Book Reviews | April 2024 | Alex Johnson

Textual Magic, The Library Thief, and The Book-Makers: April Books Roundup

Bodley Head

Adam Smyth's The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in 18 Remarkable Lives

Our regular look at new books that have recently caught the eye of our print and online editors this month.

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé

A debut novel with a Gothic feel as Florence, daughter of a bookbinder, takes on the task of restoring a collection of rare books at the unsettling Rose Hall. When the library is broken into and a book is discovered half-burnt in the fireplace, Florence finds herself mixed up in the mystery of the owner's late wife... Published by Little, Brown.

The British Publishing Industry in the Nineteenth Century edited By David Finkelstein and Andrew Nash 

A four-volume examination using contemporary sources of how publishing was transformed in the 19th century in Britain, commercially and technologically, as the market for reading boomed and legal structures affecting authorship also underwent fundamental change. From Routledge.

Textual Magic: Charms and Written Amulets in Medieval England by Katherine Storm Hindley
A look at how spoken and written charms were used to improve health or send danger packing drawing on more than 1,000 different charms from medieval England, many of which were previously unknown. With texts in Latin, French, and English, Hindley focuses on what they reveal about language, belief, and power. Published by University of Chicago Press.

The Book Forger by Joseph Hone

An account of a true literary crime a century ago involving literary heavyweight collector and bibliophile Thomas James Wise who had a remarkable talent for finding incredible first editions and bringing them to market. However, two booksellers smell a rat and investigate... From Chatto & Windus

The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in 18 Remarkable Lives by Adam Smyth

Featuring a cast of all those involved in making books from familiar names such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson to Sarah Eaves, wife of John Baskerville, who made an important contribution to type history and circulating library enthusiast Charles Edward Mudie. Published by Bodley Head.

The Awe of the Arctic: A Visual History edited by Elizabeth Cronin

A superbly illustrated companion catalogue to the exhibition of the same name running at the New York Public Library (read the account from the latest Fine Books & Collection magazine here), this looks at how the Arctic has been depicted, visually and textually, over the last five centuries. Published by Hatje Cantz.

An Inky Parade: Tales for Bibliophiles by Pradeep Sebastian

A collection of essays by bibliophile and book collector Sebastian, author of The Book Beautiful: A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books. This volume contains stories from India's rare book world. "Meet the biryani chef guarding a prized Ottoman manuscript," say publishers Hachette India, "track the mysterious 'Book Prince' of Kolkata, and visit the cottage in Kodaikanal that lures book collectors with its siren song. Discover how an emperor's defeat brought illuminated manuscripts into sixteenth-century India, how a rare 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland surfaced in an Indian bazaar."

Deaths of Artists: From the Archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Jim Moske

Moske mines scrapbooks from the archives of The Metropolitan Museum of Art which contain around 3,000 newspaper obituaries of painters, illustrators, sculptors, and photographers from 1906 to 1929 which reveal sensationalized reporting and intriguing life stories. Put together by Met Museum guard Arthur D’Hervilly, it features some of the original scrapbook pages. Published by Blast Books.

Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History by Laura E. Helton

From Columbia University Press, the story of how Black collectors in the early 20th century made a determined effort to document the history of African American life. Helton concentrates on half a dozen of those involved - bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, scrapbook maker Alexander Gumby, librarians Virginia Lee and Vivian Harsh, curator Dorothy Porter, and historian L. D. Reddick - and uses sources such as book lists and card catalogs.

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Bookbindings from the Collections of The Grolier Club, 1470s–2020 by H. George Fletcher

An illustrated companion to the Grolier's recent exhibition of the same name (read the Fine Books & Collections article about it here), the book highlights historic and fine bindings, tracing the evolution of decorated bindings and celebrates the works as 3-D art objects.

Louis I. Kahn: The Last Notebook edited by Sue Ann Kahn with text by Michael J. Lewis

A two-volume collection of Kahn’s (1901–74) thoughts on design, plus preparatory drawings of his final project (a monument to Franklin Roosevelt in New York City), published to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Features a facsimile of the notebook. From Lars Müller Publishers

Shakespeare's Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance by Remie Targoff

Targoff puts four women writers from the period in the spotlight - poet Mary Sidney (sister of the famous Sir Philip), 17th century poet Aemilia Lanyer, playwright Elizabeth Cary, and diarist Anne Clifford. "These women had husbands and children to care for and little support for their art," says Targoff, "yet against all odds they defined themselves as writers, finding rooms of their own where doors had been shut for centuries."

Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson by James Marcus

Marcus argues for the essayist's relevance to contemporary readers alongside some of his landmark essays such as Self-Reliance and Experience. From Princeton University Press.

Muse of Fire: World War I as Seen Through the Lives of the Soldier Poets by Michael Korda

Published by Liveright, this is Korda's take on the First World War via the lives of the soldier poets who wrote in it and about it, from Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen and including the young American poet Alan Seeger, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon.

Singing Aloud
: A choice garland of Broadsheet Ballads chosen by Jennifer Reid

From the UK private fine press publisher Incline Press, this is a new hardback book of eight traditional ballads, gathered together as ‘merch’ for singer and actor Jennifer Reid who is touring with Eliza Carthy in 2024. Lavishly illustrated with chapbook blocks (including a wood engraving of a chapman) and a tip-in broadsheet, and bound in Edward Bawden’s original Curwen Press paper with equally vintage green book cloth.