers who try to visit every country on each (or the highest point in every state, or every Starbucks location ...), and dreamers who spend decades creating fictional worlds and everything that comes with them.

In a particularly timely section given the recent kerfuffle over Rick Perry's hunting camp, Jennings provides a litany of odd or outdated place names, pronuciations, and long-running cartographic errors, and visits the National Geography Bee. He meets the founders of geocaching (and tries out the activity for himself), and the engineers at Google who built and maintain Google Earth. It's quite a bit to pack into 250 pages, but Jennings manages to do it extremely well; he covers a great deal of ground, but does so thoroughly (and there are notes in the back if you want more detail, plus some very entertaining explanatory footnotes).

Jennings' sense of humor is a bit on the corny side, and he likes to throw in laugh lines at every possible opportunity; most of these rated a smile or a chuckle, but I definitely cracked up more than a few times, too. Oh, and you may find that you want a good atlas (or at least Google Maps) nearby while you read - there were several points where I just had to see what he was explaining.

Whether you're a "maphead" or not, I have no doubt that you'd both learn from and get a kick out of this book; I know I did.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Union's First Library Online

Last weekend I worked on finishing up a LibraryThing Legacy Library catalog for the first library of Union College: this one's near and dear to my heart; I went to Union, and spent the year after I graduated working in the special collections there. During that year I helped work on this collection, and quite literally turned every single page of the almost 800 volumes in the collection, noting down marginalia &c.

The library was the subject of my 2007 masters' thesis at Simmons, part of which was published in 2008 ... and ever since then I've been thinking about how the collection needed to come to LT. Now, in advance of a talk I'll be giving at Union later in the fall, here it is at last!

One of the really neat things about this library (purchased 1795-1799) is that more than half of the original copies still exist, as does almost all the "paperwork" surrounding the acquisition of the books. So we know where the books came from, how much they cost, and in many cases how they were used (a good example is the original set of Shakespeare's works, which contains a wonderful amount of marginalia left by generations of students).

One of my favorite marginal notations appears in William Russell's The History of America, published in 1778: where the text reads "it is now in the bosom of fate, whether France or Great Britain shall give law to America," a student has added in ink: "And is now concluded to be neither."

I've added a bunch of images of the books and marginalia to the gallery, and enhanced the catalog by adding a whole bunch of collections to note the original sources of the books, &c. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Book Review: "Codex 632"

José Rodrigues dos Santos' Codex 632: The Secret of Christopher Columbus (Harper, 2009) is one of the many post-Da Vinci Code "bibliothrillers," novels involving some secret text that, discovered and interpreted correctly, would solve some major historical question (or lead to great riches for its discoverer). The books usually involve an unlikely academic in the starring role, and tend to include some family or romantic drama/subplot alongside the intellectual quest.

Codex 632 fits comfortably within the genre: while there's little thriller-style action here (no car chases, no gunfights, rarely even a word spoke in anger), there's certainly a great deal of deciphering ancient texts, long expository paragraphs, and jetting around the world to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

In this case, the puzzle is the "true identity" of Christopher Columbus: Portuguese scholar Thomas Noronha is hired by an American historical foundation to complete the research of a recently-expired scholar who they'd contracted with to examine the historical records of the discovery of Brazil, but whose research led him in a much different direction. Noronha must solve the professor's hidden codes and messages in order to uncover just what it was that his predecessor had been on the trail of.

While the family/romantic subplots came off as a bit clumsy, overall this was one of the more intriguing books I've read of the type. Based on an unconventional reading of the historical record, it makes for a fun thought experiment, and quite a decent story.

Links & Reviews

- A truly mysterious book in the John Carter Brown Library, which may (or may not) contain Roger Williams' shorthand annotations and has thus far eluded bibliographic identification, will soon be online in a digital edition. The original copy is the centerpiece of a JCB exhibit this fall, "A Key into a 17th-Century Mystery: Investigating Roger Williams’ Shorthand." The book is really a wonder: I took a crack at it myself a year or so ago, but having it online in full will allow for a much more rigorous investigation (and, with any luck at all, a breakthrough).

- Leonardo da Vinci expert Martin Kemp claims to have definitively identified a portrait on vellum (sold by Christie's in 1998 for little more than £11,000 as a 19th-century pastiche) as an original Leonardo. He's even reportedly found the book from which the portrait was removed.

- From Inside Higher Ed this week, "The Promise of Digital Humanities."

- Jill Lepore writes about Noah Webster's efforts to edit the King James Bible.

- The October AE Monthly is up, with a recap of Swann's Caren sale, a preview of the Bonhams Jackson sale on 18 October, &c.

- The ABAA has launched a very useful exhibitions page to highlight book-related exhibits around the U.S.

- New MacArthur "genius" Jacob Soll was interviewed on WHYY this week; well worth a listen.

- New York bookseller Donald Davis is in the news this week for successfully apprehending Andrew Hansen, 27, who's been stealing graphic novels from the NYPL and selling them to bookstores around the city.

- Over at The Cataloguer's Desk, an announcement of Peter Harrington's new glossary of rare book terms, plus the anatomy of a catalogue entry.

- From Lingua Franca, Carol Saller's post "When E-Books Need Correcting" is particularly timely this week, given the Kindle Reamde kerfuffle.

- A new exhibit highlights treasures from the Bodleian's collections; visitors are being asked to recommend which of the highlights should be on permanent display.

- The Atlantic has an interesting profile and gallery of typographer Ross MacDonald's work; he makes period-accurate literary props for movies and television shows.


- Andrew Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio; review by Hilary Spurling in the NYTimes.

- David Liss' The Twelfth Enchantment; review by Rebecca Rego Barry at Fine Books Blog.

- Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic; reviews by Kevin Baker in the NYTimes and Del Quentin Wilber in the Washington Post.

- Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve; review by Sarah Bakewell in the NYTimes.

- Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin; reviews by Kenneth Turan in the LATimes and David Thomson in TNR.

- Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life; review by Lesley McDowell in the Scotsman.

- Joel Silver's Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly; review by Pradeep Sebastian in The Hindu.

- Willard Sterne Randall's Ethan Allen; review by Adam Tschorn in the Philadelphia Inquirer (apologies in advance; one of the most hideously advertisement-cluttered sites I've seen in a very long time)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Auction Preview: October

- On 6 October, PBA Galleries will sell Fine Literature & Books in All Fields, in 406 lots. The expected high spot is a (somewhat restored) first edition Leaves of Grass with an (unconnected) postcard written by Whitman (est. $60,000-90,000). A Jessie Bayes illuminated manuscript of two Shelley poems is estimated at $25,000-35,000, while a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz could fetch $20,000-30,000.

- Also on 6 October, Bloomsbury holds a Bibliophile Sale, in 413 lots.

- At Bonhams on 10 October, Fine Books and Manuscripts, in 271 lots. A 1776 John Adams letter to William Cooper about the construction of Navy vessels rates a $50,000-80,000 estimate, while a first edition of McKenney and Hall is estimated at $40,000-60,000. A copy of the leaf book A Noble Fragment with the original Gutenberg Bible leaf is estimated at $30,000-50,000. Rating the same estimate is a suite of Robert Furber's 1730 Twelve Months of Flowers. A Nuremberg Chronicle could sell for $20,000-30,000. A second edition of William Wood's New Englands Prospect (1635) rates the same estimate.

- Swann has a sale of Early Printed, Medical and Scientific Books on 17 October, in 304 lots.

- Bonhams will sell The Robert H. and Donna L. Jackson Collection Part I: 19th Century Literature on 18 October, in 251 lots. Expected top sellers include an autograph manuscript leaf of The Pickwick Papers ($70,000-100,000); a rare complete copy of Trollope's Ralph the Heir in parts ($50,000-80,000); a first edition Middlemarch in parts ($50,000-70,000); complete sets of Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in parts ($30,000-50,000); a copy of Audubon's Quadrupeds in the original parts ($45,000-55,000); and George Eliot's brother's copy of her Scenes of Clerical Life ($20,000-30,000).

- Sotheby's has just one book sale this month, but it's a whopper. The Library of an English Bibliophile, Part II (my report on Part I is here) comprises 155 lots, eight of which are estimated at more than $100,000. The Shakespeare First Folio, not surprisingly, rates the top estimate, at $600,000-700,000 (a Third Folio could fetch $350,000-400,000). A particularly lovely first edition of Joyce's Ulysses with presentation inscriptions by publisher Sylvia Beach could sell for $450,000-500,000, while a first printing of Poe's Tales (1845) rates a $200,000-250,000 estimate (The Raven and Other Poems, published the same year, is estimated at $140,000-180,000). Joyce's Dubliners could sell for $150,000-200,000. A first printing of The Great Gatsby in a second-state dust jacket is estimated at $150,000-180,000, and a first issue Leaves of Grass could reach $140,000-160,000. That's just a teaser of all the goodies in this sale, which one hopes will realize some really impressive figures (it certainly has the potential to).

- Also on 20 October, Bloomsbury sells Books from the Library of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, in 171 lots. The expected high spot is Johannes Kip's Nouveau Theatre de Grand Bretagne (1713-1728), in three volumes (est. £30,000-40,000).

- PBA Galleries will sell Nevada, California & Americana: The Library of Clint Maish, with additions, on 20 October. No preview yet available.

This Week's Acquisitions

- The Mayflower Reader: A Selection of Articles from The Mayflower Descendant by George Ernest Bowman (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1978). Amazon (used).

- James Madison by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 2011). Publisher.

- Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings (Scribner, 2011). Publisher.