April 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Nick's Picks

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 57, fol. 176v

The Celestial Virgin and Child, about 1420. Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment.

A couple of trips to South Carolina, Texas, and Maine have given me the opportunity to read a number of fun novels while traveling, which I will write about, I promise, in an upcoming entry, but first these worthwhile works of nonfiction, all recent releases, and each deserving of your attention.

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process,
by Robert D. Richardson; University of Iowa Press, 112 pages, $19.95.

EmersonIowa.JPGWinner of the Bancroft Prize two years ago for "William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism," and the Francis Parkman Prize in 1996 for "Emerson: Mind on Fire," Robert D. Richardson is one of the outstanding literary biographers at work today. This taut, beautifully written monograph explores the relationship between the voracious reading habits of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the thoughtful sessions of writing that followed. He draws the title from an essay Emerson wrote in The American Scholar. "First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write." Richardson reports how Emerson--taking his cue from Coleridge--identified four classes of reader: the hourglass, that gives back everything it takes in, unchanged; the sponge, that gives back everything it takes in, only a little dirtier; the jelly-bag, which squeezes out the valuable and keeps the worthless, and the Golconda, which runs everything through a sieve, keeping only the nuggets. He saw himself, needless to say, as a Golconda.

All the Art That's Fit to Print (And Some that Wasn't): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page, by Jerelle Kraus; Columbia University Press, 260 pages, $34.95.

OpEdArt.JPGBefore there was a blogosphere to serve as a gathering place for multiple thoughts and commentary, there was the Op-Ed Page, introduced by the New York Times in 1970, and now a staple in newspapers everywhere. As an art editor at the Times for thirty years--thirteen of them with the Op-Ed Page--Jerelle Kraus worked with the many non-staff artists who were commissioned to execute original drawings for the section, a good number of them, as we discover here, never published, some because they were found too offensive--or too cutting-edge--for the newspaper's top editors. This splendidly produced, over-sized effort--and it could comfortably grace the most discriminating of coffee tables--reproduces many of the works that never got onto the streets; Kraus explains that she was able to print these pictures because they are not the property of the Times, but the artists who drew them. "A rich trove of censored graphic treasures appears in this book for the first time," she writes. Her history of the page, and its contributors, is must reading for those of us who begin each day with the Times immediately at hand.

Carolina Clay: The Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, by Leonard Todd; W. W. Norton,  316 pages, $25.95.

CarolinaClay.JPGAuthor Leonard Todd first learned of the slave potter known as Dave in 2000 while reading an account of an exhibition of the man's work. Known for having created some magnificent jugs and storage jars while living as a slave in South Carolina,  Dave was attracting considerable attention by virtue of his having signed his name and scrawled lines of original verse on many of the pieces he had fashioned by hand, quite an accomplishment since it was illegal for blacks to read or write in much of the South before the Civil War. A native of Edgefield, SC, where Dave had lived and worked, Todd soon learned that the man at one time had been the property of his ancestors, prompting him to embark on an exhaustive investigation into the man's life and times, which he details here, in this fascinating book. Todd also includes a thorough discussion of Dave's clever couplets.

Mathematical Works Printed in the Americas, 1554-1700, by Bruce Stanley Burdick; Johns Hopkins University Press, 373 pages, $55.

Mathematical.jpgRarely do we think of the earliest printed works in the Americas being mathematical texts, since most scholarly works for use in the Colonies were imported from Europe, though quite a body of interesting titles, it turns out, were produced in Mexico, Peru, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York, among other places.This learned work, ostensibly an annotated bibliography, offers a number of surprises that students and collectors of mathematical books and books of science will find particularly useful.