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Literary forgers have plied their trade as long as there’s been something worth copying, “creating” purely for financial reasons or simply being able to get away with it. Throughout history, some forgers have been content to “gild the lily,” so to speak, while others attempted to rewrite history. Some fakes were so good they did alter history.

Notable literary hoaxes include a document in Emperor Constantine’s hand circa 756 AD that donated land to the Catholic Church. Scholar Lorenzo Valla proved it was a fake in 1440, but the Church suppressed Valla’s findings until 1929 when it finally returned the land in question to Italy.

Sometimes, forgers were seeking approval. In 1794, eighteen-year-old William Henry (W.H.) Ireland showed his bookseller father (and Shakespeare aficionado) a mortgage bearing the Bard’s signature, which happened to turn up in the law office where young W.H. worked. More Shakespeare papers continued to miraculously appear out of this same office, including a love letter and a hitherto unknown Shakespeare play called Vortigern. The Irelands showed the script to a local theater operator, who smelled something fishy but went along with the charade, going so far as to stage it. But the actors, unwilling to play along, eviscerated it in its solo performance, thoroughly mocking Vortigern to the point that W.H. eventually confessed his forgeries. His poor father, meanwhile, insisted until his death that the discoveries were real.

Even Renaissance antiquarians were duped by fabricated testimonies. French humanists like Francois Rabelais believed that Latin texts itemizing the existence of ancient Roman relics beneath modern cities were authentic. In fact, these bogus “revelations” were created by 16th-century forgers cashing in on humanists’ desires to verify their noble Roman heritage.

forgery.JPGBook collections have been intentionally built around forgeries as well--Arthur and Janet Freeman amassed over 1,700 volumes of literary fakes, dubbed the Bibliotheca Fictiva, which was acquired in 2011 by Johns Hopkins University. This collection inspired the recently published Literary Forgery in Early Modern Europe, edited by Walter Stephens, Earle A. Havens, and Janet E. Gomez (Johns Hopkins Press, $54.95). Thirteen essays composed by some of the world’s leading humanities scholars explore the notion that early forgeries form their own literary genre and, rather than being derided as knock-offs, fakes are very much worthy of serious scholarship.

Truth-twisting, outright fabrication, and efforts to uncover forgeries through history make for entertaining academic investigations, revealing the thin line between what’s real and what isn’t, and why so many people, from collectors to scholars, are willing to overlook inaccuracies.

Victorian art critic John Ruskin got it half right when he wrote in 1843 that, “the essence of lying is in the deception, not in words.” Literary Forgery argues that it’s both.

One of several thoughts that occurred to me while reading the immensely enjoyable new book Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children was that a collection of Victorian parenting guides could be a fun “new path” (as John Carter might have put it) for beginning book collectors. In this book, author Therese Oneill uses a selection of nineteenth-century advice books to describe child-rearing techniques that surprise and shock, e.g. feeding infants donkey milk is good, but fruit is bad; beating a child with a shoe is recommended, but too much education for girls is not. Oneill keeps it light and tongue-in-cheek, a perfect complement to her first book, Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners.

But I digress. Throughout Ungovernable, and then collected in the bibliography at the end, Oneill points out her source material, thus creating a good starter list for a collection in this subject. Here are some she mentions:

Mother at Home .jpgJohn S.C. Abbott’s The Mother at Home, or The Principles of Maternal Duty, Familiarly Illustrated (New York: Harper, 1855). (The 1852 edition pictured here courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

Thomas Bull’s The Maternal Management of Children, in Health and Disease (New York: Appleton, 1849).

A Few Suggestions to Mothers on the Management of Their Children by “A. Mother” [pseud.] (London: Churchill, 1884).

Theodore Dwight’s The Father’s Book ... (Boston: Merriam, 1835).

Depending upon condition and edition, these are books that can be found in the three-figure range, ideal for budding collectors.

That said, Oneill’s book would make a great Mother’s Day gift, even if the mother you’re buying it for has no interest at all in book collecting.

Few names bestir the hearts of book collectors and die-hard bibliophiles as much as Shakespeare and Gutenberg. Two new non-fiction books adroitly capitalize on that fact, adding the element of suspense to their narratives. Both are riveting reads, but let’s peel back the covers just a bit.

9781640091832_FC-275x413.jpgOn the heels of his book, The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, published in the U.S. last spring, Stuart Kells now offers Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Counterpoint, $26). In short, the “mystery” is where did Shakespeare’s book collection go? Did he own books, and if so, why have we never discovered them? These are questions that sting in the realm of rare books because it’s hard to imagine a literary lion without at least one bookcase of coveted titles, and yet none have ever been found containing any evidence of ownership that connects them to the famous poet and playwright -- at least not with any degree of certainty; let’s not forget that two antiquarian booksellers announced in 2014 their discovery of a sixteenth-century dictionary that they believe Shakespeare annotated, which Kells touches upon but too slightly.


Locating Shakespeare’s missing library is both a personal quest for Kells and his wife, Fiona, and an academic one, and Kells is our congenial tour guide throughout, visiting the various book hunters who have tried and failed to get ahold of the Bard’s books. One of the interesting, if unconvincing, theories put forth is that Shakespeare was not such a genius after all. “Versifier, vitalizer, even vulgarizer, he took prior content and made it sing...He acquired, adapted, appropriated, converted, revised, synthesized, improved, borrowed, copied, co-opted, re-used, re-worked, re-packaged, stole.” So the Bard was a re-blogger who used up material and spit it out, hardly holding on to the sources long enough to build a personal library.


While The Library sometimes felt wayward in places, Shakespeare’s Library ably carries its narrative start to finish. It is sharp and enjoyable.  

LOST GUTENBERG cover art copy.jpgIn The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey (TarcherPerigree, $27) author Margaret Leslie Davis has struck upon a fantastic idea: tracing one copy of the Gutenberg Bible through its various owners, with some wonderfully bizarre tales involving Worcestershire sauce and plutonium isolation thrown in for good measure.


The Gutenberg Bible really is the Holy Grail of rare books -- less than fifty are known to exist, in various states of completeness, and none are available to buy. The one Davis follows is No. 45, a beautiful copy in a contemporary binding. (So beautiful, in fact, that some color photography, if only of the bible’s first page with its green and gold illuminated initial, would have been nice. At least Davis points us to the virtual copy.) After some necessary preliminaries, her tale begins with the book’s first known owner, Archibald Acheson, 3rd Earl of Gosford, who keeps the book in his Irish castle, and ends in a Japanese vault. Along the way, we meet a couple of English book collectors, but the longest stopover is with one American collector, Estelle Doheny, the “Mighty Woman Book Hunter.” Hers is a tale of triumph and betrayal; as a profile of Doheny alone, Davis’ book is worth the price of admission.


The Gutenberg Bible is neither the world’s oldest book, nor the first use of moveable type, as is sometimes said in shorthand, and Davis, who is not a rare book world “insider,” is well aware of that. Her reporting is spot-on, and her style is lively and engaging. A quibbler might question the use of the present tense throughout, but overall, an admirable achievement. (Read a sample here.)

Images courtesy of the publishers

What used to be a biannual accounting of newly published books about books has become quarterly, it seems, which is good news for bibliophiles. So what are the freshest books in our favorite genre?  

Magic of Handwriting copy.jpgIf you had the opportunity to see The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection at the Morgan Library last year, or you read Nick Basbanes’ profile of the collector in our fall 2018 issue, you’d know that Corrêa do Lago has amassed an astounding collection of autographs. From Michelangelo to Stephen Hawking, his nearly 100,000 items cover art, science, literature, you name it. The Morgan’s selection of 140 showpieces has been turned into a handsome book by Taschen, printed on thick paper and bound in textured cloth. There are introductory essays, transcriptions of manuscripts, and copious illustrations. All in all, an incredible bargain for $35. My favorite: an Adam Smith letter c. 1767 in which he writes, “I shall not know how to employ myself till I get my library.”

Literary Places copy.jpgIt’s the time of year for planning a summer vacation, and here’s just the volume to steer you: Inspired Traveller’s Guide: Literary Places (White Lion, $19.99) by Sarah Baxter. It’s not a travel guide in the typical sense of the term, it’s more inspirational (which is why it will work just as well for armchair travelers and staycationers). The book explores 25 places -- e.g., Paris, Davos, Cairo, Cartagena -- through a literary lens, focusing on one book that illuminates something about that destination. In Dublin, it’s Ulysses, and we visit some of Leopold Bloom’s haunts; in New York, it’s The Catcher in the Rye, and we pause to consider the iconic status of Penn Station and Central Park. Each charming essay is enhanced by bright, bold illustrations by Amy Grimes.

the-catalogue-of-shipwrecked-books-9781982111397_xlg.jpgThe Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library (Scribner, $30) by Edward Wilson-Lee is superbly researched and remarkably well-written. At its core, the book is a biography of Columbus’s illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who was an archivist at heart. He sought to collect not just “the largest private library of the day,” but ephemeral prints, pamphlets, and music as well. He then created lists and catalogues of his collected works and even designed his own secret alphabet to describe them; he could be obsessive in his collecting and collating, a kindred spirit no doubt to many Fine Books readers. Colón was obviously a man ahead of his time; his story is expansive, and in Wilson-Lee’s hands, absolutely compelling.

Making Medieval.jpgIf you enjoyed, as we did, Christopher de Hamel’s recent book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, you will find his latest, Making Medieval Manuscripts (Bodleian Library/University of Chicago Press, $25), an ideal companion piece. In this slim, square paperback filled with glossy illustrations, de Hamel walks the reader through the art and craft of medieval manuscript creation--from descriptions of paper and parchment to types of ink to illumination and binding techniques. It is the perfect introduction to this area of study.

Damrosch jacket copy.jpgIf Samuel Johnson is your man, Prize-winning biographer Leo Damrosch’s atmospheric new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age (Yale University Press, $30) should be on your radar. In clear, engaging prose, Damrosch ushers us into “the club,” i.e., the Turk’s Head Tavern in London, where members like Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell joined Johnson for food, drink, and, perhaps more than anything else, intelligent talk. 

But wait, there’s more!  

    •    Books of the Weird: Figments from Libraries, Bookshops & Other Imaginary Worlds (Books of the Weird Press, $20) by John D. Riley. Written by a longtime antiquarian bookseller for fellow bibliomaniacs, it is a pleasure to dip into.

    •    Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (Yale University Press, $35) by Joshua Teplitsky chronicles the life of David Oppenheim (1664-1736), a rabbi who built an extensive library of some 4,500 books and 1,000 manuscripts.

    •    Murder by the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens’s London (Knopf, $25.95) by Claire Harman is a quick and entertaining read about how the literary culture of Victorian England may have influenced a young valet to kill his boss, Lord William Russell.  

Still adding to your TBR pile? Check out our Fall 2018 Books about Books roundup, or our holiday edition.

Images courtesy of individual publishers

From time to time, we corral the latest books about books of interest to our readers. With the holidays on the horizon, we look at seven new books in this genre that are also gift books, or coffee table books, i.e., books you might wish to give or receive.  

Writer's Map.jpgThe Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press, $45) is a visual feast: 167 full-color illustrations of maps that have appeared in books or inspired books or were used while writing. From Jack Kerouac’s quick pencil sketch of his cross-country route chronicled in On the Road to E.H. Shepard’s hand-drawn map of Hundred Acre Wood (recently sold at auction) to the Hereford Mappa Mundi that inspired novelist David Mitchell, each short chapter, written by an author or an artist, offers an enchanting look at the world around us, and the worlds we imagine.

Living Maps.jpgRelatedly, Living Maps: An Atlas of Cities Personified (Chronicle Books, $35) is another bright, oversized book made for cartographic buffs. Artist Adam Dant playfully re-imagines twenty-eight cities of the world, e.g. London, Rome, Mumbai, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, among others, in monochromatic (watercolor?) drawings made to look like a traveler’s collection of vacation snapshots. Each chapter also contains a color spread of cartographic images within “crumbly old books.” Very meta.  

Venice.pngIn Venice Illuminated: Power and Painting in Renaissance Manuscripts (Yale University Press, $70), Helena Katalin Szépe, an associate professor of art history in the School of Art and Art History at the University of South Florida, provides an extensive analysis of the small paintings within manuscripts, with particular attention to the history and culture of art patronage in Venice. For collectors in this area, this heavily illustrated book is indispensable.  

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 10.02.17 AM.pngPublished in conjunction with an exhibition now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo (Hammer Museum/Prestel Publishing, $50) is a fabulous collection of Hugo’s brooding works on paper. Best known as the author of the novel, Les Misérables (1862), it seems we hardly know Hugo as a visual artist; this book rectifies that. In addition to the inky, blotty drawings, there are also some of his cut-out silhouettes and one or two illustrated sketchbooks. A must for Hugo fans.

Frank Stella.jpgFrank Stella Unbound: Literature and Prinkmaking (Yale University Press, $35), published to coincide with a recent Princeton University Art Museum exhibition, is a vibrant volume dedicated to Stella’s literary-inspired prints made between 1984 and 1999, such as his series of 266 works in conversation with Moby-Dick and prints named after Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. The exhibition is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.

Chicago.jpgCurrent or former Chicagoan? Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image (University of Chicago Press, $35), edited by the city’s bibliophilic Caxton Club, is a perfect gift. As one would expect from the Caxtonians, the production value is high -- the book is brimming with images of first editions and related illustrations, ephemera, and photography -- and the content is a delightful miscellany, from the Montgomery Ward catalogues to the Four American Books campaign to Gwendolyn Brooks and Saul Bellow.

Georgia.jpgFinally, Georgia: A Cultural Journey Through the Wardrop Collection (Bodleian Library/University of Chicago Press, $70) by Nikoloz Aleksidze narrates a history of Georgian literature and culture through the items of the extraordinary Wardrop collection: manuscripts, royal charters, correspondence, and notebooks (at the Bodleian Library). Lavishly illustrated, with a place-marker ribbon, too.

Images courtesy of individual publishers

A few times a year, we take stock of the most recent books about books that have come across our desk (here’s our spring 2018 list, and a mini summer list too). Here’s what we have for fall: six titles ranging from scholarly to humorous, heavier on non-fiction, and all solid recommendations.

Invention copy.jpgThe Invention of Rare Books: Private Interest and Public Memory, 1600-1840 (Cambridge University Press) by David McKitterick will surely be of interest to FB&C readers, particularly those with an interest in book history. This is a comprehensive and erudite look at how rarity has been defined and measured; McKitterick explores the physical characteristics of “rare” books, the role of private libraries, and the development and significance of bibliographical literature, e.g., trade catalogues and Dibdin’s guides. As noted in the prologue, “The invention of rare books means the selection, creation and development of particular kinds of cultural memory.”

Diary.jpgThe Diary of a Bookseller (Melville House) by Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, is a smart, often very funny, account of a year in the life of a bookshop--and I do mean account: how many customers came into the shop, how much money he took in. Those who regularly haunt used bookstores won’t bat an eye at Bythell’s cantankerousness as he deals with flaky staff members and leaky windows and will be chuffed (this is the UK, after all) when he spots a book signed by Sir Walter Scott at the bottom of a box he had forgotten about. Wigtown, a remote village that has become an international “book town,” is also in the spotlight here, and this book would make an absolutely perfect travel companion for a literary pilgrimage. (We hear the book might become a movie, too.) 

In Search.jpgIn Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes (Pushkin Press) by Georgio van Straten is a captivating little book in which the author recounts his search for books and manuscripts that did exist, or may have existed, of which “with one exception, I have not been able to read,” he writes. From a missing manuscript of a novel by Romano Bilenchi to 130 pages of Sylvia Plath’s unfinished novel that “disappeared,” the chapters are both sad and hopeful. Regarding Walter Benjamin’s lost work, he writes: “There might still be some forgotten, yellowing papers in a wardrobe or an old chest in the attic of a house in Portbou...”

Kafka.jpegSpeaking of lost books, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy (Norton) by Benjamin Balint takes on the case of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts--Kafka ordered them burned, but instead his friend Max Brod saved them and bequeathed them to his secretary, whose daughter hid them away for decades and then tried to auction them off. A controversial trial ensued. Balint does double duty as both court reporter and literary biographer.

In fiction, we have two suggestions:

OTTO_VOL2_large.jpgBibliomysteries: Volume Two (Pegasus Books) is, of course, a sequel to Otto Penzler’s first collection of such tales, and again he offers the crème de la crème of crime writers. Here we have Peter Lovesey writing about a box of Agatha Christie books that may be priceless, while Ian Rankin spins a yarn about a lost manuscript of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (more lost books!). 

Labyrinth.jpgThe Labyrinth of the Spirits (Harper) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the latest in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, after The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven. Full disclosure: I’m way behind in this series and have not yet read this one yet, so all I can say is Ruiz Zafón has well proven his skill at biblio-fiction. The series has been called “a colossal achievement” and “a grand epic.”

Images courtesy of the publishers


If there’s anything new to learn from Characters, a series of personality portraits written by the ancient Greek Theophrastus (c. 371 - c. 287 BC), it is that gluttons, chatterboxes, drunks, idiots, and others are not unique to any time or place in human history.  This robust little volume of character sketches has been widely published and translated since its first appearance twenty-three centuries ago--Jean de la Bruyère’s Les Caractères (1688), Character Writings of the Seventeenth Century (1891) and the Loeb Classical Library’s edition are a few that come to mind--but each translation is an interpretative undertaking, meaning there is always a renewed need for fresh viewpoints.


On October 1, Characters will be once again published in English, this time by Callaway Arts & Entertainment. Translated by Pamela Mensch with vibrant pen-and-ink illustrations by acclaimed caricature artist André Carrillo, this edition includes insightful annotations by Bard College classics professor and Guggenheim recipient James Romm.

Part the enduring appeal of Characters is that bad behavior, however caustic, is, whether we like it or not, universal; who doesn’t know a busybody who “stands up and promises what he can’t deliver,” a slovenly fellow “afflicted with dull-white eczema and black fingernails, go[ing] about saying that these illnesses are hereditary,” and the friend of scoundrels who “fraternizes with men who have been defeated in court and convicted in public trials; he assumes that if he’s friendly with them, he’ll become more worldly and formidable.”


“These are flesh-and-blood people, with very familiar flaws and foibles,” Romm explained. “They remind us that ancient Greeks were actual human beings, not marble busts. The past no longer feels like a foreign country. It’s a true gift to be able to ‘feel’ the reality of the classical world.” As Romm points out in his introduction, some previous translators could not square with the lack of judgement in Theophrastus’s sketches and inserted their own. This edition strips away those addendums, allowing the original descriptions to be read on their own merit.


And yet, English-speakers don’t suffer for lack options: Penguin released a paperback version as recently as 2015, so why a new translation now? “There’s a very practical reason,” Romm said. “The Greek text of Characters is rather messy, with lots of sentences in dispute (or simply unintelligible) due to copyists’ errors in the transmission process. Only a few years ago, a new edition of the Greek text by James Diggle sorted out many of these problems. This new English version by Pamela Mensch takes advantage of that cleaned-up Greek text.”


Contemporary readers may be familiar with Theophrastus’s exhaustive Inquiry into Plants and Causes of Plants. However, Characters reveals more of the author’s natural verve and wit, which has led some scholars to dispute whether Theophrastus deserves the attribution. “The contrast between Characters and the botanical works is indeed sharp,” Romm said. “Assuming Theophrastus wrote both, he seems to have wanted to take an occasional break from science to compose light satire, and perhaps, like all good teachers, sought a way to bring some levity to his ‘classroom’ -- in his case, the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle.”


We may see a bit of ourselves, our friends, and our political leaders in these portraits, but how might have an ancient Athenian reacted? After all, these were sketches based on actual people Theophrastus encountered on a daily basis. Romm believes the Greeks would have taken it in stride-- “With a laugh and a nod of recognition, and probably a bit of embarrassment!”

Society needs writers who document human behavior, even if that behavior never seems to change. But those records needn’t always be gloomy. “Thucydides famously wrote that human nature is constant over time, so that the deeds he recorded in the Peloponnesian War would be seen again,” Romm said. “In his case, that’s a tragic message, since he mostly records atrocities. Theophrastus supplies the comic side of the same equation.”   

Theophrastus’ Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior, by James Romm, André Carrilho, and Pamela Mensch. Callaway Arts and Entertainment; $24.95, 119 pages.

There are books about rare book collecting, and then there are books that are simply bibliophilic in nature -- booklovers’ delights. There are a couple coming out or forthcoming that are fun and full of frivolity and worth pointing out to readers of Fine Books.

bibliophile.jpgFirst is Jane Mount’s Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany. Mount is a beloved illustrator of personal and dream bookshelves, a series which she calls “Ideal Bookshelves” -- she uses simple drawings and watercolors to paint assemblages of readers’ favorite books together on mini-bookshelves, whether or not they own them. Over the years she’s made a huge impact on the book-loving internet with coverage in just about every book and design blog out there, and there’s good reason, her artwork is heartening and warm, positive and book-celebratory. Her new book, Bibliophile, is a wonderful look at her work, and Mount takes readers behind the scenes of favorite writers’ spaces and shelves, bookstores, and their literary cats. It’s an airy and charming and beautiful book.

Next is Susan Harlan and Becca Stadtlander’s Decorating a Room of One’s Own: Conversations on Interior Design with Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bennet, Ishmael, and other Literary Notables. Harlan, a humorist and professor of English at Wake Forest, spoofs decorating culture and English literature in a series of imagined interviews of famous fictional homes and their residents and plays skillfully with literary history. Who wouldn’t want to know Lady Macbeth’s favorite room in the castle?

To round it all off, there’s Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life. Bogel is a celebrated book fiend, writer, reader, and literary podcaster. This collection of her work is an argument for reading as a lifestyle choice. We couldn’t agree more.

Illustration of Bibliophile by Jane Mount

With all the news about book theft of late (in Pittsburgh; and Dayton), and a nationally screened film about the 2004 robbery of Audubon’s Birds of America in Kentucky, it may seem as though Travis McDade’s new book, Torn from Their Bindings: The Story of Art, Science, and the Pillaging of American University Libraries, was ripped from the headlines. Sadly, the truth is that not-so-clever book thieves are always with us, as borne out in his meticulously researched page-turner that focuses on the case of Robert Kindred, who sliced thousands of antique prints out of rare books and journals in 1980.   

Torn copy.jpgMcDade is the author of several books about book theft, including Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring (2013), excerpted in our spring 2013 issue, and Disappearing Ink: The Insider, the FBI, and the Looting of the Kenyon College Library (2015). He is also the curator of law rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law, which is to say, he is the leading expert on rare book crimes. McDade’s approach is methodical as he tracks Kindred (driving a Cadillac, no less) from Southern California to Texas to Illinois, with a few stops in between, stopping at university libraries to pillage the stacks. It is the heist Kindred tries to pull off at the University of Illinois, and for which he got caught, in June of 1980, that McDade zeroes in on. Kindred and his accomplice, Richard Green, had attempted to steal several oversized illustrated books but were foiled when a maintenance man literally stumbled across their cache on his way into the building late one night.

Turns out Kindred, a hustler with a string of bad ideas, is a character right out of fiction, and McDade harnesses that to tell a suspenseful tale and make a compelling argument about library security and preservation issues. Another of the useful takeaways of McDade’s true crime has little to do with crime or even books per se, but much to do with art, in the form of embedded mini biographies of illustrators Eaton, Bewick, and Thorburn, to name a few. The color plates by these illustrators depicting flora and fauna, from journals like Ibis and Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, were Kindred’s main targets, as they were easily removed with a razor blade and rarely marked with ownership stamps. The difficulty of proving their provenance would work in his favor, and would ultimately hamper efforts to return much of the purloined art even years after the case closed.  

Ten years in the making, McDade has delivered a book that should be of great interest to bibliophiles everywhere, particularly those guardians of collections who too often have to deal with the likes of Kindred and his ilk.  
Image: Courtesy of University Press of Kansas

Summer is just about here, and for many people that means at least a few days of vacation, preferably with a tome or two in tow (sorry). If you’re in need of a recommendation for a great book about books, here are four new arrivals -- two fiction and two non-fiction -- that I heartily enjoyed.

Dante JPG.jpgThe Dante Chamber by Matthew Pearl


Readers of FB&C will be familiar with novelist Matthew Pearl from Nick Basbanes’ profile of him in our summer 2016 issue, and many will also recall his bestselling 2003 debut, The Dante Club. Now, fifteen years on, Pearl delivers another riveting Dante-inspired thriller, this time set in merry Old England in 1870. And while The Dante Club murderer drew from Dante’s Inferno for inspiration, the culprit in this case envisions a new Purgatory. Poets to the rescue! Christina Rossetti corrals Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes to help her find her brother, painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who has gone missing. Full of historical detail but never dull, Pearl’s new novel is, in a word, killer. Dare we await Paradise?

Lost for Words 1.00.44 PM.jpgThe Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland


“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to own every edition of every book by a particular writer...” We couldn’t agree more! The Lost for Words Bookshop seems to masquerade as a light bookshop tale, but plumb the depths and some grim themes emerge. Loveday Cardew is a twentysomething clerk in a used bookstore in York, England, who goes to great lengths to hide her past, which included a long stretch in a foster home. Just as she begins to let her guard down, maybe even fall in love, books from her childhood begin to surface at the shop. Less a standard mystery than a dramatic novel whose characters have deep dark secrets, it is relatable and charming.

Selling cover.jpgSelling Dead People’s Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates by Duane Scott Cerny


Over twenty-eight chapters of varying length and subject matter, readers will literally ‘laugh out loud,’ while reading this memoir of life in the antiques business by Cerny, co-owner of Chicago’s Broadway Antique Market. He pairs behind-the-scenes dirt on the antiques biz with his nitty-gritty experiences in ‘picking’ and scouting. Cerny is a fantastic storyteller, and while his tone is somewhere between entertaining and downright zany, some of the chapters are nonetheless oddly endearing, e.g. one about a childhood experience visiting the house of neighbors who hoarded religious relics (and were rumored to have a connection to Mussolini) or his quest to buy a two-headed taxidermied lamb.   

medieval_bodies.jpgMedieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Harnell


Go ahead and judge this book by its spectacular dust jacket -- or its decorative endpapers, numerous illustrations, and ribbon bookmark. In scholarly and engaging prose (akin to Christopher de Hamel’s Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts, another favorite of ours) Hartnell demystifies the Middle Ages by examining the physical and the figurative body, from head to toe. Abundant illustrations of manuscripts, paintings, and relics surprise and delight at nearly every page turn. It isn’t right to call this book a beach read because it’s too handsome to handle with greasy or wet hands, so take this one elsewhere, ideally on a flight to Florence.    

But don’t stop there! Here are 9 more summer reads of bibliophilic interest, as featured on our summer issue’s Q&C page:

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

Anywhere That is Wild: John Muir’s First Walk to Yosemite, edited by Peter and Donna Thomas

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel

Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman

The Infinite Future: A Novel by Tim Wirkus

Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th-Century Handbook of Bird-Care and Folklore by Giovanni Pietro Olina

Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow

Confessions of the Fox: A Novel by Jordy Rosenberg

Readers’ Liberation by Jonathan Rose

Images courtesy of the publishers

In search of a few new books about books to add your library? May we suggest...

paynegreat.JPGGreat Catalogues by Master Booksellers: A Selection of American and English Booksellers’ Catalogues, 19th-21st Century by John R. Payne is a major achievement: a book of depth and heft (literally) that signifies the extraordinary amount of work that went into it, lovingly produced. Those unfamiliar with the antiquarian book trade might ask, ‘what is it?’ Well, it’s an illustrated and annotated list of remarkable booksellers’ catalogues, culled from the author’s decades-long research. The catalogues are singled out for excellent scholarship or famous material, but also, in some cases, for their wit and entertainment value. Obviously, this book was made for a niche audience--in a limited edition--yet it is a book that any book collector will savor. In his introduction, Kurt Zimmerman calls bookseller catalogues “palpable artifacts, records of booksellers’ efforts that, in the toss and whirl of history, will outlast the booksellers themselves.” (Read more on Kurt’s blog, American Book Collecting, which also includes information on how to order.)   

Some of the catalogues that caught my eye include H.P. Kraus’ catalogue no. 100 (1962) that listed for sale the famed Voynich Manuscript; Henry Sotheran & Co.’s 1878 catalogue containing “The Library of Charles Dickens Comprehending his entire Library as existing at his Decease;” Scribner Book Store’s 1938 offering of the Modern Library in First Editions; and no. 1 from the Caveat Book Shop (1946), brought to my attention earlier this year by Joel Silver, director and curator of early books and manuscripts at IU’s Lilly Library, who wrote about this farcical catalogue in our winter 2018 issue. What--and who--else will you find among Payne’s selections? Maggs Bros., Serendipity Books, Gotham Book Mart, Goodspeed’s, Bernard Quaritch, William Reese, and so many others; you will be carried away!  

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 1.49.14 PM.pngA Book of Book Lists, written by Alex Johnson and published by the British Library, is just what it advertises: reading lists, lists of “Unwanted” books, lists of books portrayed on screen, and then some. Ever wondered what books the US Navy loads onto its e-readers? (No Hunt for Red October) Or what David Byrne has in his private music library? (Yes Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie). This is not the kind of book you read cover to cover in one sitting, rather it is best enjoyed piecemeal; one could even, with the right company, turn it into a parlor game. My favorite lists: Banned Books at Guantanamo Detainee Library, Oscar Wilde’s Reading Gaol bookcase inventory, and poems featured in the 1989 film, Dead Poet’s Society.

The Library copy.jpgThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells--an author who clearly has the right name for his chosen field, and who wrote Penguin and the Lane Brothers and Rare, a biography of former ILAB president Kay Craddock--takes a spirited look at the world’s libraries, private, institutional, even fictional. Especially enjoyable is his rumination on “discoveries” in the stacks, like the Folger Library’s 1984 discovery of an early English manuscript used as binder’s waste inside two sixteenth-century volumes. “Libraries, though curated, are quintessentially places of serendipity,” he writes. With short entr’actes between longer chapters that amuse (“Library fauna” about bookworms) and sometimes baffle (“Birth” about librarians delivering a baby), the book’s idiosyncratic nature may put off persnickety readers of Book History, but most bibliophiles will be unable to resist a book so in line with their adoration of these sacred spaces. A related essay of his in the Paris Review this week is certainly getting lots of love.

If you’re looking for more books about books, don’t miss Book Towns (here’s a Q & A with the author, who also wrote the Book of Book Lists noted above) and Publisher for the Masses, a new biography of publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the subject of a feature story in our forthcoming summer issue.

Images courtesy of: (top) Kurt Zimmerman; (middle) British Library; and (bottom) Counterpoint Press.

Lost books, medieval manuscripts, and secret archives are favorite topics for novelists, and we bibliophiles can’t seem to get enough of them. I’ve read three varieties of bibliofiction recently, all entertaining, and each quite different from the others.  

9780735224322(1) copy.jpgFirst up: Lost Books. I heard about a new novel called The Infinite Future from an essay the author, Tim Wirkus, recently wrote titled “Our Obsession with Lost Books and How They Often Disappoint.” In it, he gives a perfect summary of his novel: “Wondering what it would be like to track down and actually find a legendary manuscript, I started work on a story featuring a reclusive science fiction writer named Edward Salgado-MacKenzie, and three enthusiastic/ obsessive fans of his work who stumble upon his long-lost proposal for a never-published novel called The Infinite Future. The three devotees track rumors of the writer from São Paulo to Orange County to Eastern Idaho, recounting as they do tales from their own lives and summaries of their favorite Salgado-MacKenzie short stories.” Now, sci-fi may not be your thing; it isn’t mine, either. But the novel is stunningly inventive and great fun to read. Comparisons have been made to Ursula Le Guin and Roberto Bolaño, to which I would add Italo Calvino, particularly his If on a winter’s night a traveler.   

Scribe HC.jpgSecond: Medieval Manuscripts. The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer was published last year, and a paperback edition was just released. It was on my ‘TBR’ pile for a few months before I got to it, and once I did, I could hardly put it down. It begins in present day New York City where thirty-something neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato is called to Siena, Italy, to inherit her art historian brother’s cottage. While there, she continues his research on the Tuscan town’s medieval history. She finds fourteenth-century fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi particularly intriguing, especially when she notices a familiar face in one of his works. Before long, Beatrice finds herself transported to Siena in the year 1347, where she is vastly underdressed, but she has a good grasp of Italian and a talent for calligraphy, which lands her in a scriptorium after a kind nun takes her in. Of course, Beatrice will cross paths with Accorsi, and romance will ensue. But there are still mysteries to unearth--the Medici family plays a role--and the author does a tremendous job in plotting and weaving. The result is an enormously satisfying novel. I missed the characters as soon as I turned the final page.   

9781681776415.jpgThird: Secret Archives (plus a Lost Book). You could say The Bookworm by Mitch Silver is ripped from the headlines, or is it buried under a Cold War blanket? Largely set in Russia, the story is fueled by a worthy premise: Hitler positioned his army (and lost the war) based on poetic prophecies inscribed in his Bible. A set of long-forgotten audio tapes stored at the Russian State Military Archives and narrated by British actor Noel Coward pulls Russian scholar Lara Klimt, aka “the bookworm,” into the fray. As she sets out to uncover Coward’s plot, she discovers that current-day politicos are a little too intensely interested in her research. Turns out there’s collusion! And a buffoon of an American president, too. Lara is a strong central character, but the rest of this political ‘thriller’ comes off as a bit boilerplate.     

Images via Penguin Random House; Simon & Schuster; and Pegasus Books

Jane Austen’s novels criticizing sentimentalism, the British landed gentry, and women’s dependence on marriage have remained in print continuously since 1832, when the publisher Richard Bentley purchased the copyrights of all six of Austen’s works. For the past 186 years those stories have thrilled readers around the globe. Now comes a picture-book biography for children attempting to piece together Austen’s rise to fame.

9781627796439 copy.jpgBrave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel (Holt, $17.99, 48 pages) explores Austen’s modest upbringing and how she quietly forged a career as an author at a time when most women aspired to fortuitous marriages to secure their economic status.

Though little is actually known about Austen’s childhood since she kept no journal or diary, author Lisa Plisco admirably examines just how Austen developed her plucky wit and delightfully biting sense of irony. (Spoiler: Austen read a lot of books.) Illustrator Jen Corace’s vibrant mixed-media illustrations show a rosy-cheeked Austen, likely an homage to the portrait of Austen completed in 1810 by her sister, Cassandra.

Have a future wordsmith on your hands? Give her this beguiling introduction to a great woman of letters.

                                                                                                                                                                                           Image courtesy of Holt Books for Young Readers

Katpadi.jpgPick up The Book Hunters of Katpadi (2017), Pradeep Sebastian’s first novel, and you will be instantly struck by its beauty--a dazzling dust jacket, charming illustrations, and a black ribbon book marker. It’s the kind of treatment not often given to mysteries, but this one is obviously special because it is a bibliomystery, a term defined by Otto Penzler as a “mystery story that involves the world of books: a bookshop, a rare volume, a library, a collector, or a bookseller.” Bingo!

Now that you’ve been lured in, there’s more good news: Sebastian spins an exciting yarn about the discovery of a long-lost and highly coveted manuscript written by British explorer (and Kama Sutra translator) Sir Richard Francis Burton. Set in and around an antiquarian bookshop called Biblio in Chennai, India, The Book Hunters of Katpadi has a cast of characters that will be familiar to bibliophiles, including clever booksellers, fervent collectors, and ambitious auctioneers. The fact that these characters have conversations about Richard Heber and Thomas Frognall Dibdin as a matter of course will not be lost on book collectors. The shady fringes of the antiquarian book market also emerge, providing the adventure and intrigue that such a mystery requires.

Sebastian, a collector himself, writes a column about books for The Hindu. Nick Basbanes called his 2010 collection of essays, The Groaning Shelf, “impressive” and “erudite.” Now Sebastian has applied his talents to fiction and crafted an engrossing tale of rarities lost--and found--in his native India. Sebastian shows a subtle hand, elegantly evoking sights, sounds, and tastes in his narrative and reaching well beyond a typical gumshoe plot.  

Since the book was published in India, getting your hands on a physical copy here in the states will require ordering via Biblio or Abebooks (but it will be well worth it!). Or, you can download the Kindle version from Amazon UK.   

With the holiday season fast upon us, we have already posted our shortlist of bookish gift ideas, which includes five recently published books about books worthy of your attention. Today, we’re going to add five just-released titles to our list, any one of which would make a terrific holiday gift for you or some bibliophile you love.

Illustrated DJ.jpgThe Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920-1970 (Thames & Hudson, $39.95) by Martin Salisbury is a history of dust jackets, certainly a favorite topic among book collectors of modern first editions. Lushly illustrated (371 illustrations, according to the publisher), Salisbury’s exciting visual history showcases the work of Edward Gorey, Vanessa Bell, Alvin Lustig, and many others. A selection of favorites can be seen here.

Bookshops-cover.jpgBookshops: A Reader’s History (Biblioasis, $24.95) by Jorge Carrión welcomes the reader into the world’s bookshops in a series of meditative essays based on his travels; Carrión was a bibliotourist before that was a thing. Recalling a 2002 trip to Antiquos Libros Modernos in Buenos Aires, he writes, “Touching old books is one of the few tactile experiences that can connect you to a distant past.” This is the ideal read for a cozy weekend trip.    

Purcell.jpgThe Country House Library (Yale University Press, $55) by Mark Purcell is a beautiful volume, sumptuously illustrated with photos of private library interiors as well as close-ups of the books, manuscripts, and objects they contain. Purcell, the deputy director of Cambridge University Library, provides erudite commentary as he takes us into these grand rooms. If you combined Downton Abbey with books about books, this would be the delightful result.    

Joseph Banks' Florilegium 9780500519363.jpgJoseph Banks’ Florilegium (Thames & Hudson, $85), with texts by Mel Gooding, David Mabberley, and Joe Studholme, is impressive: a folio-sized, full-color publication of eighteenth-century botanical prints initially commissioned by Banks upon his return from Captain Cook’s first sail around the world. If you have a penchant for botany, voyages, and travel, this is your perfect storm.  

Steffens F17 Unpacking.jpgUnpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books (Yale University Press, $20), edited by Jo Steffens and Matthias Neumann, follows on the heels of two others in the Unpacking series: Architects and Their Books, and Writers and Their Books. The photos--wide shots and shelfies--offer a peek into the libraries of ten contemporary artists and are accompanied by engaging interviews. Personal favorites: the pic of Theaster Gates’ library, and reading about Ed Ruscha’s collection of fore-edge paintings.

Images courtesy of the publishers

Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell_72dpi.jpgNew from Quirk Books is an account of the world of horror pulp fiction of the 1970s and ’80s. Author and horror historian Grady Hendrix (Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism) traces the unexpected success of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and William Blatty’s The Exorcist--three nightmare novels that became bestsellers and spawned two decades of provocative horror publishing.

Stories of devils, demonic possession, strange science, and other themes are explored in devilish detail--with chapters like “Hail Satan,” and “Inhumanoids,” Hendrix explains how this standard checkout-aisle fare went from being the derided black sheep of the publishing industry during the 1940s and ’50s to taking over bestseller lists and movie screens.

“Horror was for nobodies,” writes Hendrix, that is, until books with Satan as the almighty culprit took center stage. Then, every horror story that came along tried to outgore the unholy trinity of Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, ultimately leading to the genre’s demise in the late 80s as a fading parody--“roadkill on the superhighway of the ’90s,” as Hendrix puts it. The author gleefully digs around this forgotten time capsule of the publishing world while also delving into the tales of the writers and artists who catapulted this genre into the public consciousness. Hendrix’s infectious zeal for killer creatures and the undead make Paperbacks from Hell truly enjoyable.

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix: Quirk Books, $24.99, 256 pages.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Image courtesy of Quirk Books

Hemingway - mockup(3).jpg“[E]very once in a while, an unknown cache of letters or an unknown manuscript will turn up in a basement, attic, or estate sale.” That sentence, from a new novel called The Hemingway Files (Blank Slate Press, $15.95), seems written with me in mind. Of course, it wasn’t, but those who enjoy a good biblio-yarn will be as pleased as I was to read a story that takes the ‘manuscript hunting’ trope into new territory. To summarize without spoiling: an English professor receives a mysterious package from a former student, Jack Springs, that contains a manuscript describing his post-grad teaching gig in Japan. Turns out Springs was hand-picked for the position by Professor Goto, an enigmatic man with deep pockets and a penchant for collecting “literary objects and artifacts,” especially signed first editions, inscribed editions, and one particular trove of material legendarily lost in Paris in 1922. But suspicions arise on both sides and culminate in a natural disaster, the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

The author, H.K. Bush, knows whereof he speaks: Bush is a professor of English at Saint Louis University and formerly senior fellow at the Waseda Institute of Advanced Study in Tokyo. He has published several works of scholarly non-fiction on American authors. This is his first novel, though you wouldn’t know it; The Hemingway Files is well plotted and engagingly written. A sinister undercurrent runs through it--manifest not only in the brawny henchmen that appear on doorsteps but in the psychological abuse Springs endures as a perpetual outsider.

The multi-layered tale plays out in letters and manuscripts, and sometimes in shared passages from favorite books. Brimming with literary trivia, it will surely delight those who believe that “anything can be anywhere,” as Zach Jenks once said.      

Image courtesy of the author


                                                                                                                                                                            Fans of 90s-era alternative rock will rejoice at a new autobiography by the band Garbage. Published by Akashic Books earlier this month, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake was co-authored by the band’s original four members--Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker--along with journalist Jason Cohen, who first profiled the group for Rolling Stone on the eve of their debut album’s release in 1995. The helfy folio-sized photo-montage retrospective was three years in the making.                                                                                                                                                                                             While chronicling the band’s meteoric rise to fame, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake also includes cocktail recipes, favorite songs, surprising personal anecdotes, and every gig Garbage ever played. An examination of the drastic changes within the music industry over the past two decades is unexpectedly engaging and offers a nuanced insider’s perspective on the turn to digital music consumption.



                                                                                                                                                                                   The trade edition hardcover is impressive; matte art paper tinted hot pink on the edges and would delight any Garbage fan, but for the truly devoted with $125 to burn, Akashic is offering a limited edition version housed in a clamshell box accompanied by a vinyl record that includes six live, previously unreleased recordings of Garbage hits like “Beloved Freak” and “Cup of Coffee.”


Formed in Madison, Wisconsin, Garbage’s debut eponymous album sold four million copies worldwide and went double platinum in the United States. Lead vocalist Shirley Manson came to epitomize the alt-rock angry feminist movement of the 1990s, and remains a beacon for a new generation of performers and listeners.  


Band memorabilia is still doing brisk business, too: an autographed VHS (yes, you read that right) tape cover is currently available at Hollywood Memorabilia for $272.99.


The book’s July 4 release coincided with band’s latest tour, crisscrossing North America along with 80s punk favorite, Blondie. The book and the tour prove that you’re never too old to keep on rockin’.


This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, by Garbage and Jason Cohen; Akashic Books, $39.95, 208 pages.

                                                                                                                                                           Photo credit: Autumn de Wilde. Reproduced with permission from Akashic Books.

Hamlet: Globe to Globe

Hamlet Globe to Globe.jpg

                                                                                                                                                                               In 2012, Globe Theatre’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and his team came up with “a daft idea:” celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth by taking Hamlet on a two-year tour of 197 countries. In Hamlet: Globe to Globe, Dromgoole explains how the concept took shape, the logistics that were involved, and how a centuries-old play resonated with audiences around the world.

On the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth--April 23, 2014--twelve actors and four stage managers began their global trek at a breakneck speed. Flying into a new country, setting up, performing, dismantling, and moving on for nearly two years testified to the actors’ stamina and perseverance. Plenty could have easily derailed this undertaking as well: an attack of Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico City, for example, nearly ended them.

Hamlet possess the breathless quality of an early 20th-century travelogue. At times, the pace is frenzied, but that is partly due to the subject matter, in a sense recreating what the Globe actors must have felt during two years performing on the road. Anecdotes of kicking back (time permitting) at various tour stops provide moments of levity and respite.

How did performing Hamlet throughout the world connect disparate audiences to Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedy? Dromgoole answers this in fits and spurts--when the troupe arrives in Saudi Arabia, he remarks on the large number of students attending the performance, recalling that Hamlet was also a student on leave from his studies in Wittenberg. It is unclear whether the rousing reception at curtain call was because the Saudi students made that connection or because they simply enjoyed the performance. Later, Dromgoole encounters students in a piazza, where he learns that Hamlet’s disobedience thrilled them most. This is an unusual but informative interaction, and more such stories would have provided greater insight.

The troupe’s visit to a refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border in October 2015 received much publicity, and Dromgoole’s descriptions of the conditions are powerful. But there’s no sense of whether the performance left any impact on the refugees. The audience “squawked with an awkward excitement” when Hamlet tussles with Ophelia, but there’s no sense of what that squawking meant. Did the Syrians connect with a play performed in a language they may not have understood? If so, what did they feel? That is the tantalizing question.

A few sections discuss the complications surrounding comprehension--a production in Mexico City relies on a less-than-reliable local translator--and it would have been interesting to learn how, if at all, the play was translated to non-English speaking audiences.

What’s the takeaway? The author’s love for Shakespeare is paramount, and his discussions on the minutiae of the tragedy would be valuable to any student of the Bard. While recounting a most admirable endeavor--bringing “Hamlet” to the world--Hamlet: Globe to Globe reaffirms that Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature is universally timeless and needs no translation.


Final Duel.JPG

Hamlet and Laertes face off in the final duel in Odeon Amphitheatre, Amman, Jordan. Credit: Sarah Lee


Hamlet: Globe to Globe, by Dominic Dromgoole; Grove Press, $27.00, 390 pages.

9781452145402.jpgBibliophiles, grab a slip of paper and a mini pencil: the Library of Congress has traced the history of a much beloved piece of library furniture (and knowledge repository) in The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures (Chronicle Books, $35), published this week to coincide with National Library Week. Boasting a foreword by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the handsomely illustrated hardcover is a paean to library technology, old and new.   
Certainly book lovers will be drawn to the imagery--more than two hundred full-color images of original cards, first editions book covers, and archival photos from the library’s collection. More than a few will feel sentimental for the standardized penmanship--aka, “Library Hand”--used to fill out cards until the linotype and the typewriter took over. Nostalgia aside, the images of the cards make a convincing argument for retention. All of the various marks and stamps, indicating name or location changes or reclassifications, can be read the way a book historian might read an antiquarian book’s preliminary pages, noting the various owners’ signatures, scripts, and dates, to uncover its provenance.  

Neat trivia turns up in the fine print. For example, who knew that J. Edgar Hoover had been a library clerk? He later wrote that his job “gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.” Or, how about the fact that it was a female mathematician named Henriette D. Avram who “devised the first automated cataloging system in the world, known as Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC)” in 1966 at the LOC. It’s still in use today. The book also aptly conveys the enormity (and occasional tedium) of the LOC cataloger’s task; library rumor had it that card-filing clerks who failed to meet quotas “dumped their cards down the elevator shafts.”

While the LOC “froze” its card catalog in 1980--meaning it no longer physically added cards to the wooden cabinets--the library continued to make and distribute cards to other libraries using the LOC system until 1997. Amazingly, the LOC did not, like its peers, ditch its hefty card catalog once it had become obsolete in the eyes of others. There is still data to be mined. As one of its librarians put it: “In short, the information contained in the Main Card Catalog--and not found anywhere else--continues to be needed in many instances for efficient access to the Library’s millions of pre-1968 volumes because much of the needed information on the cards did not make the transition to the online catalog.”    
Read the book’s introduction by Peter Devereaux here.

Image courtesy of Chronicle Books

ab10cccaffe8b6577a8fbf82f605f5f8.jpgStrange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich by Michele K. Troy (Yale University Press, $40), tells the astonishing and largely forgotten story of a publisher of uniform English translations in the 1930s that managed to elbow out the market leader, the German firm, Tauchnitz, and keep Nazi censorship officials at bay while it promoted edgy, modern Anglo-American literature. In this way, authors such as James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, and Aldous Huxley acted as surprising “silent ambassadors” to German readers from 1932 to 1939. How? In short, the Reich desperately needed the foreign currency the publisher produced and was willing to look the other way, at least for a while. As Troy puts it, English-language books circulating in Germany were “less culturally troublesome than they were economically useful.”  

In design, content, and marketing approach, Albatross preceded Allen Lane’s Penguin Books by a few years. Albatross went after not only the tourist buyers but the continental readers who could read English, and Germany in particular was “a nation of book buyers.” The Albatross Press was based there, but it was funded by English/Jewish money, and it kept an editorial office in Paris--the labyrinthine structure helped to conceal its doings, according to Troy. Whether its output could be labeled propaganda is certainly one of the themes at play; as the German Foreign Office itself declared in 1941: “Propaganda sold is better than propaganda given.” Before the war made printing and publishing impossible, Albatross had distributed five hundred titles in color-coded paperbacks across Europe.

Strange Bird is intensely researched and eminently readable--there’s even a harrowing escape story at its center. The lingering mystery regarding its principal, German-born Englishman John Holroyd-Reece, who may have been a spy, adds an element of intrigue as well. Troy’s book is heartily recommended for anyone with an interest in publishing history, World War II, or modern Anglo-American literature.   

                                                                                                                                                                     Image via Yale University Press

Rise of the Centaur: A History of a Typeface



Readers of our spring print issue may recall Allison Meier’s story on book designer and typographer Jerry Kelly, which touched briefly on his recently published chronicle of Centaur type, The Noblest Roman. Co-authored with Abbeville Press art director Misha Beletsky, the book explores Centaur’s origins well as the life of its creator, Bruce Rogers (1870-1957). Originally published by the Book Club of California in 2016, a trade edition appeared this week from David R. Godine, himself a letterpress printer-turned-publisher.

                                                                                                                                                                                           The Noblest Roman is itself physical proof of the enduring beauty and functionality of Centaur type and is set in three digital versions of the typeface; the main text is set in a revival of the original foundry Centaur, a new version is reserved for captions, and monotype Centaur sets off display text. An added treat is the tipped-in type specimen created with Monotype Centaur and Museum Centaur, newly cast from foundry mats that haven’t been employed in one hundred years. Printed in four colors via offset lithography by Kelly, the whole endeavor makes for an immensely readable and elegant production. Just on face value alone, it is a typophile’s delight.



An interior shot of The Noblest Roman. Reproduced with permission from David R. Godine. 

The book traces Centaur’s origins to the year 1470, when French printer and type designer Nicolas Jenson perfected the proportions and spacing of his namesake type. Jenson’s type was hailed as “brilliant” and “more perfect in form than those of any previous printer.” Fast forward five hundred years to William Morris’ revival of Jenson’s type, and subsequently, to Roger’s perfection of the proportions to create the type employed regularly by institutions like Penguin Books and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kelly and Beletsky also tackle the near-mythical status of Rogers in the world of book design and how his mercurial personality has made credible biographical treatment challenging. The Noblest Roman draws on new research to create a nuanced portrait of this towering figure and includes sidebar biographies of fellow printers, designers, and punchcutters, rendering this a thorough history of typography and typographers of the twentieth century.

What made this style so groundbreaking in 1470 and so appealing in the
twentieth century? More sculptural than calligraphic, Centaur still appears lively without too much flair that might otherwise distract a reader, while slight irregularities in the ties, terminals, and crossbars keep the typeface from becoming monotonous inkblots splashed across the page. Centaur has gracefully made the leap to digital media as well, where it is regularly employed for its readability.

The Noblest Roman was recently awarded the Mercantile Library Prize in American Bibliography, a cash award announced every three years. Previous winners include the American Antiquarian Society, Joseph Felcone, and Andrea Krupp. This year the award is split between The Noblest Roman and The Mythical Indies and Columbus’ Apocalyptic Letter by Elizabeth Moore Willingham (Sussex Academic Press).

Though named after the title of the first book in which it appeared, Centaur is very much like its mythological namesake; a hybrid of styles that has undergone numerous incarnations, with sublime results. And though editors routinely discourage the use of absolutes, The Noblest Roman makes a most compelling case for this exquisite type.

The Noblest Roman, by Jerry Kelly and Misha Beletsky; David R. Godine, $45.00, 128 pages.

Former antiquarian bookseller and book collector--we profiled his Lewis Carroll collection in our spring 2014 issue--Charlie Lovett launched his fiction writing career with his 2013 debut, The Bookman’s Tale, which became a New York Times bestseller. He followed up with the Austen-inspired First Impressions (2014), and more recently with The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge (2016). Now Lovett has a new book to offer, The Lost Book of the Grail, to be published by Viking tomorrow, and it is his best work yet.   

9780399562518.jpgSet in Trollope’s fictional cathedral/university town of Barchester, this bibliomystery immediately enchants those with a weakness for old books and church bells. Arthur Prescott is a 40-year-old literature teacher with serious luddite tendencies and a borderline obsession with King Arthur and Holy Grail mythology. He is most suited to days spent in the rare book room of Barchester Cathedral Library, punctuated by drinks with fellow book collectors and cathedral services (morning prayers, Evensong, compline). His favorite volume is a 1634 William Stansby edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, though its “leather binding was badly worn at the joints and corners, and nearly two inches of the lower spine was lacking.”  

Enter Bethany Davis, a loquacious American fourteen years his junior, sent to Barchester to digitize pre-Reformation Christian manuscripts, courtesy of some Midwestern billionaire. Obviously these opposites attract, although suspicions abound. While university officials contemplate the sale of the manuscripts once the scanning is completed, Arthur sets off to uncover a secret he believes can save the books.  

Lovett layers his narrative with quick dips into Barchester’s history, as Arthur and his clever conspirators unravel a mystery spanning more than a millennium. These characters are lively and relatable, and the novel’s pace is spot-on. The Lost Book of the Grail is truly a page-turner for bibliophiles.

And though we’re told to ‘never judge a book by its cover,’ this one is pretty terrific, with its cut-paper, antique map, and manuscript detailing.

Image courtesy of Viking.

It would be difficult to contrive a more felicitous title for the Fine Books readership than N. John Hall’s recently published Bibliophilia: An Epistolary Novel of One Man’s Obsession with Book Collecting (David R. Godine, softcover with flaps, $18.95). The novel follows the daily exploits of New Yorker Larry Dickerson, who takes up book collecting late in life. Readers of Hall’s 2011 novel, Correspondence, will recall Larry as the retired bank clerk who bumbled into the world of rare books and manuscripts after inheriting a trove of letters from his ancestor to various important Victorian authors. In Bibliophilia, the same likable if unpolished character again faces a steep learning curve.

Bibliophilia.pngWe jump right into the action on the very first page when Larry emails a friend at Christie’s auction house to announce, “I am going to become a rare book collector.” He begins by making all the rookie mistakes, like buying American first editions of Trollope instead of English first editions, all of which will tickle readers who have even a little collecting experience. As another Christie’s contact warns Larry, “...just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s worth anything.”  

Larry puzzles over bibliographies and inscribed editions, keeping meticulous track of purchases made and prices paid and conveying the information via email to a coterie of correspondents, all fellow bibliophiles--some fictional, some real-life book folk, including NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz and collector Mark Samuels Lasner. Larry sets out to collect Victorians and then dabbles in authors associated with the New Yorker magazine. Being a newbie, some of his missteps will come back to haunt him.  

Bibliophilia is zippy, a consequence of its epistolary form, and amusing. It’s clear that the author is among the ‘gently mad’ himself, as his prose clearly demonstrates his knowledge of the subject. (And, on that note, we’ll be profiling Hall in an upcoming issue’s “How I Got Started.”) 

                                                                                                                                                                                        Image via David R. Godine, Publisher.

Perhaps it is too obvious to say, but handwriting tugs at the heartstrings of book collectors. We look for and place value on signatures, inscriptions, and marginalia. So the idea that handwriting might someday be obsolete is unsettling. Put in context, however, bibliophiles will note some fascinating parallels between this divide and the one that Gutenberg faced five hundred years ago. Anne Trubek, editor in chief of Belt magazine, publisher of Belt Publishing, and sometime contributor to Fine Books, deftly provides that background in her new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury, September).

9781620402153.jpgFrom a visit to the Morgan Library to behold (and hold) cuneiform at the book’s beginning to a visit to the Ransom Center to examine digital handwriting and contemporary authors’ archives near the book’s end, Trubek makes manageable what could be an unwieldy topic. She even explains how a goose quill pen is made! And who knew that Platt Rogers Spencer, developer of Amerca’s ornate 19th-century penmanship, took his inspiration from nature, fashioning his “a’s, b’s and c’s from the shapes for rocks, branches, and lakes that he looked at every day”?

Trubek is well-acquainted with the question that some historians and history-minded enthusiasts ask, “How can you read cursive if you cannot write it?” To which she responds, “The truth is, most of us already cannot read 99 percent of the historical record.” A compelling statement that is supported by her (too brief) interview with Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an expert in indecipherable historic scripts. Her point is that the shift away from handwriting is part of a long-term process, and it dredges up cultural and social anxieties that deserve to be considered in this debate.  

That said, those who believe that teaching handwriting--a hot-button issue in American education--remains important will still find the book enjoyable to read because Trubek’s approach is even-handed; she seems less interested in converting readers than in offering up a thoughtful survey of a fraught subject.   

Image via Bloomsbury Publishing.


Readers may recall a story that appeared here earlier this year heralding the rediscovery of a long-forgotten manuscript by Beatrix Potter. Penguin editor Jo Hanks unearthed the material while conducting research for a new addition to Emma Thompson’s revival of the series.  “I found a reference to a letter from Beatrix to her publisher that referred to a story ‘about a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life,’” Hanks recalled in an online discussion in January. Intrigued, Hanks searched among the author’s papers in the V&A Archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tucked away were three handwritten manuscripts for The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots.

The manuscript had remained untouched for over a century, and in her notes Potter acknowledged that the text was incomplete. Hanks lightly edited the material, and the story was published by Frederick Warne (a subsidiary of Penguin) on September 6 to coincide with the sesquicentennial of Potter’s birth. Kitty-in-Boots is accompanied by a CD of the tale, read by actress Helen Mirren.

Written in 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the story is about a mischievous, gun-toting, boot-wearing black cat named Miss Catherine St. Quintin, better known as Kitty to the kind old woman who keeps her. Kitty has a split personality; by day, she’s a content, well-fed houscat. At night, her doppelganger Winkiepeeps trades places so that she may go hunting fully decked in a gentleman’s jacket and fur-lined boots--a British Puss-in-Boots, but with a bad attitude and an air-gun. One night Winkiepeeps tells Kitty about ferrets chasing rabbits, and the bloodthirsty creature can’t resist the temptation. This particular outing is doomed from the start: the air-gun misfires repeatedly, Kitty misses just about all her targets, and a trap ensnares the ferocious feline.  

Quentin Kitty in Boots illustration - copyright Quentin Blake.jpg
By night one way, by day another. © 2016 Quentin Blake

Since Kitty is chasing hares, it’s only fitting that Peter Rabbit is part of the spectacle as well, but in this story he’s old and fat, brandishing an umbrella that he weaponizes better than Miss Kitty does her gun. Peter’s also more clever than Kitty, outsmarting her at every turn. Finally, after losing her toe in a trap set by fellow hunter Mr. Tod the fox, Kitty renounces her hunting ways and turns to more civilized pursuits. In addition to the aforementioned Peter and Mr. Tod, characters from other Potter stories make brief appearances as well.

How does a 100-year-old tale about a murderous cat sit with modern readers? It may be tempting to quickly denounce a book that so enthusiastically describes feline bloodlust, but, it’s quite tame when compared to all that contemporary media has to offer, and Kitty learns a valuable lesson about hunting innocent creatures for sport while she awaits rescue.

The manuscript was discovered with only one illustration--a rough sketch of Kitty and Mr. Tod. Award-winning illustrator Quentin Blake was tapped to bring Potter’s story to life. Beloved for his work illustrating books by Roald Dahl and Russell Hoban (among many others), Blake’s scratchy pen-and-ink artwork bustles with activity, conveying the impish Miss Kitty and her riotous animal coterie. Certainly, Blake’s illustrations will never be mistaken for Potter’s, but they are marvelous, modern adaptations to what is sure to become a new classic.

If there’s any one book about books that I always keep within reach, it’s John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. For about twenty years, my go-to reference has been the seventh edition (1995), edited and revised by Nicolas Barker. But now the time has come--not for deaccessioning, mind you, but for shelf rearrangement--because Oak Knoll Press has just released the ninth edition of this classic, with a completely revised text and a sleek design.   

ABC Collectors copy.jpgInformative and wry, Carter’s definitions have helped readers demystify bookseller and auction catalogues since the book’s original publication in 1952. (And, it should be noted, ABC hasn’t been out of print since.) Words I have looked up over the years include doublure, fly-leaf, half bound, roan, and vellum, among others. This is the “jargon,” of the antiquarian book trade, as Carter calls it, and in order to collect intelligently, a guidebook of this kind is required reading.

Where the new edition, edited by Barker and Simran Thadani, sets itself apart from its antecedents, apart from the brighter, glossier paper, is in the addition of dozens of new terms and the incorporation of illustrations. An increase in graphic arts and printing terminology is most apparent, though my personal favorites among the added terminology (at least from the 7th to the 9th edition) are: bisquing, book-worms, Dibdin, red rot, and sammelband. I wished I had been able to look up binder’s dummy when I wrote this blog post last month, as I might have better described this book fair find as a salesman’s sample. In this context, blad (book layout and design) might be a useful inclusion at some point.

The line drawings and color photographs are a terrific complement to the text. After all, we may review the definition of dentelle--“A binder’s term (from the French = lace) meaning a border with a lacy pattern on the inner edge, usually gilt”--but seeing a fine example up-close is clearly beneficial.

In petty grievances, I take exception to how the term blurb is assigned to what (in my book publishing experience) I have always called flap copy, i.e., a summary of the book’s merits, often written by an editorial assistant, that appears on the dust jacket flaps; and blurbs are the laudatory quotes on a book’s front or back cover, which is distinct from blurb as Carter defines it for collectors. But debating these finer points is part of the fun of delving into a book filled with bibliographical terminology “unintelligible to the layman.”

                                                                                                                                                                                 In short, this new edition is an essential upgrade for those already familiar with their ABC, and an utter necessity for newbies. 

                                                                                                                                         Image: Courtesy of Oak Knoll Press.

PORT-WINE-STAIN-by-Norman-Lock-9781942658061.jpgA long-lost short story by Edgar Allan Poe nests like a matryoshka doll within Norman Lock’s clever new novel, The Port-Wine Stain (Bellevue Literary Press, $16.95). In the novel, Dr. Edward Fenzil recounts his early years as an assistant to Thomas Dent Mütter, the maverick Philadelphia surgeon who collected medical curiosities (now the Mütter Museum), and reveals the twisted series of events that led to his theft of Poe’s manuscript in 1844. He tells his captive audience, “You want to hear about Edgar Poe, how I came to know him and how he initiated me into the occult.”

But first Fenzil begins his tale by describing Thomas Eakins’ famous painting of a surgical theatre in which he has been depicted. (That painting sans the fictional Fenzil does indeed exist and resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) It is in this macabre world that both stories--the narrator’s and Poe’s--play out. Seeking a follow-up to his “Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe snoops around Mütter’s laboratory and befriends Fenzil, whose malleable mind bends to the writer’s will. Poe uses the young man as a kind of muse, or crash-test dummy--during Fenzil’s initiation into Poe’s Thanatopsis Club, he is drugged and then bolted into a coffin so that when he wakes he will believe he has been buried alive. Poe then peppers him with questions, the answers to which he will utilize in his fiction. Poe pushes too far when he dedicates a story to Fenzil about a man who comes upon his dopplegänger in the form of a wax figure of a notorious murderer in a “chamber of horrors.”    

Lock deftly evokes time and place in The Port-Wine Stain, avoiding the pitfalls of historical fiction as a genre. His novel is steeped in the art, science, and culture of mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia but truly captivates in the storytelling.    

Bibliophiles will get a kick out the “morocco-bound” presentation copy of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque that Poe gives to Mütter, as well as the reciprocal gift of Mütter’s Cases of Deformities from Burns, Successfully Treated by Plastic Operations (1843) presented to Poe.

N.B. Coincidentally, today is Thomas Eakins’ birthday. He was born on July 25, 1844.

                                                                                                                                          Image via Bellevue Literary Press.

MANHATTAN, May 24--The Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the setting for a daylong symposium dedicated to exploring the history, design, and manufacture of late 19th to early 20th century American publishers’ book covers, as well as bookbinders’ influence on decorative bookbinding and other artistic movements. Over 125 collectors, curators, librarians, binders, and preservationists also gathered to celebrate the recent acquisition of American decorated publishers’ bindings by the Met’s Watson Library.


Book cover design by Alice Cordelia Morse. Written by Paul Leicester Ford -, Public Domain,


After an introduction by the Met’s head preservation librarian Mindell Dubansky, Richard Minsky took the podium. The Center for Book Arts founder offered compelling evidence for how American book designers such as Alice Cordelia Morse and Amy Richards formed the vanguard of major artistic movements like Art Deco and Surrealism. Senior book conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center Todd Pattison explored the role of women in book production and the industrialization of 19th Century American publishers’ bindings. Met curators, including Dubansky and Holly Phillips, spoke about the museum’s vast collections dedicated to decorative bookbindings. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen discussed the influence of stained glass window design on decorative book cover creators.

Women played a huge, if often overlooked role, in the creation of books, and the symposium’s speakers highlighted women’s achievements in nearly every presentation. During the late 1800s, many women were employed in binderies; folding, sewing, trimming, and stitching books in factories in Philadelphia, Hartford, and New York City. A smaller group of women, such as Alice C. Morse, Sarah Wyman Whitman, and Margaret Armstrong, were primarily responsible for producing beautiful decorative bindings, and maintained successful careers in an ever-evolving industry. Their selection of color palettes, design, and style contributed to the growing field of decorative arts and led the way for future generations of artists.

A closing reception in the Watson library, where original botany watercolors by Margaret Armstrong were on display, put the finishing touches on an illuminating event.

I’m not a cat person--if my parents’ calico could talk, she’d readily testify to all the ways me and my basset hounds have made her miserable over the past decade. Still, I’d be foolish to ignore that books and cats are a winning combination. Librarian Jan Louch (with Lisa Rogak) explores that special bond in her new book The True Tails of Baker and Taylor: The Library Cats Who Left Their Pawprints on a Small Town...and the World.


Baker & Taylor want you to use the library. © Baker & Taylor LLC. Reproduced with permission from St. Martin’s Press

In an era before the morass of social media made Grumpy Cat and other creatures international celebrities, there were Baker and Taylor. Bags, posters, and other freebies from the eponymous library distributor became cult items at library conferences (like the BEA taking place in Chicago this week), and remain fan favorites today, as their namesake company continues to use their likeness on promotional items.

Louch’s memoir explains how she and fellow librarians at her sleepy public library in Minden, Nevada, initially adopted a cat to tackle a mouse infestation. When a representative from  Baker & Taylor learned the cat was named for their company, a companion was shrewdly purchased for the library. In return, the creatures posed for company advertising, resulting in a wildly successful marketing campaign that remains a cultural touchstone for librarians across the country. Posters and other items routinely pop up on eBay and other auction sites for around $30.


9. baker taylor first poster.jpg

The inaugural members of Douglas County Public Library’s Feline Literati section in their first poster for Baker & Taylor. ©Baker & Taylor LLC. reproduced with permission from St. Martin’s Press.


Co-author Lisa Rogak was kicking around ideas for a new project about two years ago, and the story of these felines was catnip to her: “I had always known of the Baker and Taylor cats because I’ve been in publishing for so long,” Rogak said earlier this week. “Honestly, I would have thought that a book already existed because they were so famous back in the day, but no book [existed]. I then tracked down Jan Louch, the librarian who cared for them. She emailed me back and after a brief phone conversation I hopped on a plane a week later.”
                                                                                                                                                            Alongside the cats’ rise to fame, the book chronicles the rapid growth in Douglas County, where the population grew over 600% from the 1960s to the early 80s, which meant more library patrons, but not necessarily increased funding. The True Tails of Baker and Taylor also explores Louch’s own bibliocentric childhood, where she spent endless days with a book in one hand and an animal in the other. This ode to feline companionship confirms what librarians and literary-minded folk have known for ages: books are better with cats.

                                                                                                                                                            The True Tails of Baker and Taylor: The Library Cats Who Left Their Pawprints on a Small Town...and the World, by Jan Louch with Lisa Rogak; St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, hardcover, 274 pages. May 2016.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (Simon & Schuster, $26) by former Newsweek foreign correspondent Joshua Hammer is the engrossing story of Abdel Kader Haidara, an archivist and historian who helped recreate Timbuktu’s historic manuscript libraries in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, and then risked everything to rescue them from Islamic militants bent on destruction.  
                                                                                                                                                    the-bad-ass-librarians-of-timbuktu-9781476777405_hr.jpgBy 2012, 45 libraries existed in the city, holding 377,000 manuscripts, all of which needed to be saved from the looting that Haidara was sure would ensue after al Qaeda seized the city that spring. Volunteers met under cover of darkness to pack the volumes in footlockers. “One prize was a tiny, irregularly shaped folio that glittered with illuminated blue Arabic letters and droplets of gold--a single page from the twelfth-century Koran written on the parchment of a fish...,” writes Hammer. For two hours each night, they packed books into chests with padlocks, “wrapped them in blankets and loaded them onto mule carts,” after which they would be transported to dozens of safe houses. From there, trusted couriers smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali’s capital--through dangerous jihadist checkpoints every day for months.                                                                                                                                                        To call this book a page-turner is to diminish it; the suspense that Hammer creates is vital, but it’s his shrewd reporting on cultural terrorism--and those who fought against it--that makes The Bad-Ass Librarians so important. No book lover should miss it.
                                                                                                                                         Further reading: The Wall Street Journal published a mini-excerpt from the book and American Libraries posted an interview with the author.


Image via Simon & Schuster.

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide

devil's claw.JPG

Devil’s Claw ©2016 Paul Mirocha. Reproduced with permission from University of Arizona Press.


This year the National Park Service turns 100, and while plenty of new books on the topic clamor for attention, one standout will surely interest readers of this blog. The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, published by the University of Arizona Press takes an innovative approach to natural history by combining words and image in a most striking way. A delightful hybrid of scientific exploration and creative writing, the book is a unique match for the desert topography, which is itself a study in paradoxes: Encompassing over 120,000 miles between Arizona and Mexico, North America’s hottest region is also the world’s “lushest” desert, and claims five distinct seasons, allowing for a surprising array of life.

To capture the biodiversity of the desert, editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos included material from fifty writers and poets based in the American West. The writers and their styles are just as varied as the plants and animals discussed: Alison Hawthorne Deming’s odes to the Saguaro cactus, “What the Desert is Thinking” and “Questions for a Saguaro,” mimic the long arms of the desert’s keystone flora, while Wendy Burk’s spare, methodical composition matches its subject, the desert tortoise. These, and other entries represent a sampling of what the editors charmingly coined a “literary biomimicry.” Plenty of creatures are included whose names alone demand further inspection, such as the desert globemallow, the fairy duster, and the Arizona walkingstick. Sketches by award-winning illustrator Paul Mirocha are crisp, bright, and lively. (Readers may recognize Mirocha’s handiwork; he has illustrated over 20 children’s books and pop-ups, including Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder.)

Each creative contribution is accompanied by the subject’s physical description and habitat, and these scientific entries are entertaining as well: the desert tortoise is called “the Oreo of the desert” for their prevalence on predator menus, and inebriated young men are frequent victims of rattlesnake bites. The diversity of the text and the species of the Sonoran offer up a rich resource that celebrates the beauty of this extraordinary biome.


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Cactus Wren ©2016 Paul Mirocha, reproduced with permission from University of Arizona Press

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos with illustrations by Paul Mirocha; University of Arizona Press, $19.95, 216 pages, 2016.

the-madwoman-upstairs-9781501124211_hr.jpgIt can be no easy task to re-hash Brontë lore--whether in fiction or non-fiction--and yet, occasionally a reader finds reason to rejoice. Catherine Lowell’s debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs (Touchstone, $25.99), is utterly absorbing, a lighthearted read that appeals to those of us who unwind with TV adaptations of Victorian novels (almost any will do) and who might be still be sobbing this morning over the demise of Downton Abbey.

Twenty-year-old American Samantha Whipple is the last of the Brontë line and thus the center of much unwanted public scrutiny. The world seems to believe that Samantha’s family is hiding a hoard of Brontë treasures. Samantha’s enigmatic father--who home-schooled her, primarily in literature--died young, but not before planting clues to Samantha’s “inheritance.” She sets off to attend Oxford University, where she feels quite lonely, until her father’s annotated copies of Brontë novels (believed to have burned in a house fire years before) begin appearing in her room.

Lowell’s plot moves along at a brisk pace, introducing characters who upstage Whipple, the men in particular. Her father, Tristan, is either a genius or a loon; her professor, James Orville, is a taskmaster we warm to; and her adversary, Sir John, has a dark side that borrows a bit from A.S. Byatt’s unscrupulous collector Mortimer Cropper in Possession. Sir John is on the hunt for the Brontë relics--a brooch, a quill, a manuscript, items that will give him a “deeper understand of their novels, of course.” (He surely would have enjoyed The Brontë Cabinet--having written a similar book about Brontë objects.)      

There’s loads of literary banter and a smidge of romance--a lark that can keep one awake well past her bedtime, and The Madwoman Upstairs does just that.

Image: Courtesy of Touchstone Books. 

How to Be a Tudor

While exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library’s latest online endeavor in a blog last month, I cited the Bard’s will where he bequeaths his ‘second best bed’ to his wife, Anne.  Though that passage was not considered a slight on Shakespeare’s part, I admit I didn’t understand why. After reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor (Liveright Publishing, $29.95, 336 pages), the reason is clear: Beds in the 16th century were precious commodities, and often the first items mentioned in wills. Shakespeare was simply ensuring that his wife would have a warm place to lay her head when he was gone. This, and other details fill Goodman’s follow-up to her 2014 volume, How to Be a Victorian.


Fans of the BBC’s Wolf Hall will be happy to learn that Goodman, who was the historical advisor for the series, wanted the producers to portray the times accurately. In doing so, she wholeheartedly embodies the phrase “living history.” She slept in a one-room, timber framed house on an earthen floor covered by six inches of rushes, did not bathe for three months, only changing her Tudor-style undergarments daily (and surprisingly passed a modern smell test of her peers), fashioned her own writing quill, and washed her teeth with linen rags and soot.


Portrait of Sir Thomas Knyvett, de jure 4th Baron Berners, later Lord High

Sheriff of Norfolk. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Taking the reader from dawn (or in some cases, pre-dawn) to dusk for Tudor aristocrats, farmers, and women, Goodman draws on fascinating firsthand accounts such as wills, contracts, pamphlets and even coroner’s reports to flesh out a detailed portrait of life in England 400 years ago, and her clear explanations of these texts bring fresh meaning to the paper legacy the Tudors left behind. Whether sleeping on a floor, distilling essential oils, or dancing the volta, Goodman’s enthusiasm and enjoyment are a revelation and pour from every page. The Tudor era was a time of great change, and the author makes no claim that hers is the definitive guide to the period, though the book is thoroughly researched. It is, as she puts it, “a broad gallop through a typical day...a taste of the ordinary that seems to us so extraordinary.”

How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman; Liveright Publishing Corporation, $29.95, 336 pages. Pub Date: February 15, 2016

Arthur Freeman, Bibliotheca Fictiva: A Collection of Books & Manuscripts Relating to Literary Forgery, 400 BC-AD 2000. London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. 

Earle Havens, ed. Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries: Rare Books and Manuscripts from the Arthur and Janet Freeman Bibliotheca Fictiva Collection. Baltimore: Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, 2014. 

When I am asked what sort of books I collect, I usually lead with “books about books” and “catalogs of peoples’ libraries,” but it’s almost always the next one, “books about literary forgeries and hoaxes” that the questioner proves most interested in talking about. (Only later might I bring up the collection I actually work at the most, of Fenelon’s Télémaque). Arthur and Janet Freeman, creators of the magnificent, dare I say well-nigh unsurpassable forgery collection documented in Bibliotheca Fictiva, are surely familiar with the particular reaction that the mention of forgeries not infrequently elicits: a sort of conspiratorial, knowing nod, eyebrows half-raised, as if what you’d actually said was that you make literary forgeries rather than collect and study them.

When I received my copy of Bibliotheca Fictiva, impressively produced by Quaritch, and began reading through it, one of my first thoughts was that I might just as well give up the ghost on my own meagre collection of forgery-related material: the thought of building a collection that could rival this is daunting to the extreme. There can be no contest, but there needn’t be; I’ve neither the time, resources, nor inclination to collect as comprehensively as the Freemans have done, and there’s plenty of good material out there to fill the small niche I’m interested in, anyway. Once I’d gotten over that initial, overwhelmed state and really dug into this volume, I found it immensely interesting and useful.

As Arthur Freeman notes in his preface, the collection was more than five decades in the making, eventually with an eye toward the composition of “a comprehensive history of literary and historical forgery, as a genre or tradition from antiquity to the near-present” (xi) which did not come to fruition. In 2011 the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University began to acquire the collection, and this volume covers it to that time, with some of the additions made since. The “intimidating” outlines of the library, Freeman acknowledges, are “to some extent arbitrary and even personal” (xi): it covers “the entire range of literary forgery, that is to say the forgery of texts, whether historical, religious, philological, or ‘creatively’ artistic, in all languages and countries of the civilized Western world, from c. 400 BC to the end of the twentieth century” (xii). But not just the original texts: also their “first and ongoing exposures (or obstinate endorsements), in whatever printed editions seemed most significant (along with manuscripts and correspondence when applicable), with a special emphasis, inevitable for us, on evocative annotated and association copies” (xii). No small task, indeed.

Freeman introduces the collection with an eighty-page overview, broken into eleven sections (Classical and Judeo-Christian Forgery to the Fall of Rome; Medieval Forgery, Religious and Secular; Renaissance Forgery, to 1600; Seventeenth-Century Forgery; Eighteenth-Century British Forgery; Nineteenth-Century British and American Forgery; France After 1700; German, Austrian, and Dutch Forgery; Italy and Spain; Central Europe, Russia, and Greece; and The Twentieth Century). In each he briefly surveys the collection’s holdings in that area, so these eleven sections taken together--given the wide scope of the library and the breadth of its holdings--can fairly effectively serve as a de facto introduction to the genre. While there are a whole lot of names, dates, and titles packed in here, Freeman manages to keep things moving nicely.

The meat of Bibliotheca Fictiva is what Freeman has termed “The Handlist,” a catalog of the collection as it stood at the time of acquisition by Johns Hopkins. Items retained by the Freemans are noted (these include, Freeman reports, duplicates, modern reference books, certain association items, and collections related to the Fortsas hoax and the Guglielmo Libri thefts). In the introductory headnote to the Handlist Freeman outlines several areas in which the Bibliotheca Fictiva complements existing holdings at Hopkins (including the Book of Mormon). The Handlist is organized into thirteen sections--roughly corresponding to the eleven above--next by forger or topic, and finally by date (the index will be of great use). Some 1,676 entries follow, often with annotations as to their provenance, some with descriptions of the binding, and most with a short explanation of their significance.

Reading right through these entries, or at least for any particular area you have an interest in, will be well worth it: even setting aside from the scope, the library includes some truly remarkable material. There’s the (unique?) single-sheet prospectus for the Irelands’ Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments, with Samuel Ireland’s manuscript addition offering a subscription refund to doubters; or there’s Hugh Trevor-Roper’s annotated review copy of Morton Smith’s The Secret Gospel; or John Carter’s own copy of Enquiry, with a letter from Pollard dated “the day after publication,” calling the book “too much of a curate’s egg.” It takes sixty pages to document the vast sub-collection of materials relating to John Payne Collier’s life and works. From the vile (Protocols of the Elders of Zion) to the ridiculous, they’re here, and this volume is one anyone with even the slightest interest in the topic will want to have and refer to often.

The Freemans’ laudable decision to transfer the Bibliotheca Fictiva collection to Hopkins has prompted the publication of additional, complementary texts. The proceedings of a 2012 conference, “Literary Forgery and Patriotic Mythology in Europe, 1450-1800” will soon be published, and a lovely catalog of a Sheridan Libraries exhibition, Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries was released in 2014. As Winston Tabb notes in his Foreword, it is through “exhibitions and publications like this one, which share the fascinating hidden histories of fakes and forgeries throughout the ages and inspire future generations to explore them further” (iv) that we can acknowledge and thank the Freemans for providing the fruits of their long collecting labors to the scholarly community.

In his introduction, Earle Havens, the catalog’s editor, outlines how the decision was taken not only to bring the collection to Baltimore, but also to keep it together, allowing for use, promotion, and study of collection as a whole, not simply as disparate items divorced from their context. He builds a good case for the relevance and usefulness of studying forgeries and their creators as a key component of the historical and cultural record: “to treat forgery as a mode, and at times even an expressive art, of literature” (vii). Along with a checklist of the exhibition, five interpretive essays are included. Earle Havens’ “Catastrophe? Species and Genres of Literary and Historical Forgery” offers a broad overview of scholarly treatments of forgeries over time and a gallop through the “species of forgery” to be found in the Bibliotheca Fictiva, while Neil Weijer explores how one might grapple with historical forgeries (that is, forgeries of historical documents) when both “history” and “forgery” are pretty tough terms to pin down, “if all historical writing is essentially fiction?” (43). Walter Stephens provides an excellent overview of Annius of Viterbo’s works and their afterlives, and Janet E. Gomez treats the distinction between “literature” and “literary forgery” using the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries, the Alberti Tasso forgeries, and Psalmanazar’s Formosa as case studies. Finally, John Hoffmann delves into the nastiness, tackling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well other 19th- and 20th-century racist productions about miscegenation and the like. His conclusion is a fitting one for the whole book and for the topic: “The most important fact for a forger to keep in mind is the prejudice of his audience, and forgers play upon the public’s credulity by indulging unquestioned assumptions. ... Forgeries make illusions seem real, but most important, they bring about real effects” (112).

Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries is beautifully designed and produced, with lovely color illustrations throughout. I await its companion volume with anticipation, and I hope that its contents, along with those of Bibliotheca Fictiva, will prompt much future scholarly inquiry. There could be no better monument to the work of the great collectors who built the Bibliotheca Fictiva.

Cross-posted at PhiloBiblos.

If ever there were a headline--or a book title--to entice bibliophiles, surely this is it. And Sasha Abramsky’s new book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (NYRB, $27.95), a combination of memoir, history, and biography, more than delivers on that lure.

House20k_2048x2048 copy.jpgAbramsky, a journalist and senior fellow at Demos think tank, writes lovingly of his grandparents’ house at 5 Hillway, in Highgate, London. Chimen, the Russian-born atheist son of a famous rabbi, and his wife, Mimi, gathered not only thousands of rare books there but hundreds of scholars, friends, and family members, turning their home into “one of left-wing London’s great salons.” Each chapter invites readers into one room of the house to survey its bookish contents and to hear fascinating accounts of prominent visitors, bitter arguments, and delicious meals.

Chimen, introduced at a 1969 Jewish Book Week lecture as “possibly the greatest Jewish bibliophile in the world,” collected both Socialist material and Judaica. Abramsky writes, “...every single room in the house, except the bathroom and kitchen, was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves double-stacked with books.” There were rarities like The Communist Manifesto with both Marx’s and Engels’ personal annotations, and William Morris’ complete collection of the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, stored in a box built by Morris. There were sets of egalitarian Everyman’s classics too. The incredibly well-read Chimen, perhaps best suited for academic life, ran a bookshop called Shapiro, Valentine & Co. in London’s East End in the sixties. His encyclopedia memory for bibliography served him well as he became the leading consultant on manuscripts at Sotheby’s; he catalogued the collection of David Sassoon in the seventies, a sale that “essentially jump-started the modern global market in rare Hebrew materials.” In his later years, Chimen joined the faculty of University College London and lectured widely on Jewish books and history.

In 2010, Chimen died at the age of 93, and his library--an estimated 15,000-20,000 volumes--was sold. The author kept a shelf-full of his grandfather’s books as a legacy. More significantly, though, he documented his grandfather’s life. It is an important story, and Abramsky confronts harsh truths with warmth and wisdom. He also understands (and celebrates) the bibliomania behind the floor-to-ceiling, double-stacked shelves. In discussing Chimen’s friendship with Italian expatriate economist Piero Sraffa, he writes, “Over the decades, they swapped rare books and shared with each other the joy of the hunt, the unspeakable pleasure--that only a fellow connoisseur could understand--of finding a particular edition of a particular book or pamphlet, and of procuring it for a lower-than-anticipated price.” It’s a feeling that all of us can relate to.  

Image via NYRB.

frontcover.jpegFor twenty-seven years, a specialty bookshop devoted exclusively to military history thrived on New York City’s Upper East Side. The Military Bookman, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team, Harris Colt and Margaretta Barton Colt, was established in July 1976, after Harris lost his Wall Street job and decided to follow his dream. Margaretta joined him in this endeavor, even though it meant wrangling with a predominately male customer base, including “Soldier of Fortune” types and even some with “SS tendencies.” Her new memoir, Martial Bliss: The Story of The Military Bookman ($19.95), affectionately chronicles the life and times of that bookshop.

Unique characters abound. One mail-order collector interested in Frederick the Great playfully regarded himself, in his correspondence with the shop, as “part-time Marshal of France” and dated his letters 1757 from his “Winter quarters on the Rhine.” The Colts responded in kind because, the author makes clear, the Military Bookman was that kind of bookshop--one where personal relationships with customers mattered. One regular called it “Cheers without the booze.” Even a few celebrities, e.g. Paul Newman, James Gandolfini, and Bette Midler, found their way to this remarkable place over the years.

We all have favorite bookshops and even bookshop memoirs. In this bibliophilic sub-genre, numerous stories are relayed about hunting for rare books and buying trips abroad; Martial Bliss ably covers this ground. But unlike other booksellers’ memoirs, it’s not nostalgia that fuels the telling. She shares her memories in a pleasant, matter-of-fact way, as if setting straight the record for posterity--or for her former customers, who will, no doubt, adore reading her account. As will those with an interest in antiquarian books, bookselling, or military history.

“The fine line between passion and obsession was probably crossed many times in the stacks of the Military Bookman,” she writes. Sadly, those stacks were dismantled in 2003. The rise of online bookselling as well as the increased production of cheap reprints of out-of-print military titles combined to make such a specialty shop obsolete in the twenty-first century. For those who missed out on this New York City institution, Martial Bliss invites us in. 

Image: Courtesy of Margaretta Barton Colt.

9781439118238_custom-a465912f88ba4a1af9faef7450a8ef251c96f154-s300-c85.jpgAcross an ocean and more than 500 years, America remains gripped by Shakespeare. That is perhaps no where more apparent than the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which houses the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare, including 82 First Folios (of the 233 surviving copies). And in the past two years, two books have been published about its founders and their “foliomania.” Last spring, it was Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry And Emily Folger by Stephen H. Grant (Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95). This month, Andrea Mays offers her take in The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio (Simon & Schuster, $27). There was also Paul Collins’ The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World, published back in 2009, which begs the question: what’s new?

All of these titles are pleasing reads and each will provide insight into Shakespeare’s spare biography, but what’s fresh is the concentration on Henry Folger and how this shy, self-made oil tycoon amassed such a collection. Slightly less formal than Grant’s biography, Mays’ account is lively without sacrificing detail. We hear how Shakespeare’s contemporaries sourced the first collection of plays, seven years after the playwright’s death; why actor David Garrick’s 1769 ‘Jubilee’ Shakespeare festival in Stratford was a disaster; and what were the sticking points in Folger’s intense negotiations for the Folio presented by its printer William Jaggard to Augustine Vincent. Mays excels in the accounting, too: purchase prices and circumstances of each and every First Folio Folger bought.
Framing the Folgers as romantic figures is problematic no matter where one looks. If theirs is a love story, it’s the adoration of acquisition. Moreover, it is difficult (for the reader, and the writers, it seems) to reconcile the fact that while the Folgers’ intentions were wonderful and they did inevitably create an unprecedented resource for Shakespearean and Elizabethan scholars, they also locked away their books for decades, secretively, even selfishly.

Fellow collectors will enjoy tagging along on Henry’s great chase, as he secures one treasure after another. His collection can never, of course, be replicated. But the passion and the determination can be contagious. 


9781594204920_large_The_Last_Bookaneer-673x1024.jpgA title like this is bound to be picked up by any fiction-friendly bibliophile. But what exactly is a bookaneer? Matthew Pearl, author of a slew of literary mysteries beginning with The Dante Club back in 2003, has dreamed up this figure, a literary pirate and “mischief maker” who uses the 1790 copyright loophole that left works of foreign authors unprotected, to make his living. Men like Pen Davenport and his long-time rival, who goes by the cryptonym Belial, steal manuscripts and proof sheets and deliver them into the hands of greedy publishers. (Women, too; one named Kitten is said to the best bookaneer there ever was until she unearthed Mary Shelley’s long lost short story and promptly went mad.) But now its 1891, and that loophole is about to close. Three bounty hunters embark on their final adventure--to Samoa, where an ailing Robert Louis Stevenson is finishing his final work. The tropical island, however, proves more than a challenge to this trio of literary bandits, all trying to out-sleuth one another. It’s an enjoyable read, and Pearl certainly deserves points for tackling antiquated copyright law in commercial fiction!   

The Last Bookaneer (Penguin Press, $27.95) is in stores now, and Pearl is currently on book tour, if you want to catch a reading/signing.

Macbeth, the Graphic Novel


This week marks 451 years since William Shakespeare’s birth. While festivities in 2015 may not equal those of the Bard’s quadricentennial, there’s always a steady outpouring of fresh material offering the latest theories about the man, his life, and his work. 

And, since 2007, Shakespeare’s words have been immortalized in comic book form. Macbeth was recently adapted into a graphic novel by acclaimed artist Gareth Hinds, whose previous works include adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. In graphic-novel format, Macbeth is surprisingly easy to follow. Though Hinds plays with the iambic pentameter in order to accommodate speech bubbles by removing most of the line breaks, Shakespeare’s words ring true and clear, and the great soliloquies remain intact, such as the chilling “Is this a dagger which I see before me”.
Macbeth. Copyright ©2015 by Gareth Hinds. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick PressSomerville, MA

Hinds’ dark and sinister pencil illustrations perfectly capture the claustrophobia and overall anxiety writ on every line of text. An image where Macbeth contemplates his next bloody move shows a shirtless and heavily muscled man in the throes of his malevolent imaginings. A nod, perhaps to Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine from the X-Men comics, which wouldn’t surprise me at all; teenagers are definitely Hinds’ target audience.  Even Banquo has a tattoo. Swimming pools full of blood, sword-fighting, murder, wonderfully witchy-looking sorceresses, personality disorders, and the temptation of evil are all rendered by a deft artist who clearly enjoys his subject. The author’s notes offer illuminating insight into Hinds’ research for this project and page-by-page explanations for some of the details in his illustrations. This psychological thriller is as entertaining in graphic-novel format as onstage, and demonstrates the Bard’s continued endurance. 

Macbeth, a graphic novel adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, based on the play by William Shakespeare; Candlewick Press, $21.99, 152 pages, ages 12 and up. (February 2015) 

9780062356451.jpgMedieval poet John Gower reprises his unlikely yet likable role as narrator and detective in Bruce Holsinger’s new novel, The Invention of Fire (William Morrow, $26.99). A follow up to last year’s A Burnable Book, this tale begins when sixteen corpses are found clogging a London privy channel. Gross! Holsinger, a medieval scholar at the University of Virginia, revels in this kind of pungent, atmospheric detail. We quickly learn how these poor souls met their gruesome end: “Handgonnes. A word new to me in that moment, though one that would shape and fill the weeks to come. I looked out over the graves pocking the St. Bart’s churchyard, their inhabitants victims of pestilence, accident, hunger, and crime, yet despite their numberless fates it seemed that man was ever inventing new ways to die.”

Gower’s sleuthing sidekick, Geoffrey Chaucer, reappears too, as do the city’s many maudlyns (prostitutes) and crooked officials. As in A Burnable Book, Holsinger succeeds where many historical novelists fail, in the creation of unique characters--e.g., Cripplegate hermit Piers Goodman, boy cutpurse Jack Norris, and steely widow Hawisia Stone--and sharp, approachable dialogue. Holsinger risks flaming (no pun intended) in taking up the history of guns and its attendant violence, even within the framework of a mystery set more than six hundred years ago, and yet his agenda, if he has one, is obscured.

The Invention of Fire is substantial and smart. Those who enjoy historical fiction will delight in its layered, well-researched narrative. 

P.S. Should any reader be interested in the “real” Gower, I spied a 1532 edition of his De Confessione Amantis in Justin Croft’s booth at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair earlier this month.

Blame Johnny Depp. Or maybe Arturo Perez-Reverte, author of the 1993 novel The Club Dumas, which was then adapted into the 1999 film The Ninth Gate, starring Depp as a shady rare book dealer. Either way, we seem to have accepted this idea that the rare book trade is a dark underworld, peopled with deceptive booksellers, maniacal collectors, and greedy forgers. Two new novels pull on this thread in different and engaging ways.

9780802123213 copy.jpgThe Forgers by Bradford Morrow (Mysterious Press, $24) stuns from its first line, “They never found his hands.” A reclusive Long Island collector named Adam Diehl has been murdered. His sister is justly horrified, and her boyfriend, Will, a bibliophile with a talent for literary forgery, avoids telling her some secrets he knew about Adam. But as they begin to move on with their lives, Will receives a series of threatening letters, written in the script of dead authors.          

Morrow, formerly a rare book dealer and currently a collector of first editions and the author of seven previous novels, clearly knows his way around the subject and parlays that expertise into lovely lines about putting his pen nib to “antique leaf, its wire-and-chain lines singing like lyre strings beneath the flowing words.” Roundly praised by all the pre-pub review magazines and a list of literary luminaries (Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Russell, Peter Straub...), Morrow offers a suspenseful plot that coexists with gritty characters and ominous imagery. 

9780525427247_large_First_Impressions.jpgFirst Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett (Viking, $27.95) has a pretty neat premise: someone has stumbled upon the fact that Jane Austen may have stolen the idea for Pride & Prejudice from a tale shared with her by an elderly clergyman. Getting to the bottom of that mystery will involve murder, theft, deceit, assault, and desire. The dual narrative moves back and forth between a Hampshire village at the end of the 18th century, where Austen finds a literary mentor, and present-day London, where recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood is trying to rebuild the library of her recently deceased and beloved uncle and choose between two romantic partners. That is, until she is strong-armed into locating a rare, possibly unique, volume that will discredit Austen.

Lovett is also a book collector and a former antiquarian bookseller (he was featured in our spring issue’s ‘How I Got Started’ column), and this is his second novel, following his 2013 bestseller, The Bookman’s Tale. First Impressions is nimble and entertaining. Austen fans will surely flock to it, as will bibliophilic and publishing history geeks who can’t pass up a novel with characters that include an unknown 18th-century printer and a man who keeps his fabulous family library locked at all times. 

Hirst Strikes Again

“ABC,” by Damien Hirst; Harry Abrams, $16.99, 58 pages, ages 15 and up.

 abc cover.jpg

Damien Hirst ABC (c) Other Criteria, 2013.

Describe the achievements of contemporary artist Damien Hirst, and children’s book author is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. Controversial and divisive, the unofficial leader of the Young British Artists group has scaled his art to board book dimensions. 

Let’s be clear: ABC is not for children, despite the back copy saying it’s “Fun for all the family.” Children should not be given this book. It is for collectors who enjoy or appreciate Hirst’s fascination with death, religion and medicine.  


Other Criteria (c) Damien Hirst & Science, 2013

This alphabet book is a retrospective of sorts - each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a piece of Hirst’s art. If an ignorant parent offers this book to a child, it won’t help young readers learn the alphabet because the images don’t always correspond to the letters they represent. For example, opposite the letter J is a close-up photograph of the artist’s 1991 installation of a dead tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Here the J refers to “Jaws.” Other creepy images of dead animals, as well as Hirst’s infamous diamond encrusted skull, show up throughout the book. 


That being said, the images are fascinating, and that the artist even produced a book nominally geared towards child-age readers will no doubt provoke discussion among readers. This is an excellent book to consider giving as a holiday gift to anyone who adores modern and contentious artists and would appreciate Hirst’s latest attempt to provoke the viewing public. 

Other Criteria (c) Damien Hirst & Science, 2013
CodexS.jpgThe new edition of the cult classic, Codex Seraphinianus (Rizzoli, $125), was one of the three “coffee-table books” that made our annual holiday gift guide (Art Made From Books, reviewed here, was another). Originally published in 1981, this whimsical encyclopedia-of-sorts was conceived and designed by an Italian artist/architect named Luigi Serafini. Since then, several editions have been released to an avid collector base. The first edition is by far the most coveted and valued upwards of $5,000, but booksellers also offer the 1983 Abbeville Press edition in the $1,000-2,000 range, and still later editions command healthy three-figure prices.

Codex Seraphinianus is an art book in the most direct sense--there are big, beautiful drawings accompanied by indecipherable letterforms--and it is impossible to “read” it in a literal way. Form prevails, and that form is an elegant large quarto bound in cream canvas with gold lettering and laminated decoration, containing thick, textured paper. When paired with the cryptic script, Serafini’s surreal illustrations recall centuries-old manuscripts of natural history--and yet the overall effect is not old-fashioned; it is Salvador Dali and Italo Calvino with a dash of Dr. Who.

Rizzoli’s newest edition, Codex Seraphinianus XXXIII, is published to coincide with the book’s thirty-third anniversary. It is available as a deluxe limited edition signed by Serafini for $400 or the trade edition for $125.

The text has remained a mystery all these years, and perhaps that’s part of its draw as an art object. And if you think the Decodex pamphlet provided in the book’s back pocket will give you even a sliver of understanding, think again. In it, Serafini tells us that the true author of the Codex was a stray white cat found on the streets of Rome.

Wegman’s Weimaraners

Flo and Wendell reading.jpg

Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers Group

Flo and Wendell superheroes.jpg

Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers Group

“Flo & Wendell,” by William Wegman; Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-5.

After a decade-long hiatus, William Wegman and his loveable, huggable Weimeraners are back in print.  In this story, we meet little Flo and her brother Wendell, and aside from their adorable faces, these puppies have very little in common. Flo likes dressing up and baking delicious cupcakes, while her younger brother is more interested in playing sports and causing mischief.  Their hopeful parents encourage them to try and find something to do together, but with each page it seems less and less likely. Wegman playfully dissects the intricacies of sibling rivalry through simple text and engaging images. In previous Wegman books, the dogs are pictured in actual clothing; here the author departs from tradition and mixes photographs of the dogs with painted costumes and backgrounds.  This book is so cute parents may find themselves suddenly besieged with requests to bring home actual puppies.  (Full disclosure: our family recently brought home a pair of pups after reading this book.) Cave canem amabilem.  

Who Stole The Books?


© 2013 Thomas Docherty. Published in The Snatchabook by Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.

“The Snatchabook,” by Helen Docherty, illustrated by Thomas Docherty; Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99, ages 3-6.

            “In every house,

                        in every bed,            

                                    a bedtime book

                                                 was being read.”

The story starts innocently enough; all the critters in the arboreal hamlet of Burrow Down complete their days with a delightful bedtime tale. All is well until an unwelcome stranger flies into town one night and steals the books quicker than a bolt of lightening. Who is the book thief? (Readers can rule out Stephen Blumberg.) After all the books disappear, a brave bunny named Eliza Brown is determined to catch the crook.  Once collared, the aptly-named Snatchabook confesses his crimes, and Eliza decides to help the creature find redemption in a most appropriate and caring manner.  Helen Docherty’s jaunty rhymes keep pace with husband Thomas Docherty’s loveable renditions of badgers, bunnies and porcupines. Children will love acting this book out - sometimes as the sneaky Snatchabook, other times as the wise Eliza Brown. While fun to read, The Snatchabook also teaches an important lesson about the power of reading to stir young minds.


© 2013 Thomas Docherty. Published in The Snatchabook by Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.

ArtMadeFromBooks.jpegThe fall issue of FB&C always contains a holiday gift guide, in which Nate Pedersen and I highlight about fifteen bookish items that might make a nice present (for you or for someone else). Obviously, this list often contains books, old and new. There were three new books that made the list this year -- Art Made From Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed (Chronicle Books, $27.50) is one of them.

Compiled by Laura Heyenga, with a preface by Brian Dettmer and an introduction by Alyson Kuhn, it is, by coffee table book standards, rather slim and handy. It is an anthology of artists who use books as their primary material in making art -- this could mean “treating” a book with any number of tools and instruments, from scissors, X-Acto knives, and needles to ink, paint, and glue.

The first thing one notices about this book is the creative binding -- the front and back boards seem to float in place while the sewn (and glued) signatures are fully visible along the spine, where a strip of chartreuse binding tape holds it together. Inside is a beautifully illustrated look at working book artists. Some of them will be familiar to readers of this magazine--in the past we have featured the work of Brian Dettmer, Guy Laramee, and Jeremy May--while others no doubt have a following among artists, collectors, and dealers. Su Blackwell’s book tableaux invite viewers into her captivating storybook world, while the intricacy of Julia Strand’s three-dimensional collages are astounding. I have long enjoyed the bookish photography of Cara Barer, and it’s nice to see large, color reproductions of some here. There are also great photos of the book sculptures left around Edinburgh by an anonymous artist in 2011. Her sculpture marking the publication of Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead, showing a couple of paper skeletons drinking, smoking, and listening to records, is particularly striking.

If I had one gripe with the selection of artists presented here, it’s that the focus seems to be on younger artists, shunning the artists who, in many ways, created the field. For example, Doug Beube is one of the most experienced book artists in this book. He started altering books in 1979. (Beube is the subject of our winter issue’s Book Art column.) On the other hand, reading up on the newer artists is ideal for collectors.  

Wilde and Wonderful

“The Selfish Giant and Other Stories,” by Oscar Wilde; The Folio Society, $44.95, 192 pages, ages 13 and up.


THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 


Perhaps best known as a playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde also wrote several fairy tales. The Folio Society has published a new edition that would make an excellent gift to fairy tale fans as well as to those who love a beautiful, well-crafted book.

As with everything published by the Folio Society, the production standards for The Selfish Giant are first-rate. A sturdy metallic silver box keeps everything safe, and beautiful end papers covered in snowflakes set a magical mood. The book is printed on Abbey Wove paper and is three-quarter bound in buckram. (Buckram is a 100% cotton cloth used to cover the boards of the book.) On the cover is an exquisite illustration of the title character looking over a little boy who sits in an ethereal white-blossomed tree.

Grahame Baker-Smith illustrated The Selfish Giant. (Smith was also recently commissioned to illustrate the Folio Society’s 2012 edition of Pinocchio.) During a conversation with the illustrator I asked if he incorporated Wilde’s likeness into any of the images. He did; try to find which one it is in the accompanying image post. The mixed-media illustrations capture Wilde’s wit, yet recall a certain melancholy, suggesting - rightly - that these stories are not for the faint of heart.

British fiction author Jeanette Winterson writes an engaging introduction, giving readers a quick primer on Wilde’s life while intertwining major life milestones with his work. She reminds us that these are not bedtime stories for babies; rather, Winterson declares that these tales ‘tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not’. As a result these stories deal with themes that young children may not understand.  Still, this is a glorious book, and as Wilde himself said, “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” 

Read more and see images from the book here -- 

Salinger Contract.JPGIn the midst of all the recent Salingermania, I discovered a new novel called The Salinger Contract (Open Road Media, paperback, $16.99). Its dual narrative concerns two writers--one a former journalist whose primary job these days is stay-at-home dad, the other a successful thriller writer with waning talent and confidence. An uneasy friendship develops between them when a Chicago book collector with a penchant for reclusive authors makes a provocative offer and sends the plot spinning. I loved the novel’s dark playfulness and its fresh approach to the biblio-fiction genre that has been feeling stale of late (in that way, it reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I found The Salinger Contract more complex and more enjoyable.)    

As fate would have it, the author is Adam Langer, a magazine editor with whom I worked a dozen years ago at a start-up called Book Magazine. He and I haven’t been in touch since, so this felt like a great opportunity to seek him out and tell him how much I enjoyed his novel--and also to ask him a few questions about the story.

RRB: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the antagonist is a collector who insists on hoarding manuscripts that will never be published, indeed will never be read by anyone else. In fiction, collectors are often depicted as sinister and compulsive, but you give it a bigger twist. Do you think collectors get a bad rap?! (And do you collect anything?)

AL: Well, I would hate to think of my collector character representing collectors as a whole group of people. For myself, I can’t say that I’m much of a collector except in the case of stories, which my collector character also collects in his own sinister way. When I was younger, I collected baseball cards and stamps and my father gave me his stamp collection, which I still have and cherish. And somewhere safely locked away, I do have some Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente baseball cards, which aren’t worth anywhere near what one would think because I never thought to keep them in mint condition. But, like the stamps, they’re more valuable for their role in history--both mine and history in general--than whatever negligible resale value they might have.

RRB: It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the novel’s main character shares your name -- why did you do that? After all, you’re not a house husband/aspiring writer in Bloomington, Indiana.

AL: Well, I was living in Bloomington for a while so that’s actually true. The real reason for using my name is because I thought it was as good a method as any to get the reader to trust me, which, of course, is almost always a silly thing for a reader to do. I wanted to start out with some basic realities, then totally warp them into a funhouse reflection of reality, and the easiest way to do that was to use a lot of elements of my own biography. There are also some very specific reasons why I thought that using my own name and that of my father would work well for the plot, but I probably shouldn’t get into that.

RRB: One of the blurbs on the back of the book describes the plot as a series of “nesting boxes,” (I was thinking Russian dolls), but your novel has that Calvino-esque quality. Was it hard to plot out? How long did it take you to conceive and write it?

AL: I love Calvino. When my Italian professor Doris Ingrosso introduced me to The Baron in the Trees I was totally taken with it. I had a similar reaction, perhaps an even more profound one to If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler. Both taught me how much you could play with form in a novel and still tell an engaging story. As for The Salinger Contract, I didn’t really plot it out. I’m not a writer who outlines. I follow the plot where it takes me. I let it surprise me and then I spend a lot of time backtracking and making sure it all makes sense. It might not be the most logical method for writing a novel, but it’s fairly organic and it’s the one that I find most satisfying.

RRB: Your book takes literally the adage that a book can “save your life.” What book--metaphorically speaking--saved your life?  

AL: I don’t think any one book saved my life, but there are certainly plenty that helped to form who I am, and if they didn’t save me, they did change me. Probably for each phase of my life, there’s a different book or series of books. When I was a kid, it was Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books and Secret Agents Four. When I was in high school, it was Kerouac, particularly On the Road and The Subterraneans and also a play by Simon Gray called Quartermaine’s Terms. In college, it was Calvino and Borges. When I was studying literature in grad school, it was Jane Eyre and The Aeneid. There has been a Graham Greene phase and a G.K. Chesterton phase and an Edna O’Brien phase and a Joseph Conrad phase. And about ten years ago, I got into a Virginia Woolf phase that I still haven’t gotten out of. Even now, when I’m stuck or I don’t know what to write about, I pick up The Waves or To The Lighthouse. Most recently, the book that blew me away was one I was surprised I’d never read before--Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

RRB: As a reader, do you enjoy “biblio-fiction” -- meaning novels about rare books and manuscripts -- and if so, what are some of your favorites?

AL: The first character that comes to mind is Arthur Geiger in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. And then there’s James Atlas’s The Great Pretender. I really liked the first fifty pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, but then I misplaced the novel and never actually finished it.

RRB: And with a title like The Salinger Contract, I have to ask, will you see the new Salinger documentary?

AL: I did. I didn’t hate it as much as some people did, but it’s not a very good movie. And now that all the spoilers have been spoiled--more Salinger books are on their way; Salinger was pretty much a creep; Salinger was deeply affected by the time he spent in the war--there’s no real artistic reason to see the movie. But then again, I’ve never been all that interested in author’s biographies. That’s why I decided to make some up, including my own.
-1.jpgLike many people, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Huguette Clark, the 104-year-old multimillionaire who died in 2011 after having spent much of her life in anonymous seclusion. Ever since Bill Dedman’s investigative reports began surfacing in 2010, I’ve enjoying reading about the copper heiress who was born in Paris in 1906 and lived most of her long, luxurious life in New York City before meeting what I would call a tragic end -- with a relatively healthy body and mind, Huguette spent the last twenty-two years of her life in a hospital room instead of one of her three palatial homes.

In Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, Dedman and co-writer Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Huguette’s second cousin, have written the definitive account of her eccentric life. As the last child born to 67-year-old copper king and (briefly) Senator William A. Clark and his 28-year-old wife, Anna LaChapelle, Huguette was perhaps bound from the beginning to be odd. The death of her older, teenaged sister, with whom she was close, surely didn’t help. Nor did the immense amounts of money and attention. Still, hers was a charmed life, full of travel and music and lengthy correspondence with friends. It wasn’t until 1991, when a doctor made a house call to her Fifth Avenue apartment and discovered a skeletal woman with various cancers, that it seemed her life was coming to its natural close. But, in many ways, that was just the beginning of this strange tale, because the patient recovered, and yet ended up staying in the hospital for the next 7,364 nights. And she began giving away her money -- by the millions -- which didn’t go unnoticed by long-lost relatives or, once Dedman was on the trail, the media. This is a story that very much needed to be told.  

How much money did Huguette have? Something in the range of $300 million. (Among other things, her father had founded Las Vegas.) Like her parents, Huguette was a collector. Mainly she collected dolls and doll houses, but she also had Stradivarius violins and major paintings, including Manet, Monet, and Renoir. (Nate Pedersen wrote about Clark’s collections on our blog last year.) Christie’s auctioned a collection of rare jewels from her estate, which realized $18 million. She seemed fond of books, as well. Of all the rooms in her father’s dismantled 121-room New York City mansion, Dedman writes, “the library was the one Huguette described with the most fondness, the one she missed most of all.” (According to the footnotes, Senator Clark’s library is detailed in an auction catalogue for a sale on January 29, 1926 by the American Art Association. I’d love to see that.)

Empty Mansions is full of rich details and solid research--we’d expect nothing less of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dedman--and yet I did not come away as convinced as the authors seem to be about Huguette’s decision-making skills as she aged, or indeed that her mental capabilities had ever progressed past childhood. It’s difficult and sad to imagine that a person of reasonable adult faculties would choose to remain hidden away in a small, sterile room watching The Smurfs on television when she could have had the world at her fingertips, or that she didn’t feel trapped by those around her--nurses, hospital administrators, lawyers, accountants--who claimed to be (or truly thought they were) helping.

The book’s publication this week coincides with a trial set to begin tomorrow that pits nineteen of Clark’s (mostly estranged) relatives against the beneficiaries of her last will (a charitable foundation, a hospital, a nurse, a goddaughter, an attorney, an accountant, and several employees). The relatives believe that Huguette was mentally incompetent when the last will was signed and that she may have been the victim of fraud.

It’s an incredible tale, and not yet complete.

Magic in the Margins

Summer isn’t over yet, so here are a few books that capture the whimsical spirit of these final days of the season.  

Now Open the Box, by Dorothy Kunhardt; The New York Review of Children’s Books, $16.95, 72 pages, ages 4-7.

Before Clifford the Big Red Dog, there was little Peewee the circus dog. Originally published in 1934, Dorothy Kunhardt’s Now Open the Box tells the story of a beloved red canine and his opening act at the circus. 


Now Open the Box by Dorothy Kunhardt. Reproduced with permission from the New York Review of Children’s Books © Dorothy Kunhardt.   

To beckon spectators, the ringmaster stands in front of a large red tent while holding a yellow box that fits in the palm of his hand.  Inside is Peewee. Although the tiny pooch can’t perform a single trick, everybody loves the cute canine, from circus-goers to fellow performers. Unfortunately the dog begins to grow, and this threatens his place under the big top.

The New York Review of Children’s Books has just reissued this book by the author of Pat the Bunny. A torrent of words, coupled with bright illustrations and simple sentences lend a childlike, innocent quality to the storytelling.  Kunhardt’s iconic line-drawn illustrations employ a basic color scheme of fire engine red, canary yellow, black and white. 

At times, the story may seem lengthy and very young children might lose patience, but most readers will enjoy following Peewee on his adventure extravaganza. Kunhardt aficionados will surely want to add this edition to their collection.  

More magical reviews and great illustrations from Now Open the Box are here.

Stoker.jpgBack in May, in a review of The Bookman’s Tale, I complained that the closer one is to the rare book trade, the harder it can be to enjoy fiction based on antiquarian books and manuscripts. But hope springs eternal, so here I am to tell you about Royce Prouty’s debut novel, Stoker’s Manuscript, a re-telling or sequel of sorts, to Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale.

By way of plot, we open with antiquarian book and manuscript dealer Joseph Barkeley (“low volume and high margins,” he tells us), who is called to authenticate the original draft manuscript for Stoker’s Dracula. (Such a manuscript does indeed exist, having surfaced in a Pennsylvania barn in the 1980s. It is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.) An anonymous Romanian buyer then employs Barkeley to purchase and deliver the document to the legendary Castle Bran. Once there, Barkeley realizes he is dealing with the devil. To avoid impalement, he must decode messages hidden in the text and locate the secret burial site of Dracula’s bride.

Prouty’s style is more storyteller than trained novelist, so while he excels at plot and tone, his sentences could have had more finesse. His descriptions of Romanian history, geography, and lore add much to the tale. Those who have enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, or even, say, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, will find themselves on common (unhallowed) ground -- a thriller with enough literary references to keep both the bookish and the bloodthirsty amused. 
AstorPlaceVintage.jpgTo say that this novel had me at its title would be silly, but the title does say it all: Manhattan with historical flair. I anticipated something like Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time--indeed Stephanie Lehmann’s Astor Place Vintage is even peppered with historical photos à la Finney--and I was not at all disappointed. This evocative and charming novel succeeds in taking readers on two journeys through New York, one set in the modern workaday world of vintage clothing dealer, Amanda Rosenbloom, who finds a diary sewn into a fur muff, and the one she “reads,” written by career-minded shopgirl Olive Westcott in 1907.

When Amanda is called to appraise some clothing in the apartment of 98-year-old Jane Kelly, she makes an important discovery among the mod A-lines and mid-century cocktail dresses. An old trunk with Edwardian-era garb hides the century-old diary of a 20-year-old woman named Olive. Against her better judgement, Amanda makes a deal on the dresses and pockets the diary. Unmarried and childless at 39, Amanda is beginning to search for something more in life than a married boyfriend, a struggling business, and rampant insomnia. To that end, she visits a hypnotist and starts reading Olive’s diary. Some odd things begin to happen; she isn’t exactly haunted by Manhattan’s past, but her life begins to mirror Olive’s in disquieting ways.  

Olive began writing in September of 1907, having just moved to Manhattan with her father, a manager at the Woolworth’s on 34th Street. The upwardly mobile Olive enjoys many luxuries and yet has a burgeoning feminist streak. (She even buys herself a book on the female body since no one has bothered to provide her with the basics.) She eschews marriage and instead hopes to pursue a career as a department store buyer. When tragedy strikes, Olive relies on willpower and ambition to succeed in a city full of binding corsets, foul tenements, and, for many ladies of her station, a woeful lack of sex education.

Lehmann deserves much credit for bringing history alive in Astor Place Vintage (Touchstone/S&S; original trade paperback, $16), allowing Amanda the opportunity to stumble upon the buildings where Olive lived, shopped, and ate, in their modern context. The two narratives effortlessly braid together, each with its own tensions and well-developed characters, and each a welcome sight when I removed the bookmark and read well beyond my bedtime. 
Two new books take the study of American material culture to the masses by highlighting the country’s iconic objects--a fragment of Plymouth rock, a presidential button, a soldier’s footlocker--and using them to brief readers on an historical event. Souvenir Nation by William L. Bird, Jr. (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95) and The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer (Viking, $36), both recently published, offer fine essays and color illustrations meant for the armchair historian in all of us. It comes as no surprise that reading each of these books is like taking a stroll through a great museum -- Holzer’s book focuses on the collection of the New-York Historical Society, while Bird’s book examines the relics in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (A related exhibit opens at the Smithsonian Castle in August.) Need I mention how perfect they are for Father’s Day?
Souvenir Nation.jpgSouvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios shows off items preserved in the Smithsonian but often gathered or collected by laymen. Bird, curator at the NMAH, prompts us to think about the idea of souvenirs, not so much in the way of plastic knick-knacks we pick up at landmarks these days, but the ones chipped from monuments and clipped from heads in years past. Here are a few of the neat items you’ll find here: a piece of George Washington’s mahogany coffin, railroad conductors’ punch cards, and actress Laura Keene’s bloodstained cuff worn at Ford’s Theater. As always, I enjoy the format of Princeton Architectural Press books. This trim red, white, and blue hardcover resembles a history textbook, if textbooks were a bit groovier. The endpapers are decorated with patriotic stars, and the book even contains two ribbons (red and blue) for placeholders.  

CivilWar50.jpgThe Civil War in 50 Objects has a narrower focus and yet is a heftier read. Holzer, a Fellow at the N-YHS, offers a more narrative approach, allotting each artifact--iron slave shackles, a draft wheel for drawing names, a Confederate cipher key--a mini-chapter instead of a page. The bookish among us will be glad to note the number of items that fall under the rubric of ‘print culture’ represented by broadsides, prints, letters, newspapers, watercolor drawings by prisoners, a pocket diary of a private from NY, a bible used at a “colored orphan asylum,” c. 1863, the First Dixie reader, and lastly, a manuscript of the thirteenth amendment. Illustrated with fine color reproductions, this book is a collection of treasures for anyone interested in Civil War history.   

The more I learn about old books, the harder it is to enjoy the type of biblio-fiction that should appeal to me. I have always enjoyed novels that feature books, particularly antique books and manuscripts, as an essential element, e.g. Byatt’s Possession, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and Martha Cooley’s The Archivist, all of which I’m afraid to re-read now that I’ve spent the last few years focused on the rare book trade as editor of this magazine. I quibble over bibliographical points and still demand a hardy plot, which makes me a more persnickety reader than most. 

9780670026470H.jpgCharlie Lovett’s debut novel, The Bookman’s Tale (Viking, June, $27.95), entices the general reader in me. It opens in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye where antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly finds what he believes to be a watercolor portrait of his recently deceased wife, Amanda, tucked into a copy of An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers by Edmond Malone. Oddly, the portrait appears Victorian, so it sends Peter’s mind reeling. An intriguing premise, but here we are on page 4, and already I’m doubting Lovett, a book collector and former antiquarian bookseller, because Peter removes the watercolor from the book and slips it into a cheaper book before checking out. What?! A find like that and he doesn’t pause to consider whether the book contained more evidence, or the sagacity (not to mention ethics) of separating the book from its extra-illustration? Bad bookseller. And yet, as the story continues, we are meant to think of him as a something of a hapless genius.

Peter’s pursuit to find the artist of this little watercolor turns into quite the quest--spanning numerous sets of characters and several centuries. William Shakespeare is one such character; Lovett imagines him annotating a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto and then handing it off to a bookseller. That becomes the holy grail at the heart of the novel, surrounded by forgery, murder, and sex (the latter recounted from Peter’s memories of his college days would have been better left unsaid). And while there were too many set changes for a novel under five hundred pages, what I liked about this story is how Lovett invents such a book’s origin and follows it through the centuries from writer to bookseller to collector (Robert Cotton) so on and so forth. I would have preferred more in those chapters and less on Peter’s personal history.

As my colleague Jeremy Dibbell pointed out last week, this may be the only novel to feature a Hinman Collator, which is pretty neat. Peter uses it to compare two copies of Pandosto while trying to prove that one is a genuine first edition. The final quarter focuses on forgery, through which Lovett develops narrative tension and delivers an interesting ending.

The Bookman’s Tale is a breeze to read, and if you are not yet as jaded a reader as I am vis-a-vis biblio-fiction, it makes fine poolside reading.

I is for Imagination in Appalachia

Sea Monsters cover low res.jpgThere are few things quite so charming as the images of sea monsters that turn up on old maps -- personal favorite: the map of Iceland surrounded by sea monsters done by Abraham Ortelius in 1585. What’s charming to me, however, was terrifying to sailors for centuries.

Now those sea monsters are getting some deserved scholarly attention, thanks to Chet Van Duzer, an invited research scholar at the John Carter Brown Library and soon-to-be research curator in the geography & maps division at the Library of Congress. His new book, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (British Library/U. of Chicago Press, $35), is illustrated with 147 color images. Van Duzer analyzes the most important examples of this decorative cartography from the tenth century to the end of the sixteenth, examining each mapmaker’s sources and influences.

Van Duzer is also the co-author of last year’s Seeing the World Anew: The Radical Vision of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 & 1516 World Maps.
At $2.5 million, Jonathan Singer’s Botanica Magnifica is considered the most expensive new book ever produced. Now, you can own one for $11.95.

Botanica.jpgThe hand-bound, double-elephant folio of flower photography was created in an edition of ten in 2008-2009 (we profiled Singer in our July/August 2008 issue). Last month, Abbeville Press published an unabridged, palm-sized “Tiny Folio” edition of Singer’s masterwork. In 376 pages, there are 250 full-color photographs, with text describing each specimen’s botany, geography, history, and conservation.

Singer was a New Jersey podiatrist with a great eye before his botanical photography became so popular. Using his Hasselblad camera, he began photographing rare and exotic plants. When a curator of botany at the Smithsonian saw some of Singer’s images, he invited Singer to have a look at the museum’s greenhouse. Singer ended up snapping 750 pictures there; he selected 250 to print and publish as Botanica Magnifica. Singer also recently published Fine Bonsai: Art & Nature.

Primula auricle, from Botanica Magnifica

Incidentally, Abbeville Press has an impressive list of Tiny Folio editions of art/museum collections (e.g., Audubon’s Birds of America, Morgan Library’s Illuminated Manuscripts). Take a peek.

Images courtesy of Abbeville Press.

The Matchbox Diary

“The Matchbox Diary,” by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; Candlewick Press, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 5-9. 


MATCHBOX DIARY. Text copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Newbery Medal winner Paul Fleischman (Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices) and acclaimed illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline (Thumbelina; The Nightengale) have crafted a tale about an Italian immigrant’s journey to America that also incorporates a love of collecting.

The book begins with an elderly gentleman meeting his great-grand daughter. As a way to get to know each other, the man tells the girl to choose a book, antique, or other collectible, and he will share the story behind that item’s existence. Tucked away in the midst of these beloved curios, the child chooses a weathered cigar-box.  Much like  a Russian matryoshka, the box opens to reveal dozens of matchboxes.  They, in turn, hold a small souvenir - an olive pit, a fishbone, pieces of lead type - that recall pivotal moments in the man’s life.  This diary is full of tangible objects that recall memories from long ago, while also encouraging the two characters to get to know each other. 


MATCHBOX DIARY. Text copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Using acrylic gouache, Ibatoulline creates an impeccable portrait of a collector’s controlled chaos, with old books, artwork, antique clocks and other bric-a-brac filling every shelf, corner and wall. The images of the past are skillfully  rendered in black and white.

Told entirely through dialogue, The Matchbox Diary is an ode to collectors and diarists of all ages, and certainly stokes the flame of bibliomania. As the story concludes, the worldly grandfather offers this reflection, one that will no doubt resonate with the readers of this blog: “Books are like newspapers. They show you where you’ve been.” 

Interview at the Waldorf Astoria NYC

Introduction to “Pinocchio” by Umberto Eco, ”’s not even a fairy tale, since it lacks the fairy tale’s indifference to everyday reality and doesn’t limit itself to one simple basic moral, but rather deals with many.” 

Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, the New York Review of Books, New York. 

       On Veteran’s Day, the internationally acclaimed children’s book illustrator Fulvio Testa sat down with me over tea in the Peacock Bar at the Waldorf Astoria to talk about his ground-breaking work for Geoffrey Bock’s new translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.  The wide-ranging conversation inevitably led to a discussion of his artistic philosophy regarding children’s book illustration in general, and how he can’t get New York out of his mind.  

Focus and Rhythm

         For this project, Testa told me how he created a special storyboard that allowed him to keep constant track of the visual and literary levels he was trying to maintain. During the process, he constantly asked himself, “How can I get readers to understand the story simply by creating an image? There are two ways that I might create an image, either one image with two stories, or one large edited image.” To choose the right scenes for Pinocchio, Testa outlined places where he felt the images would best compliment the text, and read the book repeatedly in order to completely grasp the flow of action.  Perhaps equally important to the actual artwork itself, he added, is the pacing and the precise location of where an image is placed in a printed book. “There are fifty-two images in this book, and they are relatively close together. I try to create a rhythm to the illustrations,” meaning that each picture represents a pivotal moment in the story, and in Pinocchio most chapters either end or begin with an illustration. The flowing imagery allows the reader to maintain a steady pace, while creating pauses in the storyline and breaking the text into manageable parts. 

Action and movement

         At first glance the art for Pinocchio appears lighthearted and buoyant, however Testa’s work is in reality quite dynamic.  To show where the action lies in what appears to be a passive image, Testa pointed to an illustration in the book. In it, Pinocchio stands at Geppetto’s worktable and argues with the Cricket. “Some images are deceptive. They look approachable and friendly, but an older reader will see some of the darker aspects at work here. Look at the table. Pinocchio’s hand is very close to the mallet, which he will pick up shortly and throw at the Cricket, killing him. This is a triangle of violence here.”  This  is not simply a picture of a quarrel, but a violent avant scène, and yet is still an image that is appropriate for children.  “Children need action to convey a story of experience through repetition,” which may be why, in Pinocchio,Testa has filled the pages with the scurrilous puppet in all manner of situations, from skipping school to facing a fearsome serpent. Testa also believes that in order to be successful at his craft, a part of him must retain a childlike understanding and appreciation for the world.  “To illustrate, an illustrator needs to have a part of himself that hasn’t grown up yet,” Testa explained. “I have to be willing to re-experience pain, rejection, joy, and other emotions, as if for the first time.”


         Just as parents once used Pinocchio as a way to teach social and moral values, fables are equally important today in constructing a moral compass for children. Testa illustrated an edition of Aesop’s Fables, and finds their universal qualities a captivating way to educate young minds. “Through these stories there is a possibility to acquire a social sensibility.” He views his illustrations as an educational tool because they show how to deal with society from a children’s point of view, which is often more effective than an adult telling a child what is right and what is wrong. There is historical precedent to this approach going back to the nineteenth century, when Pinocchio was first published.  Before there was mandatory schooling, children’s books were crucial teaching tools. Carlo Collodi originally published Pinocchio in installments and he initially intended to end the book with the death of the unfortunate puppet.  Indeed, the illustration that closes chapter fifteen shows Pinocchio strung up and hanging from a large oak tree.  The puppet survives the hanging, and continues on his adventures. 


Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The New York Review of Books, New York. 

Read the rest at 

Draw your own alphabet

“Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own,” by Tony Seddon; Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95, 160 pages, ages 12-up.

(Available April 9, 2013)


Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY. 

This book takes the art of custom-drawn fonts, - lively, hand-drawn letters often perfected by middle school adepts - to an extraordinary level of sophistication. British graphic designer Tony Seddon opens the manual with a primer on the history of hand-lettering, including tips for perfecting one’s craft, the pros and cons of tracing, and understanding the basic structure of letterforms. Seddon teaches the proper techniques to create funky, personalized fonts in this very hands-on workbook.

The thirty alphabet fonts all are custom drawn by a team of young designers and illustrators who each reveal a little about themselves and the inspiration for their fonts. For example, artist Michelle Tilly discovered the origins for her “Spotty Fairground” font by observing antique signs on a Bristol pier.


Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own  Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY. 

There is a style here to suit any mood and personality, ranging from the Pacman-inspired “Butterman,” to “Topiary” where the letters resemble leafy bushes. My favorite font is the “Octobet.” This intricately detailed font is influenced by the Norse legend of the fearsome sea-monster, the Kraken.  

Seddon concludes with a useful section on how to use one’s fonts by digitizing them.  A glossary of terms as well as an anatomy of principal font features rounds out the book. This isn’t necessarily a book geared towards children, but placed in the right hands it would no doubt be lovingly received and perhaps nurture grains of artistic creativity.  A perceptive child might also enjoy reading the included designers’ biographies.


Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own  Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY. 

To continue reading, visit me at Literary Features Syndicate

JA.jpgYou either love Jane, or you don’t. Me, I’m a Janeite. So when a new biography appeared last month titled The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, I rejoiced! And the good news is that--unlike most of the Austen material flooding the market--this book delivers.

Written by Paula Bryne, author of the acclaimed Evelyn Waugh biography, Mad World, this new bio of Austen takes an innovative approach: Byrne collects a set of objects from Austen’s world and uses each as a jumping off point to talk about one aspect of the author’s life. For example, an East Indian shawl calls forth some family history, and a card of lace purchased in London conjures a time when Austen was perhaps preparing for the “marriage market” in Bath. Red velvet cushions are wonderfully evocative, and it turns out they can tell us a lot about the fine houses Austen visited and wrote about (Humphry Repton, known for his “Red Books” quite fittingly has a cameo in this chapter.)

It’s a rare biographer who can write a serious book that is immensely readable. For me, the description and study of the objects and the emphasis on material culture makes Byrne’s achievement all the greater. It tugs at my antiquarian side, and as someone who has studied book history, I found her insight into this subject using Austen’s childhood notebooks, a subscription list, a royalty cheque, and Austen’s lap desk encouraging for the discipline.

I would love to ask Byrne about the Austen ring sold last year at auction for $236,557. What does that humble gold and gemstone ring tell us about what was important to the author, or what relationship did it inform? Those are the kinds of questions Byrne takes up when she discusses Austen’s topaz cross in chapter 14 or a painted ivory miniature in chapter 11. By rummaging through her “things,” we see Austen at a personal level, and she’s as amazing as ever. 

The Olive Fairy Book

“The Olive Fairy Book,” by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Kate Baylay; The Folio Society, $84.95, 296 pages. 

 In late January, author Jane Yolen - considered by many to be the ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ of her generation  - spoke with me about the introduction she wrote to theFolio Society’s The Olive Fairy Book, a new edition of fairy tales originally published in 1907 by Scottish author Andrew Lang. We also talked about heroes, magic, and discovering hope through storytelling.image

THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

The Folio Society & Andrew Lang

There are twelve Fairy books, and the Olive Fairy is the eleventh in the series. As a child Yolen read many, if not all, of the Rainbow Fairy series. In the introduction to the Folio Society’s edition she highlights three of her favorite stories- ‘Jackal or Tiger,’ ‘Samba the Coward,’ and ‘Kupti and Imani.’

“I’m pretty sure I read them all as a child. I was one of those childhood readers who, once I found something that I loved, I would seek out everything that was related to it.” The Olive Fairy Book includes all the elements necessary for riveting reading - heroic princes, wise fairies, talking animals, evil trolls, and witches. While being a prolific writer of children’s novels and poetry, Lang was recognized as a leading authority on world folklore and mythology.

Bound elegantly in olive green cloth, this edition of The Olive Fairy is itself a work of art, featuring an Art Deco frontispiece and bright gold illustrations by British artist Kate Baylay. Inside, readers will find more visual feasts- twelve full-color illustrations and thirteen black and white drawings.

Yolen discussed the era that inspired the artwork, and why it is wholly appropriate for this edition. “This book was published originally in 1907, which is when arts and crafts, art nouveau and art deco all come together.” 

Yet as beautiful as these pictures are, this edition is perhaps most appropriate for older readers.  “I think the pictures in this book are exquisite. But they’re also not for children. They’re very sexy, very dark; some are quite violent. It’s exquisite bookmaking and of course the Folio Society is known for that. And the price reflects that; it’s for collectors. You can get the edition in paperback for very little money, but the point of this kind of book is that it’s an art object.” If a collector wishes to acquire the entireRainbow Fairy series, The Folio Society is issuing all twelve of the books, each similarly designed and illustrated by a contemporary artist. The Olive Fairy Book is the tenth to be published.


THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Copyright © 2013 by Kate Baylay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

At least once a summer for the past twenty years Yolen has visited the gravesite of Andrew Lang in St. Andrews, Scotland, partly because his work played a significant role in her development as a writer. “He was one of the most important ones [to me.] And I happen to have a house there. When writers visit, I’ll take them to the grave. Or if I’m on my own I’ll go. It isn’t that I’m genuflecting at his grave, it just happens to be a lovely grave with a beautiful Celtic cross on it.”

In a classic example of serendipity, Yolen was unaware of the writer’s presence in the town before settling there with her late husband, David Stemple. “I didn’t even know about the connection when I first moved there. My husband was a professor of computer science, and took his second sabbatical at St. Andrews.” (Now she spends her summers there, and returns to her home in western Massachusetts each winter.) After some poking around, Yolen found a chapel with a plaque dedicated to Andrew Lang. “I discovered that Lang was buried on the cathedral grounds. It was a hunt.”

In November 2012, Yolen was the 22nd person and the first woman to deliver the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the university, which was also celebrating the centennial of Lang’s death. “Every academic in Cambridge has lectured here. The month after I was born, in March 1939, an Oxford professor named J.R.R Tolkien gave the lecture, which became the iconic essay on fairy stories - and really changed my life as a writer.  So St. Andrews asked me, and I said, ‘How can I follow in these footsteps?’ As I said to the audience, ‘Here I am, walking in Tolkien’s shoes, who walked in Lang’s shoes -- why not give me a ring and point me towards Modor?’”

To continue reading about The Olive Fairy Book, read my full review at Literary Features Syndicate! 

Well that’s a headline to entice many readers and collectors -- it’s also the title of a new novel by Syrie James, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

MissingMss.jpgIn The Missing Manuscript, James uses a twenty-first-century story to frame the nineteenth-century narrative, i.e. Austen’s missing first novel. While on vacation in England, Samantha McDonough, an American special collections librarian who failed to finish her dissertation on Austen at Oxford, pops into an antiquarian book shop and picks up an old poetry book. Much to her surprise, a letter is found tucked into the uncut pages, and that letter turns out to be an unknown and unsigned letter from Jane Austen to her sister. Better still, the letter mentions a missing manuscript. 

While that frame proved hackneyed at best, Samantha does uncover a manuscript, stowed away in a secret cupboard in an English country manor house. (She also finds its handsome, young, divorced owner, Anthony Whitaker.) They begin to read the manuscript, written in 1802. It involves a clerical country family named the Stanhopes, who endure financial and social ruin and an embarrassing trip to Bath. The characters of Rebecca Stanhope and the friends and suitors she encounters have more life to them than their modern counterparts in this novel. Thankfully, their well-plotted story constitutes the bulk of the book, which will delight Austen fans. It may even gain a few new ones. 

Meanwhile, back in the present, Anthony Whitaker is counting his chickens, ticking off prices of book and manuscript sales at auction found via his cell phone browser. He feels that his manuscript will break the current record--that of $30.8 million paid by Bill Gates for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. With the proceeds, he can restore his family’s ancestral home. But will he sell? 

After several hours amiably passed, you, dear Reader, will know the answer to that.

Ah, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day--for much of the publishing world, it means a full week off. Which means a week of leisurely reading and browsing new books. If you read my last post, you’ll know some of the books now on my nightstand. (I finished Eat the Document; now I’m fifty pages into A Light That Never Goes Out, a biography of the British band, The Smiths.) The other book that I’ve been perusing is The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments (Sterling, $40) by Dennis Reinhartz.

ArtoftheMap.jpgA handsomely illustrated book for map lovers, this book is not a history of cartography per se, but a look at the graphic elements and beautiful imagery of maps from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. As John Noble Wilford notes in the foreword, “When it came to orienting the  map, the inner artist felt free to embellish the necessary with symbolic blossoms--compass roses--spreading in the cardinal directions. In other flights of whimsy, cherubs with chubby cheeks blow in the directions of the prevailing winds. These features drive up old-map prices at auction.”

In this volume, one sees the evolution of the compass rose and watches how images of humans were used by mapmakers through the centuries. Flora and fauna are common ornamental elements too. One of my favorites is Islandia, a map of Iceland, from the 1587 edition of Theatrum. It shows all manner of fantastic beasts off the coast, including man-eating monster fish.

Animal-shaped maps form their own section, and I was glad to see the “Peaceful Lion,” of Leo Belgicus, coincidentally featured in our soon-to-be-mailed winter issue. The Pegasus-shaped map of Asia, 1581, is also pretty neat.

For anyone who studies or collects maps, The Art of the Map will be a welcome addition to your library.

In our 2011 holiday gift guide for book lovers, we were proud to feature the Ideal Bookshelf poster. This year, we’re happy to see that that project became its very own book of the same name, edited by Thessaly La Force with art by Jane Mount (Little, Brown and Co.; $24.99).

myidealbookshelf1_grande.pngCasting a wide net out to novelists, artists, designers, chefs, filmmakers, and journalists, the duo asked contributors to create a shelf of books that they could not live without, that had changed their lives as readers. Jane Mount then illustrated the list of books in her charming, colorful way.

I am often tempted to flip through coffeetable books without quite reading them, which would have been a shame in this case. Stopping not only to read the brief essays by people like Chuck Klosterman, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Tony Hawk, but to ‘shelf-read,’ their collections offers flares of insight into modern reading and book owning. Did anyone else know that Johnny Cash loved old books? Rosanne Cash remembers one treasure: “My dad would get so anxious if anybody held it, if anybody touched it. He loved books more than anything.” Her shelf was heavy on literature. I loved finding Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing on the shelf of Penguin Books cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Look closely and you’ll spy Graham Greene, Tobias Wolff, Nabokov on many a shelf; Edith Wharton, too. I was surprised to see her so often.

Needless to say, it is a perfect gift for the book lover in your life. The very last page of the book is a blank ideal bookshelf, beckoning readers to fill it in for themselves. I, for one, could not resist, and so here it is: H.D. Thoreau’s Walden; J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind; Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors; Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale; Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold; The Portable Dorothy Parker; A.S. Byatt’s Possession; John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman; David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.
ShakespearesTremor.jpgSo Shakespeare was obsessed with syphilis, does that mean he had it? How was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Yankee diet related to his mysterious death? Did Jack London overdose, or commit suicide? John Ross, M.D., takes up these questions and other medical matters related to famous writers in his recent Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99).

In this immensely readable and enjoyable book, Dr. Ross culls each author’s symptoms from contemporary source material and attempts to diagnose his or her likely ailment. This book grew out of an article on syphilis he originally published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. Because Ross is a real M.D.--a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School--the urge to scoff at his multiple diagnoses of Asperger Syndrome is (mostly) quelled.

There are chapters on Milton, Melville, and Swift, all of which will cause readers to gasp and chuckle in turn, as Dr. Ross provides a light history of the medicines and treatments they endured. I guarantee that the opening paragraphs of the chapter on James Joyce and his “irrigation” treatments for gonorrhea will make readers squirm in their seat.

Tuberculosis picked off the five Bronte children one by one, a sad story with many dimensions deftly explained by Dr. Ross. Unfortunately the Bronte sisters are the only women under examination here -- what does Dr. Ross make of Jane Austen’s death? Last year, a British crime novelist claimed that Austen was poisoned, although she is commonly thought to have had Addison’s disease. Ross does discuss arsenic in a chapter on William Butler Yeats, saying that arsenic therapy was long used for many disorders, but that the “effective dose is very close to the amount needed to cause harm.” Arsenic treatments were also used on Jack London for his many maladies, but that wasn’t what killed him in the end.

Intrigued? Read an excerpt.
Penumbra,jpgA typographical thriller? Who would have thought. And from the hands of a 32-year-old “media inventor” and former Twitter manager who by all rights shouldn’t care a whit for paper and ink. But he does! Robin Sloan’s new novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (FSG, $25), is a buoyant tale of black-robed bibliophiles and Google code-breakers.

The novel’s main character, Clay Jannon, takes a job at a San Francisco bookshop where, he discovers, the real business is a lending library of leather-bound books for a crew of odd readers. Once he begins snooping around a bit and applying his techie skills--hacking, data visualization--to the mystery, he discovers that his boss, Mr. Penumbra, is a disenchanted leader in a “bibliophile cult” called the Unbroken Spine.

Following Penumbra to New York City, Jannon finds the object of the Unbroken Spine’s desire: a codex vitae printed by Aldus Manutius (founder of the cult) in a typeface called Gerritszoon at the end of the fifteenth century. The problem is, the book is in code; Jannon and his Silicon Valley friends aim to break it open and free the text, as it were.
At 288 pages, it is difficult to escape the feeling--especially when the flap copy compares it to “young Umberto Eco”--that the novel lacks depth, and the main plot feels formulaic at times. After all, we do find ourselves in a subterranean library vault pouring over an antiquarian book said to contain the key to immortality. But Sloan is very bright, and that shines through -- even to his glow-in-the-dark dust jacket. Plus, if he entices even a handful of younger readers to the coolness of rare books, well then, all is forgiven.

Incidentally, Sloan was pictured in the New York Times last month hiding away in the Grolier Club stacks, where he poured over Aldines, printed by the real Aldus Manutius.

Read an excerpt here.
MyBookstore.jpgIf you’re reading this blog, chances are you love bookstores. And whether or not your local is featured in the forthcoming book, My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog & Leventhal, November, $23.95), you’ll spend many pleasant hours reading about eighty of the best bookshops in the country. Dave Eggers on Green Apple Books in San Francisco; Timothy Egan on Elliott Bay in Seattle; Chuck Palahniuk on Powell’s Books in Portland, OR; Barry Moser on Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS; Howard Frank Mosher on Galaxy Bookshop in VT; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on my personal favorite, Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, are but some of the highlights. (A full list of contributors and featured shops is here.)

Peter Geye’s charming essay about Micawber’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, pinpoints the beginning of his bibliomania to the purchase of a couple of Signet Classics in high school. “In the years between then and now, I’ve become a proper bibliophile ... There are many reasons I love books: for the worlds they show me, for the things they teach me, for the way they feel in my hand or in my satchel...” Francine Prose and Pete Hamill take turns reveling in the Strand’s 18 miles of books; Prose offers the intriguing tidbit that she often sells her used books and review copies to them.

With an introduction by Richard Russo and whimsical line illustrations by Leif Parsons, My Bookstore offers some perspective on contemporary bookselling, and it is as much about writing as it is about bookselling. A common theme in the essays is the support a young writer finds in a community bookstore -- these are the stores that zealously promote author events, hand-sell first novels, even slip manuscripts to publishing insiders. Without these stores, where do readers go? And also, where do writers go?  

This endearing collection of essays provides a literary roadmap of the last great bricks-and-mortar bookstores in America -- now go!
HandwrittenRecipes.jpgWhat are the fine pairings of food and book? Is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano a perfect complement to matzo balls? Are baked chicken legs best served with Catch-22? This is one of the delicious distractions to consider while paging through Michael Popek’s new book, Handwritten Recipes: A Bookseller’s Collection of Curious and Wonderful Recipes Forgotten Between the Pages (Perigree, $20).

Apparently a closeted vegetarian was reading 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger (Doubleday, 1960) because she left a recipe for zucchini bread inside. Was a Betty Draper-type housewife reading Frank Edwards’ Strange People whilst she whipped up macaroni loaf and apricot bavarian cream? Sour cream coffee cake with Less Than Zero is an odd combination, but two different kinds of pickle in The Spy Who Loved Me (NAL reprint, 1963) seems understandable.

Because some of the recipes are untested--let’s call them vernacular--Popek goes the extra step and brings in experts for some of the more interesting dishes. Blogger Shannon Weber of A Periodic Table, for example, provides professional measurements and advice for a pineapple chiffon cake recipe that seems thoroughly worth trying out.

Many of these “found recipes” turned up in cookbooks, for obvious reasons. So for cookbook lovers, there’s the added bonus of finding interesting new titles. Slenderella Cook Book by Myra Waldo (Putnam’s, 1957) contained a recipe for Boston Prune Cake and Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Dainties by Janet M. Hill (Little, Brown, 1914) offered okra gumbo.

Popek, who runs Popek’s Used and Rare Books in Oneonta, New York, seems to have a found a recipe for success in scrapbooking the paper ephemera he finds between the pages and among the stacks in his daily business. His first book, Forgotten Bookmarks (reviewed here last year), focused on letters, postcards, photographs, and other bookmarks he has uncovered. The handwritten recipes here were culled from the nearly 5,000 he has found in the past few years and are now published in color alongside the book (with a basic bibliographical entry) that each was in found in. For daring home cooks, food historians, lovers of paper and ephemera, this book is altogether satisfying. Bring one to your Thanksgiving host.
CompleteEngraver_cover.1.jpgOut this week is a wonderful surprise of a book called The Complete Engraver: Monograms, Crests, Ciphers, Seals, and The Etiquette of Social Stationery, written by Nancy Sharon Collins (Princeton Architectural Press; $29.95). At first glance, it might strike some as something nostalgic or sugary--for the type who keeps a faux quill on her desk. Not so. The Canadian designer Marian Bantjes, comes close to the book’s intended readership when she blurbed, “For those who love everything fine.” People who enjoy fine paper, fine design, fine printing -- the craft and the result -- can take away something from this book.

What I particularly liked is that is a terrific introduction to the terminology and processes that can seem complicated to those who were raised in a primarily digital design environment. Know the difference between a personal monogram and a cipher? Or, what the size of a calling card signifies? Or, how to tell the difference between wood engraving and steel engraving? You will. Collins’ book is abundantly illustrated and her timeline of engraving, from Gutenberg (who dabbled in copperplate engraving) to today’s specialty engravers is clear and useful.

The Complete Engraver is both a history and a how-to. This is one for the home library reference shelf.

To read an interview with the author over on the Crane & Co. blog, go here.

The Woman Reader
Reviewed by Edith Vandervoort

One could confidently say that all women in Western societies are permitted to enjoy the pleasures of reading. We are able to chose what we would like to read and how often we want to read. This is, even today, not the case in countries with restrictive rights for women, nor was this the case throughout much of history. In her engaging book, The Woman Reader (Yale UP, 2012), Belinda Jack traces the history of reading and education for women--notably linked to the accomplishments of the women’s movement--and, with the inclusion of drawing and photographs, highlights important female readers, writers, and literary critics.

woman reader.jpgReading for women (and men) was based on whether or not one was wealthy and had the books and the time to read. In the twelfth century, book ownership was limited to members of the nobility, but convents, which had been established as early as the fifth century when they served to offer protection from the scourges of war, provided a more egalitarian system of education in French, English, and Latin for women of various socioeconomic classes. They varied greatly by the number of book bequests and the literacy of the community, but provided women with the opportunity to achieve a high level of scholarship. In the early middle ages, men and women collaborated in writing the scripture for the purpose of serving God in the conversion of non believers. With the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century, women largely read religious works, but also secular materials on “acceptable” topics. Romances were not included in this category and were, for many centuries, considered morally damaging and conducive to frivolity and the release of inhibited sexual desires. The Reformation provoked contentious, often dangerous religious ideas. At this time, women began to write to express their religious and political views. With improved technology came the increased availability of secular reading materials and, with it, the degradation of women through inexpensively produced pamphlets and booklets, leading to hotly-debated rebuttals written by women. 

The commercialization of books thrived and women were encouraged to read advice manuals, how-to books on household activities, books on etiquette, but also pulp fiction. The debate of whether or not women should be educated abated and women became more assertive. Various salons in the seventeenth century and the Bluestockings in the eighteenth century were intellectual societies where women could freely exchange ideas. Rousseau’s theories proclaiming that women should be educated to promote men’s happiness was discarded and in the eighteenth century women’s magazines, printed for the sole purpose of pleasure in reading what other women wrote, increased in number. The idea of reading for personal edification eventually became largely accepted for all people.

Jack’s well-researched and fascinating book makes us appreciate the gift of reading and equally conscientious of how slaves, women, and disenfranchised populations are manipulated through illiteracy and the lack of quality education.

--Edith Vandervoort is a freelance writer based in California.

Phantoms.jpgAre you bibliophile or a reader? Some people will say yes to both, like Jacques Bonnet, author of the Phantoms on the Bookshelves, published in France in 2008 and now available in English (Overlook Press, hardcover, 133 pages, $17.95). Bonnet makes a distinction between the bibliophile--an obsessive collector hunting for rare and beautiful objects--versus the compulsive reader who wants to keep what he has read. Though Bonnet has a library of 40,000 volumes, he tells us, “I do not count myself a real bibliophile.”

Of course he is. Bonnet discourses on buying books, reading books, organizing books, annotating books, and lending books (never!). When discussing the future of personal libraries, Bonnet believes that the combination of specialization and digitization will hasten the end of large general collections. He writes, “Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them.”

This slim volume is a treat to read, and its Continental flair seemed to this reviewer to bring something fresh to topics already covered brilliantly by Alberto Manguel and others. The introduction by novelist James Salter is a paean to the book and the personal library--you can read part of it at the New Yorker’s book blog.
Once in a while someone asks a fellow bibliophile (or group of bibliophiles) for a list of novels about books and collecting, and that person is then bombarded with a list. Poet’s Pub, a British novel originally published in 1935, is one that I don’t recall ever coming up in such conversations, so when I read about its recent re-publication by Penguin Classics, I was excited to dive in.

PoetsPub Reprint.jpgPoet’s Pub is the charming story of the Pelican Pub in Downish, England, run by middling poet Saturday Keith. His guests are an interesting group of English and American travelers: a professor and his daughter, a retired colonel and his wife, a businessman, and a “harmless” book collector who turns out to have a sinister side (“a folio-sized wolf in calf’s clothing”). The author provides comic relief at the expense of bibliophiles (but I laughed anyway), particularly in this passage:

Wesson sat a little distance away, still behind his enormous folio. Wesson had talked old books to Sir Philip Betts, who hated reading; to Jean Forbes, who disliked Wesson; to Sigismund Telfer, who believed only in new books; to Jacquetta Telfer, who preferred maps; to Colonel Waterhouse, who wasn’t interested; and to Lady Porlet, who thought it a sin and a shame to pay hundreds of pounds for dusty volumes that nobody read...

The novel evolves into a caper that might well be described as a wittier, less deadly Gosford Park.

PoetsPub.jpgThe new edition features a foreword by librarian and author Nancy Pearl, who felt compelled to revive Eric Linklater’s novel for modern readers. Pearl deserves many thanks for that. For years Poet’s Pub was out of print, even though it was one of the first ten titles used by Allen Lane to successfully launch the Penguin Books line in 1935. Linklater was shelved alongside an eclectic group, including Andre Maurois, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Ertz, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Beverly Nichols, E.H. Young, Mary Webb, and Compton Mackenzie.

Last week Tom Phillips celebrated his 75th birthday and the release of the 5th edition of The Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, a watershed in the latter-day history of artists’ books inspired by Surrealist methods in cutting, pasting, and heavy duty reassembly and collage. The work takes the text of A Human Document, by W. H. Mallock and effaces the pages in every which way: scraping, painting, pasting images, and obscuring huge swathes of text. As Phillips ‘writes’ on the title page: “I have to hide to reveal”.


Unlike the Surrealists, and unlike anyone else working in 1966 when Phillips began the book, The Humument was not a one-off but something he wanted “to spend the rest of [his] life working on”, “sometimes mining, sometimes undermining” and constantly remaking. So the work is not one story but many, with 80 new pages in and a few alterations of the original 367 treated pages, Phillips explained to a packed basement at the Review, an independent bookshop in Peckham, southeast London.

It was a fitting location, close to the spot where the great-grandaddy of DIY bookmaking, William Blake, hallucinated a tree full of angels, and more recently close to the (now-defunct) antique shop where Phillips first came across the book he would transform into The Humument. The shop was Austin’s Furniture Repository, the price was a thruppence, another far cry from the present day, as Phillips pointed out that in 46 years using 15 copies of The Human Document in his art, Mallock’s original has “seriously appreciated in value” to around £100-£200. 

If the celebratory launch of the 5th edition was a chance for Phillips to reflect in good company about what has changed in his life since 1966 (for instance, The Humument’s archive is now established at the Bodleian Library, Oxford), his selected readings from the new edition spoke to what has changed about life in general. For starters, the artist admitted that he has improved over time in cutting out words and sentences, shapes and shadows, from the book, a temperamental medium. The visual style has also evolved to include other interests on Phillip’s part, for instance his extensive postcard collections. Among the additions to the story, Bill Toge, the “forced” protagonist of the novel, “condemned to appear, to be apart of the story whenever the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ occurs”, experiences the horror of 9/11 (“nine eleven, the time singular, which broke down illusion”) and the rise of social media. This is the first edition of the book where it is possible for a character to check her facebook profile on an app to find pictures of Bill Toge. And never merely a source for commentary, Phillips has already adapted the late 19th century work to the times in big way: as of 2010, it was translated into an app for iPad - with an added feature allowing readers to use the book as an oracle, combining bibliomancy with social networks (you can post your results on Facebook and Twitter).

As an oracle for the future of artists’ books Phillip’s Humument brings tidings from a world where digital apps complement rather than replace the works they represent, and where repetition is always an enriching experience (“your weaknesses become your strengths,” Phillips noted when asked by a member of the audience why he was so repetitive). As Daniel Traister writes: “collage, a shaky assertion of stability, orders materials with no obvious or stable basis for their relationship into a framed composition”. What was true for Dadaists and Surrealists, and each edition of The Humument, is now one way of thinking about the relationship between books and their digital counterparts: they are the new components of collage, of making meaning, and of creating stable links between otherwise unstable media.

Identifying First Editions with McBride’s Guide
Reviewed by Bill Butts

The greatest fear of novice collectors is not being able to correctly identify a book’s edition. This can lead to costly mistakes or can cause you to pass up an underpriced bargain. The vast majority of noncollectors are under the impression that a first edition is identified by those two words on the copyright page. Sometimes this is indeed the case, often not. Pitfalls abound. Not only are there many methods of indicating edition, many of them cryptic, but publishers often switch from one method to another, apply them inconsistently or otherwise complicate matters to confound collectors.

feg7-cover-1.jpgBill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions - the seventh, revised edition of a booklet first published in 1979 - is the remedy. This handy “cheat sheet” has been a mainstay of booksellers for three decades now. I’ve recommended the Pocket Guide to countless bibliophiles or wannabe bibliophiles. A hideous specimen held together with packing tape and good will has been within arm’s reach for more than twenty years, and I keep a copy in every car’s glove compartment.

McBride’s Pocket Guide is an A to Z listing of 5,835 English-language publishers current and former, from A & B Publishing through Zone Books. (According to McBride, that’s 2,193 more publishers listed than the 3,642 that appeared in the sixth edition - up 38% -- plus an additional 2,342 pieces of data.) A clever abbreviation system then shows each publisher’s method of noting edition. The abbreviation that follow every publisher’s name is explained in the key. Baylor University Press, for instance, uses “NAP,” meaning “no additional printings are indicated in the book.” Ross & Haines employ a straightforward “FE,” meaning “words FIRST EDITION must appear on back of title page with no additional printings indicated.” Rand, Avery & Co. favor “SD” - “same date must appear on title page and back of title page with no additional printings indicated.” A dozen other abbreviations are used, including the popular “N” (“a sequence of numbers... must appear on the back of the title page with the ‘1’ present”) and “L” (“a sequence of letters... must appear on the back of the title page with the ‘a’ present”) and the unfortunate “No designation” - yes, there are publishers for whom “no consistent way to determine one printing from another exists.” But despite these general rules, exceptions do abound, and the Pocket Guide spells out many of them. For instance, a new collector might know the number sequence system noted above, but not be aware that Random House employed it incorrectly. Their first editions always begin with the number “2,” which would usually indicate a second printing - so anyone not knowing this will misidentify a true Random House first edition as a second printing. Amateur Hour mistake. 

This listing is prefaced by an eight-page introduction that crams in lots of condensed bookseller gems. Neophyte collectors overlook this at their own peril. There are thumbnail discussions on the distinction between edition, printing and impression, another on the often-misunderstood distinction between issue, state and point, a must-read section on identifying book club editions, and other tidbits of wisdom to shorten the learning curve. Read, study, and repeat.

As Bill McBride notes in his introduction, “The most useful tool in determining a first edition is an acute mind. This guide can take you only so far.” Oh so true, but without books such as the Pocket Guide providing concrete data that acute mind can really be stymied. And dealers need it just as much as collectors - more so, since they need to access this information far more frequently. Sure, any good dealer can normally identify most first editions without it, but this is a massive number of publishers, many of them obscure mom-and-pop presses rarely encountered. No one can memorize this mountain of minutiae.

A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions is certain to be the smallest reference book on your reference shelf and probably the one you’ll use the most. Any reference work that helps make better collectors gets a big thumbs up in my book!

--Bill Butts runs Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts in Galena, IL. 

McBride, Bill. A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. Hartford: McBride/Publisher, 2012. 16mo. Softbound. 142pp. $18.95.

153520272.JPGI’m always glad to have my attention drawn to novels with bookish themes (and here). Recently, another from this genre landed on my desk, The Best-Read Man in France, written by Peter Briscoe, a former academic library administrator at the University of California, Riverside. The main character is Michael Ashe, a Los Angeles-based rare bookseller and a bit of a Casanova, who travels the world buying and selling books, mainly in the area of Mexican-American history. When business begins to dry up, he faces his misgivings about the trade and finds solace in the story of French librarian and scholar, Gabriel Naude.  

Briscoe’s fiction debut plays with the contemporary themes of the decline of reading, the death of the book, and increasing digitization in lieu of acquisition at research libraries. It is a breezy read for a summer afternoon, and for those of us in the trade -- librarians, booksellers, collectors -- you may well recognize yourself here, and smile. 
Bookshelf.jpgYesterday was the official publication day for Alex Johnson’s new book, Bookshelf. Some of you may know Johnson’s long-running blog of the same name, which highlights interesting and unique bookcases around the world. This book is a beautifully illustrated version of that. Wooden, steel, or composite; single shelf or intricate unit; form or function -- this book lays out hundreds of options for those of us who are always running out of shelf space. The Puckman from Studio Ginepro, seen below, is a whimsical shelf that pays tribute to one of our favorite childhood activities. It’s available in white or black, but who wouldn’t opt for the yellow?

Puckman_2010_web.jpgThe Ready Made from Amsterdam-based Next Architects is so called because it features a facade (leather, with gold tooling, no less) of one hundred classic books that one can gently press in and replace with real books. A cool idea, but perhaps best left to the couture crowd.

Readymade.jpgI couldn’t quite get on board with the Library Bath from Malin Lundmark--it’s an idea that is both so wrong and so right--but I did like the Book Case from Makeshift. Essentially it’s a suitcase with three shelves inside. Heavier than your e-reader, but a much more civilized way to travel with your library.

bookcase3.jpgAs for me, I received a new bookshelf for my birthday this past weekend. I had been interested in something small that would fit next to my desk and hold all of the books I’m currently working on for several different projects. I imagined a library book truck with style. What I got was this Eiffel revolving bookstand, which is quite perfectly suited to the task and handsome, too.


love-fiercely-cover-image-tiny.jpgLove, Fiercely is a fantastic new book by Jean Zimmerman. Its subtitle, A Gilded Age Romance, is exactly the kind of thing that stops me from browsing any further at the bookshop. Zimmerman chronicles the true story of a beautiful heiress and a wealthy young architect in turn-of-the-century New York. Yes, theirs was a life filled with mansions, balls, and summer cottages, but these two were a bit different, too: Edith (whose face was used as the basis for a colossal Daniel Chester French sculpture) lobbied for women’s suffrage and kindergarten programs in the U.S., while Newton strove for social reform and worked on tenement renovation. On their two-year honeymoon in Paris, they were painted by John Singer Sargent. The painting, Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes, 1897, is pictured on the book’s cover. Now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is considered one of the artist’s bests and--with a flushed Edith in ‘everyday’ clothes--a ringing in of the modern world.

For collectors, there is an incredible sub-narrative to savor in this book -- around the mid-point of his life, I.N. Phelps Stokes became a manic collector of prints and maps of New York City. Trying to preserve the bucolic past of his youth, he bought everything he could get his hands on and spent his entire fortune doing so. Zimmerman writes of Stokes’ goal: “Collect every map, every view, every fact, every detail about Old New York. Research the city’s beginnings. Bind it all together in a book of exquisite quality.”

Which is what he did. Titled The Iconography of Manhattan Island, the massive, six-volume set was his life’s passion. In it are reproductions of everything Stokes could get his hands on, plus histories, chronologies; it took a team of researchers and more than a dozen years to complete. The edition was 402 copies, and those, Zimmerman tells us, are scarce (and expensive) today. (Christie’s sold an inscribed one last year for $5,625, a steal! They tend to go for double that retail, and even the reprint editions aren’t cheap.) She adds, “None of the classic or contemporary histories of New York could have been written without the Iconography as a source.”

Love, Fiercely is an engaging and erudite biography of this incredible couple and their passions. I heartily recommend it.

Instead of a catalogue review today, I’m presenting short reviews of three bookish novels that I’ve had the pleasure to read recently. For those of you getting on a plane or train to New York for the book fair next week, stop at your local and pick up any of these or download to it your e-reader.

MalcolmsWine.jpegMalcolm’s Wine is a noir crime caper featuring “vintage wine, rare books, and sneaky people” from Philadelphia-based author-bookseller, Hugh Gilmore. I took this novel on vacation with me a few weeks ago and finished it in three days, leaving me bookless for the rest of the week. In the novel we meet Brian Berrew, a divorced bookseller living in Ann Arbor, and a bit of ladies man who is still grieving over the loss of his sixteen-year-old son. When his apartment is burgled on a night during which a local woman is murdered with a baseball bat, things get interesting. A host of quirky characters play a part in a zany drama involving a collection of stolen rare Americana. If you enjoy bibliomysteries, place your bet on Malcolm’s Wine.

Glaciers.jpgGlaciers is slim debut novel by Portland, Oregon author Alexis M. Smith. It was the book’s cover that first sold me -- a dress made of cut-up text against a bright blue background -- and then I found that the main character works in a library doing book conservation and generally feeling a little out of place in her historical moment (Incidentally, this would have been a perfect description of yours truly about ten years ago). But there is so much more to story, layer upon layer that peels back like an onion, in language aptly described by Publishers Weekly as “lyrical and luminous.” Though Smith may choose less bookish characters or settings in her next novel, she’ll still be on my radar as one to read.

GirlReading.jpgGirl Reading by English debut novelist Katie Ward is creative and clever -- the author bases each of the seven chapters on seven portraits of women reading, from a painting of an orphan reading a prayer book in medieval Siena to a modern woman photographed reading at a bar, her photo uploaded to Flickr. All are inventive stories, well-written, and surprising in their depth. One reviewer called Girl Reading “demanding,” and I would not disagree. With seven strong narratives to keep in mind--spanning the fourteenth century to the twenty-first--as well as their various subplots and tropes, a reader could feel overwhelmed. Then again, an abundance of intelligent literary fiction is nothing to complain about. (Read an excerpt here.)

Tanselle.jpgThe book world is incredibly lucky to have G. Thomas Tanselle beating the drum, as it were, for book jackets. Since 1971, when “Book-Jackets, Blurbs, and Bibliographers,” the first of his major essays on dust jackets, appeared, Tanselle has been writing about the failure to preserve book jackets--by collectors, by dealers, and by institutions--and how that failure has affected the study of books and book history. The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia (in association with Oak Knoll Press) recently re-published Tanselle’s essay in Book-Jackets: Their History, Form, and Use, an outstanding resource for the book world. His later essays, “Dust-Jackets, Dealers, and Documentation” (2006) and “Coda: News and the Nineties” (2010) are also included.

Most people believe the book jacket to be a modern creation. Even the great Matthew Bruccoli got it wrong when he declared Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), to be the first American novel in a jacket. Tanselle believes that printed jackets were common as far back as the 1870s, but they were routinely discarded. Over the past forty years, he has located 1,888 examples of book jackets, stretching as far back as the proto-jackets/coverings of the 1820s. A color insert shows off a few of them, and a list of pre-1901 printed book jackets is printed in the second half of the book.

Jacket restoration? Nay! Tanselle writes, “A few prominent dealers have forgotten that the product they are selling is historical evidence, and they have violated collectors’ trust by supporting the alteration of that evidence (even when they have disclosed it).” And, “To condone the alteration of artifacts for cosmetic reasons is to rob collecting of meaning as a serious intellectual pursuit.”

Tanselle’s collection of nineteenth-century book jackets--the basis for much of the research presented in this book--will soon be placed at Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Tanselle’s collection of American imprints also resides.

To view the table of contents, an excerpt, or a slideshow, or to order the book, click here
As you might imagine, when I saw a publication notice for John Hruschka’s  How Books Came to America: The Rise of the American Book Trade (Penn State University Press, 2012), I was quite excited. A monograph on the early American book trade? Yes, please!

Unfortunately, that’s not really what this book is. As Hruschka notes in his preface, he began the project that became this book as a “professional biography of Frederick Leypoldt” (xiii), a noted 19th-century bookseller/publisher and the founder of key American publishing trade publications, including Publishers’ Weekly and Library Journal. And from about seventy pages in, that’s fundamentally how it ended up. And that’s a good thing. Leypoldt’s story is fascinating, and Hruschka tells it well, from its roots in the early 19th century German vision of transplanting their style of publishing and bookselling to America through to the present, as the descendants of Leypoldt’s companies struggle to make their way in the ever-more-rapidly-changing world.

Hruschka’s account of Leypoldt’s bookselling, publishing, and editing ventures, and his quest to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic American book trade, is entirely worth reading. While Leypoldt’s “successes” ended up relying on others (Henry Holt and R.R. Bowker among them) to bring them to eventual fruition, his efforts are certainly worthy of notice.

The first six chapters, in which Hruschka seems to attempt to make the title fit the book, I had a bit more trouble with. These are, largely, recapitulations of prior works which have considered the origins and growth of the book trade industries in America: the first HBA volume, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s The Book in America, William Charvat’s Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850, and Robert Cazden’s A Social History of the German Book Trade in America to the Civil War most particularly. While I see Hruschka’s point in including these early chapters (to provide background to the Leypoldt chapters by explaining the always-fragmented, even haphazard development of the book trades in America), they seem not to fit with the rest of the book ... which in turn doesn’t really fit with the title.

There are some minor errors which I hope can be corrected in later versions of the book: the author of “What is the History of Books?” is Robert Darnton, not Roger (xi), while the Mayflower passenger was Priscilla Mullins, not Rogers (77). It is an over-simplification to say that “A printed book is one of many identical copies” (5) - this is, of course, demonstrably not true for the hand-press period.

While I wish that Hruschka and his publisher had come up with a more accurate title for this book, I finished it very glad that I’d kept reading. The later chapters on Leypoldt and his ventures are very well done, and I certainly recommend them without reservation.
153307484.JPGIf you enjoy novels with bookish characters and antiquarian themes, have I got a recommendation for you! Bookseller Stuart Bennett’s debut novel, A Perfect Visit, is the story of a modern-day librarian and graduate student who get involved in a time travel project aimed at acquiring books and manuscripts to bring back to the future for profit and preservation. The American librarian, Ned Marston, travels to Shakespeare’s London to rescue lost quartos and ends up befriending the Bard, while the Canadian student, Vanessa Horwood, hopes to score a Jane Austen manuscript but gets sent to jail soon after meeting the dying author. If you can put aside your misgivings about a time travel plot (and you should, despite Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd’s statement that “If a late-20th-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period, he would literally be sick -- sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him” ), Ned and Vanessa’s experiences among famous authors and book collectors make for a perfectly delightful read.

In the postscript, Bennett, formerly with Christie’s rare books department and more recently past president of the ABAA, writes that the working title of this book was “A Bibliographical Romance” -- less creative than the final title, taken from Austen’s Emma, but more descriptive. He goes on to say, “If I have tinkered a little with history, I have done my best not to tinker with bibliography...Every reference to books, authorship, texts, publisher’s imprints, and prices is, as far as I know, accurate.” It brings to mind the PBS slogan, “entertainment without the guilt.”
BeyondWords.JPGIt’s the new year, and perhaps, like Pepys, one of your resolutions is to begin a diary or a journal. I’m content to take a peek into the diaries of others, particularly when they are as beautiful as the ones in the new book, Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries, published late last fall by Heyday Books in association with the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
One reason I look forward to Christmas is that I’ll stock up on winter reading. Every year for the past few years, my mother-in-law graciously buys my “want list” of current fiction and non-fiction, wraps them beautifully, and presents them in a gorgeous bag (this year, a designer fabric bag by Stephanie Barnes). This is an amazing gift, because while I do buy “new” books throughout the year (binge at the Harvard Bookstore for my birthday in the spring), and I receive about two dozen books from publishers for review, I don’t often splurge the time or money on bedside reading. So I’ve taken to keeping a list of books I know I want to read but can wait until Christmas to get.

This year, I asked for ten titles, and ten I did receive. As you’ll see, books about books and literary fiction are my main genres. Some were recommended by others, some I learned about through reviews, and some are part of “collections” within my library.
Every year FB&C publishes a holiday gift guide in its fall issue brimming with interesting book-related art, decor, and jewelry. There is always at least one book on the list, and this year, there were five! But that doesn’t cover the great selection of bookish gift books out there this season (which means there are either more being published, or we’re just paying closer attention). So here are eight more to entice you on, Cyber Monday and beyond.
Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates by Martin Hopkinson (Yale University Press, 112 pages, paperback, $15). An easy gift for any booklover on your list, this slim but well produced book features one hundred color illustrations of great bookplates. Aubrey Beardsley, Eric Gill, and many more among the artists. Hard to pick a favorite, but if pressed, I go with William Harcourt Hooper’s plate for Richard Stamper Philpott. It looks so William Morris, and with good reason--it features Philpott’s home, next door to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith.
Earlier this month, the Library of Congress paired with Levenger to produce a new edition of Long Remembered: Lincoln and his Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address. It has long been held that Abraham Lincoln wrote at least five drafts of his famous address, differing in word choice, punctuation, and structure. Two of the five versions of the famous speech--the John G. Nicolay copy and the John Hay copy--are housed at the LOC (in a low-temperature vault). The other three are the Everett-Keyes copy at the Illinois State Historical Library, the Bancroft copy at the Cornell University Library, and the Bliss copy, which lives at the White House. Back in 1963, the LOC produced a black-and-white facsimile of the five versions of the address to commemorate the Gettysburg centennial. This new edition is a full-color, full-size facsimile with unbound facsimiles stored in a back pocket. 
Cover2.jpgA fabulous new book is out this week, and I can’t stop talking about it. It’s innovative, fun, perfect for lovers of history, literature, and illustrated novels. Here’s the gist: author Caroline Preston has put together a “scrapbook novel” with text set against full-color pages of historical ephemera, both of which combine to tell the story of Frankie Pratt, a smart young woman who graduates high school in 1920 and goes on to college, Paris, and the writing life.

It’s such a fresh idea, and each page is vivid and welcoming. You dive right into Frankie’s story, told in typewritten snippets, and page through reading both the text and the images. The tone is smart and sassy. It’s like reading an entire book of Anne Taintor.
The Twelfth Enchantment, the newest novel by David Liss, author of A Conspiracy of Paper and others, could inspire an amazing collection. That was the thought that kept occurring to me throughout this enjoyable but flimsy story.

The setting and the premise are interesting. It’s England in 1812, and young Lucy Derrick is almost without a friend in the world, and she’s being forced into marriage. That is until she learns how to cast magic spells from a neighbor who is--not to spoil the story--an otherworldly being. The Luddites are just beginning their uprising against industrialization, and Lucy gets swept up into an implausible good versus evil narrative in which she must save England from Luddites and the Undead by finding a magical book--“There is no book on earth so dangerous as the Mutus Liber. It secrets are devastating.” All the while Lucy, a strong heroine, must preserve her heart and her virtue from the rakish Lord Byron. He plays a major role in the novel, which at first seems promising, but rather quickly dissolves into thin fantasy. William Blake also pops into the narrative a few times.
There is surely enough overlap between the book collecting world and the antiques world to make Maureen Stanton’s new book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America, a worthy read. Having “embedded” herself with a mid-ranking antiques dealer for several years, Stanton travels to fairs big and little--from Brimfield to second-rate yard sales--seeing both the exciting and the darker sides of antiquing.

The dealer Stanton shadows, Curt Avery (a pseudonym) is a brash character, extraordinarily impressive, if a little rough around the edges. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques, learned in the trenches. Stanton picked well; Avery is great fun to listen to, and viewing the business through his eyes keeps the pace of the book brisk.
Piper.jpgTake a look at the beautiful cover of John Piper in the Watkinson: An Illustrated Checklist -- it is letterpress printed and features a stylized representation of the baptistry window of Coventry Cathedral, designed by Piper.

This slim catalogue was just published in an edition of five hundred to honor the gift of William J. McGill, who donated his collection of books and ephemera related to the British artist John Piper to the Watkinson Library at Trinity College. McGill’s essay about Piper and the collection explains why he--“I am not an art collector, but a book collector”--should be so interested in a British artist. By way of example, he discusses Brighton Aquatints, a folio of twelve etchings and aquatints, as well as Piper’s collaborations with poet John Betjeman. An annotated checklist of some two hundred items follows.

This production is an example of the continuing good work of Richard Ring, head curator and librarian of the Watkinson Library at Trinity College and author of The Bibliophile’s Lair blog (also a former FB&C book review editor!). In his introduction, Ring says he hopes the publication rallies students, that McGill’s collection and donation might be an “inspiring model.”

The twenty-four-page paperbound book can be purchased directly from Oak Knoll.

There was news last week that a “lost” Leonardo has been identified in an American collection and will go on exhibit this November at the National Gallery in London. One of only fifteen surviving oil paintings by Da Vinci, the re-discovered Salvator Mundi is a half-length figure of Christ that was painted around 1500. The painting was presumed destroyed, until a buyer with a great eye acquired it from an estate in 2005. It was then brought to New York art historian and dealer Robert Simon, and after a lengthy conservation treatment, several scholars concluded that it is indeed the lost Salvator Mundi.

artdetectivecover.jpgI found this bit of news wonderfully coincidental, as I have just finished reading The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser by Philip Mould (the paperback came out this past spring). Mould has a thoroughly enjoyable voice, and he wins over his readers time and again with tales of a forged Norman Rockwell, a Rembrandt in disguise, and a long-lost Gainsborough that he found misidentified at a Los Angeles auction. The zeal of collector Earle Newton--who hoarded an immense collection of masters in a Vermont church that Mould was called in to catalogue--is something we all recognize.

I learned much from this book about the process of “overpainting”--in which a later artist actually paints over the piece at hand to hide wear and tear, to remove offensive items, or merely to freshen it up--and how important and effective conservation treatments can be in finding the masterpiece underneath. Not to mention superb research skills, such as those employed by Mould and his colleague Bendor Grosvenor as they pieced together the amazing provenance of a Queen Elizabeth I portrait.

After all--as I myself have learned with my own minor (but thrilling) art “discovery” last year--art collectors aren’t so different from book collectors. We’re all in it for the chase, and we all love making a discovery. 
malcolmx.jpegHistorian Manning Marable’s recently published biography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Viking) is likely to be the definitive account of X’s life for some time. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and justly so. The book is impeccably researched and extensively documented. The larger accomplishment, however, is that Marable keeps Malcolm’s story, one already famous from X’s 1965 autobiography, so fresh and readable while not sacrificing any authority. Much has been made of some of the revelations about both X’s sexuality and murder, but these never overshadow the man himself, who despite the flaws and contradictions Marable addresses -- indeed in many ways because of them -- comes off as more deeply human and admirable.

But even setting these accomplishments aside, for bibliophiles (even those not particularly interested in the history of black America or the civil rights movement) Marable’s book has much to recommend it. At its core, A Life of Reinvention is as much the story of the events of Malcolm’s life as it is the story of the development of his ideas. In this regard the book does better than any previous biography in demonstrating an aspect of X too often under-appreciated: his willingness to question and reconsider his own assumptions and beliefs. Marable spends much of his time delving into the books and writers both who influenced and who wrote about the black leader. The book therefore is in many ways a narrative of X’s travels through the black authors and thinkers of the first half of the 20th century. There is a sort of bibliographic mystery to X and Marable untangles it well. 

Given then Marable’s accomplishment as a writer, the book’s importance to African American studies, as well as its rich bibliographic landscape, it is especially disappointing that so little attention was apparently paid by the publisher to the physical book itself. The first edition I have just feels cheap. It is bound in plain black paper boards rather than a more appropriate cloth, and is printed on a thin, low-quality paper I strongly suspect is not archival (for more on this unsettling trend, see this excellent Millions post from last year). Even the jacket’s design is rather drab and unimaginative. As frequently mentioned in press coverage, Marable’s biography was more than two decades in the making and he died just days before its release. He deserved a final product better suited to its importance, commensurate with his efforts, and more worthy of his legacy.
I have a secret admirer. Recently I received a copy of the Folger Library’s new exhibition catalogue, Foliomania: Stories Behind Shakespeare’s Most Important Book, without a note or any accompanying information. It is an impressive volume -- and what is immediately striking is the fact that its format and layout mirrors the First Folio. The colophon confirms this and describes the type, the design, the paper, and the binding. This is one example of how thoughtful editor Owen Williams has been in creating this catalogue.

003281W5.jpgThe catalogue accompanies the Folger’s new exhibit, Fame, Fortune, and Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio (open though Sept. 3 of this year). As Folger Shakespeare Librarian Stephen Enniss writes in the foreword, the exhibit takes up where the 1991 folio exhibit left off and reminds us, “what this iconic book has meant to readers over the years.” Eighty-three First Folios are on exhibit (82 owned by the Folger, plus one private copy), “the most ever assembled in one place since their original dispersal from Jaggards’ print shop.”

Anthony James West, curator of the exhibit, provides a wonderful overview of the exhibit and the catalogue. He explains briefly what each essay covers -- one on the paper by Carter Hailey, one on bindings by Frank Mowery (with great images), one on type by Paul Werstine, one of the Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare by Erin C. Blake and Kathleen Lynch. Steven Galbraith gives a brief history of the First Folio and the Folger Library -- one of the images that accompanies his essay shows the Folger’s First Folio vault, practical and yet amazing to behold. West offers an essay on Constantine Huygens’ copy of the FF, Steven Escar Smith covers the Shakespeare collections of William Evans Burton and Edwin Forrest, and Don Weingust looks at the FF as an actors’ text. If I had to choose a favorite essay, though, it would be Georgianna Ziegler’s essay on “Gentleman, Ladies, and Folios: The Lure of the Chase.” It details the relationships between Folio collectors, particularly between Mr. and Mrs. Folger, the Halliwell-Phillipps family, and the Burdett-Coutts family. The catalogue ends with an excellent glossary of early printing and Shakespearean terms (e.g., collation, King’s Men, vatman).

All together, this seems less like an exhibition catalogue than a 72-page, well-illustrated book of essays about the First Folio by the foremost experts in the field. The price is $24.95 at the Folger shop; I say take money out of thy purse for this one. 
MurderCentury.jpgOn sale today is Paul Collins’ newest book, Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked The Tabloid Wars. How do you know Paul Collins? FB&C readers may recall that he wrote for the magazine once or twice, that he is NPR’s “literary detective,” and that he is the author of such bookish titles as Sixpence House, a memoir of life in Hay-on-Wye, and The Book of William, a sleuthing history of the first folio.

This new book is an account of a grisly New York murder at the tail end of the nineteenth century. A human torso is found floating in the East River, severed limbs in Harlem, and a mysterious bloody pool in Long Island -- and who’s piecing it all together but the newspapermen employed by Joseph Pulitzer (for the World) and William Randolph Hearst (for the Journal). The vile details of this murder mystery created the perfect storm for tabloid journalists, who, in many cases, worked harder and better at locating evidence and suspects than the police. Of course, they also plotted against each other, fighting for higher circulation.

Though a different case, Collins’ true crime tale is reminiscent of Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett. His publisher also makes an apt comparison to Larson’s Devil in the White City. Which is to say that this is a book that has been thoroughly researched and has solid history within, and yet it is far from a dry, scholarly tome. The rich cast of characters -- a married midwife murderess among them -- is better than one finds in fiction. Collins is a skillful writer, and his narrative zips the reader from beginning to end.

Murder of the Century will keep you up at night, borrowing time from tomorrow to read ten more pages. Look no further for a summer read that will entertain and educate in the way that only the best books can.
re-library.jpgThere may be some stalwart bibliophiles who cringe at the thought of altered books, but carefully practiced, it’s an art that produces stunning book objects. In her new book, The Repurposed Library: 33 Craft Projects That Give Old Books New Life, Lisa Occhipinti takes “orphaned books” and turns them into such household items as a chandelier, a lampshade, and a “narrative vase.” The “story time clock” is one of my favorites, and the “lettered wreath” made up of sculpted paper rosettes would be wonderfully welcoming on any book lover’s door.

The decoupage “biographical bracelet” would be a great project for girls, and the “kindle keeper” (complete with library pocket) perfect for the bibliophile who enjoys his e-reader as well as old books. The illuminated switch plate looks simple enough for anyone to attempt and would make a neat accent to bookish decor.

Occhipinti is responsible about discussing the types of books she uses--bookstore remainders and unwanted ex-library books--and gives a brief overview of collectible books and how to avoid using a valuable book for an art project in chapter one, “Books, Tools & Techniques.” She acknowledges that “spotting rare and collectible books is an art form in and of itself, replete with loopholes and expert-only savvy,” and she offers some basic instruction. I have one minor criticism here. She suggests that, when in doubt, you consult your local librarian. No offense to any local librarian, but that’s a terrible idea; with very few exceptions, local public librarians have absolutely no training in rare books (and are far too busy with summer reading programs and reference queries). If you don’t have a knowledgeable bookseller nearby, a few good searches on Abebooks or Biblio might be preferable.

Occhipinti’s “repurposed” books are truly beautiful art objects, and whether or not you’re crafty enough to give them a try yourself, her book is thoroughly enjoyable.

To read more about Occhipinti, take a look at this Q&A from the New York Times.
Greg book cover jpeg.jpgI sit in my living room and watch the Corps of Engineers open the Morganza Floodway releasing the swollen Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin inside Louisiana’s Cajun Country. The Basin is the largest river basin swamp in the country and just a month ago I spent a weekend there with my sister and brother-in-law, Misha and Ed Guirard, when Ed’s uncle, Greg Guirard, stopped by to give me his book Atchafalaya Autumn II published last October. 
While we’re led to believe any job is better than no job, young twenty-something Laura Dodd, a New Orleans native, had a different opinion. She sent an email to her contacts asking about their “career” experience. The message went viral and the emails began to mount with people confessing frustrations in their careers. Dodd decided to bring together what she called, “honest, candid, over-a-beer style conversations about what work is really like.” And how to tackle finding a meaningful career in a lackluster job market. Her book is titled Dig This Gig. Find Your Dream Job--or Invent It. 

The New Orleans Tennessee Williams Literary Festival was a huge success staying true to  Williams’ relentless drive for perfection. One of my favorite sessions are the master classes where experts from around the country offer their expertise in various literary genres. Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle, award-winning fiction writer, prolific book reviewer, widely published journalist and occasional literary blogger has watched the transformation of book review mediums from a front row seat. Inside the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street, lovers of the written word gathered for a lesson on how to cut through the clutter and keep abreast on new books hitting the literary market.

Royal St HNOC facade.jpg    
-1.gifOnce in a while a serious literary novel comes along that appeals to the very bookish among us, even if it doesn’t focus on academic manuscript sleuths (for example, Possession) or book dealers (The Cookbook Collector), or medieval scribes (The Name of the Rose). The recently published debut novel, Mr. Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt is one such book.

The premise of the book is, at first, hard to swallow. It’s England, 1964, and Esther Hammerhans, a young library clerk at the House of Commons, has advertised for a boarder. What shows up on her doorstep is a big black dog who calls himself Mr. Chartwell. He walks, he talks, he drinks gin; little by little, Esther lets him in.

Winston Churchill enthusiasts will understand the ‘black dog’ reference, as the great man once characterized his depression as such. Indeed the 89-year-old Churchill plays a prominent role in the novel, and it is in portraying the struggle and desperation of these two characters--Winston and Esther--that Hunt is at her best. She certainly takes risks with this novel, which she pulls off for the most part. Her agility with language is impressive, and Mr. Chartwell can be a very satisfying read for those willing to play along.

Published first in the UK, Mr. Chartwell was praised as “daring,” “quirky,” “original, tender, and funny,” by the national papers. Here, reviews seemed mixed. Publishers Weekly found it “very original” and “clever,” while Tadzio Koelb for the New York Times Book Review thought it “strained.”

Judge for yourself. To read an excerpt published by the New York Times earlier this month, go here.
Auction Guide