9780544866461_lres copy.jpgDid I choose this book by its cover? Yes and no. It would be more fair to say that I chose to read this novel because of a fascinating short essay by the author published last month wherein she talks about the dust jacket art and her quest to determine what type of manuscript (language, century of origin) is featured in its design. But it is a pretty cover--and one that, along with its title, The Weight of Ink, beckons bibliophiles.

Weighing in at 560 pages, Rachel Kadish’s absorbing new novel, published in June by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is what we would today call a #longread. There are two main narratives that parallel each other: both set in London, one in the early twenty-first century, the other during the 1660s. It begins with historian Helen Watt’s holy grail tale: a telephone call from a former student describing a cache of old books and manuscripts discovered during a home renovation. Professor Watt’s initial doubts about the find are quickly dispelled by the sight of seventeenth-century documents written in Hebrew and Portuguese. She enlists the help of a young American graduate student and sets to work on the mystery under the staircase.

Enter Ester Velasquez, an orphan from Amsterdam who became that most unlikely of creatures in early modern England: an educated woman, and beyond that even, a scribe for a prominent rabbi in London. Reading philosophy, writing letters, and fetching books from the bindery or booksellers’ stalls, Ester hones her intellect and, consequently, flirts with danger. “Something had sprung alive in her these years--slowly at first, then more powerfully with every passing day. Surely the rabbi must know it? Something had seized her. The city, its books.”   

We know the feeling!

Librarians might gripe at how they are portrayed--playing favorites, wearing ‘archival’ gloves, and confiscating pencils. That aside, Kadish’s cast is bold and complex, particularly the seventeenth-century characters, and she successfully immerses her readers into their lives. As bibliofiction goes, where lingering over marbled paper and leather bindings is always welcome, The Weight of Ink is top-tier.   

Image courtesy of HMH.

New Jersey-based antiquarian bookseller Between the Covers (BTC) Rare Books recently published a full-color catalogue devoted to women. Seventy items items by, for, and about the fairer sex include paintings, pottery, books, and manuscripts hailing from around the globe and across time.

One of the high spots includes a letter written and signed by Helen Keller (1880-1968) when she was seven years old. Believed to be one her earliest missives, this one was composed only two months after she began instruction with Anne Sullivan (1866-1936) the woman who would become her lifelong instructor and friend. Writing to her cousin Anna Turner, Keller is describing a train trip she recently took to Huntsville, Alabama. Keller made rapid progress under Sullivan’s careful tutelage; according to Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind during Keller’s lifetime, she had already mastered 450 words “which she could use correctly and spell with perfect accuracy” after only four months spent working with Sullivan.


                                                                                                                                                         Keller’s handwriting is remarkably neat, legible, and reflects her early writing style of omitting articles and using the word “did” in past tense constructions. Keller made tremendous gains in communication and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904--the first blind-deaf person to receive a Bachelor of Arts--and eventually authored twelve books, including her autobiography, The Story of My Life.

Throughout her life, Keller championed for the blind and the unfortunate, and served as a beacon of hope to those facing overwhelming odds, believing, as she put it, that “although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

Accompanied by a cabinet card of Keller as well as twenty other members of her family, this piece of history is available for $28,000. Contact Between the Covers for more information.

Photo of Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Massachusetts in 1888 credit: Part of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, via Wikimedia Commons.

On July 10, the cable network TNT premiered “Will,” an exuberant new drama series based on the undocumented early life of William Shakespeare. Here’s the Bard before he became famous; aged 25, married with three children, and about to leave Stratford (alone) to see if he can make it as a writer in the big city. He quickly falls in with theater owner James Burbage, his son, actor Richard Burbage, and playwright Christopher Marlowe. Plus, this being a twenty-first-century drama, the young, beautiful, and educated Alice Burbage, is also a central player.             

TNT-Will.jpgThe series has been billed as a “punk-rock” Shakespeare, mainly because of its soundtrack and some cross-over costuming, e.g. Will embarks for London to the tune of The Clash’s “London Calling,” and the audience at Burbage’s theater sports multi-colored mohawks. If not entirely apt, it’s an amusing conceit. As the show’s creator, Craig Pearce, explained to the New York Times last month, “[Theatre] wasn’t this polite thing ... It was 3,000 people crammed into these wooden structures. They were fighting and they were drinking and they were eating.”

The entire season is already available for binge-watching, and episode three holds some noteworthy moments for book-lovers. One is set in an underground Catholic publishing outfit run by the Jesuit missionary Robert Southwell--likely a distant relation of Shakespeare’s, although in “Will,” the two are made to be close cousins. Southwell shows Will his printing press calling it a “modern marvel.” Another scene, set in St. Paul’s Churchyard, where Will and Alice are browsing new books for sale, was tantalizing, though short--and underscoring it with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” was tepid at best.

Still the series is great fun to watch. Shakespeare in a poetry slam? Kit Marlowe, a hedonist with writer’s block? Alice Burbage as co-author of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”? It’s a brave new world in made-for-TV Shakespeare.    

To hear more about “Will” from the producers of the show from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare Unlimited” podcast, listen in here.

Image from “Will” via TNT.

This past Tuesday, May 18, the London rare booksellers Maggs Bros. Ltd.--“antiquarian booksellers by appointment to the Queen”--launched its second exhibition to mark the opening of a new store after its recent relocation to 48 Bedford Square from its 80-year-long home 50 Berkeley Square.


To a bustling crowd of bibliophiles and collectors, Managing Director Ed Maggs briskly handed out white wine and led newcomers over to a simple and unusual untitled original pen and ink drawing by Evelyn Waugh, that he then declared the inspiration for the entire exhibition.



Signed and dated 1929, the illustration depicts a hotel lounge of assorted denizens: a reader, a waiter, a cephalopod in a fish tank, and a bare-bottomed statue being prickled by a cactus--Maggs noted it is a possible unused illustration for Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies.

In his introductory remarks, Maggs said of picture, “This [exhibition] began with this drawing. I am a dealer not a collector and I am seldom consumed by envy of others’ books and objects. I sold this drawing 25 years ago and Mark Everett bought it from under my nose last year. I was fuming. I was incandescent with jealousy. I, of course, would have probably sold it to him, but I would have had it for a few minutes. It is a tremendous thing.”

                                                                                                                                                       The drawing, Maggs explained, led to the idea of bringing together as much original artwork and printed material featuring the graphic art of Evelyn Waugh as possible, as Waugh was an avid bibliophile. He was addicted to fine editions, planned and released special and limited editions of his own books, and put incredible thought and design into his books’ designs.


Running through July 28, 2017, the exhibition features what is thought to be the first such exhibition devoted to Waugh’s ambitions as an artist--his work often uniquely combining an unfashionable Victorian aesthetic with that of the Jazz Age, and includes the dust jacket design from Scoop, a manuscript of Vile Bodies, a painting of Napoleon by the artist “Bruno Hat,” an invented persona that tricked many in British high society and was partly concocted by Waugh, and drawings by Waugh done for his college magazines including a series illustrating the “Seven Deadly Sins”--his entry for No. 1 being “The intolerable wickedness of him who drinks alone.” 

                                                                                                                                          Images: Evelyn Waugh, Untitled, pen and ink drawing, 1929; Vile Bodies dust jacket, 1930. Courtesy of Maggs.

The third International Bookbinding Competition, hosted by Designer Bookbinders and Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, recognized top contemporary bookbinders from around the globe at a ceremony on July 17 at the Weston Library in Oxford. This year’s theme was “Myths, Heroes & Legends,” and drew participants from over thirty countries.



First prize of approximately $13,000 (£10,000) went to Germany’s Andrea Odametey for a tissue-paper binding entitled “Daedalus and Icarus” that resembles burnt wings. The piece is now part of the Bodleain’s permanent collections.


                                                                                                                                     Inspired by broken Greek pottery and a Japanese technique of applying precious metals to enhance repairs, “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite” by British bookbinder Rachel Ward-Sale took second place and a roughly $7,700 (£6,000) prize. This piece will go to the Getty Collection at Wormsley Park in Buckinghamshire, England.                                                                                                                   

The two top prizes are sponsored by Getty Images co-founder Mark Getty in memory of his father, collector and bookbinding advocate, Sir Paul Getty. (A full list of prizewinners may be found here.)  

A display showcasing both the prizewinners and participants remains on display until August 20th at the Weston Library. In total, seventy-four designer bindings, including the twenty-eight prize-winners, highlight the creativity and diversity of the world’s artisan bookbinders. 

                                                                                                                                  “Throughout the ages, every culture has created myths and legends that recount the great deeds of its heroes,” said competition organizer Jeanette Koch. “This year’s entries reflect a remarkable range of styles, materials and approaches to great classics of world literature, as well as modern texts. The imagination in form and structure, and the variety of materials used will capture the attention of audiences of all ages and display the wonderful and intricate art and craft of a unique handmade book.”

Can’t make it to the Weston Library to see the bindings? Heroic Works will be traveling to the Library of Birmingham from August 23 to September 28; the St. Bride Foundation in London from October 2-14, while the prize winners and American bindings head stateside to Boston’s North Bennet Street School from November 2 to December 22.

A full color catalogue, Heroic Works, is available online for £30 from www.bodleianshop.co.uk or www.designerbookbinders.org.uk.

                                                                                                                                                                       Images courtesy of the BL.

Guest Post by Catherine Batac Walder

                                                                                                                                                                             We saw our first “Sitting with Jane” BookBench during a recent visit to Chawton, Hampshire. It was positioned outside the Jane Austen House Museum, where Jane spent the last years of her life. I’d never seen this bench during our previous visits and thought it might be a permanent fixture. Further research indicated that it is one of twenty-four BookBenches that comprise the Sitting With Jane Public Art Trail to celebrate Austen’s connections with her birthplace, Steventon, and forms part of a global commemoration of her life in 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death (July 18).

Walder_Jane Austen House Museum.JPGAbove: Jane Austen House Museum, with the “Chawton Woodwalk” BookBench in the distance.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Having always associated Austen with Chawton, Winchester, and Bath, I never thought much of where she was born, in Steventon, a few miles from Basingstoke. I’ve always considered Basingstoke a sleepy town; we often visited the area for theatre and concerts (understandably much cheaper than going to London) and a train shop, other than these we thought nothing much went on in the area. So learning more of Austen’s association with Basingstoke, that it was there where she went to shop and dance, prompted me to look at this town in a different light. Around the area was, essentially, where her writing career began. As the organizers said, “This local heritage is not well-known, Sitting With Jane is about to change this.”

Over the next few weeks we followed some of the BookBenches in and around Basingstoke, using a free app and a trail guide available on sittingwithjane.com. The locations all have free public access, but there were a few that we couldn’t find and/or were inaccessible at certain hours, e.g., after 5:00 pm. Each bench was uniquely designed and painted by a professional artist with their personal interpretation of a Jane Austen theme.

Walder_Waiting for Mr. Darcy.JPGI’m partial to the BookBench in Chawton, simply because of my familiarity with this countryside setting. The benches at the busy Festival Place in the Basingstoke town center didn’t feel at home there, but perhaps the area had the same hectic vibe more than two centuries ago. Predictably, my favorite is the “Waiting for Mr. Darcy” bench (seen at left) at Oakley Hall. It’s simple, it’s an art doodle of red, black, and white by artist Traci Moss. The fun design is attributed to the hero of Pride and Prejudice - ‘The Perfect Man’ - a happy doodle-like androgynous figure sits on a sofa waiting for their Mr. Right. “Jane Austen was a frequent guest of the Bramston Family at Oakley Hall. Cherished memories of the hospitality and splendor at Oakley Hall are described in many of Jane’s letters.” Like in other places I’ve visited that were Austen-related, there was certainly an inspiring feeling about setting foot on a place like Oakley Hall that has been around hundreds of years, and one that Austen knew so well.

Walder_The house that Jane built.JPGOther benches we encountered included “The House that Jane Built,” (seen above) a representation of a Regency dollhouse; “Jane Talk,” a modern graphic art style design that uses popular quotes from Austen novels and films; “The Golden Peacock” (seen below), which celebrates the famous cover of the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice; and “Promenade” inspired by the Regency streets of Bath, where she lived for a few years in her late 20s.

Walder_The Golden Peacock.JPGThe benches are on display till August 31, 2017, after which they will be individually auctioned for a local charity.

                                                                                                                                                                              --Catherine Batac Walder is a writer who lives in the UK. She has contributed several posts from abroad over the years, most recently: “James Joyce’s ‘Years of Bloom’ in Trieste,” “Hilary Mantel at the Oxford Literary Festival,” and “Roald Dahl’s Great Missenden.” Find her at: http://gaslighthouse.blogspot.com.

Images credit: Catherine Batac Walder.

Photographer Mathew Brady (1822-1896) is mostly remembered today for his Civil War images--wounded soldiers resting under trees, prisoners awaiting transportation, scores of dead combatants lying in bloody fields--and is considered one of the pioneers of photojournalism. Yet Brady had already secured his status as a premier photographer prior to the outbreak of war, having founded a flourishing daguerreotype studio in New York in 1844 where he photographed the best and the brightest of the Antebellum Era, such as Martin Van Buren, former first lady Dolly Madison, and then-presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A sampling of Brady’s pre-war portraits are currently the subject of an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (A comprehensive virtual tour of all of NPG’s Brady portraits, including an index of sitters, is available here.) The show features historic engravings, advertising broadsides that marketed Brady’s studio, and the portraits themselves--some daguerreotypes, others done via ambrotype, a next-generation daguerreotype done on glass and viewed by reflective light. Ambrotypes were considered the height of photographic innovation, and Brady made sure that he was at the vanguard of this innovative industry.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Antebellum Portraits by Mathew Brady takes up a small corner of the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, where a dozen sensitive images are shielded from light--daguerreotypes are incredibly light-sensitive and must stay shrouded in shadow to remain intact--yet these tiny treasures reveal volumes about the people who sat for these portraits as well as the shrewd businessman who took them. A common request was to create cartes de visite, small photographs mounted on thick paper and used as visiting cards. Portraits of celebrities were even traded among fans, much like baseball cards are today. Brady’s cartes de visite were lush affairs: double-sided ambrotypes nestled in velvet-lined leather cases with brass mats.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Perhaps the black tulip of the lot is the salted-paper print of senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln. It is a rare, large-format, salted-paper print. (Salted paper prints were another photographic technique popular in the 1860s that involved wetting paper with ordinary table salt and silver nitrate.) Brady took this photo on February 27, 1860, the day Lincoln was set to address a crowd of Republicans at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Up to this point, Lincoln was considered a backwater long-shot for the presidency, but Brady’s portrait of a well dressed, clean-shaven candidate helped change Lincoln’s image.                                                                  

“We chose to focus on Mathew Brady’s pre-Civil War portraiture because it was during the period from 1844 to1860 that Brady built his reputation as one the nation’s most successful camera artists,” said Ann Shumard, exhibition curator and senior curator of photographs. 



Brady eventually opened a studio in Washington, D.C. near the National Mall at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue. The free show runs from now until June 2018 at the Center for American Portraiture in Washington, D.C. More information may be found at npg.si.edu.


photo credit: M. Brady

DSCN3195 copy.jpgOn the first of Mark Twain’s trips to Bermuda--the last port of call in the 1867 voyage he chronicled in The Innocents Abroad--the author stopped to check out this tree. Yes, this very tree, a rubber tree (ficus elastica), was imported from Guyana and planted in 1847 by William Perot, the city of Hamilton’s postmaster. According to Fodor’s, “Twain lamented that it didn’t bear rubbery fruit in the form of overshoes and hot-water bottles.”

The tree still stands on the grounds of what is now Par-la-Ville Park, in front of the Bermuda Historical Society and the National Library of Bermuda.   

What other authors sought inspiration on this quaint and beautiful island? Playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Terrance Rattigan used a guest cottage on this $9.95-million estate as a “writing den,” according to Sinclair Realty. (And it’s for sale!)

Photo credit: C. Barry

The Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS) is on the hunt for wayward books out on the lamb that once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight and has put out the call for help.


First, the facts: Edward inherited three estates from his adoptive parents, Thomas and Catherine Knight: Godmersham Park in Kent, Chawton House, and Steventon, both in the English coastal town of Hampshire. A catalogue Edward prepared in 1818 lists over 1250 volumes for Godmersham alone. Jane frequently consulted these books, and to recover them could potentially provide new insight into the Pride and Prejudice author’s research methods and inspiration.

Most of the Godmersham books were sold in the years following Jane and Edward’s death, but the ones that remained were embellished with one of three bookplates inserted by Edward’s grandson, Montagu George Knight.

“Please help us return these books to the fold,” implored GLOSS board member Deb Barnum in a recent posting on the EX-LIBRIS listserv. What should you look for if you think you’ve come across a stray? Montagu Knight commissioned three bookplates from artist Charles Sherborn in 1900. All three bear an image of Saint Peter, referred to in the image as Saint Pierre, and include Knight’s full name and the year of creation. (Photos of the bookplates may be found here.)

If you happen upon such a volume, GLOSS would very much like to hear about it. The search has already yielded positive results and some books have been donated to Chawton House Library, which does not have funding to make acquisitions but happily accepts verified donations.

Got a tip? Contact Deb Barnum at jasnavermont@gmail.com or (802) 343-2294

sheep image: stock photo public domain

This fall, the Morgan Library will be exhibiting some of its most bejeweled medieval books in the show Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings. The exhibition, which is running September 2017 through January 2018, will include a dazzling collection of treasure bindings adorned with sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, pearls, and garnets and other precious stones.


Treasure binding is a practice that dates back to the end of the Roman Empire but became more popular in Medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Gemstones and precious metals were incorporated into the bindings of Christian texts as a way to venerate the word of God. Treasure bindings may also have been allusions to the prophesized heavenly Third Temple of Jerusalem, which will be built in a coming Messianic age. In addition to all of this, treasure bindings served the more Earthly purpose of signposting the wealth and status of their owners.


Among the most important works to be exhibited at the Morgan Library will be Lindau Gospels. J.P. Morgan’s first major medieval purchase, the Lindau Gospels have become a staple of any Western Art History survey course. The book, a conglomeration of several outstanding, independently-produced pieces, represents the best of the Carolingian Renaissance. The back cover was likely produced in modern-day Austria in the late eighth century. The front cover dates to about a century later. The text of the Lindau Gospels are believed to have been created shortly after the front cover at the Abbey of Saint Gall. It is unclear when the pieces of the Lindau Gospel came together in their present form.


The Lindau Gospel’s most striking element is its elaborate front cover. The front cover is adorned with gems and features gold repoussé embellishments. Gems frame a gold crucifixion scene at the center of the cover. The surrounding gems appear in a plant motif, something not unusual for the Carolingian period.


While the front cover is sure to make visitors gawk, one cannot forget that the text in the Lindau Gospel is also exceptionally beautiful. The beginning of each of the works’ four Gospels are marked by elaborate two page embellishments of their opening verses. The Morgan Library reports that “as many as seven different scribes were engaged in the copying of the [Lindau] texts, and it is thought that a monk named Folchart--one of St. Gall’s preeminent artists--was personally responsible for some of the manuscript’s illuminated pages.”


Anyone interested in medieval art or the history of luxurious objects won’t want to miss this show. For more information about the Lindau Gospels or the upcoming Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings exhibition, visit The Morgan Library online.


Images Courtesy of The Morgan Library

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