We were saddened to learn of the death of Joseph Rubinfine (1938-2019), a highly respected dealer in historical manuscripts. Richard Austin, senior vice president and head of books & manuscripts at Sotheby’s, described Rubinfine as “truly one of the good guys.” Fellow historical documents dealer Stuart Lutz said of him, “He was a great man and a great dealer. I would be happy to have half the career that he had,” adding, “He had an unblemished record in the field. No one had a bad word to say about him, which is rare when you have a fifty-year career.” Benjamin Shapell of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation posted a memorial to Rubinfine on the SMF’s blog, calling him “a quiet and dignified individual who was known throughout the autograph world as one of its leading dealers. Joe handled some truly exceptional material over the years, both privately and through his always wonderful and highly anticipated catalogs. His integrity, too, was unmatched. It was my good fortune to have benefited from his great taste in manuscripts and his gifted knowledge of history.”

There is a month left to enjoy the Doris Lessing 100 exhibition at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, celebrating the centenary of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s birth.

Lessing left dozens of boxes of personal material to the UEA’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing which includes her correspondence, diaries, personal papers, manuscripts, and memorabilia, some of it made public for the first time thanks to her official biographer Patrick French who has enjoyed privileged access to it during his research for The Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing, due out later this year.

Central to the exhibition is a focus on probably her most famous work, The Golden Notebook. On show for the first time are journal entries and notebooks which she compiled as she wrote that show how she structured her writing. Among related correspondence is a letter from Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman who compliments her on her ouevre and says he is interested in filming her books, especially The Golden Notebook.

Covering the whole of her life, the wide-ranging exhibition also includes MI5’s and MI6’s files on Lessing which describe her as “An attractive, forceful and dangerous woman;” her personal copy of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; stills from the 1981 film adaption of her novel, Memoirs of a Survivor; and her letter to the prime minister turning down a damehood in 1992, pointing out, “There is something ruritannical about honours given in the name of a non-existent Empire.”

Curated by Justine Mann and Nonia Williams, Doris Lessing 100 has been shortlisted for UEA’s Innovation & Impact Award (Outstanding Social or Cultural Impact category) and runs until February 9.

The Monkey’s Paw is a Toronto bookshop specializing in “uncommon books and paper artifacts from the age of print.” It is also the home of the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomized vending machine for old books.

I am a bibliophile, author, columnist, and software executive based in the Silicon Valley (Readers may recall my ‘How I Got Started’ profile from the summer 2016 issue of Fine Books.) During one of my visits to Toronto to study the Artificial Intelligence ecosystem, I did what I always do — sneak in a few hours to visit a local bookstore. The Monkey’s Paw inspired me to not only buy some rare books (The Niagara Peninsula by Charles P. deVolph; The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways by Hamilton Ellis) but to have a long conversation with the bookstore owner, Stephen Fowler.

Having been to hundreds of bookstores around the world, I consider The Monkey’s Paw to be one of the most unique ones, and this Q & A with Fowler will give you the reasons why!   

V.R. Ferose (VRF): Why did you name your bookstore The Monkey’s Paw? (I am aware of W.W. Jacobs connection.)

Stephen Fowler (SF): If you are familiar with the W.W. Jacobs piece, you know that the message of that story is "be careful what you wish for." Several years before I opened the shop, I already knew that I'd like to create a bookstore where people would be surprised by unexpected books (not the book you're looking for, but the one you didn't even know existed). So the "careful what you wish for" sentiment seemed to apply... plus, "The Monkey's Paw" is a memorable and somewhat creepy title, which also seemed fitting!

VRF: Why haven’t you considered having a digital presence (other than the lack of cheap media mail in Canada)?

SF: First of all, we do have a pretty active presence on social media (Facebook & Instagram). So, it would be inaccurate to suggest that we shy away entirely from the digital world. But it is true that we don't sell online. I'm no stranger to online bookselling — indeed the Monkey's Paw began in 2004 as an online-only shop. But once I opened in a Toronto storefront in 2006, I recognized the obvious advantages of in-person bookselling. Although it's easy to search for and purchase a specific title online, the web is a terrible way to browse for books. Browsing for old books is really only possible in person, hands-on. And with many of the older, longer-established shops either closing or migrating to the web, the general public was really missing the in-person browsing experience, and the pleasure of discovery it permits. The Monkey's Paw filled that gap. I abandoned online bookselling entirely after I'd had the open shop for just a few months. Basically, the books we sell (many of them unlikely and forgotten titles) are so obscure that few shoppers on Abebooks or Amazon would ever even know to search for them. Also, when I sell a book in the shop, I make a customer; the person who buys a book here will forever associate the book with the shop, and very likely return. People who buy books online don't really have any sense for where the books come from, so building customer loyalty is irrelevant and impossible.

The 2020 book auctions get underway this week with two sales on Thursday, January 9:

Forum Auctions will hold an online sale of Books and Works on Paper, in 206 lots. Three lots are each estimated at £1,000–1,500: the first is an unbroken run of Punch's Pocket Book for 1843 through 1881, from the library of Bradbury & Evans publisher William Bradbury. Some volumes contain manuscript annotations by the Bradburys. The second lot is Anthony Powell's Caledonia (1934), inscribed to Dorothy Varda and with manuscript corrections by Powell; finally, a set of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, in designer bindings by Kate Holland, rates the same estimate.

Estimated at £500–700 are Charles Jacques Poncet's A Voyage to Æthiopia (1709) and Michael Geddes' The Church-History of Ethiopia (1696). A partial set (four of fourteen volumes) of later editions of Hough's American Woods is estimated at £400–600. Other lots of interest in this sale might include an 18th-century English manuscript paraphrasing a bit of Horace; and uncut proof sheets of Beatrix Potter's illustrations for Jemima Puddle Duck and The Tale of Tom Kitten (all estimated at £300–400).

At PBA Galleries on Thursday, Art & Illustration – Occult & Hermeticism, in 399 lots. The latter section includes books from the Mateo Family Library. Rating the top estimate is a fifty-nine volume incomplete run of the weekly popular magazine La Vie Parisienne covering the years 1863 through 1926 ($5,000–8,000); a mixed set of Bertuch's Bilderbuch zum Nutzen und Vergnügen der Jugend could sell for $4,000–6,000. Dali's suite of lithographic illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (1981–1981) rates the same estimate.

Every now and then it's worth revisiting people and places that have been overlooked or ignored for awhile. Take, for example, the southernmost point in the United States, Key West. Once a remote hideaway for writers and musicians, Key West is now a routine stop for cruise ship organizations and road-trippers, but that literary history is still there for those who seek it out.

On a recent trip to Key West in December, I paid a visit to the home of Ernest Hemingway. The estate remains the largest residential lot on the island--no small feat in an era of rampant construction up and down the Keys. Our tour guide led us through the interior rooms--now occupied by 59 polydactyl cats, all descendants of Hemingway's beloved feline, Snow White--where Papa and his second wife, journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, spent ten years together. Hemingway composed Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and To Have and To Have Not here in between fishing expeditions on his boat, the Pilar. 

Across town on Truman Avenue, meanwhile, is the home of Tennessee Williams, now also a museum. Williams lived in Key West from 1941 until 1983, when he died at the age of 71. Tiny by comparison, the Williams house boasts an impressive collection of photographs, first edition plays and books, ephemera, even Williams' typewriter. 

Hemingway and Williams aren't the only writers to fall under Key West's spell: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop (whose house on White Street was recently acquired by the Key West Literary Seminar), Richard Wilbur, and Judy Blume have spent time there.  

Meanwhile, plenty of actual writing is still happening in Key West: from January 9-12, the Key West Literary Seminar will host its annual writing workshop and seminar, cultivating new voices in American letters. 

For the past four years, we have checked in with consummate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her appraisal of the bestseller list from a century ago. (See 201820172016, and 2015 respectively). This year we continue the tradition, finding out about the books that topped the list in 1919. Here are the 1919 bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly:

  1. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
  2. The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad
  3. The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey
  4. Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  5. The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
  6. The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Harold Bell Wright
  7. Dawn by Eleanor H. Porter
  8. The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey
  9. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim
  10. In Secret by Robert W. Chambers

Some introductory material from Linda about 1919:

Many historians today summarize 1919 as rivaling 1968 as the worst year in twentieth-century American history. There were anarchist bombings, race riots throughout the U.S., strikes (including strikes by the Boston police), and calls for full-scale war with Mexico as the Mexican Revolution spilled over the border into the U.S. In 1919, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke, Prohibition began, and Major League Baseball saw its first major scandal.

Despite all that, it was a good year for durable bestsellers.

Nine of the 10 bestsellers of 1919 are about World War I, which had official ended in November 11, 1918. Of those nine, two are by Europeans, one is by a Canadian, and the rest are by Americans.

What was your favorite book of 1919?             

I think In Secret by Robert W. Chambers is my favorite. I know you’re going to ask me for a recommendation for modern readers, so I’ll save my summary of that novel and mention a second strong contender for my favorite of the year, which is a better, meatier novel.  Someone can prefer ice cream to broccoli and recognize that broccoli is better for them, right?

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth Von Arnim appears to be a light, frothy novel about teenage twin sisters. Half German, they appear German but feel themselves English. They must figure out how to survive in 1916 America's anti-German hysteria.

Von Arnim writes: The twins’ shipboard friend Edward Twist “came back from a place where civilization toppled, where deadly misery, deadly bravery, heroism that couldn't be uttered, staggered month after month among ruins, and found America untouched, comfortable, fat.”

Von Arnim views America’s role in the war from the perspective of citizens of the Triple Entente. The novel “has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.”

Do you think modern audience would enjoy in particular any of the 1919 bestsellers?

I think In Secret would have the most appeal for contemporary readers. It’s a thriller that I’m surprised hasn’t been made into a film. Chambers sets up familiar scenarios which he promptly turns on their heads. The series of continuous shattered expectations creates incredible tension.

Most of the action takes place high in the Alps as the two main characters try to evade German patrols and get a good look at a tunnel the Germans are thought to be building into neutral Switzerland. After he works readers to the edge of their chairs, Chambers pulls the chairs out from under them with a perfectly plausible but totally unexpected ending.

It’s all very visual, a wide-screen performance for the imagination.

Would you add any of the 1919 bestsellers to your permanent library?

Actually, I want three of them: In Secret, Christopher and Columbus, and Dangerous Days.

How about your least favorite novel from 1919?

My least favorite is the only title on the 1919 bestseller list that was not about World War I: Joseph Conrad’s The Arrow of Gold. It is about a failed 1870s plot to overthrow the Spanish king. The novel is like the plot itself: lots of talk but nothing accomplished.

Any other comments about the 1919 bestsellers?

The top 1919 bestseller was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by a Spaniard, Vicente Blasco Ibanez. It came out in 1918, and immediately called the greatest novel of the great war. It’s still a famous novel, but not as readable today as the other bestsellers. It focuses less on battles than on the residual impact of war on the land and the people of Europe.

Aside from Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent and Conrad’s Arrow of Gold, the other novels on the 1919 bestseller list still have something to offer today’s readers. 

  • Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Dangerous Days, which is about non-combatant dangers of the Great War era, is very good.
  • The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey is one of the better novelistic explanations of why the Great War had to be fought.
  • The Desert of Wheat by Zane Gray looks at the anti-war activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the U.S.
  • The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land by Ralph Connor is an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.

Anything to look forward to from the 1920 list?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing on the 1920 bestseller list that is more than temporary entertainment.

In the run-up to the Californian Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena in February, an innovative social media campaign celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage has been launched. Since its debut on October 30 with nineteenth-century activist Lucretia Mott, the CA Book Fair has been posting brief, daily profiles of women who made history (#herstory) to its Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. Among those highlighted so far: Octavia Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Sontag, Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, Audre Lorde, and Margaret Atwood. (We’re showing our literary bias here; they’ve also featured Marie Curie, Abigail Adams, Amelia Earhart, and many more.)

Bookstores hosting New Year’s Eve celebrations aren’t the norm—we were only able to find a few—but think how wonderful this tradition could be: rather than waiting in the cold (or rain, or snow, depending on where you live) to partake in the ritual midnight countdown, why not curl up with a great read and sip of bubbly instead? And yes, you could just as easily do this at home, but why not switch things up a little one night of the year? Below, a sampling of bookish celebrations taking place across the country. Perhaps next year we'll see more NYE events geared to the bibliophile. 

The Bookstore Speakeasy NYE New Roaring ‘20s: True, the Bookstore Speakeasy in Bethlehem, PA, specializes in booze, not books, but anyplace named for a repository of hardbound volumes has to be good, right? The flapper-themed celebration will welcome 2020 with drinks and dancing.

Yappy New Year: A Brazos Dog New Year’s Eve Party: Dogs and books—what’s not to like? Houston’s Brazos Bookstore is hosting a canine-themed party on January 4 at 7pm. Customers are invited to bring their special fur baby for a story time and snacks.

BookBar’s Introverts New Year’s Eve Party: This Denver, Colorado-based event is sold out, but if you’re already planning for next year, count on a night filled with board games, silent reading, a coloring party, and a midnight countdown. The $30 ticket fee includes snacks and a champagne toast. 

 

ICYMI: Our top ten most popular posts of 2019. Number one takes a page from our winter issue’s cover feature, pictured above. What can we say? Bob Dylan rules.

1. Collecting Bob Dylan
Music icon Bob Dylan offers collectors several directions: books, manuscripts, photographs, letters, albums, concert tickets, posters, and song lyrics. The winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Dylan is nothing if not prolific -- and very collectible.

2. Bright Young Librarians: Jesse Erickson
Our signature Q&A with Erickson, coordinator of special collections and digital humanities at the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

3. Bright Young Librarians: Christine Jacobson
Assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Houghton Library at Harvard University talks Russian avant-garde and Louisa May Alcott.

There's not much going on in the auction rooms this week, but plenty of fascinating things happened last week that are very much worth a recap.

At the Swann Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books sale on Tuesday, an 1840 Hawaiian-language school geography printed at the Lahainaluna Seminary, He Mau Palapala Aina A Me Na Niele No Ka Hoikehonua, was the top lot, selling for $68,750 (over estimates of just $2,500–3,500). The book's maps were engraved by George Luther Kapeau, a seminary student who later became governor of Hawaii. A large Currier & Ives lithograph, "The Mississippi in Time of Peace" (1865) sold for $21,250, more than doubling its presale estimate.

A rare copy of the third issue of the first California newspaper, Californian (August 29, 1846) sold for $10,200 on Thursday at the PBA Galleries Americana sale; it had been estimated at $2,000–3,000. A copy of Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, written by himself, published in New York in 1849, sold for $8,400 over estimates of $300–500.

The Sotheby's New York History of Science and Technology sale on Tuesday realized $2,492,000. Biologist Ernst Mayr's copy of the first edition of Darwin's Origin sold for $175,000, and an operational four-rotor Enigma machine seized from Nazi troops at Trondheim in 1945 sold for $800,000. This is a world record for an Enigma machine at auction. An original Apple Computer, Inc. neon sign sold for $81,250 (it had been estimated at $10,000–15,000).

Audubon's Birds of America sold for $6,642,400 on Wednesday afternoon to Graham Arader.

Prior to the Audubon sale on Wednesday Sotheby's held a Fine Books and Manuscripts sale, which made a total of $11,094,875. Much of that total came from Pierre de Coubertin's "Olympic Manifesto," which sold for $8,806,500; this is a new world record for any sports memorabilia at auction. The buyer has not been announced.

Poe also sold well this week: the Prescott-Manney copy of Poe's The Raven and Other Poems made $312,500, and a copy of the 1831 Poems in a presentation binding and inscribed by Poe to his friend John Neal sold for $81,250.

Looking forward to what treats 2020 brings -- happy holidays to all!