Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all the remembered writers of the 20th century, John O'Hara may not be among them.  He was, however, commercial, and in his own words, he said, "I'm not some hairy philosopher. I'm just an ordinary guy who happens to write well."
    O'Hara was one of the 20th century's best-selling authors. His biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli, claimed O'Hara published more words than any other writer in the century. The public loved O'Hara, and he wrote for them. Critics were less kind.
     Still, O'Hara knew what he was about. "The United States in this century is what I know," he said. "I want to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty and variety."
     The Schuylkill County (PA) Historical Society, the birthplace of O'Hara, is now trying to keep O'Hara's memory alive. The Society got an early start on preserving the history of the area, having incorporated in 1903, but only last month decided to build an O'Hara collection. Their collection began simply enough with the recent donation of two letters written by O'Hara, one dated in 1954 and the other dated in 1961, and they serve as a cornerstone for other artifacts to come from the author's life.
     Upon publication of O'Hara's first book, Appointment in Samarra, the New York Herald Tribune wrote that, "The genuine value of Appointment in Samarra is the author's grasp of his dubious hero's character." Hemingway praised the book highly and Edmund Wilson wrote that the book was "a memorable picture of both a provincial snob, a disorganized drinking-man of the twenties, and of the complexities of the social organism in which he flourished and perished."
     Last year, Penguin Classics re-issued Appointment in Samarra, and other O'Hara books have followed.  The author is finally receiving a bit of his critical due, particularly for his later works, which remain some of best portraits of the 20th century.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Sarah Burke Cahalan, Special Projects and Reference Librarian at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC.

How did you get started in rare books?

My first library job was an apprenticeship in the Weissman Preservation Center when I was an undergraduate at Harvard.  I cleaned awful adhesives off of colonial currency--yes, I was a money launderer--and I made clamshell boxes for daguerreotypes.  At the same time, I worked in an independent bookstore, which is where I started to learn about reference services.  After college (thanks to a grant), I had a vagabond year in which I read poetry and rode trains in Europe and Asia.  I spent time with beekeepers in Malta, Tunisia, Italy, and Slovenia.  The amazing thing is that my interest in apiculture is relevant to my current work with rare garden books, which often have coverage of beekeeping and other types of animal husbandry.  My MA in medieval art focused on the making of art objects; it was supervised by a codicologist at the Courtauld Institute, where I also worked part-time in the archives.  By the time I arrived at Simmons for my MLIS I knew to search out people who could teach me about special collections and rare books librarianship.  I finished the degree in 2010--not an amazing time for library jobs!  So I was very happy to find my way to Dumbarton Oaks.

Please introduce us to Dumbarton Oaks and your role there:

Dumbarton Oaks is a Washington, DC-based research institute of Harvard University.  We support research in Byzantine, Garden & Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies.  Dumbarton Oaks offers fellowships throughout the year as well as short-term research stipends and internships.  We also have several hundred authorized Readers who routinely visit the Library.  The institute includes Gardens, a Museum, Archival Collections, and a Publications department.  I divide my time between the Research Library and the Rare Book Collection.  The Rare Book Collection supports scholarship in all three subject areas, but it is strongest in Garden & Landscape because of the collecting interests of Mildred Barnes Bliss, one of the founders of Dumbarton Oaks.

My title, Special Projects & Reference Librarian, encompasses the range of my duties.  I do day-to-day reference work and answer complex questions about rare book holdings.  I try to maintain a social media presence for the Rare Book Collection.  I supervise the Rare Book Reading Room four afternoons a week and handle many of the image orders we receive there.  I developed our online exhibit template and the content type for describing rare books (using a MARC-Dublin Core crosswalk).  I hosted a "miracle fruit" party a couple of years back.  I co-organized a symposium in October 2013 titled "The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century," and am currently working on the symposium volume with my co-editors.  I've supervised two interns and look forward to working with more interns in the future.  One of the really fun parts of my job is working with the Museum's gift shop to develop products that use images from the collection.  "Special projects" can mean any number of things!

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

I get really excited about manuscript copies of printed works.  The amount of labor that goes into this sort of project is astounding.  One example I've returned to several times is a late eighteenth-century manuscript copy of Paolo Boccone's 1697 Museo di piante rare, with added Linnaean names and morphological details.  Items that complicate my ideas of what is unique and what is a reproduction always catch my interest.  For example, Dumbarton Oaks holds several albums prepared by workshops of artists in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore for Europeans stationed abroad; the illustrations in these albums were copied and assembled for purchase, meaning that similar paintings are extant in multiple horticultural libraries today.
What do you personally collect?

I prefer to keep my responsibility for cultural heritage materials at work, where there's proper HVAC, emergency preparation, etc.  If I acquire anything these days it is all of the kids' books I loved when I was growing up.  But they quickly get applesauce on them.  My house is not a safe place for books and it won't be for at least a decade, when my children are less inclined to chew on things that should not be chewed upon.  I do have a beautiful wooden card catalog which is mostly used for seed packets, shells, and other little objects.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

I love that almost everything I have ever found interesting is relevant to my job.  I worked part-time at the Harvard Botany Libraries while I was attending Simmons.  I remember the day I realized how important my knowledge of Latin was going to be in helping a scholar who was researching the earliest documentation of specific plants.  It was thrilling!  I had been developing obscure skill sets and interests for years, and here was a profession in which they could actually be useful.  Even my guilty pleasures--I have subscribed to Vogue for years, and I love British publications like Tatler--end up being useful when I know the name of a particular country estate or a particular detail about the history of costume.  On a good day, I get to share discoveries from the collection with people in our community and beyond.  Rare book librarianship is really the best job in the world.

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

I am interested in the combination of our assets with other datasets.  No matter one's opinion on MOOCs, our digital facsimiles can gain new traction and new audiences as learning moves online.  Interoperability of digital collections (such as that facilitated by IIIF and linked open data) will make it possible to compare disparate collections in the same platform.  The potential uses of GIS for understanding intellectual history are extraordinary.  Of course these big projects require collaboration across departments and institutions, not to mention time and money.

The boundaries among rare book librarianship, visual resources, and the sciences are blurring.  So many of the questions I handle are along the lines of "Can you help me find an image of _____?"--whether it's an archaeological site or a period map or a particular plant.  There are fantastic print resources and databases for some of these queries (natural history in particular), but others are lacking.  Much of it comes down to knowing the collections and knowing the personality of specific library catalogs.  But it's also important to keep up with developing tools and metadata standards in fields other than our own.  I just learned about Audubon Core, a descriptive metadata standard for biodiversity resources, and I've been working with natural history materials for years.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

Yes!--in collaboration with Jason W. Dean at the University of Arkansas I am working on S. Fred Prince, an illustrator of natural history who worked primarily in the Ozarks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Much of his work is based on specimens he collected and observed in the field.  He produced work on ferns, wildflowers, caves, and butterflies.  The manuscript materials are now held in a number of collections around the United States.  Some are at Dumbarton Oaks, including a manuscript on ferns that also includes maps and pressed specimens.  We hope to gain more exposure for his work.  We've just started putting materials on Tumblr and I'm sure I'll be Tweeting developments @stampedinblind.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

We have two exhibit spaces and four of us share curatorial responsibilities, so we always have new exhibits going up.  Since some of the exhibit space isn't routinely accessible to the general public, we've been trying to curate at least one online exhibit a year.  My colleague and I are planning an exhibit on Hagia Sophia for next winter.  Several departments at Dumbarton Oaks (notably the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives) have important documents and objects relating to this site, many of which have been or are in the process of being digitized, so in addition to an on-site exhibit we are developing an online portal as a reference tool.  This is the sort of project that will be of use to a broad spectrum of visitors, since Hagia Sophia is the best-known work of Byzantine architecture.

At last, a way to gauge one's level of bibliomania: What would you give to own a copy of A.S. Byatt's Possession inscribed by the author to Nicholas Basbanes? Or, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, inscribed to the man who brought book collecting into the mainstream? How about Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading inscribed to the author of eight books on reading, writing, and collecting books?

These three association copies, and more than six hundred other modern first editions, all inscribed to Basbanes, are being offered en bloc by Lux Mentis Booksellers in Portland, Maine.  

DSC_5982.jpegMost readers hardly need an introduction to Nick Basbanes. He has been, since the publication of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books in 1995, the book world's foremost expert on bibliophilia, as well as FB&C's featured columnist. Prior to that, Basbanes was book review editor and literary columnist for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram & Gazette from 1978 to 1991 and a freelance reviewer and writer from 1991 to 2000. It was during these years that Basbanes interviewed scores of authors. In the introduction to the sale catalogue for the collection of association copies, Basbanes writes that asking each author to sign a book for him "was central to my transformation from an impassioned reader who already loved books for their content into a bibliophile who treasured them as material objects."

Simon .jpgTwo of the inscribed books recall a lighthearted rivalry between Annie Dillard and Roy Blount, Jr. Basbanes had met with the two writers on the same day. Blount had inscribed, "It's nice to be able to discuss the concept of raunchiness with you just before you get to Annie Dillard." To which Dillard "replied" in her inscription: "...with all best wishes after a jolly old time at the Ritz-Carleton on the day of his talk with slightly more raunchy Roy Blount Jr."

DSC_6026.JPGSome of the authors he interviewed more than once (and so he collected more than one title), including Margaret Atwood, Harold Bloom, James Lee Burke, Pat Conroy, Michael Crichton, Louise Erdrich, P.D. James, Norman Mailer, David McCullough, and Maurice Sendak. He has a few Updikes too, one of which is inscribed "For Nick, the bibliophia expert," and a few from Joseph Heller, who referred to Basbanes as "an old and welcome friend."

All of the books are in very good to fine condition, and some even include a bit of publishing ephemera--review slips, press releases, publicity photos. It is, as Basbanes describes it, "a snap-shot of the literary scene of the day as it unfolded."

The price for the collection is available upon request from Lux Mentis.

Images courtesy of Nick Basbanes.
On Thursday, April 17th, Swann Galleries will hold the first ever vernacular photography auction presented by a major house. The sale, entitled "The Vernacular Eye: Photographic Albums, Snapshots, and Objects," commences at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, with 294 lots represented.

Swann was inspired to hold an auction dedicated to vernacular photography (described as "anything outside of the fine art realm") after being surprised by the high prices realized by vernacular photography in previous auctions. For example, an album of 27 spiritualist photographs depicting seances in Winnipeg blew through its $4,000 estimate at Swann last December, realizing a startling $93,750. 

Daile Kaplan, Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks at Swann compared the uniqueness of vernacular photographs to snowflakes.  Swann describes the collection offered for sale on Thursday as "pre-curated by a group of serious photo collectors," with a wide variety of subject matters and price points.

In preparation for the sale, Swann hosted a talk by photography collector Peter Cohen on April 8th.  Cohen's talk was recorded by Swann and was combined with snapshots from Cohen's collection into a 30 minute video you can watch here.

The Grapes of Wrath bookcover copy.jpgToday marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The novel, which traces the Joad family's journey from Oklahoma to California during the Depression, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The National Steinbeck Center (NSC) in Salinas, California, plans to celebrate with a three-day festival next month. Events include an "Opening Night Speakeasy" and various talks and tours.

Last fall, the NSC sponsored a migration reenactment in which a team of artists traveled along Route 66, presenting programs and collecting oral histories related to The Grapes of Wrath and its themes. (An article in our spring issue interviews two participants.) A documentary by P.J. Palmer about that experience will premiere at the May festival.

Image: Courtesy of NSC
MAA.jpgToday is the official pub date for The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, a lavish 500-page book of essays edited by Joanna Ebenstein and Colin Dickey. The book was funded through a Kickstarter campaign in which 1,319 backers pledged $46,338 to ensure its publication (disclosure: I was one of them). Curators, writers, and artists contributed articles on a range of eccentric topics, including books bound in human skin, the catacombs of Palermo, and "artist of death" Frederik Ruysch, some of which had been previously presented as lectures at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Library. A book release party will be held on April 26.

You can get a copy of the anthology through the Morbid Anatomy gift shop, or by supporting for $25 or more a new campaign to help build their new museum space. You can also read more about the Morbid Anatomy Library & Museum in our spring issue.

Image: Courtesy of Morbid Anatomy.


"Migrant," by José Mateo, illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro; Abrams Books for Young Readers, $17.95, 22 pages, ages 10 and up. 

Over 5.5 million children of illegal immigrants live in the United States whose stories go largely undocumented. Migrant chronicles the tumultuous trek of a young Mexican boy who enters the United States with his mother and sister.  The border crossing is perilous, but the family arrives safely in Los Angeles. There the story ends, leaving readers to wonder what happens next - does the family stay in the United States, or are they deported? Does the boy speak English?  Author José Mateo says he kept the characters in Migrant anonymous because there are so many untold, complex tales of woe and desperation that hopes this story may speak for those without a voice.

Migrant is composed as a modern day codex, bound in an accordion foldout. The text is translated in English on one side and is in the original Spanish on the reverse. Read top to bottom, the text and illustrations recall the pre-Hispanic society that flourished in Mexico.

Award-winning artist and amate papermaker Javier Martínez Pedro rendered the images using pen and in. Reminiscent of ancient Mayan hieroglyphs, the throngs of anonymous people spiral down the foldout mural, descending from a life of relative calm into a world of uncertainty.  Pedro's art is on his own handmade amate paper, a product similar to papyrus and is only produced in the artist's village of Xalitla.  

The book beautifully demands a people's right to exist, and will no doubt incite readers to learn more about this situation taking place right on our doorstep. 

carrie king.jpg

Six early Stephen King novels will be republished in deluxe special editions by the independent publisher Cemetery Dance. The move continues a long-term partnership between King and Cemetery Dance, who have already released several of the horror master's novels in special editions, beginning with "From a Buick 8" in 2002.

The first novel on the dock is "Carrie," which will be released in August in three different formats: a hand-numbered edition, limited to 52 copies, artist-signed and already sold out, a traycase edition, limited to 750 copies, artist-signed and priced at $225, and a slipcase edition, limited to 3,000 copies and priced at $85. All three formats will be produced as oversize hardbacks with heavy paper.  The new edition of "Carrie" will include six original paintings and dust jacket art by Tomislav Tikulin, an essay by Tabitha King, a new introduction by Stephen King, and a reproduction of a telegram sent by Doubleday to the author announcing they would publish the book (King's first).

After releasing "Carrie," Cemetery Dance will continue with "Salem's Lot," "The Shining," "Night Shift," "The Stand," and "Pet Semetary" in six month intervals.

Guest Post by Catherine Batac-Walder

Pamuk signing.JPGNobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk flew to the UK to talk about his life and writing at the invitation of the chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten of Barnes, for the chancellor's lecture in this year's Oxford Literary Festival, which ran from March 22-30. The chancellor's lecture has been presenting international literary figures, including the late great poet and fellow Nobel winner Seamus Heaney last year, an event I regret missing.

The Sunday Times ended its sponsorship of the festival after nearly ten years, and FT Weekend took over as the new title partner. The festival also went "ticketless." As a festival-goer since 2009, I was hesitant to attend this year, recalling that even last year's festival was not like what it used to be. Many had voiced their disappointment about the fact that there was no marquee and personally, I felt there was something celebratory about the marquee, and without it, it was as though there was nothing special going on. Having known only lovely spring festival days, last year, it rained when we were in Oxford, and there was no marquee to shelter us when, ironically, it was needed the most.

So when it was announced that a new marquee would be set up outside the Sheldonian Theatre, I was more than eager to come visit Sheldonian first when we arrived on Saturday, March 29. When we arrived, A.C. Grayling was about to have a book signing, but I hardly noticed as I was already drooling over signed editions of Michael Scott's Delphi. Canadian novelist, poet, and critic Margaret Atwood was also in town as she was the guest speaker at the closing festival dinner at the Great Hall of Christ Church (the one used as Hogwarts Hall in Harry Potter films) that night. The Atwood dinner was a black-tie event and obviously not appropriate for my three-year-old; besides, I knew it would coincide with the Pamuk event that I had already planned to attend.

Still six hours to wait before the chancellor's lecture, from Sheldonian we took the obligatory walk amongst the dreamy spires, to Christ Church and then to the river to watch the punts and pedalos. We took our daughter to Alice's shop, a.k.a. "The Old Sheep Shop" in Through the Looking Glass, a.k.a. the shop where the real Alice, Miss Liddell, used to buy sweets. It is tiny, always packed, and a major tourist trap, as we've found in previous visits. Nevertheless we are always drawn back like children who wouldn't mind being lost in a sweet shop. Our daughter was enthralled, recognizing each Alice in Wonderland character she saw on every item.

After afternoon tea, I headed back to Sheldonian Theatre on my own to listen to Pamuk. The chancellor introduced him and interviewer Jason Cowley, who used to edit Granta and is now the editor of New Statesman. While it was quite an experience to have been there in person, I must admit I've heard more interesting and in-depth interviews with Pamuk elsewhere. The jump across topics - politics, religion, life, books, among other things - was dizzying.

Somebody in the audience asked Pamuk a question related to translation: if we who do not read his work in Turkish are missing anything? For a man whose work is translated into 46 languages and whose primary task is to write, he said translation is such a "vast geography," and he could only check English, but he worked closely and went over the work carefully with his translators. "If we know you'd miss a joke (in Turkish) we did our best to supply another joke," he said. He explained further that there is that anxiety of being a bad writer in translation, "you definitely lose a bit, alliterations, jokes that depend on the nature and structure of the Turkish language." (It brought to mind a tea and chat I had with Sophie's World author Jostein Gaarder while a graduate student in Oslo. He said some readers do get angry about some things in his books, and it turned out he didn't even write them as the translation was not accurate.) But oh, to read Pamuk in the original Turkish!

There was also a question about his museum that opened two years ago, conceived when he was writing The Museum of Innocence. He said of it, "We have quite a number of visitors, the museum is doing fine, it's open except on Mondays, and if you happen to be in Istanbul, please visit." [Editor's note: the spring issue of FB&C contains an article on bookish Istanbul, featuring Pamuk's museum.]

cover of My Father's Suitcase copy.jpgAs interesting as the many layers of stories in Pamuk's novels are, I am curious as to why some critics are not as interested in his lectures and nonfiction, which are the ones I like to explore. I brought two books of his with me -- he signed my copy of The Naïve and The Sentimental Novelist (Harvard University Press, 2010), and my copy of My Father's Suitcase (the Nobel lecture), one of only 1500 copies printed privately for Faber and Faber, is more precious now with his dedication in it. It is not every day when one gets to meet a Nobel Prize winner. It was nice to return to the festival after all.
     --Catherine Batac-Walder is a writer living in the UK. She has covered the Oxford Literary Festival for FB&C before, both in 2012 and 2013.

Images credit/copyright: Catherine Batac Walder.
luther brewer house move.jpg
The former home of Luther Brewer - Iowa book collector, editor, publisher, and all around man of letters - was relocated last week by a Cedar Rapids couple who have plans to restore it. The couple, Greg Young, an engineer, and Dawn Stephens, arranged for the 2,900 sq. foot-house to move 10 blocks on the back of a semi-truck. The move, which attracted much local attention, was heralded by a marching band that accompanied the slow moving truck through Cedar Rapids.

The Luther Brewer House was the last remaining home in the town's mansion hill district, now entirely washed away by the tide of progress. The home was situated on the campus of the expanding Mercy Medical Center, which had plans to demolish it, despite a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. 

When Young and Stephens heard about the demolition plans, they approached the Mercy Medical Center about purchasing the home. The medical center agreed to sell the house for $1 under the condition it was moved and restored. They then donated the potential cost of demolishing the house to help bankroll its $37,000 move. After months of planning, Young and Stephens relocated the house to a site in the nearby Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood last week.

Luther Brewer (1858 - 1933) was the editor of Cedar Rapid's Daily Republican newspaper. He founded The Torch Press in 1907 and published a number of collectable limited editions, including several about his world-class collection of Leigh Hunt material. (His Leigh Hunt collection was subsequently donated to the University of Iowa). The well-connected Brewer played host at his home to many prominent businessmen, writers, and politicians through the years, including President William Howard Taft. Taft was a frequent guest at Brewer's house and considered Cedar Rapids a second home.

Young and Stephens hope to have partially restored the Luther Brewer house into a livable home by June with a functioning bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. In a pleasing touch, they have also begun collecting Torch Press books, which they will store in the house's library.

You can follow progress on the move and restoration on the Luther Brewer House facebook page.

(Many thanks to collector and blogger Jerry Morris who introduced us to this story).

Image from the Luther Brewer House facebook page.

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