August 2009 Archives

When you publish a book with a university press, the likelihood, far more often that not, is that you will generate a modicum of attention in your field of enquiry, and if you are lucky, earn the recognition you so richly deserve among your peers. Very rarely--though there certainly are a number of remarkable exceptions--do you get the kind of traction in the mainstream media that will attract the attention you need to spark a flurry of sales and assure continued commentary.

I know a little bit about this phenomenon, having recently written a centennial history of Yale University Press (A World of Letters was published just a year ago next month), and taken the opportunity that project gave me to look into the overall practice of academic publishing itself. What in the world of trade publishing we would call bestsellers, though infrequent, are by no means unknown among university press books.

A few examples are instructive: John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces with Louisiana State University Press (1980); T. H. Whyte’s Book of Merlyn with the University of Texas Press (1977); The I Ching or Book of Changes with Princeton University Press (1967); Carlos Castenada’s Teachings of Don Juan with the University of Califorina Press (1968); Eudroa Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings with Harvard University Press (1984); Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), both with Yale, and both with total sales over the past half-century of 1.5 million each, and perhaps the most unlikely of all, Tom Clancy’s thriller, The Hunt for Red October, with the Naval Institute Press (1984). Like Clancy’s book, which became a major motion picture, a few other university press books have made their way to the silver screen, most notably Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella with the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs Through It (1976), and Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans with the University of Alabama Press (1974), which was adapted into Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby, starring Brook Shields.

I offer all of this discursive background as prelude to my take on a news story that has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks involving Yale University Press--which, as I stated above, I have recently written about, so regard this, please, as a disclosure of sorts--involving a book scheduled for publication this fall, The Cartoons That Shook the World  by Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, and the decision by the press to remove all the illustrations that were to be included, most pointedly those dealing with the Prophet Mohammed. This move was made necessary by Klausen’s examination of the international incident that followed publication of a dozen cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, which featured some derisive caricatures of Mohammed. The excision was made, according to Yale Press director John Donatich, after consultation with numerous national security experts, who felt that republication of the images could lead to a new wave of violence.

Press coverage for a new book is always welcome, of course, but certainly not the kind of attention that has attended this decision. The response has been mixed, though a good deal of it has accused Yale of caving in to outside pressure and throttling academic expression. The headline for a piece Christopher Hitchens  wrote for Slate, “Yale Surrenders,” pretty much summarizes his position. Hitchens’ piece is available at the above link, so I don’t need to summarize it here, beyond pointing out that he did, in the piece, what any curious individual can also do, which is to find all the offending caricatures online. He even gives a link for those interested in seeing the illustrations, though I note that Slate does not reproduce any of them either. (I wonder why that might be?)

Donatich is adamant that none of Klausen’s text has been removed or edited, so her findings as a social scientist have not in any way been toned down or altered. What she has written, in other words, and what was vetted, argued and defended through peer review for publication, is being published as is. While it does seem a bit odd that a book about illustrations should now contain no illustrations, I nevertheless have to say I sympathize, most reluctantly, with Donatich in his decision. It is an extraordinarily special circumstance, not one that is likely to be repeated any time soon. These are crazy times, and since you are removing something that is not new to your pages in the first instance--these would be reprints of earlier published images, after all, and are readily available to anyone who wishes to find them online--and if this material has the potential to incite a truly nasty situation, then you have a responsibility to pause and do, I think, what you have to do.

Going back to the lead of this entry, which deals with university press books and bestsellers, it is worth noting that Yale has moved the publication date of The Cartoons that Shook the World up from November to September. Donatich told The Chronicle of Higher Education (a link, unfortunately, is not available to non-subscribers), that the Press is “supporting the book completely and boldly” and “crashing the production schedule to take advantage of the media.“  I, for one, will be most interested now in reading the book, as I am sure many thousands of others who otherwise would have known nothing about it will as well.

As a relevant sidelight, especially one in a gently mad blog, it is worth noting that signed copies of Kurt Westergaard’s drawings of Mohanned, according to the Copenhagen Post, are now collector’s items, with 870 copies of a 1,000-copy limited edition already sold as of two weeks ago--at $250 a pop.

Those stamp-sized bookseller labels often found on the rear paste down end paper of old and rare books are often as artistically interesting as the books’ dust jackets; high karat precious gems of graphic design in small settings.

lal-stanleyltd.jpg lae-mahaska.jpg lal-zeitlin.jpg

Howard Prouty, of ReadInk Books, has been collecting vintage booksellers’ labels for many years and has put together quite a lovely assemblage on the ReadInk Books website, where he writes:

“I think the pleasure I take from these little things has something to do with a certain dimensionality they add to the mostly-unknown story of a particular book’s previous life. To buy a book unadorned with one of these is, often, to simply buy an “old book”; from the evidentiary front matter, one can usually divine that it was published by this or that company, in a particular year, and so what?

“But the specificity of knowing that it spent some time--perhaps was sold for the very first time--at the Satyr Book Shop (on Vine Street in Hollywood, California) or The Book Shelf (in The Doctors’ Building) of Cincinnati, Ohio, adds a nice geographical element to its journey to your shelves.(Previous owner’s inscriptions are often good for this as well, and have their own charm--but give me a vintage bookstore label any day!)
lal-satyr2-30.jpg lal-frogpond30.jpg la-stanleyrose.jpg

Greg Kindall has an astonishing Gallery of Book Trade Labels on his Seven Roads website, which appears to be international action-central for this sub-genre of book collecting. More than 2100 labels from all over the world are displayed, and the collection is highly organized for easy reference.

lae-skylark.jpg bookmanx.jpg

Images courtesy of Howard Prouty

Richard Minsky, of American Decorated Publishers’ Bindings, 1872-1929 fame has started a new blog, American Book Covers.

Here are his comments on what he plans to do:

I started a blog on book cover art, and in the sidebar have feeds from six other blogs that primarily feature book covers. If anyone thinks that no art has been done on paperbacks or dust jackets in the last 20 years, check out the selections of those bloggers. For my part, I am not adding competition to their well-covered territory, but will present selections from the thousand or so book covers that have been in my exhibitions. To start with I show an anonymous cover that is done in printed paper wrapped boards from Houghton in 1881 with a design that anticipates constructivist, futurist, and abstract expressionist paradigms.

Take a look and be sure and bookmark what is likely to become a useful reference.

In 1644, Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian theologian, published Lex, Rex, the now excessively scarce, enormously important treatise on limited government and constitutionalism. Only four copies have fallen under the hammer within the last thirty-five years.

Lex, Rex is the first treatment of rule by law, not by men, based upon the separation of powers and covenant between king and subjects, (foreshadowing the social contract). It laid the foundation for the later thinking of political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. As such, this volume sowed the seeds for modern political systems, including that of the United States.

Lex, Rex 1.jpg“The title, Lex, Rex, is a play on the words that convey the meaning the law is king. When theologian Samuel Rutherford published the book in 1644, on the eve of the revolutions that rocked the English nation from 1645 through 1688, it caused a sensation, and provoked a great deal of controversy. It is ostensibly an argument for limited monarchy and against absolute monarchy, but its arguments were quickly perceived as subversive of monarchy altogether, and in context, we can perceive that it provided a bridge between the earlier natural law philosophers and those who would further develop their ideas: the Leveller movement and such men as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney, which laid the basis for the American Republic.

“This book has long been undeservedly neglected by scholars, probably because it is written as a polemic in the political and sectarian controversies that are distasteful to later generations, and many of its references are somewhat obscure, but a closer reading reveals how it laid the foundation for the contractarian and libertarian ideas that came to be embodied in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

“Rutherford’s main idea is that in the politic realm the real sovereign is the people, and that all officials, including monarchs, are subject to the rule of law, a phrase Rutherford uses only once, in Question 26, ‘Whether the King be above the Law or no,’  but this is the book that developed the contrast between the rule of law and the rule of men. He does not use the term social contract, but does develop the earlier idea of covenant in a way that leads naturally to the idea of the social contract. He also develops the idea of a separation of powers between legislative (nomothetic), executive (monarchic), and judicial functions, in a way that they can balance one another, in a mixed constitutional order that combines the best features of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic forms of government.

“What made the book controversial was Rutherford’s argument that not only does the magistrate lose his authority when he violates the law, but that it is a right, and perhaps even a duty, for the people to resist such violations” (Roland Jon. Introduction to Lex. Rex, 2002 edition).

Samuel Rutherford (c.1600-1661) “published a number of major works, including Lex, Rex, or, The Law and the Prince (1644), a lengthy and sometimes bitter defence of armed resistance to Charles I. It was written in response to Sacro-sancta regum majestas (1644) by the deposed bishop of Ross, John Maxwell, and drew on Calvinist resistance theory and the political theory of Spanish neo-scholastics. It argued that legitimate government was grounded in a covenant between king and people. Because Charles I had violated his covenant with the Scottish people by trying to force idolatry upon them, they had been duty bound to resist him by force under the authority of lesser magistrates.

“The restoration of Charles II in 1660 augured ill for Rutherford. In September the committee of estates issued a declaration against Lex, Rex and copies of the book were burned in Edinburgh and outside New College in St Andrews. Rutherford was deprived of his position in the university, his charge in the church, and his stipend, and was confined to his own house. He was cited to appear before parliament on a charge of treason and his friends feared that he might well face execution. However, early in 1661 Rutherford fell seriously ill. On 8 March he issued a last will and testimony, and near the end of the month he died, at St Mary’s College, St Andrews” (Oxford Online DNB).

RUTHERFORD, Samuel. Lex,Rex: The Law and the Prince. A Dispute for the just Prerogative of King and People. Containing the Reasons and Causes of the most necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of Scotland, and of their expedition for the ayd and help of their dear Brethren of England. In which their Innocency is asserted, and a full Answer is given to a Seditious Pamphet, Intituled, Sacro-Sancta Regum Majestas, or The Sacred and Royall Prerogative of Christian Kings:... In XLIV Questions. London: Printed for John Field, and are to be sold at his house upon Addle-hill, neer Baynards-Castle, Octob. 7. 1644.

First edition. Quarto. 467 (i.e. 435) pp; (A4, a-d4, B-Z4, Aa-Ii4, Kk-Rr2, Ss-Zz4, Aaa-Nnn4, Ooo2; error in pagination: nos. 281-312 omitted).

Wing R2386.

Thanks to David Brass for title page image.

As one who has braved JDate, aka, I know why the caged bird swings in hope. The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books provide opportunities for the bookish and alone to meet. But Americans and British have completely different styles when it comes to personal ads.

We Americans commodify and market ourselves with can-do! go-get ‘em! spirit that weighs heavily. We’re singing the lyrics from Best Foot Forward to the tune of Sinatra’s One For My Baby, One More For the Road, a torch song beneath the bright, snappy prose composed to wring assets out wishful-thinking during an economic downturn that appears to have placed verbiage with cash in inverse ratio. These people are just too marvelous for words but that doesn’t stop them. The format appears to be designed to maximize sales.

The British? Brief, to the point, no B.S., self-deprecating and delightful.Their spirit? Bollocks and piss off if you don’t like me or my ad.

And so, a recent selection of personals, Part Two of “Have Books Destroyed Your Life, Too?”

NYRB: EASYGOING ALLURE, bright smile, and dash of mischief. Slender, athletic, adventurous. Very nice-looking with passion for the outdoors and for keeping our planet healthy: hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, investigating nature, buying/eating locally, respecting the environment, working with Heifer Project International, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross Relief. Lighthearted, curious, sensual. Widow, lives in the Rockies, ties to East Coast. Loves art, music, dogs, gardening--though welcomes help from others, does best with cacti. Gravitates to travel that involves learning--Nepal, Morocco, Turkey, language study in Paris. Would love to hike Switzerland, discover more of New Zealand, do service project, or just hang out together at home with bright, active, fit man with residence west of Mississippi River, 56-74.

LRB: Cantab pair (M 22, F 21) seeks clever F (40 - 50) to share ideas & bed.

NYRB: PASSIONATE ARTIST; lovely, thoughtful, sensual, successful painter. Local exhibitions--landscapes, seascapes, street scenes, paintings that tell stories. Happiest painting outside, indoors only when weather insists. Naturally slender, athletic, divorced, good-looking with mischievous spark. Enjoys ideas, photography, Monhegan, Provence painting trips, NPR, books, DVDs, skiing, planning dinners with interesting mix of friends. Loves ease, conviviality of eating out--intimate conversation across the table, no planned agendas, someone else to cook/do dishes. Easygoing, relaxed. Works to make the world better and greener place, attends Bioneers conference annually. Lives wonderful life just missing someone special--friendly, fit, active, Mass./Rhode Island-area man, 57 to 72.

LRB: Let’s put our dentures in the same glass. I’m alive. You be too. Pacemaker a plus. Opioids even better. M, 74.

NYRB: AMERICAN GIRL-NEXT-DOOR, blonde good looks. Really pretty, smart, sensual, non-workaholic CEO--known for insightful irreverence, quick mind, and ever-present dash of self-deprecating humor. Slender and active with true explorer’s spirit, be it exploring around the corner or the world. Easygoing, genuinely warm, classy, intellectual, not dry or stuffy, just the real deal. Passions include: photography, travel (just returned from Egypt, Jordan), weekends in Maine, literature, movies, music (especially Latin and World), cooking, discovering great neighborhood restaurants. Would love to meet co-conspirator, 50-65, bright, active, cosmopolitan man.

LRB: Attractive F, 32, seeks M, of a not too dissimilar age, who smells nice, dresses well & is good at sex. But must not be a cock. London.

NYRB: THE REAL DEAL--classy, confident, and really cute Ph.D. Sensual and stylish, sweet and successful, Boston-based. Brains, looks, and a great sense of fun. Toned, fit, romantic, blonde. Proactive, easygoing, generous, yet no tolerance for injustice or arrogance. Traveler, writer, adventurer--can never get enough of Paris, San Miguel, Puerto Escondido (dreams of one day speaking Spanish fluently), fantasizes about visiting Rome or exploring Outer Banks with special man. Fan of political humor, legislative policy, jazz clubs, Prosecco, fiction, New York weekends, Central Park, fireworks on the Esplanade. Appreciative of talent, be it sports, theater, music. Seeks bright, passionate, active man, 50-early 70s.

LRB: Inelegant. Seeks same. Be my soul/slob-mate. F (42) seeks M (35-55) or best excuse for one.

NYRB: IMMEDIATELY LIKABLE. Intelligence and sensuality. Known for great figure, shy beauty, infectious laugh, dedication to improving the lot of those less fortunate. Documentary film producer, photographer, accomplished professional. Warmth, passion, whimsical sparkle, and most of all--fun. Politically left, team player, former race car driver, maintains motorcycle license. Divorced, proud of Fulbright scholar son. Fan of in-depth travel, Connecticut seacoast house, biking, scuba, science, great food, entertaining friends/family, Morocco, Italy, opera/chamber music, though despite hours listening still can’t “name that tune”. Learning Spanish. Excited by work in Oaxaca, preserving and exhibiting work of local artisans. Seeks smart, sociable, attractive, active man--50-68.

NYRB: BRIGHT, CAPTIVATING, affectionate artist and outdoor adventurer. Graceful, natural athlete, leggy slim figure, easygoing, great looks, 49. International experience and sophistication yet deep roots in New England with the best of its philosophy and love of its landscape and light. Mischievous and genuine, sexy and comfortable with herself. Loves challenge of the elements: downhill skiing, sailing, hiking, breathtaking views. Passionate about photography, architecture, Maine, Japan (spent 3 years there), spur-of-the-moment fun, the environment. Authentic and game. Contributes to the community, sits on boards. Improvisational cook. Seeks kind, hearty, secure, worldly, competent man, 45-57--mature yet young at heart, Boston/New England-area.

LRB: Two hefty, tattooed Brighton skinheads, 43/45. One writes, one reads. Want uncensored sex with bookish blokes who like rough drafts.

I rest my case

September is right around the corner, and the new books for fall are starting to trickle in from the publishers. Among those that have caught my fancy--and which, I believe, are richly deserving of your attention--are the following:

SistSinai.jpgThe Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95.

This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity, and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves. Janet Soskice, a professor in philosophical theology at Cambridge University, tells the story of Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twin sisters from Scotland, and their discovery in 1892 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt of what was then the earliest known copy of the Gospels--it was a palimpsest that had escaped earlier detection--and how against all accepted convention for two women in Victorian times without university degrees, translated the document from Syriac into English, and secured for themselves a place in the history of biblical scholarship. The story of their spirited adventure on camelback to Mount Sinai where the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery is located makes for an exciting adventure, which Soskice accomplishes with style and aplomb. I am reminded, in this effort, of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, in which a theretofore ignored interlude in literary history (in that instance an institutionalized killer’s manifold contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary), became a breakthrough bestseller. All in all, this is a welcome addition to the books-about-books bookshelf.

FWord.jpgThe F Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower, foreword by Lewis Black; New York, Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95.

This release is a real challenge to write about in a public forum, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I rather like it, number one, and because the word in question--no ambiguity at all, by the way, about which word we are talking about--is an integral part of our language, and one of the very few I know of that works variously as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. (Feel free, please, to use your imagination.) That a compilation like this should come from such a distinguished publishing house as Oxford University Press gives me all the cover I need; that it should now be in its third revised edition, moreover, makes it all the more irresistible. So what, you might ask, is there to learn from this compendium? The word’s etymology, for starters--no, it’s not an acronym, it’s far to old a coinage for that, with roots going back to the fifteenth century, Germany being the likely origin, though the precise progenitor is vague at best. That master wordsmith of all time, William Shakespeare, never used it--the word was decidedly vulgar, even then--though there are numerous allusions and puns in the canon that leave no doubt about what the old rascal had in mind. All in all, this is a scholarly work, though unquestionably with a light tough, and includes dozens of definitions presented in traditional OED style, with illustrative quotations drawn from myriad published sources. Jesse Sheildlower’s introductory essay is a superb overview of this truly phenomenal word.

DarArm.jpgDarwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman. New York, W. W. Norton, 423 pages, $29.95.

This has been the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin’s birth, an occasion that has brought forth numerous books, a few of which I have noticed in earlier postings. This one, a later release, should not be lost in the deluge. Iain McCalman, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, has written an energetic, lively account of evolution that casts a wider net, as it were, and takes in the contributions of Darwin’s principal champions, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the the biologist, Thomas Huxley, and the zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose support in the early going was crucial to the reception of his monumental work. McCalman begins with a most engaging account of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and describes in highly accessible prose the intellectual process that led to formulation of his theory. Some excellent illustrations are included.

RayCarv.jpgRaymond Carver: Collected Stories, edited by Maureen Carroll. New York, The Library of America, 960 pages, $40.

Every time I think I have exhausted my inventory of superlatives when it comes to the Library of America and what this essential publishing initiative means to our shared culture, a new release comes along that forces me to dig deeper and come up with another. I admit, I am bragging a bit here--but I have every book issued in this series going back to when it started in 1982, close to a150 of them, all kept together in their own book case. It’s both a collection for me, and an indispensable resource that I turn to on a regular basis. This latest effort gathers all of Raymond Carver’s published stories--“Will You Please Be Quiet, Please”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “Cathedral” among them--along with many of his early sketches, and pieces that were discovered after his death in 1985. A thorough chronology of Carver’s life and accomplishments--more like a mini-biography--is included in one of several appendices. Like all the others from LOA, this one’s a keeper.
GrolBookHard.jpgTalk about a sobering way to say good bye to summer and usher in the official arrival of fall. On Sept. 22, the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th, St., New York, is mounting a one-day symposium dealing with the impact the economic recession is having on collectors, libraries and the antiquarian book trade, aptly titled Books in Hard Times, and featuring an all-star lineup of participants.

For a panel discussing conditions in the antiquarian book trade, speakers include the notable booksellers William Reese of New Haven, Conn., Tom Congalton of Between the Covers Rare Books in Gloucester City, NJ, and Priscilla Juvelis of Kennebunkport, ME, with David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s in New York, moderating. A session probing the effect the economy has had on acquisitions policies among institutions will be moderated by Mark Dimunation, head of special collecetions at the Library of Congress; featured panelists are Breon Mitchell of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Kathleen Reagan of Cornell University, and Nadina Gardner, director of the Division of Preservation and Access for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

How all of this has influenced collectors will be discussed by such stalwarts as Mark Samuels Lasner, David Alan Richards, William T. Buice, III, with William H. Helfand, of the Grolier Club, moderating. A keynote address will be delivered in the morning by Cleveland bibliophile Robert Jackson; closing remarks will be made by Terry Belanger, recently retired as director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1982. The good news is that the fee to attend the conference is $30; the sad news is that it is already sold out.

Note on the image above, which graces the Grolier Club announcement: a book peddler,  Le colporteur, anonymous, from the French School.
Banned Books Week is scheduled for September 26th- October 3rd, 2009.

Every time we think that banning books in the United States is a thing of the past, we are sorely reminded that there are still many who believe that removing books from book stores and library shelves will make the social issues that the books represent go away and that the world will be a better place.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression is fighting the good fight for retailers.

“The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship. Founded by the American Booksellers Association in 1990, ABFFE’s mission is to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, particularly those contained in books, by opposing restrictions on the freedom of speech; issuing statements on significant free expression controversies; participating in legal cases involving First Amendment rights; collaborating with other groups with an interest in free speech; and providing education about the importance of free expression to booksellers, other members of the book industry, politicians, the press and the public.”

The American Library Association (ALA) is the advocate for public and private institutions.

The ALA’s website has an excellent article about Banned Books Week. Within, the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (7th edition) is cited:

“Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work, and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the Internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.”

Go to the Banned Books Website for more information and to sign up your library or bookstore for participation.

BANNED BOOKS WEEK September 26 - October 3, 2009
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
275 7TH Ave Rm 1504 New York, NY 10001
Contact Info: Jamie Chosak Program Director (212) 587-4025

                                          Mug Shots of the Usual Suspects
Hats off to Andy Woodworth, a New Jersey librarian, for coming up with a splendid way of making people think about their libraries. and generating a good deal of fun at the same time. Proceeding logically from two basic premises--that “libraries are aweseome” and that “Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is tasty”--he has organized a grass-roots campaign to introduce a flavor of  everyone’s favorite summer treat that is bookishly oriented, and has invited people to submit their choices with the hope that the Vermont company will do the same for reading as it has for music (Cherry Garcia), movies (Pulp Addiction), and comedians (Vermonty Python.)

Some 4,400 people have already responded to his Facebook appeal and submitted proposals for such concoctions as Gooey Decimal System, Rocky Read, and Sh-Sh-Sherbert. One clever blogger has gone so far as to request a “scoop of Vladimir Nabokoffee and a Herman Melvanilla to go.” My older daughter Barbara--a life-long ice cream fanatic and unrepentant stack-rat--offers Readin’ Raisin. Younger daughter Nicole, a Washington librarian with a particular penchant for records management (not to mention a vibrant imagination), proposes Almond Archive Surprise, Paper Praline, Cookie D-OPAC, Brownie Bookmobile--and, drum roll--Cherry Overduebalee

Given that this is a gently mad blog--and, good New Englander that I am, coffee ice cream is my all- time favorite flavor--I’m thinking along the lines of Mocha Madness. Needs a little work, I know, but there you have it. Come up with something good of your own and submit it to Ben & Jerry’s.  Many thanks, meanwhile, to super librarian Merrill Distad at the University of Alberta, for alerting me to this diverting news story.

Former book dealer Bill Cotter is bravely detailing the bankruptcy of his rare book and restoration business, Milou Rare Books, over on the McSweeney’s website:

Business started out with some promise. My first customers were dealers and collectors of early printed books (generally pre-1700). Such books are often worth a dealer’s investing a few hundred bucks to mend and prettify. I reattached boards and re-sewed headbands and subtracted antique mildew or the occasional antique food- or bloodstain. Occasionally I’d get to handle some pretty cool books. Once I had a copy of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius. I was sure that Vinnie, our cat, would, as a demonstration of power and enmity, daub the book with tinkle when I had my back turned. But he did not. Meanwhile, business steadily got better.

Within a couple of years I had worked on enough early books where it seemed like a good idea, and a logical business assay, to try dealing rare books myself, angling for damaged or weathered − but restorable − books, then restoring and selling them. To finance this venture, I accepted a few of the five hundred thousand low-interest credit-card offers that came in the mail every day. With these cards I bought rare books.

And so begins a harrowing and cautionary tale. All seven dispatches (to date) are available here.
There are many contenders for Top Dog status in the bone yard of bonehead ideas. [Provide favorite to Comments]. In the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, the highest honors for magnificently cockeyed excogitations belonged to the one known only as the Idiot.

Bangs1922.jpgThe Idiot, the creation of Harpers humor editor, John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922), whose Idiot confections were collected into six volumes*, was a boarder in Mrs. Smithers-Pegagog’s High-Class Home for Single Gentlemen. I’m always anxious to learn as much as I can about the history of the fleabag with a foyer and threadbare lace doilies I currently call home, so, naturally, I am drawn Bangs’ stories.

The Idiot presided over all communal meals as an impresario of inanity, serving up moronic opinions and dubious schemes for the “amelioration of the condition of the civilized” onto his dining companions’ plates con mucho gusto, the meals invariably ending with indigestión con vértigo for fellow residents the Poet, the Biblioiphile, Mrs. Smithers-Pedagog and her ex, Mr. Pedagog.

“The trials of the barbarian are really nothing compared to the tribulations of civilized man,” the Idiot declares. Amen, brother.

So, in The Inventions of the Idiot (1904), he turns his attention to the plight of the lowly poet. 
“What I’d like to see established is a sort of Poetic Clearing-house Association. Supposing I opened up an office in Wall Street - a Bank for Poets in which all writers of verse could deposit their rhymes as they write them, and draw against them, just as they do in ordinary banks with their money. It would be fine. Take a man like Swinburne, for instance, or our friend here. Our poet could take a sonnet he had written, endorse it, and put it in the bank. He’d be credited with one sonnet, and wouldn’t have to bother his head about it afterwards. He could draw against it. If the Clearing-house company could dispose of it to a magazine his draft would be honored in cash to its full value, less discount charges, which would include postage and commissions to the company.

“‘And suppose the company failed to dispose of it,’ suggested the Poet.

“They’d do just as ordinary banks do with checks - stamp it, ‘Not Good,’ said the Idiot. “That, however, wouldn’t happen very often if the concern had an intelligent receiving-teller to detect counterfeits. If the receiving-teller were a man fit for the position and a poet brought in a quatrain with five lines in it, he could detect it at once and hand it right back. So with comic poems. I might go there with a poem I thought was comic, and proceed to the usual deposit slip. The teller would look at it a second, scrutinize the humor carefully, and then if it was not what I thought it, would stamp it ‘Not Comic’ or ‘Counterfeit.’ It’s perfectly simple.”

idiotscover.jpgAnd perfectly idiotic, though it does raise the possibility of gainful employment for poets that involves poetry. Those receiver-teller positions are going to require skilled craftspeople to separate the iambic from the trochaic, the spondaic from the dactylic, the systolic from the diastolic. And, as required, comic timing will be necessary.

The Bank For Poets had a bad quarter
Sub-prime muses all underwater
Foreclosed stanzas sitting idly
Interest rates down- swing wildly
Down, down, down, the drunken bard
Says with the bastards in verse pithy
I’ve had it with these rotten bums
Who securitize our work and leave us crumbs

Spending days diffusing risk
While Greenspan yawned and said, “Tsk, tsk”
Diced poems trade for the highest quote
There’s a guy in Butte who bought a syllable I wrote
And thinks he’ll profit while I starve
But I’ve sharpened my knife for morbid carve
Weak and weary I know the dreary score
And you can quoth me on this: “Nevermore!”


The Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros.,1895).
Coffee, Repartee, and the Idiot (Harper & Bros., 1899)
The Idiiot At Home (NY: Harper & Bros., 1900)
The Inventions of the Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1904)
The Genial Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1908)
Half Hours With the idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1917)

Many thanks to Valerie Urban of Rulon-Miller Books for images of title page and binding.

Every now and then I receive questions like this one from readers of the blog:

How do I tell if my Little House in the Big Woods is a 1st edition book or not? It looks like the 1st edition books that I have seen on the web but I am unsure. Any help you can give me is appreciated!

First, it’s important to note the meaning of the term “first edition”, which booksellers who aspire to professionalism use to refer to the first printing of a book. Unfortunately, many booksellers abuse the term “first edition” when it comes to the Little House books. Wilder’s books were first published in the 1930s and were originally illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle. They were popular and reprinted many times. In 1953, the publisher issued a revised edition with black and white illustrations by Garth Williams. This edition has also been reprinted many times. Most recently, it was re-printed with colorized versions of Williams’ illustrations. Many times, particularly when shopping online, I have seen sellers refer to any copy with the early Sewell and Boyle illustrations as first editions. Since the books were reprinted many times, this is not technically correct, and any copy that is not a first printing ought to be identified as such, since most collectors are interested in the earliest appearance of the book in print.

The first edition (i.e. first printing) of any of the Little House books is always stated on the copyright page, as shown below:
first edition

Later printings have only a letter code on the copyright page with no statement of edition:

The letters indicate the month and year the book was printed, so it is not unusual to see different letter codes in different copies of the books.

Purple House Press has a very informative page here that shows the original covers and dustjackets of all of the Little House books, the key to the letter code that identifies the month and year the books were printed, and samples of Wilder’s handwriting. If you collect Wilder’s books, especially in first edition copies, bookmark this page and save it. It will come in handy. You can also find all kinds of information about Wilder and her books at the Beyond Little House blog, which is written by Wilder fans and scholars.

Remember, in the case of the Little House books, a true first edition (that is to say, the first printing of the book) always states “First Edition” on the copyright page. If that statement is missing, the book is a later printing. Just because the book has the earlier Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations does not make it a first edition.

Hope this is helpful. I’d appreciate hearing from anyone else who has extensive experience with the Little House books and identifying first editions.

See you in the stacks!

Auction Guide