January 2019 Archives

Quite a range of auctions this week to keep an eye on, including three sales on Tuesday, January 22:

  

At Bunch Auctions, a combined sale of Rare Books & Fine Prints and Native American Artifacts. A first edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, with a tipped-in Dickens letter to Ticknor & Fields and other extra material included, is expected to lead the way at $18,000-26,000. Also to be had are a first issue of Oliver Twist ($8,000-10,000) and a number of other important Dickens lots, as well as a 1681 William Penn indenture ($4,000-6,000).

  

Books and Manuscripts, in 216 lots, will be sold at Il Ponte in Milan. A few highlights are expected to include a copy of La Pérouse’s Voyage (1797) and a 1478 Venice edition of Pomponio Mela’s Cosmographia, both estimated at €6,000-9,000; a Hebrew book in a silver binding is estimated at €3,000-5,000, and a modern fascimile portolan chart (c.1960) based on a sixteenth-century Italian original could fetch €5,000-8,000.

  

Morton Subastas sells Mexican Historical Documents and Books, in 230 lots. George Wilkins Kendall’s 1851 work The War Between the United States and Mexico is estimated at $350,000-400,000. A reissue of the collection of lithographs published as México y sus Alrededores, originally published in 1855, could sell for as much as $150,000-200,000. Mateo Ximénez’s book of engravings depicting the life of Sebastián de Aparicio y del Prado (Rome, 1789) is estimated at $100,000-120,000, as is a copy of Lorenzana’s Historia de la Nueva España (Mexico City, 1770). An album containing photos and autographs of Mexican actresses of the early twentieth century is estimated at $50,000-60,000.

  

On Wednesday, January 23, University Archives sells Autographed Documents, Manuscripts, Photos & Books, in 260 lots. Handwritten and signed lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” are estimated at $50,000-60,000, and a 1786 letter from John Paul Jones to Thomas Jefferson (as American minister to France) could sell for $24,000-26,000. What is described as the longest J.D. Salinger autograph letter ever offered at auction ($8,000-9,000) will also be up for grabs.

  

Also on Wednesday, Rare Books & Works on Paper at Chiswick Auctions, in 337 lots.

  

PBA Galleries sells a Mid-Winter Miscellany Part II, with Illustrated and Children’s Books, on Thursday, January 24. Prices are mostly expected to be in the three-figure range for this 377-lot sale, and lots from 249 through the end are being sold without reserve.

  

Rounding out the week’s sales is Thursday’s Fine Manuscript and Printed Americana auction at Sotheby’s New York. The 189-lot sale caps Americana Week at the auction house and contains a huge number of very impressive items. Rating the top presale estimate, at $800,000-1,200,000, is a copy of the extremely rare broadside announcing the American ratification of the Treaty of Paris, printed by John Dunlap at Annapolis in early 1784 (pictured). This is just one of two known copies featuring the embossed seal of the United States and signed by both the President and Secretary of Congress.

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A copy of the 1823 Stone facsimile of the Declaration of Independence on vellum, inscribed by John Quincy Adams to Thomas Emory--then serving as the President of Maryland’s Governor’s Council--is described by Sotheby’s as the only known copy in private hands to have passed by descent from the original recipient; it is estimated at $600,000-800,000. A fascinating 1757 letter from George Washington to Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie about the rights of British Americans could fetch $300,000-400,000, while a copy of the first book printing of the Declaration of Independence in a sammelband volume with other important Revolutionary War pamphlets is estimated at $300,000-500,000.

  

Image credit: Sotheby’s

For thirty-five years, New York’s Westsider Rare & Used Books has held court at 2246 Broadway (between 80th and 81st Streets), but increased pressure from larger stores--there’s a Barnes & Noble on W. 82nd and the recently resurrected Shakespeare & Co. is at W. 69th and 70th--e-retail, and rising operating costs led owners Dorian Thornley and Bryan Gonzalez to announce that they will be closing their doors in February. (Westsider Records, also owned by Thornley and Gonzalez, will remain open.)


When pressed what it would take to keep the store open, Thornley replied--perhaps in a moment of exasperation--$50,000.                                                                                                                                                                 

Longtime friend Bobby Panza heard Thornley and set up a GoFundMe campaign, which, since launching on January 15, has already raised nearly $25,000.                                                                                                                           

“Of course we’d like to keep Westsider open,” explained Gonzalez early Thursday morning. “Dorian and I purchased the shop seventeen years ago from the previous owners, and we were employees here before that. But the book market has changed, and even though we do have loyal customers, the cost of doing business here in Manhattan is getting too expensive.” Indeed, empty storefronts seem to dot this stretch of the Upper West Side with greater regularity, part of a larger trend confirmed by a recent Douglas Elliman survey finding that 20 percent of the city’s retail space is vacant. (See the New York Times’ recent infographic documenting the commercial blight sweeping Manhattan in “This Space Available.”)


Westsider is something of a local landmark and recalls the halcyon days of used bookstores in Manhattan. The shop even had cameos in Woody Allen’s Fading Gigolo and Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck. “It’s one of the last remnants of the West Side as it used to be,” wrote GoFundMe supporter Daniel Okrent. “I actually shop here,” added Westsider regular Maggie McComas. “Last week [I] bought a biography of Wendy Wasserstein and one of Deborah Tannen’s books.”


And if the fundraising campaign succeeds? “We’re not sure how far $50,000 will take us--we haven’t really sat down and crunched the numbers,” said Gonzalez. If Westsider does in fact close, however, expect a fire sale of current stock.


Aside from skyrocketing costs of doing business in Manhattan, Gonzalez pointed to readers’ changing habits, too. “When you get on the subway, everyone’s reading--they’re just doing it on a Kindle.”


Interested in contributing? Click here.

Woodstock50 Logo.jpgThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the music festival known simply as Woodstock. As just about everyone knows by now, the festival was not held in Woodstock, New York--although anyone who visits the town today would not be disappointed by the amount of tie-dye and goodwill to be found there--and neither will this 50th anniversary edition, opting instead for the larger space at Watkins Glen International Speedway. From August 16-18, the festival’s original producers are planning to bring both music and social activism to a new generation of concert-goers, the children, or more likely, the grandchildren, of original attendees. In a press release, Woodstock 1969’s co-producer and co-founder Michael Lang commented, “The original festival in ‘69 was a reaction by the youth of the time to the causes we felt compelled to fight for - civil rights, women’s rights, and the antiwar movement, and it gave way to our mission to share peace, love and music. Today, we’re experiencing similar disconnects in our country, and one thing we’ve learned is that music has the power to bring people together. So, it’s time to bring the Woodstock spirit back, get involved and make our voices heard.”

Freemans Woodstock.jpgApropos to all this, a vintage Woodstock poster--the iconic red poster featuring a stylized dove perched on the fretboard of a guitar--is headed to auction on January 31 in Philadelphia. Designed by Arnold Skolnick, the groovy poster advertises “3 Days of Peace & Music,” in White Lake, NY, and features the names of performers like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. The estimate is $800-1,200.

As you can see above, Woodstock 50’s logo riffs on Skolnick’s dove, and indeed the organization tweeted last week, “The Bird of Peace is Back,” when it unveiled its plans.

Image (top) Courtesy of Woodstock Ventures; (middle) Courtesy of Freeman’s Auction

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Elizabeth Lisa Cruces, Hispanic Collections Archivist and Librarian at University of Houston Libraries:

IMG_0576.jpgWhat is your role at your institution?
 
Hispanic Collections Archivist and Librarian
 
How did you get started in special collections?
 
I found Special Collections during a historic preservation and public history internship shortly after graduating from undergrad with my degree in History. In the course of conducting research for a preservation project, I sort of stumbled into archives and shortly thereafter special collections librarianship. It was exciting to find a profession that brought together service, education and history.

  

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

University of Texas at Austin, Master of Science in Information Studies, 2012


  

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

Doodles by Jorge Luis Borges


  

What do you personally collect?

Zines


  

What do you like to do outside of work?


  

Spend time with friends, hike, travel


  

What excites you about special collections librarianship?


  

What excites me most about special collections librarianship is the movement towards making it a more inclusive and diverse--both in terms of the bibliographic objects and the make-up of the individuals in the profession. I really appreciate the strides organizations such as Rare Book School is making towards including more non-Western materials and formats into bibliography. 

    
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
  
The future is bright!


  

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
 
Houston Beyond Convention: The Photography of Ben DeSoto, 1980-present


  

Houston Beyond Convention: The Photography of Ben DeSoto, 1980-present reflects on nearly four decades of work, past and present, produced by Houstonian Ben Tecumseh DeSoto, whose career spans genres of photography and a diversity of human experiences. After discovering his love for what he has called the “scientific magic” of the photographic process, DeSoto followed his passion for photography to a career chronicling his city. DeSoto has consistently challenged the viewer to see beyond static images of Houston, to look more deeply instead at the individual or community narrative behind the photograph.
 
Presented thematically, the exhibit showcases DeSoto’s documentation of Houston: portraits of local visual artists and musicians from fringe music and arts scenes, fine art photography, journalism, as well as his life’s work, the Understanding Poverty Project. Through photographs, news clippings, and audiovisual materials, Houston Beyond Convention: The Photography of Ben DeSoto, 1980-present tells the story of Houston--across class and race--and forces the viewer to move beyond conventional thinking.

Image provided by Elizabeth Lisa Cruces

Opening later this week is an exhibition fraught with forgeries. That’s by design. It’s the collection of William Voelkle, the curator emeritus of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library and Museum, who recently retired after fifty years with the august institution. (He also wrote a fabulous article for us last year on bejeweled bindings). For five decades, Voelkle has sought fake illuminated manuscript leaves and miniatures, particularly the work of the Spanish Forger, on whom he published a book in 1978.

The exhibition, titled Holy Hoaxes: A Beautiful Deception Celebrating William Voelkle’s Collecting, will premiere in New York on Thursday at Les Enluminures, a gallery that specializes in manuscripts founded by Sandra Hindman. “It’s with much pleasure that we mount this exhibition to celebrate William Voelkle’s collection,” said Hindman. “I myself have long worked on fakes, forgeries, and copyists of medieval manuscripts, and this occasion helps me acknowledge my debt to Bill’s groundbreaking work.”

The works on display include both items that were sold as “real” but later unmasked by Voelkle, and those sold as known fakes. Nothing on exhibit is for sale; it is purely a showcase of the collector’s passion and dedication to his subject of choice. Here are a few highlights:

Les Enluminures - St. Martha taming the Tarasque - Spanish Forger copy.jpg“St. Martha Taming the Tarasque,” one of the largest panel paintings by the Spanish Forger, was made to evoke the Renaissance but was really made in the early twentieth century and was acquired by Voelkle in 1974.

PR 3_Gehze Henetuch MS St George 018 copy.jpgA bogus illustration in a late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century Ethiopian codex, supplied by the Synkessar Miniature Forger.

PR 4_Chirst in Majesty Spanish copy.jpg“Christ in Majesty,” once believed to be a twelfth-century production, is actually a clever nineteenth-century forgery. It was withdrawn from a Christie’s auction in 1987.

Read more in this Q & A between Voelkle and Hindman published by Art & Object. The exhibit runs through February 2. Several special lectures are also planned; check here for details.

Images courtesy of Les Enluminures

On Tuesday, January 15, Heritage Auctions in Dallas will sell the John Silverstein Collection of African American Social History, in 383 lots. James Van Der Zee’s Eighteen Photographs (1974), a portfolio of photographs taken between 1905 and 1938, has an opening bid of $8,750. A collection of more than a hundred letters from Charles A. Hill to his wife Lydia relating to his Civil War service in the 1st Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops has a reserve of $7,500. A poster believed to be the first use of black panther imagery, issued for a voter drive in Lowndes County, Alabama and predating the formation of the Black Panther Party, is currently bid up to $4,200. A collection of forty-one issues of the National Anti-Slavery Standard has an opening bid of $2,000.

  

Kestenbaum & Company holds an online sale of Printed Books, Holy Land Maps, Posters & Jewish Graphic Art on Thurday, January 17. The 173 lots include a 1917 poster issued as part of a campaign in which Russian Jews were to be allowed to elect members of their own Congress ($4,000-6,000) and a 1929 poster for the second lottery held by OZET, the Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land ($3,000-5,000; pictured). A copy of the 1518 Basle edition of Trithemius’ Polygraphiae also rates a $3,000-5,000 estimate. At $2,000-3,000 we find a four-sheet copy of the Tabula Peutingeriana, showing the layout of the roads of the Roman Empire. A number of early printed books and a good selection of maps to be had in this sale.

  

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Among the 484 lots in the Collection of Anne H. & Frederick Vogel III, to be sold at Sotheby’s New York on Saturday, Janaury 19 there are a few Audubon plates, including the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker ($50,000-80,000); the Fish Hawk (Osprey) at $30,000-50,000; and the Ruffed Grouse ($20,000-30,000), among others. A framed copy of the fourth state of John Smith’s map of New England is estimated at $20,000-30,000, as is a copy of the second edition of William Wood’s New England’s Prospect.

  

Image credit: Kestenbaum & Company

Ah, January: that month touted as the time to refresh everything from one’s diet and wellness to home decor. Why not apply the same mentality to your daily Insta scroll with some new bibliocentric feeds.

  

Special collections libraries, rare booksellers and collectors have embraced Instagram as an ideal platform to virtually share their treasures with the world. Fellow FB&C writer Nate Pedersen wrote the inaugural “rare Books on Instagram” post back in 2016, profiling institutional accounts like those of the British Library (@britishlibrary), the American Antiquarian Society (@americanantiquarian), and others. Follow-up posts looked at librarian accounts and collector feeds. Keeping with that theme, below, in no particular order, are ten noteworthy institutional Instagram accounts that excel at showcasing rare books, manuscripts, and other works on paper.                                

  

Don’t have an Instagram account? No problem: All of these accounts are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.                                                                                                                                  

La Bibliothèque nationale France (@labnf)

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The Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide (@uofaspecialcollections)

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The New York Public Library (@nypl)

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Musée de Cluny (@museecluny

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The Harry Ransom Center (@ransomcenter

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The Emily Dickinson Museum (@emilydickinson.museum

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The Printing Museum (@theprintingmuseum)

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The HuntingtonLibrary (@thehuntingtonlibrary)

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The Johns Hopkins University (@jhuspecialcollections)

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The Alaska Digital Newspaper Project (@alaskahistoricalnewspapers)

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It’s not often that we hear breaking news about medieval manuscripts or, more especially, women’s role in manuscript production. But here we are! In a fascinating (and open-access) article published yesterday in the journal Science Advances, researchers have concluded that the rare blue pigment known as ultramarine, being present in the dental plaque of an 11th- or 12th-century nun’s skeleton unearthed in rural Germany, provides proof of women’s work on illuminated medieval manuscripts. Specifically, it is suggested, the women acted as painters and illuminators -- painting and licking the tip of the brush, according to Monica Tromp, study co-author and microbioarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

F2.large.jpgUltramarine, made from the lapis lazuli stone, is “rare and expensive as gold,” the researchers note in the article. “Within the context of medieval art, the application of highly pure ultramarine in illuminated works was restricted to luxury books of high value and importance, and only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use.”

They go on to conclude, as summarized in the article’s abstract, that “The early use of this pigment by a religious woman challenges widespread assumptions about its limited availability in medieval Europe and the gendered production of illuminated texts.”

More on this story in the Atlantic, CNN, and the New York Times.

Image: Blue particles observed embedded within archaeological dental calculus. Credit: C. Warinner (A); M. Tromp and A. Radini (B to I).

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New York based rare book dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil, owner of the largest known collection of Chinese photography in private hands, currently has 120 early Chinese photographs on exhibition at the Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing.

  

The exhibition covers the 1850s, when the first Western photographers arrived in China, through the 1880s, and offers an exceedingly rare glimpse into the daily lives and landscapes of a country previously known to the West only through paintings and travelouges. It includes examples of early photographic technology, such as albumen prints and the “wet plate” process.

   

“People wanted to bring back great images that they could sell in other places,” said Loewentheil in an interview with CNN. “People who traveled there, everyone from diplomats and businessmen to missionaries, all wanted to bring home a record of this beautiful culture of China that was so unique.”

  

In addition to photographs taken by visiting Westerners, Loewentheil’s collection and exhibition contain numerous examples of photographs taken by early Chinese photographers who acquired their equipment from departing Westerners or designed their own cameras after observing Western cameras in action.

  

“Photography is the greatest preserver of history,” Loewentheil said, in the same interview. “For many years, the written word was the way that history was transmitted. But the earliest photography preserves culture in China, and elsewhere, as it had been for many hundreds of years because it was simultaneous with the technological revolutions that were to change everything.”

  

Lowentheil’s eventual goal is to house his collection, with over 15,000 photographs, in China. In the meantime, the exhibition in on display at Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing through the end of March.

  

Image from Tsinghua University Art Museum

 

The Winter Show, a fair dedicated to art, antiques, and design, returns to the Park Avenue Armory in New York City on January 18 for its 65th annual run. And this year, Nantucket, the tiny island known as much for its whaling history as for its upscale beaches, is a focal point. One of the fair highlights, for example, is this lithograph from 1881 by Beck & Pauli depicting a bird’s-eye view of Nantucket. It is being exhibited by the well known Philadelphia map and print dealer Graham Arader.

23 Arader Galleries_Birds Eye View of Nantucket copy.jpgThe offering is apropos to the Winter Show’s loan exhibition, Collecting Nantucket, Connecting the World, which celebrates 125 years of collecting by the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA). It will present an array of exceptional paintings, craft, and folk arts related to the beautiful summer vacation spot. On Saturday, January 19 at 2:00, the director of the NHA will speak to this in “Connecting the World: 125 Years of Collecting on Nantucket.” And, relatedly, Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, will give a lecture on the enduring power of Moby-Dick on the fair’s final day, Sunday, January 27, at 2:00.

Image courtesy of Third Eye/The Winter Show

A return to action in the auction rooms this week, with two sales on Thursday, January 10:
  

quixote.pngForum Auctions holds an online sale of Books and Works on Paper, in 174 lots. A complete-to-date set of the definitive edition of the works of Voltaire (121 volumes published between 1969 and 2018) is estimated at £1,500-2,000, while a copy of the 38-volume Centenary Limited Edition of Churchill’s works could fetch £1,000-1,500. A collection of 155 vellum-bound (or at least vellum-spined) volumes is estimated at £600-800. Other items of interest here include a New Jersey manuscript receipt book from the 1820s (£200-300); a large collection of bookseller and auction catalogues (£200-300); and a collection of about 600 20th-century Portuguese bookplates (£200-300; one pictured). There are also several large lots of bibliographies and other bibliographical publications.

  

At PBA Galleries, Literature of the 19th & 20th Centuries, with the Glenn Todd Collection of Arion Press & Beat Literature, in 433 lots. The top-estimated lot is the Arion Press edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems (1990), with an additional suite of six etchings by Richard Diebenkorn ($15,000-25,000). Glenn Todd’s copy of the Arion Press Moby-Dick (1979) is estimated at $10,000-15,000. The Arion Press edition of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste (1994) rates a $7,000-10,000 estimate.

  

Beyond the impressive Arion Press selection, expected highlights from this sale include a rebacked first printing of Tom Sawyer ($4,000-6,000); a signed first edition of John Williams’ Stoner ($2,000-3,000); a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a later laid-in inscription by Stowe ($2,000-3,000). A complete collection of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, with some related ephemera, is also estimated at $2,000-3,000. Lots 337-443 are being sold without reserve.

  

Image courtesy of Forum Auctions

US Freedom Pavilion The Boeing Center.jpg

  

New Orleans has a rich literary history--William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Walker Percy, and many others called the Big Easy home or featured it in their work. And now, the city’s National World War II Museum offers veterans a haven for their stories of war and sacrifice.


Over two decades ago, authors and historians Stephen Ambrose and Nick Muller originally envisioned a museum in recognition of New Orleans-based manufacturer Andrew Higgins, whose landing craft, vehicle, personnel (LCVP) boats ferried platoons onto the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The D-Day Museum opened in 2000 but by 2003 had outgrown its original scope, when it was redesignated the official National World War II Museum by Congress. (Note: As an independent non-profit, the museum is unaffected by the current government shutdown.) Today, the six-acre campus sprawls across the city’s Historic Warehouse District and offers sweeping immersive and interactive displays exploring WWII and its aftermath.


And the museum isn’t done growing: by January 2020, the Liberation Pavilion will open to the public: a three-story building encompassing a second-floor library with space for 22,000 volumes.


“Currently, we’ve got approximately 10,000 written and oral histories from WWII veterans that will be housed in the new library,” said Toni Kiser, the museum’s assistant director for collections management. “Some of these histories were originally collected by Ambrose for his books like Band of Brothers and D-Day, while others arrived as part of larger acquisitions.” The testimonials vary by length and scope. Some veterans put pen to paper when the war was still fresh in their minds and had their memoirs printed, bound, and even distributed. Others are more modest and informal, spanning a few pages at best.

    

Road to Tokyo1.jpg

  

Some of the memoirs exist only as oral histories committed to film--Ambrose conducted many such interviews for his books, for example. Conversely, some recorded narratives have lost their original visual or aural component. “Interestingly, Ambrose would use the same tape to record his interviews--after transcribing each interview, he would record over the old interview with a new one,” explained Kiser. “Other, older oral histories came to us on VHS. The museum is having them digitized and transcribed so that anyone who comes in can access them.”


Kiser hopes that these memoirs will help future generations to understand this war once open to the public. Though non-lending, the library will be open to scholars and other visitors. “We’re getting to the point where most of the veterans from WWII have passed away. And each story is a unique wartime experience. These memoirs will serve as a beacon for future generations as a reminder of what these brave men fought for and what the war meant for America.”

   

Images: Courtesy of the National WWII Museum

What were some of the biggest stories in 2018? According to our stats, Fine Books readers love Lovecraft--no kidding--and Robin Williams. You’re also interested in cookbooks, illuminated manuscripts, and rare book theft. Missed out on these hot topics? Read on:

#1 H.P. Lovecraft’s Bible is For Sale
Lovecraft’s legions of fans bid his family’s 1881 bible up to (spoiler alert) $4,750.

Walden.png#2 Robin Williams’ Rare Books at Auction
Fifteen rare books that once belonged to the late, great actor went to auction, among them a first edition of Walden (pictured at left) and an Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick.

#3 New Culinary Bookshop to Open in Brooklyn
A.N. Devers broke the big news that Lizz Young was opening a new bookshop in Brooklyn devoted to “cooking, cocktails, and culture.”

#4 Where to See Illuminated Manuscripts
A round-up of major exhibitions of illuminated manuscripts last year.

#5 New Rare Books Heist Film
The book world was buzzing about American Animals, a film based on a real-life special collections robbery in 2004. (I liked it.)

Looking for more fine Fine Books stories? Check out 2017’s top ten.

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

For the past three years, we have checked in with consumate reader Linda Aragoni of the Great Penformances blog for her appraisal of the bestseller list from a century ago. (See 20172016, and 2015 respectively). This year we continue the tradition, finding out about the books that topped the list in 1918.  Here are the 1918 bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly:

  

  1. The U.P. Trail by Zane GreyGrey.jpg
  2. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair
  3. The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  4. Dere Mable by Edward Streeter
  5. Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter
  6. Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell
  7. The Major by Ralph Connor
  8. The Pawns Count by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton Porter
  10. Sonia by Stephen McKenna

What was your favorite book of 1918?

  

I have two books nearly tied for my top spot, each by a famous woman writer of many bestsellers, each usual for the author, and both really rather unusual for their time.

   

The first is Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, known for light romances, the other is The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart, best known for her mysteries. In Daughter of the Land, Stratton-Porter avoids her usual too-good leading characters and too-pat solutions and tells a story that feels true. Kate Bates wants the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.  The best Kate can hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.” The teenage Kate leaves home to seek her fortune. Kate makes a lot of mistakes, many of which are thoughtless choices made under the physical and emotional stress of being a single woman in a male-dominated world. Some of her other mistakes can’t be so easily excused. But Kate always learns from her mistakes, she works hard, she’s kind to people, and she’s trustworthy. Kate gets a happy ending, but she has to work for it.

  

The Amazing Interlude is also about a quite ordinary young woman who defies the norms in a low key, non-militant way.

  

Sara Lee Kennedy is engaged to a dull, boring guy who is all that’s on offer in her small town. When news reaches the town about conditions at the Front, Sara goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers. While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food as shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because she should be at home tending to his wants. Harvey gets the church women, already suffering from compassion fatigue, to stop funding Sara’s work, forcing her to come home. When she arrives home, Sara isn’t the person Harvey knew. She has a totally different perspective on herself and on America’s role in the world.

  

How about your least favorite novel from 1918?

  

The Major by Ralph Connor. The subject matter made it a best seller: It was the first real, from-the-battlefield novel, and it was written by a Canadian who enlisted and served on the Western Front as an army chaplain. The Major reminds me of the worst of Stratton-Porter: superficial characters and a too-pat ending.

  

Do you think modern audience would enjoy in particular any of the 1918 bestsellers?

  

When I review older fiction, my goal actually is to find what contemporary readers would like and/or profit from reading, so my two top picks would certainly appeal to today’s audience. Both Daughter of the Land and The Amazing Interlude have enthusiastic reviews at Amazon and Good Reads from contemporary readers.

  

Neither Daughter nor Interlude is great literature, but both are durable stories with a lot more to teach today’s teenage girls and their parents than, for example, Anne of Green Gables. And Sara’s understanding of what it means to be an American is, I think, particularly pertinent in this political climate to people of any age.

  

Both novels are available in reprints, as well as from used book sellers, and can be found on Project Gutenberg.

  

Would you add any of the 1918 bestsellers to your permanent library?

 

My top picks deserve a place there, but something else has to go to make room for them.

  

Any other comments about the 1918 bestsellers?

  

Prior to 1918, the only novel about World War I to appear on the bestseller lists was Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells in 1916. Mr. Britling is a semi-autobiographical story about the war as seen by people who didn’t fight in it. 

  

Starting in 1918, novels by people who had actually been on battlefields began to pop up on the bestseller lists. They keep appearing up through the start of the World War II.

  

Anything to look forward to from the 1919 list?

  

Another Rinehart: Dangerous Days. It is a novel about an American family in the steel industry from 1916 through Armistice Day, 1918. It’s definitely worth reading.

    

Image from Sweet Beagle Books via Abebooks

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