December 2009 Archives

42Line.jpgWhat better way to say Happy New Year to a bibliophile than to recommend a literary calendar for daily use. A really lovely one to have for 2010 is the rare book calendar just released by E. M. Ginger and her crackerjack staff at 42-line, an Oakland, California company that offers a variety of specialized services in the realm of rare book, print, and photographic collections, including the development of customized bookseller catalogs on compact disc.

Indeed, by far the most impressive and innovative production I’ve seen along these lines to date, from any source, is Catalogue 44: Illuminations, prepared by 42-line for John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller of San Francisco, whose top-end listings are well known to collectors everywhere, and are always a pleasure to peruse, if only vicariously. The beauty of this particular catalog is that it provides much more than a snap-shot view of so many exquisite things; if you can’t afford the $135,000 price tag on the Auvergne Fanfare Book of Hours, ca. 1500, for instance, you at least can see all 30 of the miniatures in the CD, along with a complete description.

For the 42-line 2010 calender, Windle, and the Children’s Book Gallery (operated by Windle’s wife, Chris Loker), have furnished the art for each month. A Humpty Dumpty hand-colored etching by Samuel Edward Maberly for January, a William Blake engraving for February, a Henry Fuseli engraving for March, a steel engraving of “Mr. Lavater in His Study,” 1775-1778, for April, and so on. All of them tastefully chosen, all quite nice. And just what I need to keep track of what we all hope is a great new year for book lovers everywhere.
This is the time of year for best-of lists -- The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2009, The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009, The New Yorker’s Reviewers’ Favorites of 2009, The Washington Post’s Best Books of 2009, or The Boston Globe’s Best Books of the Decade.

As for me, 9 for 2009 stand out. All were published in the U.S. during 2009 or late 2008, all could be considered “bookish,” and all were enjoyable. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel (Yale University Press). This is the kind of non-fiction that keeps me reading past midnight. Manguel is wonderful with words, and I am looking forward to reading and reviewing his new collection of essays for the February issue of Fine Books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books). I was hesitant about this one, but when I grabbed a copy at the Harvard Book Store while on vacation this summer, I couldn’t put it down. Then I wrote about it in Fine BooksSeptember issue

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books). Not as good as the above (there’s less Jane Austen), but still a fun read.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (Knopf). A truly amazing feat of biography. It won the National Book Award this year.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial Press). A lovely, breezy epistolary novel about a book club formed during World War II.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (Picador). A little gem of a novel about what happens when the Queen of England becomes a voracious reader.

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha (Grove Press). A young man spends a year reading the entire Harvard Classics. So, so jealous...

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton (Public Affairs). I had the great pleasure of interviewing Darnton about his book, which is a must-read for book historians and Google skeptics.

The Women by T.C. Boyle (Viking). A fascinating, fabulous novel about Frank Lloyd Wright’s women and architecture (in that order).

Happy Reading in 2010!


There’s a movie coming soon about the life and times of Charles Darwin. Starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, it highlights his masterwork, On the Origin of Species...

Congratulations, Seattle!

Congratulations, fair city in which I live, for making it back to the top of the list. Seattle, beating out Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, is America’s Most Literate City.
There are thousands of hotels in New York, but perhaps none so lovely for bibliophiles as the Library Hotel.

Filled with books, with a decidedly upscale club atmosphere, the Library Hotel actually uses the Dewey Decimal System to organize its guestrooms. So if you’re a fan of geology, take the deluxe room on the fifth floor (math and science in the 500s, as a public librarian would tell you). Lover of law books? Take the 300.006 (junior suite in the social sciences). A mystery enthusiast? You’ll be in a junior suite on the eighth floor, at 800.006. The Fairy Tales room (pictured below) will be right next door, at 800.005.

Each of the sixty available rooms has been stocked with a collection of art and books relevant to the topic. There are also several reading rooms, dens, and lounges, such as this reading room and writers den:

LibraryWritersDenWithYoginiNoLogo2.jpg Now this dream destination for bookish visitors to New York City has a special offer--the Private Club Sale--for those planning to visit this winter. A promotional email states that the hotel is offering rates as low as $201 per night, with a two-night minimum if you book (pun intended) by January 7th.

p.s. See the comment below--to take advantage of this offer online, you must use this link.
00-3298.jpgAs some of our readers already know, Henry D. Thoreau is quite possibly my all-time favorite writer. Apparently Santa knows this too. Under my tree this year was a two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Cape Cod. No, it was not the first edition! (Perhaps someday...) It is a Riverside Press reprint from Houghton Mifflin published in 1896. One of the reasons this edition is so lovely is that it was designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman, one of the first female book designers. She worked for HM in the late nineteenth century, promoting an Arts and Crafts aesthetic. She often designed for friends Sarah Orne Jewett and Oliver Wendell Holmes. One of her innovations was to take the book’s cover design and carry in over to the spine and the back cover. So on the Cape Cod, we see gold-embossed beach flowers on the front cover, which repeat on the spine, and become blind-embossed flowers on the back. (You can read more about SWW at the University of Rochester Library.)

Another reason this edition was particularly perfect this Christmas? On Dec. 25, 1896, someone named Annie inscribed it to Frank. There’s a strange kinship-like feeling that goes along with opening this book and seeing the penciled inscription 113 years to the day that Frank did. 
AH.jpgAs part of the ongoing Libraries of Early America project, I’m pleased to announce that the known portions of Alexander Hamilton’s library are now available via LibraryThing. You can read an introduction to his collection, or browse his library here.

I’ve posted a longer piece on the Hamilton library and its challenges at PhiloBiblos, which includes some queries and requests for assistance.

The LEA project to date includes 33 completed (or in-progress) libraries from American readers up to c. 1825, with a long list of additional collections to be added.

F. Scott Speaks!

Thanks to book tours, readers have many chances to hear favorite authors read from their own work, and most writers do so admirably. (David Sedaris has made his reading appearances into a well-deserved little side-business.) 

Writers now know how to read in public simply because the practice has become so commonplace. Reading from one’s own work requires a minor subset of the same skills required for acting: a pleasant voice, a sense of timing, and the ability to make the same words that have been read in bookstores across the country for the last six weeks sound as if the writer had just scribed them.

The ritual of the book tour is a fairly contemporary development in the promotion of books.  True, Charles Dickens was the authorial equivalent of Jenny Lind when it came to making money from American tours.  But how many long-dead authors would have had the chops to read from their own works before, say, 1971, when Leonard Riggio turned Barnes and Noble into what would eventually become, to authors, “the vaudeville circuit?”

fitzgerald.jpgI became fascinated by the quest to hear the voices of favorite, but long-deceased, authors when I was hard at work many years ago writing a play about Scott Fitzgerald.  Do not get excited, because the work was never finished, but I took great enjoyment in the many writer’s blocks I encountered. Writers know that there are only two endeavors more fun than actually writing: collecting royalties and doing research.

And so, every time I hit a stumbling point, I would convince myself that I was still being productive if I did more research.  And that is how I found myself at the Princeton Library Rare Books collection.
Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library continues to impress book lovers online. The library already has several blogs and podcasts, including African American Studies, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary and Early Modern at the Beinecke. Their latest effort is Early Modern Paleography.

Starting in January, drawing from the Osborn Collection, they’ll post photographs every day from an early modern British manuscript. Each week will focus on a particular manuscript or type of manuscript. The manuscripts will range from inventories to poetry, diaries to account ledgers.

The new blog exclaims, “Early Modern Paleography is intended as a celebration of the fascinations-and perplexities-inherent in the study of early modern manuscript culture.” Be sure to bookmark it and make a resolution to come back to it time and time again in 2010.

Pictured Above: English commonplace book, early 17th century. Beinecke Library call number: Osborn b234
What saith the great bookman Larry McMurtry now? According to an Associated Press report last week, Laredo, Texas may be the largest city in the U.S. without a bookstore. Their one and only B. Dalton is closing its doors in January, leaving book-minded residents to a 150-mile drive to San Antonio if they want to visit a brick-and-mortar shop. How far to McMurtry’s ‘book town,’ Archer City? About 480 miles.

I have a couple more gift-book suggestions to propose, each one a recent arrival that came in too late to make my holiday roundup published earlier this month in Fine Books & Collections, but which I offer now as last-minute recommendations.

Girouard.JPGElizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640, by Mark Girouard; New Haven, Yale University Press, 516 pages, $65.

Mark Girouard is internationally admired for several accessible books on architecture, most famously the best-seller Live in the English Country House. This latest effort of his has all the makings of monumentally about it--a grand subject, handled by an acknowledged authority in the field, and published sumptuously in a beautiful edition. The many considerations take in social structure, craftsmanship, patronage, continental influence, and of course execution. This copiously illustrated production is published in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

JazzLoft.jpgThe Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, by Sam Stephenson; Alfred A. Knopf, 268 pages, $40.

The New York jazz scene that burst forth in a constellation of brilliance in the 1950s and ’60s, with such names as Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, Johnny Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans, is at the heart of this rich selection of material culled from the archive of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who spent eight years documenting the rich culture, exposing 1,447 rolls of film comprising some 40,000 images, in the process. His base of operations was 821 Sixth Avenue, in the heart of the flower district. Sam Stephenson spent thirteen years going through the archive, now housed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

ClassicToys.jpgClassic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame: A Celebration of the Greatest Toys of All Time, by Scott G. Eberle; Philadelphia, Running Press, 264 pages, $29.95.

What kind of great stuff is in the National Toy Hall of Fame--yes, Virginia, there is such a creature, happily installed in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York--is the subject of this evocative treat. G. I Joe, the Hula Hoop, the Radio Flyer, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons and Monopoly games, of course, but Erector sets, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and Jumbo Jacks as well, quite a feast here for the young at heart. A nice text puts it all in context; a very useful reference for toy collectors, needless to say.

GreekPoets.jpgThe Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen van Dyck; New York, W. W. Norton, 692 pages, $39.95.

A rich canon of Greek poetry, epic, drama, and lyric--even some few precious lines that survive only in fragments--are gathered in this fat anthology of 1,000 poems that spans the centuries, many of them newly translated, and appearing in English for the first time. Four eras are defined: Classical Antiquiry, Byzantium, Early Modern, and Twentieth Century. Some 186 artists in all, Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides at one extreme, Nikos Gatsos, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis at another. Quite a bounty.

China.jpgChina, principal photography by Ming Tan, edited by Guang Guo; New York, Abbeville Press, 244 pages, slipcased with a numbered print, $235.

Of all the books you might pick up showcasing the natural wonders and architectural landmarks of China, you will be hard pressed to top this truly panoramic effort, which really has pulled out all the stops in pursuit of elegance. Yes, the book is enormous--12 pounds, 18 inches by 12 inches, with a dozen gatefold spreads that open up to 44 inches, almost four feet in width, and is justified by the subject matter--the Himalayas, the Great Wall, the terracotta army of the First Qin Emperor among them. It is an amazing piece of bookmaking, not many of examples of which you are likely to see these days. The photography is crisp and beautifully reproduced, a generous gift for anyone whose passion is the history and culture of the Middle Kingdom.

VaticanBasilica.jpgThe Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica of Rome, by Pavl Letarovilly; New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 320 pages, $125.

First published posthumously in three volumes in 1882, this remarkable suite of intricate architectural drawings of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica was executed by Paul-Marie Letarovilly (1795-1855), “an acute, opinionated architect and a superb draftsman who devoted most of his professional life to a single massive enterprise: drawing and publishing the architecture of Rome from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries,”  Ingrid Rowland writes in the forward to this elegant new facsimile edition; it is published in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.
main_avatar.jpgThis year Rare Book School at the University of Virginia has announced five new courses, two of which are focused on book collecting. Provenance: Tracing Owners and Collections will be taught by David Pearson, Director of Libraries, Archives, and the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. From the course description posted on the RBS website: “Provenance research includes recognizing and deciphering various forms of ownership markings, tracing owners and their books, and understanding the value of this information. The course will focus on all these areas, and aims to give participants an improved personal toolkit for interpreting the different kinds of provenance evidence they are likely to encounter. Topics covered will include inscriptions, paleography, bookplates, heraldry, bindings as provenance evidence, sale catalogues, tracing owners, and the recording of provenance data in catalogues. The primary focus will be on pre-20th century printed books.”

Law Books: History and Connoisseurship will be offered by Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale University. According to the course description, “It is aimed at individual book collectors who collect in some aspect of the history of the law and for librarians who have custody of historical legal materials. The course will survey printed and manuscript legal materials and introduce its bibliography and curatorship. Topics include the history of the production and distribution of law books; catalogs and reference books; philosophy and techniques of collecting; and acquiring books, manuscripts, and ephemera in the antiquarian book trade.”

Says Ryan L. Roth, program director at RBS, “Collectors represent a small but loyal bunch of recent RBS attendees. One of the strengths of the RBS program is that it brings together people with different backgrounds, and collectors represent an important part of the mix.” He added, “In crafting the course schedule one challenge is to balance the need to provide general instruction with specialist topics of the sort RBS uniquely provides.”

In my humble opinion, RBS is a wonderful, rewarding experience. I attended the special collections librarianship course lead by Alice Schreyer in 2004 and have been plotting my return ever since. For those who haven’t visited the RBS site in a while, you might be surprised to learn that while the majority of the courses are held in Charlottesville in the summer, some are offered at other times of the year in Baltimore, Washington DC, and New York. 
2009_12_09_Newshouse_library_Lead.jpgWhat a problem to have, right? A few days ago, The News House reported a story about Syracuse University Library’s growing problem: too many books. To resolve this, the E.S. Bird Library at SU (where, it must be noted, I spent many hours in my undergrad days) was considering moving 100,000 volumes each year to off-site storage in order to gain more study space. It’s fairly typical for large research institutions to have such a facility, but this one would be more than four hours away. One junior English major felt that was too long, and she did something about it -- the way 21st century students can. She set up a Facebook group that attracted 350 students to oppose the Library’s plan. The result? The Library’s plans are on hold. Perhaps more budget-busting compact shelving will be the next option.

Off-site storage may seem painful to some, but new wings and new buildings are few and far between, especially these days. In order to keep adding to the collection (and thus remain a superior library), something has to go. Cushy chairs or seldom used books?
handel7.jpg The British Library has recently placed online the draft of Handel’s masterwork. Thumb through the pages of the score and see the musical genius in action. Written in 1741, Handel completed the entire oratorio in a mere 24 days. It premiered in Dublin, Ireland on April 12, 1742 with Handel leading from the harpsichord and Matthew Dubourg conducting.

The piece evolved throughout Handel’s life, and far beyond it (Mozart himself re-orchestrated it 40 years after Handel’s death), and is now a staple for orchestras and choral groups during the holidays....

Horace Walpole is a fascinating and enigmatic figure in British history, son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and one of the most famous collectors of the British eighteenth century. He has been remembered as the author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and as the creator of Strawberry Hill, his extraordinary mid-eighteenth-century Gothic Revival country house at Twickenham, in southwest London. However, he was best known to contemporaries for his collections of historical associational objects and of relics suiting his “Gothic Castle.”

Following the storied 1842 sale at Strawberry Hill of his paintings, ceramics, and relics--and thousands of books--his collections have been widely dispersed, concentrated mainly in British private and public collections and in Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT, and rarely on public view.

Until now.

Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum have collaborated to produce a truly remarkable exhibition, bringing together original letters and drawings, books, artworks, and furnishings belonging to Horace Walpole, in essence recreating the Strawberry Hill collections. As well as being a fascinating look at Strawberry Hill and Walpole himself, the exhibition conveys a great deal about the history of collecting and collections in eighteenth-century Britain.

As a book person, I found Walpole’s keen interest in association especially interesting. As Pepys did a century earlier, and as so many modern collectors have done, Walpole collected books, antiquities, and objets d’art with a particular eye towards their prior owners and prior uses, inventing a tangible sense of history with which he could--and did--surround himself. For example, he kept “curious books,” those with particularly important or meaningful associations, in a particular glass case in the Strawberry Hill library. (Some of those books, and other marvelous books and manuscripts from his library, are on view in a room that also features original sketches and architectural details of the library.)

Through January 3, 2010, the exhibition will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art, its only American destination, then moving to the V&A. It is accompanied by a brilliant collection of essays and catalog, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, edited by Michael Snodin, with the assistance of Cynthia Roman, that has been meticulously researched and finely illustrated and covers every aspect of Walpole’s collections, including a chapter on his books and manuscripts. If you’re still searching for last-minute gifts, it would be a great candidate for any bookish library (Yale University Press, $85).
This holiday season Oak Tree Fine Press is publishing three very fine editions of a book by Philip Pullman to raise money for HIV/AIDS charities. The book, A Outrance, is excerpted from Pullman’s novel Northern Lights, winner of the Carnegie Medal and the inspiration behind the film, The Golden Compass.

The book is limited to a total of 265 copies, all featuring original woodcut illustrations by three of Britain’s foremost book artists. There are, however, three editions to choose from:

The Mohawk edition (below), printed offset on Mohawk paper, bound in cloth and marbled boards, and signed by the author. There are 200 available.


The Somerset Deluxe Edition (below), of which there are 50, is printed letterpress by hand on mould-made Somerset paper. In addition to signing the book, the author has also inscribed each copy with a line of text. Slipcase included.

The Ruscombe Letterpress Art Edition is comprised of 15 unique books, printed letterpress on paper from the Ruscombe Mill in France and hand-bound by some of the world’s finest designer bookbinders. These special bindings will be exhibited at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library this upcoming week from the 15th to the 18th, before the silent auction -- which has already begun on the Oak Tree website -- is completed at midday on the 21st.

All profits go to children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in southern Africa. Oak Tree Press was established through the support of author J.M. Coetzee to raise money for this cause. It has published limited editions of many leading authors, including Doris Lessing, A.S. Byatt, Gunther Grass, and Toni Morrison. 

Kirkus Reviews, the little digest that could make or break an upcoming book with a pre-publication review, is ceasing publication.

Librarians and independent book publishers relied on Kirkus since 1933 to help make its buying decisions, The staff of Kirkus was small, but it relied on a huge network of freelance reviewers to publish as many as 5,000 reviews per year in its bi-weekly publication.

Kirkus fell victim to the trend in publishing towards conglomeration. consolidation, and, ultimately, disconnection. Kirkus had become the business equivalent of krill.

It was part of the stable of publications owned by Nielsen Business Media, which controlled such diverse titles as the Hollywood Reporter, Adweek, Back Stage, and the Clio Awards. Rumors swirled earlier this month that Lachland Murdoch (yes, that Murdoch) was about to buy the whole lot, but at the last minute, the group was purchased by a consortium of investors which included Alan Schwartz, the former Chief Executive Officer of the now-deceased Bear-Stearns and James Finkelstein, whose own conglomerate, News Communications Inc., controls publications including the Hill, covering the nation’s capital, and the Who’s Who directories.

A spokesman for Nielsen Business Media said Kirkus was “no longer aligned with our strategy.” The spokesman declined to elucidate on what that strategy was.

Kirkus will not be missed by everyone. The New York Observer has quoted literary agent Ira Silverberg as saying “Hearing about their closing reminded me that they were still publishing.”

Librarians and independent booksellers will now be free to rely on less-expensive alternatives to select their purchases: dart-boards and Ouija boards.
Another WW II veteran, John Pistone, is doing something I’m not quite sure I could bring myself to do in his circumstances: He is returning to Germany an invaluable book taken as a war-time trophy. The 87-year-old Ohio native isn’t surrendering just any book, either. The one in his possession for more than 60 years is an art book that belonged to Hitler himself.

The act of cultural kindness follows another move that I wrote about in the November issue of Fine Books. Robert Thomas returned a book in Latin about Roman law published in 1593 and a German-language review of court administration in the Duchy of Prussia published in 1578. The literary and life journeys of both men have much in common. Both served their country in WW II, were drawn to books as keepsakes from their role in defeating Hitler, and tucked the volumes away during the entire time they’ve been back in the United States. Both said that they made the decisions to return their books because it was the right thing to do.

The whole time I was interviewing Thomas, I kept trying to put myself in his shoes ... his current pair anyway. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must be like to fight in a war. I can certainly imagine bibliomadness taking over me and causing me to take books from a sight where I was helping make history.

That, however, is about as far as my certainty takes me. Could I follow in the footsteps of Pistone and Thomas? I’m not sure.

For Thomas, finding out more about his books was part of a personal quest to learn more about where he was during the two days he spent somewhere in Germany helping the Americans take control of one of Germany’s notorious salt mines. Once the National Archives in Washington D.C. helped him solve that mystery, Thomas told me that he wanted the books “to go back to their homes.”

I can’t help but suspect that I’d want to keep such treasures and pass them down for generations to come -- or figure out a way to sell them for a fortune so that a lot of money could go to my pockets. I have no sense of the market value for the kinds of books the World War II veterans parted with, and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who would even speculate on  such a number. My guess would be that such a sale could change somebody’s life.

Pistone and Thomas didn’t seem to think much about that possibility. 

Initially, I wondered why they could so easily take the actions they did. The more I think about it, though, the easier it is to understand. Their generation grew up with the values of making sacrifices and putting others before themselves. After everything those two men have done already, the unselfish act of returning cultural treasures is simply the latest expression of a personal character whose value is worth way more than what any book sale could bring.

Before you watch the PBS special, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind “Little Women,” this video will tempt your palate for more about the famed author:

For the first time in 1,000 years, the oldest known Scottish book was placed on public display today.  The medieval Psalter, complete with vivid Celtic and Pictish illustrations, is thought to have been produced on the island of Iona in the 11th century.  The book is handwritten in Latin and the illustrations depict a variety of mythological beasts.

The book is owned by the University of Edinburgh, who have been reluctant to display it until a special display case was produced for it.  Joseph Marshall, the University’s Special Collections Librarian, referred to the book as a “riot of colour.  You would think someone had gone over it with a felt-tip pen.”

The book will be on display in the exhibition room of the Main Library at the University of Edinburgh for the next three months.

You can read a longer article about the book, from the Telegraph, here.

The author Ray Bradbury has failed in his personal efforts to keep the H. P. Wright Library in Ventura, Calif., open.  Mr. Bradbury had appeared at a fund-raiser in June, but when voters rejected a recent bond measure, the library was unable to close a $650,000 deficit.

Mr. Bradbury said in an interview last summer, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries, because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Hunting for Halldór

It is important for the understanding of this post that you understand that I live three miles from Phoenicia, New York, a village that is two blocks long, but has a library.  There. That’s as much of the back story as you need to know.  Let’s begin ...

When I obsess, I like to choose something small. Let others focus in on their dysfunctional relatives, or their receding hairline, or whether Fiji will disappear when the oceans rise. Been there, neuroticised about that.

I choose to hunt in my own pack for flotsam other obessive-compulsives would ignore as chump change.

And so this is how I began my quest for what I soon decided was the most under-appreciated out-of-print novel ever written. My obsession began on a Sunday in the early 1990s.
In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Harvard Library Director and Professor Robert Darnton takes a close look at the Google Books Settlement (GBS) -- the one that was supposed to happen on Nov. 9 but was pushed to Nov. 13, and now we’re all awaiting Judge Chin’s decision on what is “likely to determine the digital future for all of us,” Darnton writes.

In this article, he also explains the cultural divide in how the U.S. government views the settlement, versus how it’s viewed by European countries. France and Germany are worried about commercialization and monopoly. The U.S. Dept. of Justice is more concerned about “risk of market foreclosure.”

The major change made to the GBS is that it is now narrowed to books published in the U.S., UK, Canada, and Australia. The bottom line: “GBS 2.0 does not therefore differ in essentials from GBS 1.0,” Darnton writes. Which makes him, and many others in the book world, quite anxious.

Are you seeking a gift for a bookish type, either an avid reader or a book collector? Can’t afford that first edition Gatsby in dustjacket but still want to give a gift that will appeal to the bibliophile? If so, welcome to my second annual list of Gift Ideas for the Bookish. To repeat the reasons for such a list from last year:

The holidays are fast approaching, and perhaps you are wondering what gift is appropriate for the bibliophile in your life. Although my enthusiasm for books is known far and wide, my family is always somewhat reticent to buy me books. They worry when they select a book for me that it’s a book I already have or it’s book I won’t like. I’m assuming I am not the only bookish type to encounter such a situation. This year I’m suggesting a few bookish gifts for bibliophiles that do not force the buyer to second-guess a bibliophile friend or relative’s particular literary taste. You can click on the links to find out pricing and shipping information for each item.

Magnetic bookmarks from Victorian Trading Company

Book Lady Hanging Ornament

The Treasure Within Secret Book Box

Penelope Print

Record Book End -- The Clash Combat Rock

Nancy Drew book cover postcards

A colorful book clock

Miniature Marbleized Book Jewelry

Happy gift hunting!

December 6 is here, kids, and there are two reasons to celebrate. Firstly, it is the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving’s delicious satire, A History of New York (For more on that, see my article in our December issue). Secondly, it is St. Nicholas Day, a holiday to honor New York’s patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. The holiday is little recognized in New York anymore but was popular among the city’s early settlers.

From The St. Nicholas Center:

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas: that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

The New York Historical Society is currently displaying Irving’s History on the second floor in the case exhibit called “American Books: Hudson River Authors.” A bit buried, perhaps, considering the season and the anniversary, but they redeem themselves with a holiday exhibit that traces the modern image of Santa from medieval bishop to jolly old guy in a red suit. You can also see the desk of Clement Clarke Moore (disputed author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (1822), better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

In “Preserving the Library in the Digital Age,” Tufts University history professor Benjamin L. Carp confesses, “I’ll always be a stack rat.” His vision of the future of libraries finds a place for digitized materials and the real thing. His essay appears in the November 2009 issue of The Readex Report. Readex publishes digital historical collections such as the Archive of Americana, which includes early American imprints and historical newspapers.

A book of poetry published in 1827 by an author happy to identify himself simply as “A Bostonian” has sold for $662,500 at Christie’s. The real author? Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe was born in Boston, but left when his parents, traveling actors, made their exit. After the death of his mother, he was abandoned by his father and deposited upon a foster family in Richmond, VA. Years later, he returned to Boston, where he published several small volumes of poetry.

Out of 50 self-published copies of “Tamerlane,” only 12 are still known to exist, and, of those, only two are in private hands.

The buyer at the Christie’s auction was not identified.

The name “Tamerlane” is a Latinized version of “Timur Lenk,” a 14th-century warlord, though little of the poem is historically accurate. In the poem, Tamerlane forsakes his love of a peasant girl in order to seek power, a decision he regrets, of course, once he’s on his death bed. A warning to peasant girls everywhere: warlords make lousy childhood sweethearts.

Back in November, Jonathan Shipley posted an entry on scientists studying the unique smell of old books.  Now you can dose your body in the same scent thanks to Christopher Brosius Limited, a New York based perfumery dedicated to unusual smells.  Brosius’ perfume “In the Library” is based on “a signed first edition of one of my favorite novels, Russian and Morocco leather bindings, worn cloth, and a hint of wood polish.”


In short, you can smell like an antiquarian bookstore.  A scent that is irresistible to members of the opposite sex.  One assumes.

The Klingon Hamlet.jpg
The question is, that’s been nagging at you, “I love the works of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, but I wish I could hear that most famous soliloquy in Klingon. Is that ever going to be possible?!” Yes.
Isn’t it heart-warming to know that there are still serious writers and publishers out there - the kind who labor over short stories? Yesterday a new literary magazine was launched. The Folio Club, an independently published literary zine in book form, is dedicated to the art of prose narrative. It has an absolutely gorgeous cover (pictured above), designed by Onsmith, an indie artist known for his comic art.

This 96-page debut issue features the work of Romy Ashby (author of The Cutmouth Lady, editor of Goodie Magazine,and songwriter for the legendary rock band Blondie), and Mark Saba, a poet, storyteller, and essayist. Robert Pranzatelli is the founding editor, publisher, and a contributor. The idea behind the publication is to fuse underground values with polished literary prose, with a splash of comic art. Named for an unfinished sketch by Edgar Allan Poe that depicted a dysfunctional writer’s group, The Folio Club is slated to publish twice yearly.

The Folio Club is available through Amazon for $9. A good buy for your literary zine or comic art collection...
Times are supposed to be tough, right? The market is flat, people are cutting back, collectors, like everyone else, are supposedly hunkering down. That may well be true, but one must be ever mindful of human nature when it involves the desire to own great stuff. This was best expressed to me some years ago by the eminent bookman Stephen Massey on whether or not he was concerned that a hot prospect would return to bid on a coveted item after being rude during a preliminary visit to an auction gallery, and told to leave the building. “If the book’s good enough,” Massey said, “they will always call back--they will crawl--if they really want the book.”

GWLet.jpgWhich brings me to yesterday’s sale of fine printed books, manuscripts and Americana at Christie’s in New York, which totaled $6.4 million for 144 lots, or 82 percent of the 197 lots put on the block. Fully half of the money spent, $3.2 million, went for a 1787 letter written by George Washington to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, urging adoption of the new Constitution, pictured here, a world record for a Washington document of any sort. A ton of money, to be sure, but not a big surprise, given the uniqueness of the item, and its unquestioned value as both collectible and historical artifact. The same can be said for the $830,000 and $362,000 spent, respectively, for two lots of manuscript verses in the hand of Edgar Allan Poe’, also unique.

Thumbnail image for PoeTam.jpgBut then we come to the copy of Poe’s Tamerlane, for the past nineteen years the property of the distinguished Hollywood television producer William E. Self, which sold for $662,500, a record for a 19th-century book of poetry at auction. That was a cool half-million dollars more than Self paid for it in 1990 at the H. Bradley Martin sale in New York, an exciting contest I witnessed, and which persuaded me to set up an interview with Self for A Gentle Madness (pp. 420-426). “I don’t think you can say you ever have a great Poe collection,” he told me then, “unless you have a Tamerlane.” Another notable item in yesterday’s sale: $218,500 for an 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass--like the Tamerlane, self-published by the author, making the pair, probably, the two most valuable vanity books in American literary history.

Thumbnail image for CormacType.jpgAnd then there is the matter of Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, which the New York Times wrote about a few days before the sale, an old Olivetti manual that the author bought around 1960 for $50, and on which he banged out, by his own estimate, some 5 million words, including the texts of all his books. Christie’s estimated the machine, now inoperable, might bring in $15,000 to $20,000, with a pet McCarthy charity, the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, to receive all the proceeds.

So what happens in yesterday’s sale? A winning bid of $254,500 for what, in the collecting world, is known simply as a “material object,” an item that by itself has no scholarly value whatsoever, and is coveted strictly for its relationship to the source of creativity. This is-what Reynolds Price told me had motivated him to buy a particular copy of  Paradise Lost, not because of its textual importance, but because it was the copy owned by the daughter who took John Milton’s dictation during his years of blindness. “For me, it was like the apostolic succession,” Price said. “I was touching the hand that touched the hand that touched the Hand.”

A final note: According to Christies, eight of the top ten purchases were made by private individuals, all but one of them Americans; a British dealer was listed as the buyer of a Charles Dickens lot, $158,500 for Nicholas Nickelby; an American dealer paid $182,500 for a copy of Poe’s The Raven and Other Poems.
Auction Guide