Pirsig2005.jpgPhilosophical novelist Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, passed away on Monday at age 88.

Pirsig only published two novels in his lifetime, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and its sequel Lila: an Inquiry into Values, but both works were deeply influential, particularly with the counterculture movement of the second half of the 20th century.

Born in Minneapolis in 1928, Pirsig was a precocious child with a high IQ. He graduated high school at the age of 15, going on to earn a degree in philosophy. He taught philosophy for a brief time at Montana State College in Bozeman and worked as a technical writer before being hospitalized for schizophrenia and depression in the early 1960s. 

Pirsig wrote the loosely autobiographical Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after a motorcycle road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco that he undertook with his son Christopher in 1968. After being rejected by over 100 publishers, Zen was finally published by William Morrow in 1974, quickly becoming a bestseller.  Pirsig said of the novel that he “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”

A Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to finally complete a sequel, Lila, which was published in 1991. In the novel, Pirsig expounds upon the value-based metaphysics he first established in Zen

Pirsig lived the last thirty years of his life in South Berwick, Maine. He is survived by his wife Wendy, as well as two children and three grandchildren. His son Christopher, who features heavily in Zen, died in a mugging in San Francisco in 1979.

[Image from Wikipedia]

Pardon our French, but a bizarre manuscript heading to auction at Christie’s London this week might provide a chuckle for your Monday. If, that is, you have a slightly scatological sense of humor, because this nineteenth-century Italian manuscript is about ... well ... excrement, scat, poo--and not of the Winnie variety. Titled Merda est salus hominis..., the 28-page manuscript is, according to Christie’s, a “discourse in the form of a mock-address to a learned society, retracing the ancient and noble origins of defecation, its cultural associations and health-giving benefits.” The handwriting is beautifully elaborate, which makes the prank all the better. Bound in black roan, the manuscript also contains an engraved frontispiece that is, shall we say, on theme.

Lot 17 copy.jpgThe auction estimate for this feces-focused volume is £500-800 ($650-1,000), inexpensive enough to be a terrific conversation piece. Perhaps Italy’s own Museo della Merda would make a perfect home for it?

Image: Christie’s Images LTD. 2017.


Since 1942, Harvard’s Houghton Library has focused on preserving a trove of collections that together represent almost the full scope of the history of the written word. Yesterday evening, over one hundred professors, librarians, and friends gathered at Houghton to commemorate the library’s seventy-five years of existence. Festivities opened with a lecture held at the stately Loeb House by Carl Pforzheimer University professor Ann Blair, who discussed the importance of preserving and using primary materials while highlighting the enduring need for libraries to transmit knowledge to posterity, especially in the digital age. Afterwards, participants made the quick walk past trees unfurling their fragrant blossoms to Houghton Library, where a book launch party and exhibition awaited in the ground-level Edison and Newman Room.

Entitled Houghton Library at 75 ($25, Harvard University Press) and edited by assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts Heather Cole and Hyde collection curator John T. Overholt, the publication offers a glimpse of the myriad holdings that fill the library’s shelves. From third century Greek papyri and European incunables to the Gutenberg Bible and drawings by John James Audubon, how do you choose the cream of the crop? The curators gamely rose to the challenge of selecting seventy-five items that they felt represent the breadth of the library’s holdings. The Bullard portrait of Emily Dickinson and her siblings, William Blake’s hand-colored Europe a Prophecy, and Shakespeare’s First Folio are three examples included in the book.

Meanwhile, HIST 75: A Masterclass on Houghton Library, is the first in a series of year-long exhibitions, lectures, movie screenings, tours, and other events celebrating these precious pieces and the place that keeps them safe. Forty-six of Houghton’s treasures were selected for display by faculty members who based their criteria for inclusion on whether the item had been useful for research, teaching, or provided inspiration somewhere along the line. Blair chose an English writing tablet from 1581 with pages in the middle treated with a chemical to harden them, creating a reusable writing surface (portable stylus included), while fellow Pforzheimer University professor Robert Darnton selected a volume of Emerson’s Essays with Herman Melville’s lively annotations scribbled in the margins. 

The festivites also aimed to raise awareness that the Houghton’s collections are not intended to gather dust and be forgotten; rather, these items are meant to help fulfill the core mission of Harvard--to educate through a commitment to the “transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” Though access was restricted in the library’s early years, today many of the collections are available for up-close examination, either by visiting the library or by consulting Harvard’s vast and freely accessible digitized archives. The push to invite a new generation to Houghton is working: last year no less than 283 classes were held in the library, hailing from nearly every discipline.

After a tour of the exhibition and enjoying a spread of wine and cheese, partygoers departed, hopefully inspired to return and spend more time among the materials that define our shared human experience.

Learn more about Houghton’s 75th celebrations, including forthcoming events, here

knifeslipped.jpgCharles Ardai, founder and editor of the much-lauded Hard Case Crime, spoke to us over email about their recent publication of a lost Erle Stanley Gardner novel entitled The Knife Slipped:

Erle Stanley Gardner will be a familiar name to many of our readers for creating the Perry Mason series of detective novels. Could you introduce us to his Cool and Lam series as well?

While he’s better known for the Perry Mason books, which he began publishing in 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner was a writer of ferocious productivity - supposedly writing up to 10,000 words in one day, at which pace he could write a novel in a week or two - and in 1939 he kicked off a second series, somewhat more hardboiled than Perry Mason, about a pair of private eyes name Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. He published 29 books about the pair, between 1939 and his death in 1970, all of them under the pen name “A.A. Fair.” At first, the fact that Fair was really Gardner was a big secret, even within the publishing company that put the books out, but eventually critics caught on to the similarity of writing style and the secret identity was revealed. But even after that Gardner kept using the A.A. Fair name for the Cool & Lam mysteries, perhaps to keep some separation between the more staid and proper Mason novels and the slightly more tawdry, profane, and risqué Cool & Lam titles. Bertha Cool, in particular, the proudly obese, gluttonous owner of the detective agency, was a tough-talking, vulgar character, a far cry from the female characters you generally met in the pages of detective novels in the 30s and 40s. And Donald Lam, her junior partner, was a disbarred former lawyer some distance from Perry Mason in the area of ethics, having once tutored a client on how to commit murder and get away with it. The characters are delicious, and it’s easy to see how much fun Gardner had writing about them. They inspired radio and TV adaptations (starring Frank Sinatra and Art Carney, respectively) and have a passionate fan base to this day.

 The Knife Slipped was intended to be the second installment in the Cool and Lam series, originally slated for publication in 1939. Why was it never released?

The correspondence we found with the manuscript among Gardner’s papers revealed that Gardner’s publisher, Thayer Hobson at William Morrow, disliked the book intensely, complaining in particular that Bertha Cool was an unappealing character who spent all her time cursing, smoking cigarettes and trying to gyp people. Apparently, he felt the first book in the series, THE BIGGER THEY COME, had presented her in at least a somewhat more sympathetic light. He told Gardner he’d publish THE KNIFE SLIPPED if Gardner insisted - Gardner was one of their best-selling authors, after all - but said he thought the book would do his reputation no favors. So Gardner did what only a writer as productive as he was could afford to, namely stick the manuscript in a drawer and just write an entirely different book about the characters. That book was TURN ON THE HEAT, perhaps the best book in the series, and Hobson accepted it gladly. And THE KNIFE SLIPPED remained in that drawer for the next 70 years.

How did you find out about The Knife Slipped?  How did you secure the rights for publication?

A writer named Jeffrey Marks, who had been working on a biography of Gardner, came across references to THE KNIFE SLIPPED among Gardner’s papers and brought its existence to our attention. We requested a copy of the manuscript from the university where Gardner’s papers are kept, with the assistance of the author’s grandson, and after a bit of discussion a copy showed up. I read it fearing the worst - that it had been rejected for good reason - and was delighted to find that the book was first-rate, one of my favorites in the entire series. Since we already had a relationship with the Gardner estate, having reissued one of the other Cool and Lam novels a decade earlier, it was simple to put a contract together to do this one.

What can readers look forward to in The Knife Slipped?

THE KNIFE SLIPPED is very much a classic Cool and Lam yarn, with all the intricate plotting and delicious dialogue and wonderful character beats fans of the series would expect. But it’s also out of the ordinary since it was written right after the first book and depicts a point early in the characters’ relationship, when Lam was still more an ex-lawyer than a proper private eye and Bertha Cool had to carry more of the load of the detective work. In this respect it really does fill in a missing chapter in the series and is all the more enjoyable for that reason.

Are there other “lost” Gardner novels waiting out there?

Sadly, as far as we are aware, there are not.

What’s next for Hard Case Crime?

We seem to have made something of a speciality of uncovering lost manuscripts from famous authors, and we have a real rarity coming this summer: FOREVER AND A DEATH by Donald E. Westlake, a novel Westlake wrote but never published around 1999, after being hired by the James Bond movie producers to plot out a film in the Bond series. When the producers opted not to use the storyline Westlake came up with, he turned it into a novel, but for whatever reason didn’t publish it while he was alive.

And for fans of Cool and Lam, we’re going to be reissuing three more of the Cool and Lam books, ones that haven’t been in bookstores for decades and that I especially like - one from the 1940s, one from the 50s, and one from the 60s. We’ll start with TURN ON THE HEAT, the book Gardner wrote to replace THE KNIFE SLIPPED. It only seemed appropriate.

[Image courtesy of Hard Case Crime. For more, see our 2015 interview with Charles Ardai about the publication of Gore Vidal’s Thieves Fall Out]. 

morgan2.jpgLiving in the shadow of her husband, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald was a writer and, as evidenced by this incredible set of painted paper dolls, a visual artist too. Zelda had married Fitzgerald in 1920, and their lives were famously wild, unscripted, and discordant. Her biographer Nancy Milford suggests that Zelda began painting in the mid-1920s, perhaps to express her mercurial emotions. She began making paper dolls in 1927, “most likely as a way to engage with her then 6-year-old daughter Frances ‘Scottie’ Fitzgerald,” according to Sotheby’s. “Zelda continued making dolls throughout her life, creating depictions of her family, religious figures, animals, fairy tales such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” King Arthur and his knights, and the court of Louis XIV (like the set reproduced in “The Romantic Egoists”). The figures are all curiously androgynous, with an exaggerated and distinctly modern musculature.”

Zelda 2.jpgThis collection of five dolls plus seven tabbed costumes made by Zelda comes to auction next week at Sotheby’s NY in Part III of the Maurice Neville Collection of Modern Literature. Its estimate is $25,000-35,000. Much of Zelda’s artwork was sadly lost--what was collected and compiled by her granddaughter in Zelda: An Illustrated Life (1996) is quite stunning. The paper dolls form a large part of her remaining artistic output.  

In a Q&A posted by Sotheby’s, Neville’s son, Morgan Neville, talks about his father’s book collecting mania and some of his favorite pieces: “[T]he most personal by far are the Zelda Fitzgerald paper dolls. My mom had those hanging in her dressing room my whole life. They’re beautiful, and when I see them I think of my mom. They make me happy.”

To see more, check out this slideshow of the auction’s top twelve lots.

Images via Sotheby’s.


The British Library has announced plans to extend its iconic London Building, developing a neighboring 2.8 acre site into a major new center for both research and commerce.

Working in conjunction with property developer Stanhope and architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the development will include 100,000 sq ft of new space for exhibitions and research. The new development will also serve as a bespoke headquarters for the Alan Turing Institute, and host commercial space for knowledge-based companies.

“The British Library is one of our finest cultural institutions, housing an unparalleled collection of knowledge. This innovative project will increase access to the Library’s first-class collections, providing new exhibition spaces, learning opportunities and facilities for visitors from Britain and around the world to enjoy,” said Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Karen Bradley in a British Library press release.

The development will fall in line with the British Library’s stated “Living Knowledge” vision, an effort to become more open, creative, and innovative in its delivery of services.

[Image courtesy of the British Library]

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 9.42.00 AM.pngLast week the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach opened In the Shadows, an exhibition of mid-century American pulp magazine and paperback cover art. Focusing on the stereotypical ‘tough guys,’ and ‘helpless females,’ often featured on pulp covers of the era, the exhibition was organized in collaboration with FIU students to explore gender and violence.

In a review, Nicole Martinez writes, “Because pulps were cheaply produced, illustrations among their pages were scarce. Instead, pulps concentrated on creating exciting, melodramatic covers that incorporated color and movement to entice readers.” That drama was often depicted with stereotypical, violent, and xenophobic imagery. Kudos to FIU not only for engaging those topics, but also for encouraging students in this type of book and art history study.

The exhibit remains on view through July 9.

                                                                                                                                                    Image: Murder for What? by Kurt Steel (paperback, 1943) is one of the pulps on exhibit. Courtesy of the Wolfsonian.

01. WAD in doorway LfA.jpg

William Addison Dwiggins, ca. 1941. Photograph by Robert Yarnall Richie.
Collection of the Boston Public Library.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Thank twentieth-century American polymath William Addison Dwiggins (1880-1956) for coining the term “graphic design” back in 1922 which he used to describe his contributions in the fields of book design, typography, lettering, and even puppetry, and the term has stuck to the profession ever since. Now, San-Francisco-based nonprofit Letterform Archive and author-designer Bruce Kennett have put the final touches on a forthcoming biography of Dwiggins and his career. This book is the first of many projected design-focused publications for Letterform which hopes such endeavors will help promote the history and beauty of letterforms in graphic design. To fund publication, Letterform launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 27, 2017, and within two days had surpassed its $50,000 goal, though fundraising continues in order to raise further awareness about Dwiggins and his work.        


21. Dwiggins Physical Properties infographic.jpg

W. A. Dwiggins, detail. (Boston: W. A. Dwiggins and L. B Siegfried, 1919). Collection of Letterform Archive.

                                                                                                                                                    W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design focuses on Dwiggins’ contributions to graphic design while also exploring his mastery of seemingly disparate art forms--in addition to designing roughly 300 book covers for publisher Alfred A. Knopf and creating Electra and Caledonia, two widely used typefaces, Dwiggins was a puppet master. His collection of marionettes--along with Dwiggins-designed books, broadsides, and furniture--were donated to the Boston Public Library in 1967 and represent his zealous attention to detail while crafting whimsical wooden playthings.



Bruce Kennett. Used with permission from Letterform Archives.                                                                                                                                     

Surprisingly, despite his wide-ranging influence that continues to resonate in the graphic design community, Dwiggins has not been the subject of a comprehensive biographical treatment until now. Good things take time: in an effort to remedy the omission, Kennett has spent decades studying Dwiggins, and in his treatment explores the success of a designer in both the artistic and commercial fields of printmaking and design who didn’t sacrifice his unique aesthetic.


14. Dwiggins Treasure Forest detail LfA.jpg

W. A. Dwiggins, detail of stencil illustration from H. G. Wells, The Treasure of
the Forest (New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1936). Collection of Letterform Archive.

The Kickstarter campaign ends on April 28, and like most publicly funded endeavors, there’s swag involved: backers at the $25 level or more receive goodies ranging from Dwiggins-designed postcards, a commercial license for digital versions of Electra fonts, while $95 gets you a copy of the book. High rollers ($5,000 and up) can expect a book, Linotype slugs used to print the letterpress portfolio, and a private dinner at Letterform’s San Francisco headquarters (transportation not included).

Learn more at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/letterformarchive/w-a-dwiggins-a-life-in-design

Sylvia_Plath1.jpgA previously unknown series of letters that Sylvia Plath wrote toward the end of her life claim that her husband, poet Ted Hughes, beat her, leading to the miscarriage of her second child. The letters, which were offered for sale at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, have been taken off the market as a result of a legal dispute.

Plath wrote the letters to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse between 1960 and 1963 (the year she died). They were written after Plath found out about Hughes’s infidelity with their friend Assia Wevill, and are thought to be some of the only surviving uncensored documents about Plath’s last months. The most shocking passages in the letters accuse Hughes of domestic abuse.

The letters were part of an archive collected by Harriet Rosenstein several years after Plath died. Rosenstein was compiling material for a biography that was never finished.

Antiquarian bookseller Ken Lopez offered the archive for sale on behalf of Rosenstein, which in addition to the letters included some other Plath ephemera, for $875,000. The letters were taken off the market, however, after Smith College filed a lawsuit claiming that the letters belonged to the Ruth Barnhouse estate, which was bequeathed to the college after her death. Rosenstein, meanwhile, claims that the letters were given to her by Barnhouse almost 50 years ago.

Until the legal dispute is settled, the letters wait in limbo, with 20th century poetry scholars anxiously awaiting the opportunity to dig into the archive. Ted Hughes’s widow, meanwhile, has called the claims that he was abusive “absurd” and “shocking.”

[Image from Wikipedia]

9781452145402.jpgBibliophiles, grab a slip of paper and a mini pencil: the Library of Congress has traced the history of a much beloved piece of library furniture (and knowledge repository) in The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures (Chronicle Books, $35), published this week to coincide with National Library Week. Boasting a foreword by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the handsomely illustrated hardcover is a paean to library technology, old and new.   
Certainly book lovers will be drawn to the imagery--more than two hundred full-color images of original cards, first editions book covers, and archival photos from the library’s collection. More than a few will feel sentimental for the standardized penmanship--aka, “Library Hand”--used to fill out cards until the linotype and the typewriter took over. Nostalgia aside, the images of the cards make a convincing argument for retention. All of the various marks and stamps, indicating name or location changes or reclassifications, can be read the way a book historian might read an antiquarian book’s preliminary pages, noting the various owners’ signatures, scripts, and dates, to uncover its provenance.  

Neat trivia turns up in the fine print. For example, who knew that J. Edgar Hoover had been a library clerk? He later wrote that his job “gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.” Or, how about the fact that it was a female mathematician named Henriette D. Avram who “devised the first automated cataloging system in the world, known as Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC)” in 1966 at the LOC. It’s still in use today. The book also aptly conveys the enormity (and occasional tedium) of the LOC cataloger’s task; library rumor had it that card-filing clerks who failed to meet quotas “dumped their cards down the elevator shafts.”

While the LOC “froze” its card catalog in 1980--meaning it no longer physically added cards to the wooden cabinets--the library continued to make and distribute cards to other libraries using the LOC system until 1997. Amazingly, the LOC did not, like its peers, ditch its hefty card catalog once it had become obsolete in the eyes of others. There is still data to be mined. As one of its librarians put it: “In short, the information contained in the Main Card Catalog--and not found anywhere else--continues to be needed in many instances for efficient access to the Library’s millions of pre-1968 volumes because much of the needed information on the cards did not make the transition to the online catalog.”    
Read the book’s introduction by Peter Devereaux here.

Image courtesy of Chronicle Books

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