November 2009 Archives

nf_stiles_cover.gifOn Nov. 18, the National Book Foundation awarded its annual book awards. T.J. Stiles won in the non-fiction category for his lengthy book, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” Much ado has been made of the fact that Stiles took his moment in the spotlight to thank the actual ‘book-makers’ (editors, designers, etc.) and librarians behind the book. Bravo! (Full disclosure: Stiles did extensive research at the Drew University Archives’ Gibbons collection that I was processing at the time.)

So before I thank the specific people who have helped to bring my book into existence, I want to thank the editorial assistants, copywriters, marketing managers, copy editors, graphic designers, production managers and managing editors. I want to thank the indexers, publicists, receptionists, and sales people. I want to thank the mail room guys, warehouse staff, bookstore clerks, and independent-bookstore owners. I want to thank the book reviewers, academic scholars, MFA students, librarians--especially the librarians--agents, and the unsung archivists. I suspect that the advent of the e-book is fooling some people into believing that none of these people are necessary anymore, or perhaps that they do not even exist. But if they cease to exist, then e-books will only be worth the paper they’re not printed on.

For information on the other winners and honorees (including Colum McCann, Gore Vidal, and Dave Eggers), or to watch the entire speech, visit the National Book Award website.
On a trip to Portland, Oregon, this month, I made the requisite pilgrimage to Powell’s Books. I also discovered Oblation Papers & Press, a letterpress print shop, paper mill, and stationery shop located in the city’s Pearl District, about 10 minutes’ walk from Powell’s.

Thumbnail image for Olsen_oblation.jpg With the holidays approaching, my eye was caught by Oblation’s cards featuring dictionary-style definitions--a refreshing change from the usual visual clichés of the season. The cards are letterpress printed with soy inks on 100 percent cotton paper (which they make themselves using recycled garment industry fabric).

Oblation Papers & Press is located at 516 NW 12th Avenue in Portland’s Pearl District. Up front is the retail space, where you’ll find cards, stationery, and other paper goods. The print shop is at the back, with antique presses still going strong.

The Cranberry Cantos

tumblr_kto8qzsE8x1qa9b8ro1_500.jpgCare to say a few beautiful words before you dig into your Thanksgiving feast? The Poetry Foundation is here to help. Poets range from John Greenleaf Whittier to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, John Keats to Elizabeth Alexander in their collection of Thanksgiving poems perfect for pre-dinner recitation.
The idea of the “classic,” particularly how a book is elevated to that status, has always fascinated me. I even wrote my master’s thesis on the many cheap reprint editions of “classics” in the twentieth century: Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, Penguin Classics, Puffin Classics, Perennial Classics, Loeb Classical, Oxford’s World’s Classics, Signet Classics, S&S Classic Editions, Verso Classics, Vintage Classics, Washington Square Enriched Classics, Bantam Classics, Barnes & Noble Classics, Cameo Classics, Harvard Classics, Library of America - to name some on my bookshelves. (I will spare you any further description of my thesis.)

So it piques my interest that the New York Review of Books is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its NYRB Classics series this month. There was an event in New York earlier this month, but the event in London next week couldn’t suit me better. Darn it, why wasn’t this one held in New York?

From the NYRB e-newsletter:

Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009, 6:30 p.m.
The Gallery at Foyles
113-119 Charing Cross Road
London, UK
020 7437 5660

What is a classic? When does a great book become a classic and who decides? Over the past ten years, the NYRB Classics series has explored the boundaries of this enduring but problematic term. Mary Beard, Geoff Dyer, Adam Thirlwell, and the NYRB Classics series editor Edwin Frank will discuss these questions.

Tickets: Free, email to reserve a place.

I’m sure this event will be lively, as the canon and the classics are heady topics for literary types. If any readers are in London and can attend, we’d love a report.

p.s. NYRB is having an anniversary sale on its classics line through November.
DickensLeechPML30615.jpgIf you find yourself in New York during the holidays, there are a few seasonal activities that top most tourists’ to-do lists. The tree at Rockefeller Center will be lit on Wednesday, Dec. 2 (so plan accordingly). Or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Perhaps Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square is more your style. But for book lovers, yet another treasure awaits. The Morgan Library & Museum exhibits the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from November 20 through January 10.

About a decade ago, when I worked in the book publishing world, I worked with Dickens’ great-great-grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, on another little Christmas book called The Life of Our Lord. When he visited New York, the Morgan Library was the first place I brought him. We were lucky enough to have a private viewing of the Carol manuscript. It is a beauty. If you’re in town, don’t miss it. If you’re not in town, well, you may still be in luck. Next month in Fine Books, we’ll have a special feature on Dickens and his popular Christmas book, which you can enjoy wherever you are.
It is an axiom in book collecting that the market value of an object is not necessarily determined by what one person is willing to pay for the privilege of ownership, but by the lengths to which a determined underbidder is willing to compete for the prize in open bidding. This dynamic was in persuasive evidence last night a few miles north of West Palm Beach in Stuart, Florida, at an auction organized to benefit the Hibiscus Children’s Center, a local charity dedicated to the needs of abused and neglected youngsters.

Billed the Little Auction That Could in respectful tribute to Watty Piper’s classic children’s tale of infinite possibilities, The Little Engine That Could, the premise was centered around asking various celebrities to inscribe copies of books that had meaning in their lives. More than 80 people responded, and it was decided to offer the books for sale in two venues, online at eBay for 70 of the items in a contest that continues through Nov. 25, and last night in open competition at the historic Lyric Theater before an audience of 400 people for 14 others.

A total of $34,000 was raised last night, the most coveted item being Pop-up White House, a nicely engineered piece of movable art with illustrations by local artist Chuck Fischer--and signed by President Barack Obama; this neat little item, a unique curiosity if ever there was one, was hammered down at $6,500.  Equally robust was the $4,500 paid for a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes signed by the renowned animal authority Jane Goodall--her specialty is chimpanzees, naturally--the $2,900 for a copy of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Struggling Upward signed by Maya Angelou, and the $2,600 bid for the copy of Harry Potter (Book 7), inscribed by the author, J. K. Rowling.

It was a great program, about as capably conceived, organized, and executed as anything comparable I have ever been associated with, and the credit for that certainly goes out to every member of the crackerjack staff of volunteers, but primarily to the guiding spirit, the co-chair of the event, Karla Preissman, who came up with the concept two years ago, and contacted every celebrity individually to participatee. A brilliant move on her part was to arrange for a tastefully mounted exhibition of the books at the Elliott Museum in Stuart, which my wife and I had a chance to visit yesterday before the evening’s festivities.

It was an unannounced visit there earlier in the week by a person who has chosen to remain anonymous that led to the preemptive bid of $850,000--that is not a typo, it is $850,000--for a copy of Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar co-signed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and his mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush.

The benefactor was said to be passionate about the goals of the Hibiscus Center, and found this a worthy way of supporting it. In one fell swoop--before the first bid went up last night--the Little Auction That Could became the Little Auction That Most Assuredly Did, all of it made possible by the enduring magic of books. An unqualified plus was the opportunity I had to speak on the program with Carl Hiaasen; the man is a fabulous speaker, and a real hoot.

strauss-4.jpg It’s not often that we feel compelled to highlight yet another website, but once in a while, something special comes along. Peter Strauss has been featured in our pages before. He is a top collector of livres d’artistes. His newest venture is a website dedicated to the twenty most important modern illustrated books. There’s so much good information here, well laid-out, with excellent images (such as this Toulouse-Lautrec).

Having a Nose for Old Books

Books02-619x685.jpgMaterial degradomics analyzes the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves. What does this mean? Scientists can now tell the condition of an old book by giving it a whiff. The brief story is here with the full report here.

From the piece...

In a report published in the American Chemical Society’s Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal, they describe development of a new test that can measure the degradation of old books and precious historical documents on the basis of their aroma. The non-destructive “sniff” test could help libraries and museums preserve a range of prized paper-based objects, some of which are degrading rapidly due to advancing age, the scientists say.

Matija Strlič and colleagues note in the new study that the well-known musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper.

In our June issue, Ian McKay wrote a short piece on the Peyraud Collection, auctioned by Bloomsbury earlier this year. This fascinating collection-including Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Fanny Burney, etc.-was formed by the late librarian Paula Peyraud. (Pictured here is the three-volume first edition of Burney’s Evelina in contemporary calf with gilt tooling.)


Interested readers can now take note of a more extensive report on the Peyraud collection, written by Maureen E. Mulvihill, a scholar and writer with the Princeton Research Forum. In her essay, “Literary Property Changing Hands: The Peyraud Collection,” Dr. Mulvihill takes an in-depth, post-auction view at the lots and their bidders. She also enlightens readers about Peyraud, book-collecting’s “dark lady.” A selection of fine images from the original sale catalogue accompanies the text.


Dr. Mulvihill’s report was recently published in the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies, Autumn 2009, vol. 23, no. 1 (2009). You can download a PDF version here:

The U.S. Senate must have used its collective library voice on Nov. 6 when it confirmed New York Public Library Director David Ferriero as the 10th Archivist of the United States. Few media outlets have covered the story but a detailed press release highlighting his experience is making its way around cyberspace.

“Mr. Ferriero was one part of the leadership team responsible for integrating the four research libraries and 87 branch libraries into one seamless service for users, creating the largest public library system in the United States and one of the largest research libraries in the world,” according to the press release from the National Archives and Records Administration. “Among his responsibilities at the NYPL was the development of the library’s digital strategy, which currently encompasses partnerships with Google and Microsoft, a web site that reaches more than 25 million unique visitors annually, and a digital library of more than 750,000 images that may be accesses free of charge by any user around the world.”

Prior to joining the New York Public Libraries, Ferriero lead efforts to expand both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University libraries.

President Obama nominated Ferriero last July, drawing a smattering of mostly positive responses in a range of blogs covering history, libraries and politics. A few comments to a post from the National Coalition for History expressed some concern that a librarian, rather than an archivist, had been tapped for the post. Washington Post blogger Al Kamen, meanwhile, noted that the job of Archivist “has become something of a lightning rod for controversy, particularly as various agencies and administrations press for keeping their records secret for decades despite strong pressures from historians and the public to declassify as much information as soon as possible.”

The Washingtonian magazine is already optimistic that Ferriero will be a success, listing him on Nov. 2 on its “Guest List” -- a collection of people the staff would like to break bread with.

“The newly appointed US archivist, who headed the New York Public Library, comes here with a mission of transparency and openness,” it wrote.

It seems returning war booty is a trend. The New York Times ran an article yesterday about a two-volume Bible that vanished from a library in Vienna during Kristallnacht. The sixteenth-century book is now on its way home, 71 years later.
In this month’s Fine Books, writer Chris Lancette reports the story of World War II veteran Robert Thomas, who returned two sixteenth-century books to Germany last month. He took the volumes from a salt mine during his tour with Patton’s Third Army.

The Washington Post also covered the story and provided a one-minute video clip of Thomas talking about his decision.

(Video by Michael Ruane/Edited by Ernesto Bailey/The Washington Post)
Indulge me, please, as I make a connection between the recent victory in the World Series of the New York Yankees--their 27th championship--and what so many futurists perceive to be the imminence of a paperless society, and what, by extension, all that portends for the traditional book as we know it. It’s a stretch, I agree, but an amusing concept to consider all the same.

If you were paying attention this past Friday, there was a ticker-tape parade through Lower Manhattan, and unlike so many other New Englanders who chose to tune out--I have been a Red Sox fan for more than half-a-century--I tuned in. Yes, I wanted to see the MVP, Hideki Matsui, riding in the lead float, I even wanted to see that amiable turncoat, Johnny Damon (I am actually very fond of the man), rejoicing in the triumph with his ebullient teammates. But what I wanted to see most of all was how New York City was going to handle the matter of the ticker tape at a time when there is no ticker tape.

The reason for that, you see, is quite simply that there are no more stock tickers, there haven’t been any for about thirty years or so, the only ones that survive are now museum pieces, and the only ticker tape available these days is a custom-order curiosity that sells online for $40 a spool. But there was a parade in Lower Manhattan through the Canyon of Heroes on Friday, all right--the 205th such celebration since the whole tradition got started on October, 29, 1886, that one to salute the newly dedicated Statue of Liberty--and there was plenty of paper filling the air. What it was, according to press accounts, was a half-ton of confetti packed in 400 bags and trucked in by a group known as the Downtown Alliance to be distributed among employees in the financial district who now get their stock quotations from computers.

When the confetti ran out, according to a piece in the New York Post, some dull-witted revelers began tossing rolls of toilet paper, which is fine enough, I suppose, as long as its unspooled and not likely to cause a concussion if it hits someone on the street, but not so bright were the financial records and other confidential office materials that went out the windows along with it. Among the fifty tons of debris collected by sanitation workers were pay stubs and trust fund balance sheets. Some of the documents came from the Liberty Street financial firm A.L. Sarroff, including client accounts, with Social Security numbers and detailed banking data. “They’re records that should have been shredded,” said firm founder Alan Sarroff. “An overzealous employee threw them out the window. He was reprimanded.”

So--a half-ton of confetti, and fifty tons of office paper, a ticker tape parade doth make. There’s still plenty of cellulose, in other words, to fill the void, and a good deal of it, apparently, remains necessary to the conducting of business. And the future of the parade itself? Like the traditional book that so many of us prefer, it’s in no immediate jeopardy of falling out of favor either. Why? Simple enough, in both instances, because people like it. All you need to mount a procession through in the city that never sleeps is a legitimate hero to honor. Good luck on that score; if you’re going to toss out the office records in jubilation, though, make sure you shred them first.

Have you seen the newest Levi’s commercials yet? They’ve used Walt Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!.” You can see the ads here and here.
Seattle, one of America’s Most Literate Cities has been hard hit on the literary front of late. Yes, the home of, Sherman Alexie, and once home to Thomas Pynchon (he worked at Boeing for awhile), is not doing well very much at all.

First off, the Seattle Public Library system. Due to budget falls, SPL has plans to cut hours, in a big way. The Seattle Times has more to the story, but here it is in a nutshell:

Since 2000, according to the library, library usage has roared from 4.5 million in-person and virtual visitors to 13.2 million. So, to respond to this need? The library budgetary cut backs by way of a 23% reduction in library hours. Ouch.

Secondly, the Elliott Bay Book Company, touted nationwide as one of the top independent bookstores in the United States is having difficulties. Financial troubles again are cited but the owner is considering moving away from Pioneer Square (a tourist Mecca in the Emerald City) or closing it entirely. This is a store that has readings by folks like Tim O’Brien, Peter Matthiessen, Jim Harrison, and oodles more of the world’s best authors.  Seattle will simply no longer be “America’s Most Literate City” without it.

And now, gay-friendly Bailey/Coy Books is closing. A stories independent bookshop in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood is cleaning out its bookshelves. It opened in 1982. It’s closing the end of November. The Seattle Times, again, has the sad tale.

Seattle, America’s Most Literate City, not so much anymore.

The papers of two major American writers have found homes in the past month. In October, the Houghton Library at Harvard announced that it had acquired the John Updike archive, described as “a vast collection of manuscripts, correspondence, books, photographs, artwork and other papers.” A small portion of Updike’s papers had been given to the university in 1970, and for decades Updike kept up his close association with the Harvard library, depositing manuscripts, files, even golf scorecards. According to the library’s press release, cataloging the new material is now one of the library’s “highest priorities.” Updike died in January of this year.


Today the New York Public Library announced that it also acquired the papers of one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed authors: E. Annie Proulx. According to the press release, the collection “spans much of Proulx’s life, from her university days through her journalism career and to the present. It includes 4,200 pages of short stories, essays, poems and screenplays; 145 pages of preparatory notes and research and three original notebooks with holograph draft ideas; more than 1,060 pages of holograph diary; more than 10,200 pages of typescript, much of it with holograph revisions and corrections, 2,100 galley proofs, and 1,855 pages of other related materials. Correspondence, including email totals more than 4,500 pages.” To which I can only reply, wow, she printed her emails? Good news for literary and book history scholars. The collection becomes part of the incredible Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at NYPL.

Flora.jpgFlora Mirabilis How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth and Beauty, by Cahterine Herbert Howell (National Geographic Books, 256 pages, $35.) Yes, this is a title that will certainly interest gardeners, but of far greater import is the appeal it undoubtedly will have to collectors of botanical books, and people who are interested in various special collections devoted to the genre in general. How plants have figured in history is the essential theme--rice, maize, flax, wheat, cotton, opium poppy, pepper, coffee, grape, potato, passionflower, date, olive, bamboo --use your imagination, the likelihood is that it’s here. But making this presentation a special bouquet of wonders for bibliophiles is the 200 illustrations, all of them reproduced from a remarkable rare book collection maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, established in 1859, and the beneficiary in 1893 of an outstanding library of pre-Linnaean works on medical botany, agriculture, and edible or otherwise useful plants gathered by Edward Sturtevant, a major collector. The earliest work represented in the volume is the Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health), a compendium of medicinal botany printed in Germany in 1487. The text is arranged in ten chapters, and follows an arc of botanical exploration and trade throughout the world. Quite a nice book, and ideal as a gift. My forthcoming piece for this month in Fine Books & Collections, incidentally, will showcase my top choices for holiday giving.

And while we’re at it:

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5,
by Christopher Andrew; Alfred A. Knopf, 1,032 pages, $40.

This is my kind of book--big, fat, packed with fascinating detail on an irresistible subject, in this instance the 100-year history of the British Security Service, better known as MI5, which opened its archives to the scrutiny of an independent historian. I won’t pretend I’ve read the whole thing yet--it just came in a couple days ago--but what I have dipped into so far, I have devoured. realm.jpgChristeopher Andrew, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, is the author of 14 previous books, including two volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive. “The Service,” he writes in the preface here, “like the rest of the intelligence community, was to stay as far from public view as possible.” This little bit of sunshine should open a lot of eyes.
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