Recently in By Nicholas Basbanes Category
Has it really been ten years since Nicholson Baker shook up the cozy world inhabited by librarians and conservators with publication of Double Fold, his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning examination of the way materials on paper--most notably newspapers--were being displaced by surrogate copies in other, more easily stored media? Not only has it been a decade since Baker made the word “microfilm” a synonym for “leprosy”--and not undeserved, I should add--it has been an eventful decade in the book world to boot, as our own Rebecca Rego Barry reminds us in a splendid overview of Double Fold and its continuing impact. It is featured in the current issue of The Millions, the superb--dare we say indispensable?--online magazine offering comprehensive coverage of books and the arts. Here’s a link. Nice going, Rebecca, very well done.
Call it bittersweet, if you like, but the sale next week of the entire contents of the City of Boston’s Graphic Arts Printing Plant at 174 North St., is yet another passing of the torch, and proof positive that the times surely-are-a-changing. Some 175 lots will be hammered down, according to Stanley J. Paine, the auctioneer retained by the city to clear out every vestige of a printing operation that closed last year after 78 years of service, and everything, in his words, is not only old, but downright antediluvian. “We’re selling the room,” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s all antique. All of it. Everything has its own particulars and story.”
Anyone want a Vandercook Letter Press? Or a Linotype Model 31 Typesetting Machine (there are two of them)? A Heidelberg Sheet-Fed Printing Press? A Miehle Vertical Letter Press? Saddle stitchers, folders, paper cutters, collators? Drawer after drawer filled with wonderful metal type? A Super Portland Paper Punching machine? Some splendid oak filing cabinets from the 1930s and ’40s? The sale will start at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24, on-site, and for those who can’t make it, bids can be submitted online via Bidspotter, where a complete list and description of the lots--with photos--is listed. (Bids, in fact, are already being accepted.) I am particularly charmed, I must say, by Lot 154, pictured here at right, identified only as Antique Letter Press S/N 28546. I don’t have room in my cellar--and I don’t imagine my wife would be much too pleased in any case--but I sure am tempted.
Reynolds Price, a true southern gentleman and one of the outstanding American writers of his generation, died yesterday at 77, in Durham, North Carolina, of heart failure. While known best for his thirteen novels, Price was a magnificent stylist adept in many genres, with volumes of poetry, essays, plays, short stories, memoirs, and translations from the Bible among his other credits. His first book, A Long and Happy Life, was greeted on its release in 1962 with immediate acclaim and honors, including a coveted William Faulkner Award that set the stage for the many literary triumphs that followed, A Generous Man (1966), Kate Vaiden (1986) and The Three Gospels (1996) notable among them. His third memoir, An American Writer, Coming of Age in Oxford (2009), recalled the three years he spent as a Rhodes Scholar in the late 1950s; upon his return to the United States, he taught at Duke University, his alma mater, for more than fifty years, a favorite course among students the one on his lifelong hero, John Milton. A splendid obituary of Price’s life--with some lovely comments from such admirers as Allan Gurganus and Ann Tyler--appears in today’s New York Times.
Let it also be said that in addition to his remarkable body of work--thirty-eight published books, by my count--Reynolds Price was a dedicated bibliophile who had a genuine appreciation for books as artifacts. I spoke with him several times back in the 1990s for my newspaper columns, the most memorable get-together coming on May 15, 1992, when we met for lunch at a small cafe just off Harvard Square to talk about his novel Blue Calhoun, which had just been released. As much as I treasure the inscription he wrote in my copy of the book, pictured here--how could I not love being referred to by Reynolds Price as a “fellow bibliomaniac”?--the unqualified highlight of the interview came when we were discussing his courageous battle with spinal cancer, and his will to continue writing despite being confined to a wheelchair as a paraplegic. It was during this exchange that Price told me about a special book he owned, and why it meant so much to him. A phrase he used--“touching the hand”--inspired me sufficiently to use it three years later as the title for the opening chapter in A Gentle Madness.
“Milton wrote his best books after he lost his sight,” he had told me back then. “I have written eleven books since I had cancer, and it represents some of the very best work I have ever done. My copy of Paradise Lost once belonged to Deborah Milton Clarke, the daughter who took Milton’s dictation after he went blind. For me, it was like the apostolic succession. I was touching the hand that touched the hand that touched the Hand.”
When I contacted Price two years later to go over the quote once again--he was delighted to learn that I was going to use it in my book--he reminded me to make sure that the ‘h’ in the final usage of the word ‘hand’ be capitalized. “This is the Hand of God we are talking about here, Nicholas,” he said in his wonderful drawl. I get chills to this day thinking about it.
If Michiko Kakutani’s column in today’s New York Times is not the best read and most emailed piece in the paper, then not enough people are paying attention. Her take on the announcement that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is being released with more than 200 uses of the ‘n’ word from the original text--yes, it is “nigger,” and I will use it here just this once--being summarily changed to “slave” is exquisitely reasoned and beautifully supported with historical parallels. (There is the absurdity, for instance, of a British theater group changing the title of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 2002 to The Bellringer of Notre Dame for a new production of the play.)
The editor of the new Huckleberry Finn edition, Alan Gribben, is a professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama. His explanation for changing the word in each usage--and thus bowdlerizing what we can all agree is one of the most consequential works of fiction in the American literary canon--is to make the book more appealing to high school and college teachers who might otherwise excise it from their curricula. It is, he argues, “a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol,” and thus, with one simple stroke of a search-and-replace key, voila, Mark Twain is rendered suitable for modern eyes to read without fear of being unduly bruised by the sunlight.
Instead of explaining to students that the reprehensible word has a history that goes back four hundred years, and that the slur as used in the novel was totally in character for the time and the place and the people being profiled, teachers using this sanitized text are now free to ignore unpleasantness altogether. Let’s hope they will be few and far between. If leery instructors need a little help along these lines--it is called teaching, after all--they should take a look at The ‘N’ Word, (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) by Washington Post cultural columnist Jabari Asim. We don’t accomplish a whole lot by denying the past. And we certainly don’t introduce literature to young readers by grooming it to suit our delicate sensibilities.
Kudos to Ms. Kakutani for making the point so eloquently. Meanwhile, Mr. Gribben’s defense of the action (which also changes “injun” to “Indian”)--and that of his publisher, NewSouth Books--can be read at this link.
I have decided to start the new year off with a few books that came to my attention a bit too late to make my holiday roundups, but which are eminently worthy of notice all the same. Think of each one as a little present for yourself; you won’t be disappointed.
So you didn’t get a pony for Christmas, too bad, but you can still treat yourself to what is easily the most magnificent art book devoted to the horse that I have ever seen, and the best part is you don’t have to feed it or clean out its stall. Arguably the most beautiful animal in nature, the horse has inspired creative expression for many centuries, with magnificent examples in a multitude of media to be found in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, the sands of Mesopotamia, and depicted over the generations by cultures as varied as Babylonian, Scythian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman. First published in France in 2008, this remarkable book, newly translated and issued in a lovely boxed edition, pays homage to the horse in all its glory, with more than 300 color illustrations and thirteen learned essays to make the case. The horse, John Louis Gourand writes, is “undoubtedly the most frequently represented living being in art after man himself, from the very earliest of times.” Abbeville Press lives up to its well-earned reputation for producing art books in the grand tradition; the illustrations are superbly chosen, and vividly reproduced.
George Washington’s America: A Biography Through Maps, by Barnet Schecter; Walker, 304 pages, $67.50.
Known most famously, of course, as hero of the Revolution and first President of the United States, George Washington also worked as a surveyor early in his life, and had a lifelong relationship with maps. At his death, many of the charts he had owned and used were bound into an atlas that eventually made its way to the Map Collection of Sterling Library at Yale University, a corpus that provides the framework for this most interesting examination. In addition to the maps he purchased, Washington drew a number of his own that have survived. “These visual images,” historian Robert Schecter writes, “place us at the scene of his youthful ambition and his later battles--in the landscapes and on the waterways that were the theater of war in Britain’s North American colonies, and that sparked the imagination and desires of the preeminent founder of the United States.” Once independence was secured, the maps helped shape Washington’s “vision of America as ‘a rising empire in the New World.’”
The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson; Yale University Press, 1,561 pages, $65.
First published in 1995, this wonderful, one-volume encyclopedia about the city that never sleeps was one of the most successful books in the long history of the Yale University Press, prompting the preparation of this completely updated effort. The World Trade Center no longer anchors the Manhattan skyline, to cite just one major change, and Bernie Madoff was not a household name back then. The E-Z pass hadn’t been invented yet either, and the New York Giants hadn’t shocked the New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. These are just a few of the 800 entries to be added to the mix, bringing the total to 5,000. Each is written by an acknowledged authority, be it in sports, entertainment, finance, architecture, or art, and each is a delightful little essay in its own right about every manner of New York person, place, institution, and curiosity, spanning pre-history to the present, and covering all five boroughs.This is one of my very favorite reference books, all spiffed up, and relevant as ever.
One of America’s truly great storytellers, the incomparable Pat Conroy, is also a determined bibliophile--indeed one of the first signings of this delightful paean to reading was held last week at the Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, NC--so it is no big surprise that he has written a number of essays over the years about his particular passion for books and authors. The fifteen pieces gathered here form a whole of Conroy’s reading life thus far, and are a joy to pick up at any point. “Books are living things, and their task lies in their vows of silence,” he writes in one chapter that will be of particular interest to collectors, his association with the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. (He admits to having bought up to five thousand books there.) “I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish,” he writes in a tribute to the librarians of his early childhood. Everything this man of the South writes, he writes from the heart. The bookish drawings by Wendell Minor that garnish these lovely ruminations are a pleasant plus to one of the outstanding books about books of the season.
The black and white jazz photographs of Herman Leonard, shot during the 1940s and ’50s have become the stuff of legend. Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clark, Stan Getz, Modern Jazz Quartet--they’re all here in this definitive collection, a veritable feast of musical images. “He was a master of jazz,” music historian K. Heather Pinson wrote earlier this year on the occasion of Leonard’s death at the age of 87, “except his instrument was a camera.”
Give Joseph Ellis all the credit in the world for committing his considerable skills to a fresh evaluation of the correspondence exchanged between John and Abigail Adams over the course of their marriage during what we can all agree were eventful times, and for demonstrating how the 1,200 surviving letters of theirs constitute “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.” David McCullough made full use of these same letters in his magisterial biography of John Adams a decade ago, though the canvas there was monumental. Here, it is focused strictly on the remarkable relationship as revealed through the letters. The writing, of course, is superb, as always, and a joy to engage.
Collectors of Americana know Robert Morris as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and covet examples of his autograph accordingly, but chances are that few know much about the Philadelphia entrepreneur’s role in the founding of the Republic. According to historian Charles Rappleye, Morris was unsurpassed in his efforts to fund the rebellion; after the war, he served in the Continental Congress and United States Senate, and was the first Superintendent of Finance, or treasury secretary. His methods were not always above reproach, however, and a dramatic downfall led to a resounding fall from grace. All in all a ripe prospect for a modern biography, which Morris gets in this thorough examination of his life.
Dual biographies can be problematic undertakings, but Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, both respected historians and the authors separately of other books on early America, have combined here to produce a most readable account of a fifty-year friendship, perhaps one of the most consequential acquaintances in American history. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Virginians who each served as President of the United States, we all know that, but their relationship, as profiled here, was as much symbiosis as it was mentor-protégé. Burstein and Isenberg had made a significant contribution to the literature of our Founding Fathers.
You could almost regard this huge biography as a bookend to the Morris volume cited above in that it looks at a significant player in American history who pretty much excelled away from the spotlight, in this case as Chief of Staff during World War II to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the consummate military man, Ike was legendary for delegating authority to key officers, and the aide who rode herd on all of them was Walter Bedell Smith. In 1950, Smith was Harry Truman’s choice to head the CIA in 1950; three years later, his former boss, by then president, named him Undersecretary of State, in which capacity he oversaw the partitioning of Vietnam into two nations, and implemented a plan for a coup d’etat in Guatemala. This is the first biography of his life, one long overdue.
No big surprise that Jessica Kerwin, writer for Vogue, thanks “legions of librarians” in the acknowledgments she appends to this charmingly eclectic compendium, given the wealth of arcania on subjects ranging from the balloon adventures of the Montgolfier Brothers in the eighteenth century, to the history of women’s lingerie, to the tradition of dining outdoors known as alfresco. It is, in short, an encyclopedia of very interesting things, and the documentation is impressive. The writing is elegant, the style accessible; altogether a fun book.
Self’s television credits in various executive capacities during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s included The Twilight Zone, Peyton Place, Daniel Boone, Batman, MASH, some forty-four series alone during a fifteen-year tenure at 20th Century Fox Television, a good number of them as president of the company. Feature length productions included John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist, and Sarah, Plain and Tall, starring Glenn Close, for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd; Nan Talese/Doubleday, 403 pages, $37.50. Writing about the life of a city as if it were a living, breathing organism is a specialty of the estimable English writer Peter Ackroyd, his “London: The Biography” of a few years back being an exemplar of the form; with “Venice: Pure City,” he offers a worthy companion. As a place seemingly set apart from the rest of Italy--Venice is a cluster of islands in a lagoon, really--the city’s insularity has given it a degree of independence. “The Italians do not really think of Venice at all,” Ackroyd writes, “it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice.” His blend of detail and atmosphere is always in perfect balance, his narrative skill apparent in every chapter.
What really knocked me off my feet on this trip, though, was the fantastic second-hand bookstore owned by CALS in downtown Little Rock, the first such public library initiative of its kind to my experience, and operated since 2001 in support of the library. Called River Market Books & Gifts, the store occupies three floors in the Cox Building, a beautifully restored machinery warehouse that dates to 1906, and includes a chic cafe, art gallery and creative center for various library programs. The variety of used books is spectacular, I must say, and because all are donated, they are offered for sale at exceedingly fair prices (and in remarkably decent condition as well.)
Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, has confirmed to Bloomberg News that he will become the new president of the New York Public Library next year, succeeding Paul LeClerc, who has been at the helm since 1993. LeClerc announced his retirement last November, prompting a nationwide search to find a replacement.
The appointment of Marx follows a long-standing precedent at the NYPL of turning to academe for its top leadership. LeClerc, a noted scholar of 18th-century French literature--and an enthusiastic collector of Voltaire in his own right--came to the job from the presidency of Hunter College, the largest institution of public learning in New York City. He succeeded the Reverend Timothy S. Healy, a native New Yorker who had previously been president of Georgetown University in Washington; Healy, in turn, had succeeded the historian Vartan Gregorian, former provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and later the president of Brown University.
Given the increasing reliance on electronic resources, along with the evolving role of libraries as institutions in American cultural life, the selection of Marx to this premier position is particularly interesting, especially for the NYPL, which has assumed such an important role in public education in New York, not only through its 87 neighborhood branches, but at the extraordinary research centers it maintains in Manhattan. In an email to Bloomberg News confirming his appointment--which must still be approved by the library’s board--Marx wrote that the NYPL is “New York City’s preeminent education institution that is free and open to all.”
Also a New York native, Marx, 51, initiated a no-loan financial aid policy at Amherst that allows graduates to pursue careers without worrying about debt. Before assuming the presidency of the college eight years ago, he was a professor of political science at Columbia University, where he helped found Khanya College, a prep school in South Africa, and started the Columbia Urban Educators Program, which recruits and trains teachers.
The New York Public Library budget exceeds $500 million a year, and last year had more than 18 million visitors. We wish Marx success in his new position, and LeClerc well in his retirement.
I am delighted to report the publication of two books that I have been eager for some time to see appear between hard covers, having had the opportunity to know a bit about them beforehand, and to have had communication with each of the authors as they were works-in-progress. Happily, they are everything I expected they would be, gracefully written in both instances, wisely reasoned, and a genuine pleasure to read.
Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers; Harper, 267 pages, $24.99.
A former staff writer and media critic for the Washington Post, William Powers
has written extensively on every manner of communications technology, developing the premise of this book--and coming up with the splendid title--while a Fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press in 2006. Powers is exceedingly savvy when it comes to navigating his way about the digital world, and while he is not about to abandon its wondrous applications in any way, shape, or form, he has chosen to step back a bit, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the wisdom of our cultural forebears. “The interior struggle” of “information overload,” he writes--the phrase was presciently coined in the 1970s by Alvin Toffler--“is having a dramatic impact in our personal and family relationships.” Constant connectivity with the entire world--text messages, cellphones, video streams--leads him to ask the fundamental question: “What is the point anyway?” This is neither a preachy polemic nor a boring diatribe, and while he calls on Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and others for guidance, he does so with style, humility and elan. “Every space is what you make it,” he concludes. “But in the end, building a good life isn’t about where you are. It’s about how you decide to think and live. Place your index finger on your temple and tap twice. It’s all in there.” Links to various reviews and broadcast interviews are available on Powers’ website.
The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love, by Pradeep Sebastian; Hachette India, 295 pages, 12.99 GBP ($20 US).
A well-known literary columnist in India whose many pieces for major publications are available on the Internet, Pradeep Sebastian has entered the books about books genre in impressive fashion, with a very nice collection of his erudite pieces on a striking variety of subjects, many of them previously published in different form, though a few--including a generous profile of yours truly he calls “The Collector of Collectors”--appearing here for the first time. How can a reader of the Fine Books blog not be simpatico with someone who makes this admission: “Holding a book but not actually reading it gave me time (and put me in the mood) to reflect on the act of reading and the physicality of the book; the book as material object.” Or someone whose favorite Sunday afternoon ritual is take volumes off his groaning shelves and rearrange them in a new order? “Should I abandon the by-author arrangement and categorize them by subject matter?” Very heavy concerns, indeed. The book has just been released by the India division of Hachette, parent company of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt. It should be available in U.S. outlets shortly; for now it can be ordered through Amazon.UK.
One of the most extraordinary bibliophiles I have ever met, Irwin T. “Toby” Holtzman, passed away in Detroit this past week at 82, leaving behind his lovely wife Shirley, three children, three grandchildren, and a legacy of tenacious commitment to books and libraries that is unequaled in my experience. Truth be told, I never met anyone quite like Toby, and expect I will not again anytime soon. As a collector, his interests were generally centered on twentieth century and contemporary fiction. At the height of his activity, he collected the works of some 350 authors, and he did it with a remarkable degree of thoroughness. I first learned about Toby in the late 1980s when I was in the early stages of researching A Gentle Madness, and looking for suitable people to profile. When I told Peter Howard, the owner of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, Calif., the premise of my book--the title pretty much says it all--he suggested I spend some time in Detroit with Toby. “He has a native feeling for books that you really have to experience first hand to appreciate,” Howard said.
What Peter was saying in a delicate way is that Toby, for want of a more precise description, had a certain intensity about him when it came to books. “Toby can definitely wear you down,” he offered, and pretty much left it at that. When I asked Toby about this apparent single-mindedness of his, he offered no apologies, acknowledging that yes, he was an “in your face kind of guy” when it came to books, but that the cause was literature and reading, after all, and what could be more important than that. Indeed, when we first got together in August of 1991, he was already finding suitable homes for his books. Today, his various collections can be found in no fewer than fifteen major libraries around the world, his William Faulkner collection at the University of Michigan, his Russian writers collection at the Hoover Institution in California, his John Osborne collection at the British Library, his American Indian collection at the University of Illinois, his gift to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem of five thousand Israeli books, manuscripts, and inscribed copies, most notable among them.
As a collector of modern firsts, Toby always favored the living and the hopeful, and he took special pride in “discovering” new talent. To get a leg up on the competition, he regularly read the forecasts in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and he took great pride in being able to say that fully 40 percent of the collectible books he had acquired were bought at their jacket prices. And as much as he loved his books, he had no separation anxiety whatsoever about parting with them--so long as they went to the right places. “You reach a point in your life where you begin to collect by subtraction, not addition,” he said.
Following the publication of AGM fifteen years ago this month, Toby and I kept in touch. We ran into each other often, at the New York Book Fair, the California Book Fair, in the basement of the Strand Book Store, wherever book people gather. A few months ago, I gave a talk at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, and we had dinner together with a group from the University of Michigan. It was great fun, and Toby gave me a photo of himself--the one pictured above--seated in a nifty “book chair” he had bought during a recent trip he had made to Italy with Shirley. Yes, that is my book he is holding. Pretty cool, I thought, and so typically Toby.
Totally in character, too, is the request Toby’s family made this week of friends and colleagues following private funeral services in Michigan: “Please honor the memory of Toby Holtzman and the values of his life by supporting a library, buying books at your local bookstores and reading to your children and grandchildren.”
What an epitaph. And what a bookman.
The collection had been assembled by Terry Belanger, recently retired as the founding director of Rare Book School at UVA, as a teaching tool to study various formats used over the years for a single book. I later learned of an even larger Lucile collection at the University of Iowa--almost three times as large, in fact--assembled by Sid Huttner, director there of special collections, and the subject of a dedicated web site known as the Lucile Project. I had the pleasure soon thereafter to meet with Huttner, and to see the collection.
There are some fabulous single-book collections of other titles, too, the late Jock Elliott’s superb Christmas Carol editions coming immediately to mind, and a truly remarkable private collection of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I have had the privilege of seeing on several occasions, but few collectors have the patience (and dare I say the fortitude) to see such a commitment through to these extremes. So it was with uncommon interest that I received a Google news alert yesterday (my name is mentioned parenthetically, thus the heads up) directing me to a piece that had just run in the Sacramento Bee about a collector whose library is brimming with 700 copies of Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 novel, Two Years Before the Mast. Six paragraphs into the story, the reporter, Sam McManis, describes what he saw when he walked into the library of Bill Ewald, a 67-year-old retired firefighter:
At first, it’s just a handsome room: nearly 700 books on oak shelves and display tables, and in cardboard boxes tucked in corners. You smell the mustiness of antiquity. Your eyes catch the glint of gilt spines, the sad fraying of aging cloth covers contrasting with shiny, happy paperbacks.
Then it hits you. These are all the same book.
A proud Californian, Ewald tells McManis he chose to concentrate on Two Years Before the Mast because it is set during the years of the great California gold rush, and because it is one of what veteran collectors know as the Zamorano 80--one of the eighty books determined to be seminal to the history and culture of the Golden State. (The book thief Stephen Blumberg was particularly keen on acquiring all eighty, incidentally, going so far as the steal the Zamorano Club’s own collection of the books, which I wrote about in Chapter 13 of A Gentle Madness.)
Ewald discusses at length his unusual passion in McManis’s piece, and offers some general insights on collecting. There is a sidebar there, too, for beginners looking for pointers, though I have to say I was a bit dismayed by the readers comments posted thus far. one bemusedly calling such an obsession “freaky,” several others fixated on what is obviously a minor error on the part of a headline writer and not the reporter, as anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper will instantly recognize to be the case.
Anyway, give this most entertaining article a look; very nicely done indee
What better way for bibliophiles to observe the Fourth of
July than to reflect a bit on the legendary passion the author of the
Declaration of Independence had for his books, and for the care he took not
only in selecting them, but in one amusing instance, expressing his regrets to
a hopeful bookseller trying to make a sale.
Thomas Jefferson’s best known comment on the
subject--“I cannot live without books”--was confided in a letter to
John Adams in 1815, and has been celebrated on everything from coffee mugs to
T-shirts. (I used it myself fifteen years ago as one of four epigraphs for A
Gentle Madness.) But in another letter written four years
earlier Jefferson made clear that while books certainly were essential to his
sanity and well-being, he was not about to read everything that might come his
Responding to a query submitted to him by his friend Thomas
Law to subscribe his name for a translation of a French atlas of the world then
“I am now entered on my 69th year. The tables of
mortality tell me I have 7 years to live. My bibliomany has possessed me of
perhaps 20,000 volumes. Of these there are probably 1000 which I would read,
of choice, before I should the historical, genealogical, chronological, &
geographical Atlas of M. Le Sage. But it is also probable I shall decamp before
I get through 50. of them,.Why then add an unit to the 19,950 which I shall
never read? To encourage the work?”
The full text of Jefferson’s wonderful response has been
edited and published online by The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Retirement
Series, based in
Editor of the series is J. Jefferson Looney, who my wife and I
had the good fortune to meet a few weeks ago at the Horatio Alger Society
annual meeting. Jeff kindly sent this letter along, which I saved for use
today. He advises me too that this letter is previously unpublished, so it should
be of considerable interest to admirers of
So check out the Retirement Series site, it’s great fun.
That is unless, of course, you happen to do your writing on a typewriter, in which case you will be told to pack your gear and leave--and don’t let the door whack you on the backside on the way out, either, heaven forbid it might disturb one of the fragile geniuses toiling away in tortured silence in a little carrel nearby. That’s what has happened, at least, to a children’s book author by the name of Skye Ferrante, who was told to gather up his 1929 Royal and vacate the premises, his incessant tapping of the keys was bothering the other writers.
Back in the old days--and by the old days, like just a few months ago--there was a sign in the Writers Room advising all members that “in the event there are no desks available, laptop users must make room for typists.” When Ferrante showed up recently to work--and the dues are $1,400 a year, by the way, so he wasn’t there hat in hand--the sign was gone, and he was told he had to either use a laptop, or get out, and that the remainder of his membership fee would be refunded.
“I was told I was the unintended beneficiary of a policy to placate the elderly members who have all since died off,” Ferrante, 37, told the New York Daily News. He refused; like a lot of us, he likes working with paper, and he likes the feel of old typewriters. “Some people like to listen to vinyl,” he said. “Some people prefer to drive a stick shift.”
Writers Room Executive Director Donna Brodie confirmed the ban, explaining that Ferrante’s typing was, indeed, a distraction. Allowing him to type, she said, “would mean that everybody else who wanted to work in that room would have to flee. No one wants to work around the clacking of a typewriter. That’s why the room had been established.”
Tell that to Cormac McCarthy, or David McCullough, just two writers I can think of off the top of my head who swear by their typewriters, and I guess that would have dealt out the late Robert B. Parker and George V. Higgins as well. I wonder if any of these abused writers ever spent any time in a newsroom--a real newsroom, where the ever-present clatter of typewriters was intoxicating, like the sound of waves rolling up on a beach. And I wonder what the attitude there would be toward someone who might have the temerity to write with a Number 2 pencil. Might the scratching there be a bit too obtrusive as well?
A bright and airy loft, indeed.
The busy program included presentations from three members, an auction, a book sale, a reception at the Young home, and a farewell dinner, where a thousand dollar “Strive and Succeed” scholarship was presented to a worthy recipient. I gave the keynote address, my third presentation to the H.A.S. over the past fifteen years, a personal record for me with one group. I was pleasantly surprised by the gift of a lovely plaque noting this milestone, and wish to express my gratitude in this space to the membership.
Single-author societies, as I wrote in Among the Gently Mad, are quite the phenomenon among book collectors, with one of the better known groups being the Baker Street Irregulars, whose passion for everything Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes knows no bounds. There are many confederations of collectors brought together by the pursuit of one writer’s works, and collectors just getting started should be alert to their existence. Another that comes immediately to mind is the Thomas Wolfe Society, whose annual meeting I had the pleasure of addressing a few years back,
The Horatio Alger oeuvre is considerable--119 published books, according to Young--a number of the titles so scarce that no single individual, so far as anyone knows, has a complete collection. Art Young has 112, about as many as anyone else.
The H.A.S, I have to say, is a really squared-away group that does much more than pursue elusive titles. In recent years, the focus has expanded beyond Alger to include collectors and enthusiasts of all juvenile literature, including boys’ and girls’ series books, pulps, and dime novels. Next year they will celebrate their 50th anniversary. Check out their web site, linked above.
Staley was appointed in 1988 at a time when the HRC was at a crossroads, having been vaulted into the top tier of institutional collections by the late provost Harry Huntt Ransom, who had declared in 1957 his intention to create what he called a “Biliotheque Nationale” in the “only state that started out as an independent nation.” The decidedly unconventional approach Ransom pursued to achieve this goal became the stuff of legend--it was what I came to describe as a form of institutional bibliomania that transformed what was then a very good library into a great one--and was at the core of a chapter I wrote for A Gentle Madness that I called “Instant Ivy.”
When Staley came to Austin, the massive repository was already filled to bursting with millions of pages of documents, the pace of acquisition so frenetic that many thousands of them were not even catalogued yet. One person familiar with the meteoric growth, the English bookseller Colin Franklin, told me at the time that what the HRC needed to get itself on a steady course “and settle down a bit” was a person like Staley, who, as it turns out, did measurably more than act as caretaker. What he did in essence was to build on greatness and create his own distinctive identity, in much the same way that Mickey Mantle followed Joe Dimaggio into center field for the New York Yankees (or, for Red Sox fans, having Yaz take over left field in Fenway Park for Ted Williams.)
As an administrator, Staley raised $100 million for the center’s programs; in collection development, he added a succession of remarkable literary archives, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Doris Lessing, Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Hardwick, Penelope Fitzgerald, Stella Adler, and Bernard Malamud among them, and he made headlines around the world when he acquired the Watergate files of Washington Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Just as significant, in my view, was a new policy of openness and accessibility that Staley introduced at the HRC, making materials much easier for scholars to use. William Powers, president of the university, summed up his contributions with these words: “We owe a great debt of gratitude and deepest appreciation to Tom Staley.”
A search will be conducted to name his replacement.
But in the meantime, I’d like to share a baseball card story of my own, and the best part is that it isn’t one that has mellowed over the many decades since I, too, hoarded these marvelous little objects that so evocatively define a certain time and place, but one that came my way a mere two months ago during a trip my wife and I made to Mississippi, and which I wrote about in my most recent online column for Fine Books & Collections.
Since length was an issue in that article--and since the topic at hand was the literary tour we had just completed--one detail I did not mention in the piece was a wonderful conversation Connie and I had one morning over breakfast with Jim Miles, the personable gentleman who so capably drove our bus from town to town throughout the Mississippi Delta over the three days of the tour. A tall, broad-shouldered, athletic man with a rock solid handshake--and clearly someone, to my eye, who had participated in organized sports back in the day--Jim smiled when I teasingly asked what position he had played as a youngster, linebacker or tackle. “Well, I did play a little football in high school,” he said amiably, “but baseball was my sport.”
And thus began the following tale:
A native of Batesville, Mississippi, Jim grew up on a farm harboring a dream like so many millions of other American boys that he might one day play in the big leagues, and he became fairly adept at throwing tattered old baseballs wrapped in electrician’s tape at targets he had drawn on the side of the family barn. “This was hard-core St. Louis Cardinals territory back then, but my favorite team was always the New York Yankees, because they won all the time,” he recalled in his easy Southern drawl. “I threw pitch after pitch at that barn, and in the game I always played in my head, it usually came down to me against Mickey Mantle in the bottom half of the ninth inning with the World Series on the line. And the way it always played out was that Mickey Mantle would hit a grand slam off me to win the game, and the series.”
Pretty odd, I thought, that he didn’t whiff Mantle in his imaginary confrontation, he served up what amounted to a gopher ball. “He was my hero,” Miles explained unapologetically. “To my way of thinking, it would have been an honor to just pitch against him.”
So now we jump ahead to the 1960s; James Charlie Miles, Jr. is a star right-handed pitcher with Delta State University, and he signs as a free agent with the Washington Senators organization. He bangs around the minor leagues for a couple of years, moves from farm team to farm team, and then one day in 1968 he is told to get on a bus and join the parent team, which was in dire need of some fresh relief pitching to help what was, historically, a club that had earned the reputation for its city as always being “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
Jim appeared in just three games that year in the majors, ut one of them was played in New York City, where the young man had never been before in his life. “When I came out of the runway into Yankee Stadium, and looked around, I was dizzy with excitement,” he said, and he recalled going to Monument Park in the outfield to pay his respects at the plaques honoring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig before the game got underway. He passed most of the contest uneventfully in the bullpen, but in the top of the sixth word came from the dugout that he should warm up and get ready to pitch the bottom half of the inning.
The Senators, typically, were behind, so there was little drama involved in the outcome. But it was an opportunity for Miles to show what he had, and he wasted little time getting two men out. “Then one thing led to another,” he said, and before he knew it the bases were loaded, with none other than Number 7 himself, Mickey Mantle, then playing in what would be the final year of his illustrious career, due up next. A switch-hitter, Mantle stepped into the batter’s box from the left side of the plate, where his power was greatest, and focused his attention on the lanky right-hander standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.
“I had a sneaky little fast ball that tailed away from left-handed hitters,” Miles said, and he quickly got ahead in the count, no balls and two strikes--but not without suffering through two monster swings that seemed to take the air out of the park. “So here I am ahead in the count, and I figure I’ll try this tricky little pitch of mine, a Luis Tiant kind of twirl I had developed where I have my back to the plate for an instant before releasing the ball. I admit I was probably being a little too cute for my own good, and when I let it go I could see it was heading right down the middle of the plate, exactly where I didn’t want it to be.”
It was a grooved pitch, in other words, right in the Mick’s wheelhouse, but the funny motion, in all likelihood, caused the slugger to flinch momentarily and lay off the ball--which the umpire shockingly called strike three. “Well let me tell you I floated off the mound into the dugout,” Miles said, and it was the only time he would ever face Mantle. He returned to the Senators the following year, played for the legendary Ted Williams, pitched in a dozen games, then retired at season’s end after suffering a career-ending injury. He would spend many years in Mississippi as a coach and athletic director at a local college, winning a number of divisional championships, all the while rich in the memory that he’d had a once-in-a-lifetime moment in Yankee Stadium, living out a boyhood fantasy in ways that he could have never foreseen.
As luck would have it, Jim had an extra baseball card along with him in the bus, which I was honored to accept as a gift. It’s a Tops 154 rookie card, issued in 1970--Miles was still technically a rookie in 1969--and features his photo on the front, above that of another Washington player, Jan Dukes. His Minor League stats appear on the back, with this spine-tingling line:
“Jim comes equipped with a sinking fast ball and good curves. Fanned Mickey Mantle only time he ever faced him.”
Such stuff as dreams are made on; and a keeper for sure.
Recently reopened after a six-year $13 million renovation that included the installation of an elevator and various interactive displays, the complex--known informally in its time as Edison’s “invention factory”--is now welcoming the public once again, and allowing visits throughout the various working spaces and laboratories, where teams of innovators once worked to develop such modern marvels as the phonograph, a fluoroscope to view x-ray images, machines to extract iron from ore, processes to streamline the manufacture of cement, cylinder recorders for office dictation, and nickel-iron-alkaline storage batteries. A motion picture projector synchronized with a phonograph that he called the kinetophone was developed here as well; it led to the opening of the world’s first movie studio, which visitors can see on the third floor, complete with an original Steinway piano used to audition show-biz hopefuls.
Built in 1887, this facility was ten times larger than the one Edison had used for ten years at nearby Menlo Park, where he invented the electric light system. If you had no idea what is contained on these grounds--and if there were no signs to identify it as a national park--the temptation would be to drive right by the three-story brick structure, assuming it to be one of many nineteenth-century industrial sites so typical of the northeast.
Schooled at home as a child by his mother, Edison was a largely self-taught autodidact, and among the many fascinating holdings here is a 10,000-volume library still shelved in his personal working area. Between two book cases in an alcove off to one side is a small bed, placed there by Edison’s wife so the great thinker could take an occasional catnap. An inveterate note-taker and doodler, Edison was forever sketching away in his notebooks, of which 3,500 survive; seeing some of these, in fact, was my primary interest in a recent visit, graciously arranged and hosted by Leonard DeGraaf, archivist for the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
The Edison site is one of three National Park Service properties that maintains substantial collections of original manuscripts and archives, and functions as a research facility for scholars; others include the Colonial home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge, Mass., and the house of master garden architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the Boston suburb of Brookline. Also part of the Edison complex--which was presented to the National Park Service by the Edison family in 1962--is the family mansion, Glenmont, set atop a scenic hill just a couple blocks away, and open to visitors as well. Well worth a trip.
Hamilton’s title piece took irreverent note of the fact that Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) spent the final years of his eventful life as a librarian in the household of Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein of Bohemia, and it was in that dreary castle that he took pen to paper and wrote Histoire de ma vie, the racy memoirs for which he became famous, and which an anonymous benefactor acquired on behalf of the French National Library (BNF). Though the actual purchase price was not disclosed, the figure was widely reported to be five million euros, about $9 million, which, if correct, would qualify it as the costliest manuscript transaction on record. The papers--comprising 3,700 pages of yellowing sheets--were transfered Monday to the BNF in thirteen boxes, and represent the complete, uncensored account of Casanova’s amorous adventures. The material had been owned since 1821 by the Brauckhuas publishing company in Germany, and was once thought to have been destroyed in World War II; it was later found safely stored in a bank vault.
For those truly interested in the role of librarians, especially those coping with so many seismic changes brought on by the twenty-first century, I heartily recommend a new release from HarperCollins, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, $24.99, by Marilyn Johnson. A staff writer for Life magazine. Johnson says that she first became interested in the subject while doing research for her first book, a well received examination of obituaries wryly titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. “With the exception of a few showy eccentrics, like the former solder in Hitler’s army who had a sex change and took up professional whistling, the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.”
Before long she was fully involved in the world of these wonderful professionals whose sole goal in life, it seems, is to provide knowledge and information to others. Johnson’s coinage of the word “cybarian” takes note of the changing nature of the business, and of the many ways the people she proceeded to spend so much time with have adapted to the new technologies. She describes the modern librarian as a person whose job is to “create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.”
The result is a most enthusiastic book that is great fun to read (and one which, I feel bound to disclose, makes generous mention of several books that I have written.) Its greatest contribution, I think, is that it pays tribute to an essential public service that so many government officials blithely feel can be cut at will during budgetary crises, reductions made especially easy for them to impose since these temples of wisdom have no well-heeled lobbyists throwing corporate money around to champion their cause. The epigraph to one of Johnson’s chapters says it best: “In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.”
I heard first from Pradeep Sebastian, a literary columnist in India, who offered the following dozen--count ‘em, twelve--first-rate suggestions:
The Hoax (2006), a film about Clifford Irving, and the fake Howard Hughes biography; F For Fake (1974), written, directed, and starring Orson Welles, and based in part on the forgeries of Irving, and others, and available in DVD; Selling Hitler (1991) a made for TV movie based on Robert Harris’ book about the faking of a Hitler diary; The Last Station (2009), about Leo Tolstoy’s manuscripts and will, and recipient this week of an Academy Award nomination for Christopher Plummer for best actor. Also from Sebastian: Creation (2009), a dramatization of the life of Charles
As a bonus, Sebastian offered a pair of documentaries: BookWars (2000), about New York City pavement book sellers, and Paperback Dreams (2008), profiling the struggle to survive among independent bookstores.
Arriving about a half-hour after that dazzling list came a terrific suggestion from Benjamin L. Clark in Oklahoma--he has a pretty nifty book blog of his own called exilebibliophile, which I highly recommend--to wit:
Cimarron (1931), winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, based on a novel by Edna Ferber (and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1929), which was partly inspired by the life of T.B. Ferguson, a cursading Oklahoma newspaper editor, and his wife, Elva.
Next came an email from Eleni Collins, an assistant editor for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, who wondered if a couple of movies based on outstanding children’s books, Harriet the Spy (1996) and The Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968), might not create a category in their own right. I love the idea--maybe we can do that next (think Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are)--but more on point for this particular exercise was her third suggestion, Between the Folds (2009), a television documentary about the world-wide mania for origami that aired in December on PBS, and has just been released in DVD.
A suggestion from reader Mike Gindling advised that a key scene in his favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), has Lawrence writing out an IOU to a shiek in return for help in the taking of an important city. I like that--an IOU is an example of a piece of paper whose value is only as good as the word of the person who gives it.
Just this morning, Joe Fay, manager of rare books at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, offered these beauties:
The Whole Wide World (1996) starring Renee Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio, a biographical account of the relationship between pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price Ellis; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based on the life of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson; The Rum Diary, to be released this year, also inspired by life and career of Thompson.
Fay mentioned a 1988 mini-series starring Stacey Keach as Ernest Hemingway, titled Hemingway, and cited one documentary in particular as outstanding, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008), about the science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft.
Finally, from daughter Nicole, who is weathering out the blizzard in Washington, D.C., a news flash about the release of a documentary with the improbable title of Miracle Banana, a Japanese film with English subtitles, “based on an actual project to make paper from banana trees in Haiti.” To prove that this was no joke, she furnished this link.
Honestly, I am lost for words (that never happens with me). But I do thank one and all for these fabulous films. I promise you, they will be used.
The week kicks off on Tuesday, January 26, with the Sixteenth Annual Bibliography Week Lecture, to be given this year by Michael Suarez, SJ, noted book historian and recently appointed director of Rare Book School, at Columbia University. His talk, scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Faculty Room of Low Library (116th St. at Broadway), is titled “Learned Virtuosity, Virtuously Displayed: Cultural Elits and Deep Purses in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Illustrated Books.”
A talk at the Grolier Club (47 East 60th St.) on Wednesday, January 27 by Milton McC. Gatch titled “Bibliotheca Parisina 1791: A Tale of Two Cities, or An Auction in Revolutionary Times,” 2 p.m., is free, and public. A reception later that evening to mark the opening of an exhibition at the Grolier, “Mary Webb: Neglected Genius,” featuring materials from the collection of Mary Crawford, is for members, but the show is open the public from January 12 to March 12.
Thursday, January 28: In Brooklyn, the latest works of book artists will be on display at the Open Salon, 37 Greenpoint Avenue, 4th floor, hours 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The shop, founded in 1999, describes itself as an “artist-run, non-profit, consensus-governed, artist and bookmakers organization located in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Geenpoint.” Sounds like fun, and very definitely worth checking out.
On Friday, January 29, again at the Grolier Club, the Bibliographical Society of America holds its annual meeting, with papers being presented by new scholars. Eric Holzenberg, director of the Grolier Club, will speak on “The Bibliophile as Bibliographer.” The event is open to the public.
Saturday, January 30: The annual meeting of the American Printing History Association, to be held at the New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street), 2 p.m. For those who have never visited the Center for the Book Arts (28 West 27th St., 3rd floor), a Winter Open House is on from 2 to 5 p.m. Demonstrations, tours, exhibits are on tap. All in all, a great week for bibliophiles, and a nice warm-up for those planning to attend the 43rd annual California International Book Fair in Los Angeles, Feb. 12-14.
Indeed, by far the most impressive and innovative production I’ve seen along these lines to date, from any source, is Catalogue 44: Illuminations, prepared by 42-line for John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller of San Francisco, whose top-end listings are well known to collectors everywhere, and are always a pleasure to peruse, if only vicariously. The beauty of this particular catalog is that it provides much more than a snap-shot view of so many exquisite things; if you can’t afford the $135,000 price tag on the Auvergne Fanfare Book of Hours, ca. 1500, for instance, you at least can see all 30 of the miniatures in the CD, along with a complete description.
For the 42-line 2010 calender, Windle, and the Children’s Book Gallery (operated by Windle’s wife, Chris Loker), have furnished the art for each month. A Humpty Dumpty hand-colored etching by Samuel Edward Maberly for January, a William Blake engraving for February, a Henry Fuseli engraving for March, a steel engraving of “Mr. Lavater in His Study,” 1775-1778, for April, and so on. All of them tastefully chosen, all quite nice. And just what I need to keep track of what we all hope is a great new year for book lovers everywhere.
Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640, by Mark Girouard; New Haven, Yale University Press, 516 pages, $65.
Mark Girouard is internationally admired for several accessible books on architecture, most famously the best-seller Live in the English Country House. This latest effort of his has all the makings of monumentally about it--a grand subject, handled by an acknowledged authority in the field, and published sumptuously in a beautiful edition. The many considerations take in social structure, craftsmanship, patronage, continental influence, and of course execution. This copiously illustrated production is published in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, by Sam Stephenson; Alfred A. Knopf, 268 pages, $40.
The New York jazz scene that burst forth in a constellation of brilliance in the 1950s and ’60s, with such names as Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, Johnny Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans, is at the heart of this rich selection of material culled from the archive of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who spent eight years documenting the rich culture, exposing 1,447 rolls of film comprising some 40,000 images, in the process. His base of operations was 821 Sixth Avenue, in the heart of the flower district. Sam Stephenson spent thirteen years going through the archive, now housed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame: A Celebration of the Greatest Toys of All Time, by Scott G. Eberle; Philadelphia, Running Press, 264 pages, $29.95.
What kind of great stuff is in the National Toy Hall of Fame--yes, Virginia, there is such a creature, happily installed in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York--is the subject of this evocative treat. G. I Joe, the Hula Hoop, the Radio Flyer, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons and Monopoly games, of course, but Erector sets, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and Jumbo Jacks as well, quite a feast here for the young at heart. A nice text puts it all in context; a very useful reference for toy collectors, needless to say.
The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen van Dyck; New York, W. W. Norton, 692 pages, $39.95.
A rich canon of Greek poetry, epic, drama, and lyric--even some few precious lines that survive only in fragments--are gathered in this fat anthology of 1,000 poems that spans the centuries, many of them newly translated, and appearing in English for the first time. Four eras are defined: Classical Antiquiry, Byzantium, Early Modern, and Twentieth Century. Some 186 artists in all, Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides at one extreme, Nikos Gatsos, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis at another. Quite a bounty.
China, principal photography by Ming Tan, edited by Guang Guo; New York, Abbeville Press, 244 pages, slipcased with a numbered print, $235.
Of all the books you might pick up showcasing the natural wonders and architectural landmarks of China, you will be hard pressed to top this truly panoramic effort, which really has pulled out all the stops in pursuit of elegance. Yes, the book is enormous--12 pounds, 18 inches by 12 inches, with a dozen gatefold spreads that open up to 44 inches, almost four feet in width, and is justified by the subject matter--the Himalayas, the Great Wall, the terracotta army of the First Qin Emperor among them. It is an amazing piece of bookmaking, not many of examples of which you are likely to see these days. The photography is crisp and beautifully reproduced, a generous gift for anyone whose passion is the history and culture of the Middle Kingdom.
The Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica of Rome, by Pavl Letarovilly; New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 320 pages, $125.
First published posthumously in three volumes in 1882, this remarkable suite of intricate architectural drawings of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica was executed by Paul-Marie Letarovilly (1795-1855), “an acute, opinionated architect and a superb draftsman who devoted most of his professional life to a single massive enterprise: drawing and publishing the architecture of Rome from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries,” Ingrid Rowland writes in the forward to this elegant new facsimile edition; it is published in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.
Which brings me to yesterday’s sale of fine printed books, manuscripts and Americana at Christie’s in New York, which totaled $6.4 million for 144 lots, or 82 percent of the 197 lots put on the block. Fully half of the money spent, $3.2 million, went for a 1787 letter written by George Washington to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, urging adoption of the new Constitution, pictured here, a world record for a Washington document of any sort. A ton of money, to be sure, but not a big surprise, given the uniqueness of the item, and its unquestioned value as both collectible and historical artifact. The same can be said for the $830,000 and $362,000 spent, respectively, for two lots of manuscript verses in the hand of Edgar Allan Poe’, also unique.
But then we come to the copy of Poe’s Tamerlane, for the past nineteen years the property of the distinguished Hollywood television producer William E. Self, which sold for $662,500, a record for a 19th-century book of poetry at auction. That was a cool half-million dollars more than Self paid for it in 1990 at the H. Bradley Martin sale in New York, an exciting contest I witnessed, and which persuaded me to set up an interview with Self for A Gentle Madness (pp. 420-426). “I don’t think you can say you ever have a great Poe collection,” he told me then, “unless you have a Tamerlane.” Another notable item in yesterday’s sale: $218,500 for an 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass--like the Tamerlane, self-published by the author, making the pair, probably, the two most valuable vanity books in American literary history.
And then there is the matter of Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, which the New York Times wrote about a few days before the sale, an old Olivetti manual that the author bought around 1960 for $50, and on which he banged out, by his own estimate, some 5 million words, including the texts of all his books. Christie’s estimated the machine, now inoperable, might bring in $15,000 to $20,000, with a pet McCarthy charity, the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, to receive all the proceeds.
So what happens in yesterday’s sale? A winning bid of $254,500 for what, in the collecting world, is known simply as a “material object,” an item that by itself has no scholarly value whatsoever, and is coveted strictly for its relationship to the source of creativity. This is-what Reynolds Price told me had motivated him to buy a particular copy of Paradise Lost, not because of its textual importance, but because it was the copy owned by the daughter who took John Milton’s dictation during his years of blindness. “For me, it was like the apostolic succession,” Price said. “I was touching the hand that touched the hand that touched the Hand.”
A final note: According to Christies, eight of the top ten purchases were made by private individuals, all but one of them Americans; a British dealer was listed as the buyer of a Charles Dickens lot, $158,500 for Nicholas Nickelby; an American dealer paid $182,500 for a copy of Poe’s The Raven and Other Poems.
Billed the Little Auction That Could in respectful tribute to Watty Piper’s classic children’s tale of infinite possibilities, The Little Engine That Could, the premise was centered around asking various celebrities to inscribe copies of books that had meaning in their lives. More than 80 people responded, and it was decided to offer the books for sale in two venues, online at eBay for 70 of the items in a contest that continues through Nov. 25, and last night in open competition at the historic Lyric Theater before an audience of 400 people for 14 others.
A total of $34,000 was raised last night, the most coveted item being Pop-up White House, a nicely engineered piece of movable art with illustrations by local artist Chuck Fischer--and signed by President Barack Obama; this neat little item, a unique curiosity if ever there was one, was hammered down at $6,500. Equally robust was the $4,500 paid for a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes signed by the renowned animal authority Jane Goodall--her specialty is chimpanzees, naturally--the $2,900 for a copy of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Struggling Upward signed by Maya Angelou, and the $2,600 bid for the copy of Harry Potter (Book 7), inscribed by the author, J. K. Rowling.
It was a great program, about as capably conceived, organized, and executed as anything comparable I have ever been associated with, and the credit for that certainly goes out to every member of the crackerjack staff of volunteers, but primarily to the guiding spirit, the co-chair of the event, Karla Preissman, who came up with the concept two years ago, and contacted every celebrity individually to participatee. A brilliant move on her part was to arrange for a tastefully mounted exhibition of the books at the Elliott Museum in Stuart, which my wife and I had a chance to visit yesterday before the evening’s festivities.
It was an unannounced visit there earlier in the week by a person who has chosen to remain anonymous that led to the preemptive bid of $850,000--that is not a typo, it is $850,000--for a copy of Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar co-signed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and his mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush.
The benefactor was said to be passionate about the goals of the Hibiscus Center, and found this a worthy way of supporting it. In one fell swoop--before the first bid went up last night--the Little Auction That Could became the Little Auction That Most Assuredly Did, all of it made possible by the enduring magic of books. An unqualified plus was the opportunity I had to speak on the program with Carl Hiaasen; the man is a fabulous speaker, and a real hoot.
If you were paying attention this past Friday, there was a ticker-tape parade through Lower Manhattan, and unlike so many other New Englanders who chose to tune out--I have been a Red Sox fan for more than half-a-century--I tuned in. Yes, I wanted to see the MVP, Hideki Matsui, riding in the lead float, I even wanted to see that amiable turncoat, Johnny Damon (I am actually very fond of the man), rejoicing in the triumph with his ebullient teammates. But what I wanted to see most of all was how New York City was going to handle the matter of the ticker tape at a time when there is no ticker tape.
The reason for that, you see, is quite simply that there are no more stock tickers, there haven’t been any for about thirty years or so, the only ones that survive are now museum pieces, and the only ticker tape available these days is a custom-order curiosity that sells online for $40 a spool. But there was a parade in Lower Manhattan through the Canyon of Heroes on Friday, all right--the 205th such celebration since the whole tradition got started on October, 29, 1886, that one to salute the newly dedicated Statue of Liberty--and there was plenty of paper filling the air. What it was, according to press accounts, was a half-ton of confetti packed in 400 bags and trucked in by a group known as the Downtown Alliance to be distributed among employees in the financial district who now get their stock quotations from computers.
When the confetti ran out, according to a piece in the New York Post, some dull-witted revelers began tossing rolls of toilet paper, which is fine enough, I suppose, as long as its unspooled and not likely to cause a concussion if it hits someone on the street, but not so bright were the financial records and other confidential office materials that went out the windows along with it. Among the fifty tons of debris collected by sanitation workers were pay stubs and trust fund balance sheets. Some of the documents came from the Liberty Street financial firm A.L. Sarroff, including client accounts, with Social Security numbers and detailed banking data. “They’re records that should have been shredded,” said firm founder Alan Sarroff. “An overzealous employee threw them out the window. He was reprimanded.”
So--a half-ton of confetti, and fifty tons of office paper, a ticker tape parade doth make. There’s still plenty of cellulose, in other words, to fill the void, and a good deal of it, apparently, remains necessary to the conducting of business. And the future of the parade itself? Like the traditional book that so many of us prefer, it’s in no immediate jeopardy of falling out of favor either. Why? Simple enough, in both instances, because people like it. All you need to mount a procession through in the city that never sleeps is a legitimate hero to honor. Good luck on that score; if you’re going to toss out the office records in jubilation, though, make sure you shred them first.
And while we’re at it:
Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew; Alfred A. Knopf, 1,032 pages, $40.
This is my kind of book--big, fat, packed with fascinating detail on an irresistible subject, in this instance the 100-year history of the British Security Service, better known as MI5, which opened its archives to the scrutiny of an independent historian. I won’t pretend I’ve read the whole thing yet--it just came in a couple days ago--but what I have dipped into so far, I have devoured. Christeopher Andrew, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, is the author of 14 previous books, including two volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive. “The Service,” he writes in the preface here, “like the rest of the intelligence community, was to stay as far from public view as possible.” This little bit of sunshine should open a lot of eyes.
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, by Gordon S. Wood; New York, Oxford University Press, 778 pages, $35.
Gordon S. Wood, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, here offers a painstaking account of the United States of America during its first quarter-century, a continuum that takes in the formation of the Republic and the beginning of nationhood under the Constitution, and follows through to the War of 1812. It is a period, as David M. Kennedy, general editor of the Oxford History of the United States--of which this is the latest installment (three earlier titles in the series have also won Putlizers)--was an “astonishingly volatile, protean movement that lay between the achievement of national independence and the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy and modern economy in the Jacksonian era.” Wood’s approach takes in politics, law, the economy and popular culture, and anticipates the great battle that will divide the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. One ominous note at book’s end is the realization that despite Northern opposition, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Wood’s effort--30 years in the making--has all the earmarks of being a standard work.
The American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 396 pages,$35.
In more than twenty books over the past half-century, the British scholar John Keegan has established himself as the outstanding military historian of his generation, with several of his works, most notably The Face of Battle, The Second World War, The Mask of Command, The Price of Admiralty and A History of Warfare, acclaimed as classics in their own time. In his last book, Keegan offered a cogent analysis of the Iraq War; now, he applies his outstanding grasp on the nature of human conflict to offer a fresh evaluation of the American Civil War. He opens thusly: “I began an earlier book with the sentence ‘The First World War was a cruel and unnecessary war.’ The American Civil War, with which it stands comparison, was also certainly cruel, both in the suffering it inflicted on the participants and the anguish it caused to the bereaved at home. But it was not unnecessary.” Among the numerous areas he explores are psychology, ideology, and demographics, but most tellingly, the role of geography in the unfolding course of the war. One of the more astonishing findings: “about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war. Americans fought as frequently as they did in the Civil War because they could find no other way to prosecute the conflict. Economic warfare, excepting blockage, was not an option.”
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein; New York, W. W. Norton, 598 pages, $29.95.
A great deal has been written about the long national nightmare of the Great Depression, with numerous interpretations offered as to its causes, concerns made especially relevant by the recent downturn in the economy that has had many people recalling the bad old days. But none, to my knowledge, have taken on the subject in a true cultural sense--the films, the novels, the architecture, the music, the photography, the penetrating images that continue to resonate of those dark days. Morris Dickstein, professor of English and theater at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and author previously of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple has fashioned a remarkable narrative of the times that is a model of interdisciplinary technique, and a true joy to read. The Empire State Building, Citizen Kane, the Yellow Brick Road, Scarlett O’Hara, the Rockettes, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Wright, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas--it all fits in, and is all handled seamlessly. Dip into this, and you will quickly appreciate why Norman Mailer called Dickstein “one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature.”
The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; New York, Grove Press, 676 pages, $30.
The official publication date for this big book is Nov. 9, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall began to come down, the first vital sign that the twentieth century’s thunderous experience with Communism was entering its final stages. David Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, offers a sweeping overview of the phenomenon, tracing its roots to the French Revolution, and carrying it forward into its continuing applications today in China, Cuba, and Korea. All the big names are here--Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara--and many others who are lesser known, but just as compelling. Drawing generously on the wealth of archival materials that have become available in recent years, he is able to offer fresh insights that do not rely entirely on the published works of others. Just as important, he writes in a lively, accessible style that never loses sight of the continuing drama. A massive, admirable effort.
The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, translated by John Marincola, edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York, Pantheon, 579 pages, $40.
This new translation of the ancient historian Xenophon’s Hellenika joins earlier editions in the Landmark series of Greek histories by Thucydides and Herodotus, and includes a fabulous selection of maps, annotations, photographs, illustrations and sixteen appendices written by notable classical scholars. This work covers the years between 411 and 362 B.C., a time when relations between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Persia were extremely volatile. A student of Socrates, Xenophon was an Athenian who first served in the expedition against the Persian King Artaxerxes II, and later joined the Spartan army.
Tim’s day job is research scientist and adjunct professor at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa, but his skills are manifold. He is a teacher, to be sure, but he is also a scholar, a historian, and a true craftsman, and his eagerness to share his knowledge is an inspiration. His 1983 book, Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, and Techniques, draws on research conducted in the field in the 1970s, and remains a classic in its field. I have had the great good pleasure to interview Tim several times for my work-in-progress, a cultural history of paper to be published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf; he was the person, in fact, who sparked my interest in the topic in the first place during a speaking visit I made in 2002 to Iowa City. After spending a couple of days in his company, and hearing so much of what he had to say about this endlessly fascinating subject, I finally said, out loud, “you know, there just may be a book in all of this for me.”
Two years ago, I took a course in the history of paper taught jointly at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville by Tim and John Bidwell, curator and head of the Department of Printed Books and Bindings at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. (You can be sure there will be profiles of both in my book.) Last year, Tim put me in touch with Paul Denhoed, a colleague of his living and working in Japan, who coordinated a trip I made there to meet with a variety of interesting people, including Richard Flavin, an American expatriate, papermaker, and artist who has lived in Japan for more than thirty years, and Ichibei Iwano, a ninth-generation papermaker based in Echizen northwest of Tokyo, and recognized by his country as a Living National Treasure. I mention the latter in particular because Tim, in his way, enjoys a similar stature here in the United States.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder; Random House, New York, 277 pages, $26.
Tracy Kidder has to be ranked among the best writers of literary nonfiction out there, one of the few authors who you can pretty much say, time after time, is not going to disappoint you with his latest effort. No surprise, then, to report that this, his eighth book, may well be his best--which is saying quite a bit, when you consider that his earlier efforts have included The Soul of New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Home Town, and Old Friends, and that his honors include the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Robert F. Kennedy Award. The story can be summarized briefly--a young man comes to New York from Burundi in 1994 with $200 in his pocket, a survivor of the horrific civil wars that have decimated his country, no English-speaking skills at all, but filled with hope and grit. Two years later, he enrolls in Columbia University without so much as a green card to his name, his story not only one of survival and hope, but one of tenacity, decency and good will that will lead him on to medical school and a life filled with purpose. It’s a great tale, of course, and Kidder is one terrific reporter.
The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, by Larissa Juliet Taylor; New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 251 pages, $30.
As historical figures go, I can think of no other individual who has achieved the kind of iconic stature accorded in death to Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the peasant girl from Domremy variously cast as saint, sorcerer, soldier, lunatic, witch, gifted leader, and martyr in the seven centuries that have elapsed since her execution by the English, and her subsequent passage into sainthood. Larissa Juliet Taylor, a history professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has written a splendid biography of the young woman that takes a fresh look at the original sources--which survive in abundance--and presents a full, rich examination of the person and the many myths that grew around her. Just as interesting is the informed look Taylor offers into medieval life.
The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; New York, Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $25.
I was planning on taking this one along with me on a flight I’m making tomorrow out to Columbus, Ohio--I’m speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Preservation Council on Thursday, and will file a report here in due course--but wound up getting absorbed in it beforehand, and read it straight through. So it goes. What impresses me most about Nicholson Baker, I think, is the easy facility he has for going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, sort of the way David Halberstam used to do one big work of cultural history, then treat himself to a change of pace with a book about sports. I don’t know which form is more relaxing for Baker, though I would suspect it is the novel. His latest here is a fun book, especially for those among us who are fascinated by the creative process. Baker’s narrator is a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who is trying like the dickens to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry--rhyming poetry, no less--and finds himself blocked. The ruminations are witty, as always, a delight to read, and the celebration it offers of poetry most welcome. The voice is spot on here, vintage Baker.
Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems, a new selection edited by John N. Serio. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 326 pages, $30.
With this volume we go from a novel that considers the creation of poetry to an actual poet who not only excelled at the craft, but tried his level best to explain it to others. “No other poet I know of has written so elegantly and so persuasively about the beauty and significance of poetry in everyday life,” writes John N. Serio, a noted scholar of the great American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). “The imagination--frequently synonymous with the act of the mind, or poetry, for Stevens--is what gives life its savor, its sanction, its sacred quality.” This generous selection of the Reading, Pennsylvania, native’s work--published to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth--will delight those familiar with his work, and encourage newcomers to thirst for more. Kudos to the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for its commitment to publishing great poetry in beautiful, superbly edited editions.
Lock, stock, and barrel, and without so much as engaging the opinions of the faculty and staff, some 20,000 books--a pretty skimpy collection to begin with, I must say, for a place of learning that has been around since 1865, which leads me to believe they’re been thinning out materials for quite some time as it is--is being tossed. Not to the landfill, mind you, that would be too overtly contemptuous, but out the door all the same, the shelves to be replaced with--get this--a “learning center” equipped with three flat-screen televisions and a cluster of “lap-top friendly study carrels.” The really big news is the $50,000 coffee shop that is going in, complete with a $12,000 cappuccino machine. Talk about providing nourishment for the mind.
“When I look at books, I seen an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” headmaster James Tracy told the Globe. “This isn’t Fahrenheit 451. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.”
You have to ask, of course, who the “we” is here. The school’s librarian, Liz Vezina, was understandably cautions in her comments, but the thrust of what she had to say is clear enough.”It makes me sad. I’m going to miss them. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them--the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.” Alexander Coyle, chairman of the history department, spoke for a number of his colleagues with these words: “A lot of us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can’t move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.”
I’m just taking a wild guess here, but I would lay very good odds that Ms. Vezina and Mr. Coyle are voices that were summarily dismissed by Tracy and his administrative colleagues.when they agreed to dissolve the library. But hey, not to fret: Tracy said the school is springing $10,000 on some Amazon Kindles to have available, should any of the youngsters have a yen to read a Shakespeare play, let’s say, or a Toni Morrison novel.
For what’ it’s worth, foolishness like this has been attempted before, and it’s failed miserably. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts decided to go bookless too. Lucky for them they joined what became the Five College Consortium, which allowed the Hampshire undergraduates to borrow what they needed from Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, something they did--and continue to do--in large numbers. I wrote about this in A Splendor of Letters; by that time, there was a real library--with real books--functioning on campus.
But that, at least, was on the college level. I have to assume that youngsters applying for admission to Hampshire back then had to demonstrate a facility with books. You wonder what some admissions officer at Harvard, UCLA, Emory, or the University of Michigan--just about any accredited college or university out there, really--is going to think about an applicant from a secondary school that does not require its students to read books at all. But I’m sure the administrators at Cushing have given that a lot of thought, too. Make me another cappuccino, please--and stay tuned.
I know a little bit about this phenomenon, having recently written a centennial history of Yale University Press (A World of Letters was published just a year ago next month), and taken the opportunity that project gave me to look into the overall practice of academic publishing itself. What in the world of trade publishing we would call bestsellers, though infrequent, are by no means unknown among university press books.
A few examples are instructive: John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces with Louisiana State University Press (1980); T. H. Whyte’s Book of Merlyn with the University of Texas Press (1977); The I Ching or Book of Changes with Princeton University Press (1967); Carlos Castenada’s Teachings of Don Juan with the University of Califorina Press (1968); Eudroa Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings with Harvard University Press (1984); Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), both with Yale, and both with total sales over the past half-century of 1.5 million each, and perhaps the most unlikely of all, Tom Clancy’s thriller, The Hunt for Red October, with the Naval Institute Press (1984). Like Clancy’s book, which became a major motion picture, a few other university press books have made their way to the silver screen, most notably Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella with the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs Through It (1976), and Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans with the University of Alabama Press (1974), which was adapted into Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby, starring Brook Shields.
I offer all of this discursive background as prelude to my take on a news story that has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks involving Yale University Press--which, as I stated above, I have recently written about, so regard this, please, as a disclosure of sorts--involving a book scheduled for publication this fall, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, and the decision by the press to remove all the illustrations that were to be included, most pointedly those dealing with the Prophet Mohammed. This move was made necessary by Klausen’s examination of the international incident that followed publication of a dozen cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, which featured some derisive caricatures of Mohammed. The excision was made, according to Yale Press director John Donatich, after consultation with numerous national security experts, who felt that republication of the images could lead to a new wave of violence.
Press coverage for a new book is always welcome, of course, but certainly not the kind of attention that has attended this decision. The response has been mixed, though a good deal of it has accused Yale of caving in to outside pressure and throttling academic expression. The headline for a piece Christopher Hitchens wrote for Slate, “Yale Surrenders,” pretty much summarizes his position. Hitchens’ piece is available at the above link, so I don’t need to summarize it here, beyond pointing out that he did, in the piece, what any curious individual can also do, which is to find all the offending caricatures online. He even gives a link for those interested in seeing the illustrations, though I note that Slate does not reproduce any of them either. (I wonder why that might be?)
Donatich is adamant that none of Klausen’s text has been removed or edited, so her findings as a social scientist have not in any way been toned down or altered. What she has written, in other words, and what was vetted, argued and defended through peer review for publication, is being published as is. While it does seem a bit odd that a book about illustrations should now contain no illustrations, I nevertheless have to say I sympathize, most reluctantly, with Donatich in his decision. It is an extraordinarily special circumstance, not one that is likely to be repeated any time soon. These are crazy times, and since you are removing something that is not new to your pages in the first instance--these would be reprints of earlier published images, after all, and are readily available to anyone who wishes to find them online--and if this material has the potential to incite a truly nasty situation, then you have a responsibility to pause and do, I think, what you have to do.
Going back to the lead of this entry, which deals with university press books and bestsellers, it is worth noting that Yale has moved the publication date of The Cartoons that Shook the World up from November to September. Donatich told The Chronicle of Higher Education (a link, unfortunately, is not available to non-subscribers), that the Press is “supporting the book completely and boldly” and “crashing the production schedule to take advantage of the media.“ I, for one, will be most interested now in reading the book, as I am sure many thousands of others who otherwise would have known nothing about it will as well.
As a relevant sidelight, especially one in a gently mad blog, it is worth noting that signed copies of Kurt Westergaard’s drawings of Mohanned, according to the Copenhagen Post, are now collector’s items, with 870 copies of a 1,000-copy limited edition already sold as of two weeks ago--at $250 a pop.
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95.
This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity, and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves. Janet Soskice, a professor in philosophical theology at Cambridge University, tells the story of Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twin sisters from Scotland, and their discovery in 1892 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt of what was then the earliest known copy of the Gospels--it was a palimpsest that had escaped earlier detection--and how against all accepted convention for two women in Victorian times without university degrees, translated the document from Syriac into English, and secured for themselves a place in the history of biblical scholarship. The story of their spirited adventure on camelback to Mount Sinai where the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery is located makes for an exciting adventure, which Soskice accomplishes with style and aplomb. I am reminded, in this effort, of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, in which a theretofore ignored interlude in literary history (in that instance an institutionalized killer’s manifold contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary), became a breakthrough bestseller. All in all, this is a welcome addition to the books-about-books bookshelf.
The F Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower, foreword by Lewis Black; New York, Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95.
This release is a real challenge to write about in a public forum, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I rather like it, number one, and because the word in question--no ambiguity at all, by the way, about which word we are talking about--is an integral part of our language, and one of the very few I know of that works variously as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. (Feel free, please, to use your imagination.) That a compilation like this should come from such a distinguished publishing house as Oxford University Press gives me all the cover I need; that it should now be in its third revised edition, moreover, makes it all the more irresistible. So what, you might ask, is there to learn from this compendium? The word’s etymology, for starters--no, it’s not an acronym, it’s far to old a coinage for that, with roots going back to the fifteenth century, Germany being the likely origin, though the precise progenitor is vague at best. That master wordsmith of all time, William Shakespeare, never used it--the word was decidedly vulgar, even then--though there are numerous allusions and puns in the canon that leave no doubt about what the old rascal had in mind. All in all, this is a scholarly work, though unquestionably with a light tough, and includes dozens of definitions presented in traditional OED style, with illustrative quotations drawn from myriad published sources. Jesse Sheildlower’s introductory essay is a superb overview of this truly phenomenal word.
Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman. New York, W. W. Norton, 423 pages, $29.95.
This has been the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin’s birth, an occasion that has brought forth numerous books, a few of which I have noticed in earlier postings. This one, a later release, should not be lost in the deluge. Iain McCalman, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, has written an energetic, lively account of evolution that casts a wider net, as it were, and takes in the contributions of Darwin’s principal champions, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the the biologist, Thomas Huxley, and the zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose support in the early going was crucial to the reception of his monumental work. McCalman begins with a most engaging account of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and describes in highly accessible prose the intellectual process that led to formulation of his theory. Some excellent illustrations are included.
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, edited by Maureen Carroll. New York, The Library of America, 960 pages, $40.
Every time I think I have exhausted my inventory of superlatives when it comes to the Library of America and what this essential publishing initiative means to our shared culture, a new release comes along that forces me to dig deeper and come up with another. I admit, I am bragging a bit here--but I have every book issued in this series going back to when it started in 1982, close to a150 of them, all kept together in their own book case. It’s both a collection for me, and an indispensable resource that I turn to on a regular basis. This latest effort gathers all of Raymond Carver’s published stories--“Will You Please Be Quiet, Please”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “Cathedral” among them--along with many of his early sketches, and pieces that were discovered after his death in 1985. A thorough chronology of Carver’s life and accomplishments--more like a mini-biography--is included in one of several appendices. Like all the others from LOA, this one’s a keeper.
For a panel discussing conditions in the antiquarian book trade, speakers include the notable booksellers William Reese of New Haven, Conn., Tom Congalton of Between the Covers Rare Books in Gloucester City, NJ, and Priscilla Juvelis of Kennebunkport, ME, with David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s in New York, moderating. A session probing the effect the economy has had on acquisitions policies among institutions will be moderated by Mark Dimunation, head of special collecetions at the Library of Congress; featured panelists are Breon Mitchell of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Kathleen Reagan of Cornell University, and Nadina Gardner, director of the Division of Preservation and Access for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
How all of this has influenced collectors will be discussed by such stalwarts as Mark Samuels Lasner, David Alan Richards, William T. Buice, III, with William H. Helfand, of the Grolier Club, moderating. A keynote address will be delivered in the morning by Cleveland bibliophile Robert Jackson; closing remarks will be made by Terry Belanger, recently retired as director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1982. The good news is that the fee to attend the conference is $30; the sad news is that it is already sold out.
Note on the image above, which graces the Grolier Club announcement: a book peddler, Le colporteur, anonymous, from the French School.
Some 4,400 people have already responded to his Facebook appeal and submitted proposals for such concoctions as Gooey Decimal System, Rocky Read, and Sh-Sh-Sherbert. One clever blogger has gone so far as to request a “scoop of Vladimir Nabokoffee and a Herman Melvanilla to go.” My older daughter Barbara--a life-long ice cream fanatic and unrepentant stack-rat--offers Readin’ Raisin. Younger daughter Nicole, a Washington librarian with a particular penchant for records management (not to mention a vibrant imagination), proposes Almond Archive Surprise, Paper Praline, Cookie D-OPAC, Brownie Bookmobile--and, drum roll--Cherry Overduebalee
Given that this is a gently mad blog--and, good New Englander that I am, coffee ice cream is my all- time favorite flavor--I’m thinking along the lines of Mocha Madness. Needs a little work, I know, but there you have it. Come up with something good of your own and submit it to Ben & Jerry’s. Many thanks, meanwhile, to super librarian Merrill Distad at the University of Alberta, for alerting me to this diverting news story.
There are imaginary bats and cats, of course (including one real feline in residence, aptly named Ombledroom, pictured here), some bugs and slugs--the full Gorey oeuvre is in evidence, and altogether makes for a delightful way to spend an hour, either solo or with kids, it doesn’t matter, since everyone is welcome, and like the man’s great body of work itself, there is something for everyone. A nice touch is the scavenger hunt each visitor is invited to participate in; there are twenty-six objects from “The Ghastlycrumb Tinies” hidden in plain view in each room on the tour, there to be discovered by one and all. During my most recent trip there last week, I learned that Gorey’s enormous library of books--they had been kept in an adjoining barn--had recently been shipped off to the West Coast, where they will take up residence at San Diego State University, quite a nice turn of events, since the library there is already home to the archives of the writer Peter Newmeyer, who collaborated with Gorey on a number of wonderful books.
Rick Jones, a Gorey friend who is now director and curator of the Edward Gorey House, told me that an interesting detail regarding the books is that their former owner wrote in every one when he read it, how long it took, and whether he read it again. With regard to the curiosities, Jones had this wonderful observation: “One cheese grater is a cheese grater; for Edward, a group of them became a work of art.”
What in the world does that mean, you might reasonably ask: restored to what? Restored to what Hemingway intended when he agreed toward the end of his life to publish a truncated version of the notebooks he had kept while living abroad three decades earlier, and which had been rediscovered in 1956 by him, quite miraculously, in the bottom of a steamer trunk that he had left in storage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and forgotten all about? Or “restored” to modify what has stood since 1964--the year the work was first published by Charles Scribner’s (now just Scribner)--with ten additional essays that Hemingway also wrote, and which reflect more kindly on Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife--and the grandmother of Sean Hemingway, who has edited this new edition for publication?
There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing going on, all of it quite fascinating, all of it quite amusing, if you want to know the truth. On the one hand you have Sean Hemingway, a 42-year-old curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and editor of two earlier collections of Papa’s writings on war and hunting, declaring in the introduction his belief that his re-cobbled version “provides a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish” than the one offered up forty-five years ago by the writer’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway. And on the other you have the argument for retaining the original text, as articulated by A. E. Hotchner, 89, a close friend of Hemingway over the final fourteen years of his life, and the author of Papa Hemingway, an affectionate biography published in 1966. Writing in an OpEd piece published this week in the New York Times, Hotchner pointedly recalls discussing the manuscript with Hemingway, and delivering it personally to Charles Scribner Jr. in New York. “The manuscript,” he asserts, “was not left in shards but was ready for publication.”
With Hemingway’s suicide in 1961--we all know the grim details of that depressing story--the book was prepared for publication by others--Mary was his executor--and the portrait painted of Pauline was not pretty at all. Their tempestuous affair had ended Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, a deeply unpleasant turn of events that the writer eloquently bemoaned in what became the final chapter of the published book. The compelling title, A Moveable Feast, was derived by Mary Hemingway from a beautiful sentence her husband had written which seemed to capture the spirit of the writings perfectly: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Given that essential circumstance--the understanding that yes, the 1964 work surely represents Hemingway’s writing, but that it was presented to the world as an unfinished work not only groomed and signed off on by others, but titled by them as well--my take on the matter is this: A Moveable Feast--which is a splendidly evocative memoir of a young writer’s emerging life in 1920s Paris--should stay in print, just the way it was issued, and that the material newly published in the “restored edition” appear under another title of the new editor’s choosing. Why not? We all know that neither distillation is likely to reflect the true “authorial intention” precisely, since the author did not live to see through the press what was ultimately selected from his writings. And the reality of the matter is, there is some great material in the new edition--ten previously unpublished sketches--and it very definitely should appear between hard covers.
Lost in all this, of course, is the role of the publisher, Scribner. Ernest Hemingway has been a cash cow for the imprint for many decades, and what this squabble does more than anything else is to insure more sales; this reality is underscored by the announcement that both versions will remain available to a credulous public for purchase.To this point, in particular, I defer to Hotchner, who has this to say about the matter:
“As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this ‘restored edition.’ With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in ‘A Moveable Feast’ about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Maddox Ford’s grandson wants to delete referneces to his ancestor’s body odor...All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work...I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.”
This time around, the find was not a particularly old book--even though the stock-in-trade at Parnassus is overwhelmingly second-hand books, with a respectable inventory of antiquarian items and a tastefully-chosen selection of new-releases mixed in--but a work I confess I totally missed when it was released two years ago, and am thrilled--dare I say relieved?--to have come across now. How I missed The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist (New York, De Capo Press, 2007), by Reviel Netz and William Noll, I can not fathom. But there it was, on a shelf, at a very good price, and all I can say is better late than never.
Perhaps a little back-story is in order here. One of the key contemporary collectors I had the privilege to profile in A Gentle Madness was Dr. Haskell F. Norman, a San Francisco psychoanalyst who had put together what was renowned to be the outstanding collection of medical and science books assembled by anyone in the twentieth century. A year before his death in 1996, the Grolier Club in New York published One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine, edited by Hope Mayo and based on a 1994 exhibition conceived and organized by Dr. Norman. In his interview with me, Dr. Norman had explained quite precisely why he had chosen to put his books on the market, so when Christie’s announced that it would mount a three-part sale in 1998, I was not surprised at all, and decided in fact to attend each session. When all was said and done the books brought in a whopping $18 million, breaking all sorts of sales records in the process.
Though a landmark auction in and of itself--and a great tribute to one of the most decent people I ever had the privilege of meeting (remind me some day to explain what I have come to regard as the “Haskell Norman Moment” in the writing of all of my books)--the final day of the sale, Oct. 29, 1998, was marked by yet another extraordinary book event. Halfway through the bidding for the 501 lots, a time-out, in essence, was called, so that another mini-auction could proceed in and of itself. What was about to go on the block--and a battery of television cameras was set up in the back of the Park Avenue gallery to record it all--was a dingy, dreary-looking little volume that had come to be known as the Archimedes Codex.
On the surface, the book is a medieval manuscript prepared in the thirteenth century for liturgical use in the form of a palimpsest, which once-upon-a-time was a standard method for recycling leaves of parchment by scraping away unwanted writings, and inking them over with a new text. What made this palimpsest especially noteworthy was that it contained the earliest known writings of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. In a fast-moving exchange of bids, an anonymous American buyer outbid a representative of the Greek government, which had hoped to bring the document back to its native land, paying $2.2 million, the most money ever spent, Nicolas Barker would later quip, “for a text that can not be read with the naked eye.”
The Archimedes Codex begins, dramatically enough, with the Christie’s sale, and continues on with what becomes a thrilling account of traditional scholarship and modern technology, written by William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, who headed up a research team of scholars and conservators known as the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, and Reviel Netz, a professor classics and philosophy at Stanford.Their efforts--fully supported and underwritten by the new owner, coyly referred to as Mr. B--resulted in the discovery of several previously undiscovered Archimedes writings, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. The manuscript also contained some lost speeches by Hyperides, a noted orator of ancient times.
Addressing complaints from some quarters that such an important manuscript had not found a permanent home in an institution, Noel offers this: “When the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold, some scholars were outraged that the book had returned to a private collection. But if Archimedes had meant enough to the public, then public institutions would have bought it. Archimedes did not. Public institutions were offered the book at a lower price than it actually fetched at auction, and they turned it down. If you think that is a shame, then it is a shame that we all share. We live in a world where value translates into cash. If you care about what happens to world heritage, get political about it, and be prepared to pay for it.”
Once again, a collector came to the rescue. This is a great read, and since January, available in a new paperback edition.
So let the record show that yes, I most assuredy do like to be entertained--and in this respect I heartily recommend the new novels of Micahael Connelly (“The Scarecrow”) and George Pelecanos (“The Way Home”), which I devoured some weeks ago when they arrived from the publishers--and that I also have with me “Rain Gods,” the new James Lee Burke novel set aside as a treat for work well done. I also have a book in hand that I am reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, the title of which I will keep to myself until the piece is filed and published. (I can say, in any case, that it is work-related--it is a book about books--and that I am enjoying it enormously.)
As for summer reading? Let’s just say that I like a balance, fiction and nonfiction, light and heavy. But then again, I always like such a balance, regardless of what time of year it may be. And while each of the books that follow happens to be published by a university press, do not for a second assume by the titles or the subject matter that they are in any way inaccessible or overly arcane. Each one is impressively researched, thoughtfully conceived, and very well written. That there’s a good measure of intellectual nourishment in each is a bonus, warm lazy weather notwithstanding.
Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, by Jonathan Zimmerman; New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 233 pages, $26.
This latest installment in Yale’s Icons of America Series (earlier releases have included penetrating considerations of such diverse subjects as Fred Astaire, Andy Warhol, the hamburger, and Wall Street), considers the role of the one-room schoolhouse in the shaping of American culture and where it stands in our collective memory. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, has culled a rich range of sources, oral histories, poetry, music, and movies among them, to trace the evolution of this mainstay in the American past. How important was the little red schoolhouse? “For the first two hundred years of European settlement in America,” he writes, “the majority of people who attended school went to a one-room schoolhouse.” And how has it been preserved in the American psyche? “Whatever their political bent,” he writes, “artists and writers imagined the little red schoolhouse as a sacred entity; whether by communism or racism or simple stinginess, the one-room schoolhouse was pure and unspoiled.”
Civilizations of Ancient Iraq, by Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 297 pages, $26.95.
The land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers we know today as Iraq has been witness to more than seven thousand years of civilization that have been recorded in some fashion or another over that remarkable span, an extraordinary continuum of human history that is unmatched by any region of the world. Known as Iraq only since the time of the Muslim conquest of 637 AD, the area collectively referred to by scholars of ancient history as Mesopotamia--the land between the rivers--has been home variously to Sumerians, Babylonians, Amorites, Akkadians, Assyrians, Hitties, Kattities, and Sassanians, ruled by legendary leaders such as Hammurabi and Ashurbanipal. “This land saw the first towns and cities, the first states and empires,” Benjamin and Karen Foster, married professors at Yale, write in this superb one-volume overview. “Here writing was invented, and with it the world’s oldest poetry and the beginnings of mathematics, astronomy and the law. Here too are found pioneering achievements in pyrotechnology, as well as important innovations in art and architecture.”
Grimoires: A Hisory of Magic Books, by Owen Davies. New York, Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $29.95.
Here is a book about books that is filled with fascinating, scrupulously gathered information. Grimoires, we learn--and the word is new to me--are books of conjurations and charms. “They are repositories of knowledge that arm people against evil spirits and witches, heal their illnesses, fulfill their sexual desires, divine and alter their destiny, and much else besides,” writes Owen Davies, a British academic and author previously of “The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, Murder, Magic, Madness,” among other highly respected explorations of spirits and the conjuring arts. Here, he takes us from ancient Egypt through Kabbalah, medieval sorcery, the post-war Germanic occult phenomenon, up to and including charm books made and distributed in the United States. Among banned books, grimoires rank right up there with the most feared writings through history. Davies includes numerous illustrations; a really fine effort that will be of considerable interest to bibliophiles and collectors alike.
Punched -Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion 1880-1945, by Lars Heide; Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 369 pages, $65.
I have to say that I really was excited about this book when I saw it announced in the Johns Hopkins spring catalog, and my keen anticipation has been rewarded. You think I’m nuts, right, all this excitement over a book about punched cards? Well, I’m serious. First of all, I love stuff like his, and second of all, I am writing a cultural history of paper and papermaking, and here, between the hard covers of one book, is a meticulously researched monograph about the very first application of computer science on a widespread, systemic level, and all of it relied on paper. Early punched cards helped to compile the U.S. census in 1890. When Franklin Roosevelt introduced Social Security in 1935, twenty-one million Americans were eligible for old-age pensions that were calculated and processed on massive punched-card registers. Vichy France used similar technologies in its attempt to mobilize against the Nazi threat, while the Germans developed their own procedures to assist in their war effort. Lars Heide’s book will appeal to people in many disciplines, and provide food for thought for those out there who truly believe that we are headed for a “paperless society.” My personal response to that is to quote the words of Jesse Shera, a noted historian of library history who several decades ago quipped that “the paperless society is about as plausible as the paperless bathroom.”
Never one to leave much room for chance, Belanger--who is easily one of the most thoroughly organized people I have ever met, inside the book world or out--is retiring this summer, taking his leave now, as he has publicly said, in order to assure a smooth and seamless transition of the program into the future under fresh leadership.
A former Marshall scholar and a published poet to boot, Suarez, 49, currently holds a joint appointment as a professor of English at Fordham University and as Fellow and Tutor in English at Campion Hall, Oxford University. He has written extensively on book history (check his credits out here), and is a perfect choice to lead RBS into its second quarter-century. Bravo to the search committee for sifting through what had to be a daunting short list of worthy prospects for this important position, and for coming up with such an inspired choice. Suarez will assume his new duties in September, and, like Belanger, will hold the position of University Professor, a senior rank that allows its holders wide latitude to both teach and conduct research.
Though he is retiring from active leadership of Rare Book School, Belanger, a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, remains one of the legitimate giants of the book world, and is certain to remain active in many productive ways. While his physical presence will surely be missed in Charlottesville, he is turning over a brilliantly conceived operation that has top people in place, and a mandate of purpose clearly defined for his successor.
Rare Book School is an experience I hope every serious book person is able to experience at least once in a lifetime; I took my first course three two years ago--a History of Paper section taught jointly by Tim Barrett and John Bidwell--and look forward to going back at some point in the near future when time allows. I wrote a column about the experience for the September/October 2007 issue of Fine Books & Collections, and was pleased to quote one of my classmates, Mike Knies--a regular RBS pilgrim (he had participated in fourteen programs to that point), who likened his annual forays there to attending a “summer camp for book geeks.”
Belanger once told me in jest that “we don’t read books down here, they do that upstairs in the library.” He was kidding of course, what he was saying is that what students do at Rare Book School is “look at the containers,” and by that me meant every conceivable aspect of the book. Those interested in learning more, should definitely check out the variety of courses taught, and the caliber of the people who teach them. All in all, an indispensable institution.
A perfect example of this phenomenon emerged in an email I got last week from John D. Cofield, a person I’ve never met, but one who I have admired for some time for the insightful reviews he writes on Amazon.com of books that interest him. By way of back story, I had emailed Cofield some months ago to thank him for what I thought had been a very perceptive review he wrote of “Every Book Its Reader.” We exchanged a few pleasantries on our mutual passion for books, and that was that.
“Back in 1981 I bought a book at a library sale in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called ‘My Life Here And There.’ Published [by Scribner’s] in 1921, it was the memoirs of a granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant who married a Russian prince [her married name was Princess Julia Cantacuzene] and lived in St. Petersburg until after the Revolution. It wasn’t all that great of a book, but I liked it because she was the granddaughter of a President. Anyway, I was sorting through some old books of mine last week and looked at ‘My Life Here And There’ more closely. It had always had a ladies’ visiting card slitted into the front page with a handwritten message on it saying something about ‘I’m so sorry for your loss and I hope when you can read again this will give you some distraction.’
“Obviously the book had been given by a lady to another lady who had just suffered a bereavement. Now I looked more closely at the card and saw it was engraved ‘Mrs. Benet.’ The little message written on it was signed ‘Frances Rose Benet’ I wondered if there could be a connection to Stephen Vincent Benet so I typed her name into Google and lo and behold, Frances Rose Benet was Stephen Vincent’s mother!
A terrific book story, and like all terrific book stories, this one has kept a few secrets to itself. Cofield, by the way, teaches social studies in a Georgia High School, and is obviously a great believer in the power that books have to stir the world. Many thanks to him for passing this along.
The motivation this time around has been an attempt to prepare a descriptive bibliography of the inscribed books I have acquired over the past thirty years, some 600 or so volumes that were signed for me in the “line of duty,” as it were, by authors I interviewed for the literary column I wrote week after week from 1978 to 2000. I’ve written a bit about this exercise in my book, “Among the Gently Mad,” and talked about it at some length in the television special CPSAN ran a couple of months ago on BookTV that featured a tour of my home library. I have to say that flipping through a couple of those titles on camera brought back a lot of pleasant memories--nice personal inscriptions from David McCullough, Tom Wolfe, Buzz Aldrin, Chuck Yeager, Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco and the like--and it occurred to me that it was high time I did something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time, and that is to compile a comprehensive list of just what exactly it is I have on my shelves.
How all of this morphed its way into a weeding frenzy was basically a circumstance of one thing leading to another. All of the inscribed books, you see, have not been kept in one place, but in thematic categories instead. Oh, I certainly had the dazzlers up there on the shelves over the fireplace--Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, Isaac Asimov, Barry Moser, Paul Theroux, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Mario Puzo, Kurt Vonnegut--but there were many, many more everywhere else, and so began the task of going through every volume in the house, pulling out books that I had kept in every imaginable nook and cranny, pretty much by subject. A fine work on the development of naval warfare by John Keegan, for instance, was kept in a section set aside for military history, photographic retrospectives by Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, and Eve Arnold with photography, Julia Child with food, Maurice Sendak, David Macaulay, Michael Hague, and Chris Van Allsburg with children’s books, fine biographies of George Bernard Shaw by Michael Holroyd and Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee in an extensive section I maintain on literary biography, William Kennedy and E. L. Doctorow among novelists--you get the idea.
Once I got immersed in this--and I spent a full week at the task--I seized the opportunity to do some grooming. All told, I found about a hundred books that will now make their way up to Clark University for an annual sale put on to benefit the Friends of the Goddard Library, an event I have enjoyed supporting for the better part of twenty-five years. I will miss some of them, to be sure--they have been worthy companions over many years--but I am pleased to know they will find new lives among kindred spirits.
As for the odyssey through the inscribed books, this was a romp unique to my experience. Since each book contains a personal message of one sort or another, reading all of them individually allowed me to relive the circumstances of every interview, and to recall how pleasant it was to spend time with some of the people I admire most in the world--which is book people. It was a real hoot to run across an inscription by Roy Blount Jr, written on November 19, 1982, on the occasion of a discussion about his very funny collection of “satire, invective, foolery, criticism, reporting, reflection and verse,” titled “One Fell Soup.” On the front endsheet, he wrote, “Thanks for the cigar and the literary conversation. It’s nice to be able to discuss the concept of raunchiness with you just before you get to Annie Dillard.”
It was not uncommon back in the day for me to schedule several interviews with authors on one day, and after I finished with Blount, I did indeed meet with Annie Dillard, a wonderful essayist and poet who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” A truly good sport as well, she had a hearty laugh when I showed her the Blount comment, prompting her to write this in “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” the book we had gotten together to discuss: “For Nick Basbanes, with all best wishes after a jolly old time at the Ritz-Carlton on the day of his talk with a slightly-more-raunchy Roy Blount Jr.”
Were those the good old days, or what?
The frontispiece--above right--reproduces an illustration of Baltimore’s Washington Monument that appears on the cover of a copybook published in the early 1840s in Baltimore. In her essay, titled “For Amusement and Instruction: Children’s Books in Bygone Baltimore,” Lapides offers a detailed history of children’s books in the United States, and includes a fully annotated descriptive catalog of 135 books from her collection. In a testimonial to her effort, Leonard S. Marcus, a noted historian and critic of children’s books, writes that this “pioneering work of bibliographical scholarship harvests knowledge and insights gleaned from a lifetime of collecting the children’s books published in Baltimore from the colonial times forward.”
The later sections of the book recall the history of the society itself; an interesting detail is that unlike so many other bibliophilic organization in the world which began pretty much as all-male social clubs, the Baltimore Bibliophiles have always welcomed women among their ranks, a circumstance underscored by the fact that the first two presidents were female. On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the group in 1959, the founding members recalled in a commemorative booklet the circumstances of their getting together. As organizers, it was recalled, they had “all agreed that what Baltimore needed was a booklovers’ club--a club to gather together the rare souls who find pleasure not only in the reading but especially in the handling of books, people who enjoy as amateurs or professionals the arts that go into the designing and the illustrating, printing and covering of a fine book, whether made today or five hundred years ago.”
Happily, some things never change.
Normally, the whole idea of a printed book is that it involves an element of permanence, not something as patently disposable as bathroom tissue, but the theme of this work, apparently, is what suggested the unusual format. The nine-chapter novella, titled “Drop,” is set in a public restroom, and draws for its premise on a traditional Japanese folktale that suggests ghosts have a tendency to hide in what are euphemistically known as rest rooms.
Given that Japanese characters do not read from left to right, or right to left, but up and down, the format of an unfolding scroll, as it were, seemed ideally suited to presenting the tale, especially on a medium that is somewhat suggestive of the content itself, and was certain to get some free advance publicity. Suzuki is no flash in the pan, I might add. A 1990 recipient of the Fantasy Novel Award in Japan, he is the author previously of “Ring,” which was the basis of a Hollywood film. According to details released by the “publisher”--Hayashi Paper Corp. of Japan--“Drop” is set down on about three feet of each roll, and can be read in just a few minutes. It is being touted as a “horror experience in the toilet,” and will sell for 210 yen, or $2.20 according to today’s conversion rates, and go on sale on June 6.
I have no doubt that copies will be available in abundance online; indeed, for people like me, who collect unusual paper samples, I’m afraid this is going to be a must acquisition. Just last week I got some samples of hand-made paper made in Tasmania from the dung of kangaroos and wombats by a firm known as Creative Paper Tasmania. I had been alerted by one of my daughters to a piece on NPR about the unusual process, and got in touch with the papermaker, Darren Simpson.
We had a great chat by telephone, my favorite quote coming in response to the most basic question I put to him Why, I had asked, this particular fiber source, which is abundant on this large island off the coast of Australia.”Why?” He answered. “Because the wombats and the ‘roos pulp it for us.” Boiling removes all bacteria, by the way, so it is perfectly safe to handle, and the finished product is quite nice. Learn something new every day.
I write about this now, because there is time to mobilize a response. Many of you, I am sure, have heard about the sleazy attempt reported in January by Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to sell off, lock stock and barrel, an extensive collection of six thousand modern art pieces that had been donated in good faith to the institution over many years by a number of benefactors.
Apparently taking a cue from this sort of cultural myopia, the president of the University of San Francisco, the Rev. Stephen Privett S.J., has, according to a nicely done article in the student newspaper, begun to sift “through a range of university assets” for purposes of “compiling a list of items that may be expendable in an economic emergency.”
Tops on Father Privett’s hit list are precious materials housed in the Donahue Rare Book Room of the Gleeson Library, the pride and joy of the late William J. Moynihan, S.J., a remarkable bookman known in his time as the “penniless Medici of San Francisco” for having established one of the most distinguished institutional book collections in Northern California, and doing it with little more than irresistible Irish charm, dedication, and gentle persuasion. A perfectly lovely man--I had the great pleasure to interview and write about him in “A Gentle Madness”--Father Moynihan was also responsible for having established in 1968 the Sir Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting, the most prestigious award of its kind in the world.
Of course “compiling a list” is one thing, and actually selling stuff is another. Father Privett’s backpedaling notwithstanding--he withered a bit under questioning by the student reporter, Nicholas Mukhan, by insisting that “we are not selling anything right now” from the library--that caveat does not include the set of Albrecht Durer prints that USF had already consigned to Bonham’s Auction Gallery, and which were offered for sale on May 11.
This report, needless to say, has occasioned a flurry of comments on the ExLibris site; those interested in learning more should take a look, and follow the thread, which takes in the whole phenomenon of institutions finding every excuse imaginable to sell off cultural treasures entrusted to their care, including discussion of another fire sale going on now at the Wilmington Free Library in Delaware for purposes of fixing a leaky roof and installing new air conditioning.
But the USF situation, I have to say, is the one that rankles me the most. You know you’re in trouble when you read a quote like this: “Father Privett also questioned how many students visit the Rare Book Room.” When an administrator starts to justify his thinking by suggesting that special collections are a luxury that nobody is using, guess what, you’re already on the slippery slope. He should be reminded that this material was solicited and given to USF with the explicit expectation that the university would be a worthy custodian--and we can be sure that it was accepted by this noble Jesuit institution on those very terms.
If you have thoughts on this matter, and would like to express them, you can write USF President Stephen Privett at firstname.lastname@example.org or Library Dean Tyrone Cannon at email@example.com. I’m sure they would love to hear from you.
I undoubtedly had this childhood fascination for postcards in mind back in 1984 when I bought, at a small auction put on by the Friends of the Goddard Library at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., 4,800 of them filed judiciously in eight boxes, all gathered over many years by the late Francis Henry Taylor, who from 1931 to 1940 was director of the Worcester Art Museum, followed by fifteen years at the helm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then back again to Worcester, until his death in 1957. Taylor had gathered most of these pieces of graphic ephemera while traveling the world to build the collections of the two museums, and used them, from what I have been able to determine, as a kind of pre-Internet form of search engine to gather information, not only for his art quests, but also as background for his writing; he was the author, in 1948, of “The Taste of Angels,” a best-selling history of art collecting.
What has prompted me to recall my interest in postcards, and to mention my sub-collection of Francis Henry Taylor (which I wrote about, by the way, in “Among the Gently Mad,” pp.32-36), is a fabulous exhibition showing now through May 25 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the publication of a splendid catalog to accompany it, “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard,” by Jeff L. Rosenheim (Steidl/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 408 pages, $65.
Walker Evans (1903-1975), of course, was one of the great photographers of his time, acclaimed by some as the poet laureate of the medium in America. A master of the documentary approach, Evans is best known for the 1938 monograph of his work, “American Photographs,” and for his collaboration with the writer James Agee in 1941 on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” a powerful commentary on life among tenant farmers in the rural South during the Great Depression.
The exhibition at the Met includes a number of Evans’ photographs, but the principal thrust is on showcasing several hundred examples of a collection that consumed him for more than fifty years--the gathering of some nine thousand postcards--and the way they informed his vision as an artist. “A surprising number of highly accomplished writers, picture makers, and performers are obsessive collections,” Rosenheim, a curator of photography at the museum, writes in the monograph, noting the butterflies of Vladimir Nabokov, the bakelite bracelets of Andy Warhol, the vast collection of paintings by other artists coveted by Edgar Degas as just three examples.
In the instance of Evans, the postcards--most of them dating from the early decades of the twentieth century--are in the permanent collection of the museum, part of the Evans archive which it acquired from the artist’s estate. “He collected postcards when they were new and he was young, and when he was old and they had become classics,” Rosenheim notes. Evans also collected such things as printed ephemera, driftwood, tin-can pull tabs and metal and tin wood signs that he photographed in situ, and then removed from their moorings. Altogether my kind of guy.
Not content to merely collect postcards--which covered a vast range of subjects, from the purely pictorial to the nutty and the whimsical--Evans researched their history, and wrote about them as a cultural phenomenon distinctive of their time. In 1963, he gave a lecture at Yale University on them that he titled “Lyric Documentary,” a phrase he coined to describe their function as a window into American cultural life.
The book includes color reproductions of 400 examples from the collection; Rosenheim’s text is richly informed, and represents an important contribution to the study of this largely unappreciated form of popular art, and makes a very strong case for the premise that his photography was greatly influenced by it. A terrific book--and a terrific exhibition; by all means take it in if you find yourself in New York over the next couple of weeks.
Reviews from critics, of course, are one of the key vital signs of the business--and it would be disingenuous of me in the extreme to suggest that I don’t await their appearance with keen anticipation--but what matters the most, by far, is what readers “out there” feel about your work. Letters, emails, people you meet at public events, comments that have been posted on blogs--all provide a means for dialogue. But I have to tell you about an event I attended last week at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) just outside of Cleveland that has left me weak in the knees.
About a year ago, I was contacted by Kevin Hoskinson (at right, with yours truly), a professor of English at the college, with news that one of my books, “Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World,” had inspired the formation of a student essay program, to be called “The Books That Stir Us: The Basbanes Project.” If something like that doesn’t get your attention, nothing does. Using the stories related in EBIR as a model, Hoskinson had invited submission of thousand-word essays centered on a basic premise: “What one book has contributed most to the story of your current life.” Hoskinson secured funding for the project, and was able to offer $500 prizes for three winning entries, selected on a blind submission basis by a panel of judges.
A total of fifty-seven essays were turned in, with books ranging from “Who Moved My Cheese?” and “The Diary of Ann Frank” to “The Lord of the Flies,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and the Bible. I had the singular pleasure to be present last week at the awards ceremony, called a “celebration of books, learning, and of students.” The winners--pictured here with NAB--were Sara Davidson, for “Ishmael,” by Daniel Quinn; Tristan Rader, for “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper; and Benjamin Willets, for “The One Straw Revolution,” by Masanobu Fukuoka.
The names of all the participants, and their books, are posted on the project website, along with links to the texts of their essays, which I hope you all take some time to check out. They’re wonderful, and I agree with Kevin, I wish we could have given cash awards to everyone. The festivities included the showing of a fabulous video produced by the college’s marketing and broadast media coordinator, Ron Jantz, which I hope will be available for general viewing soon. A very special day, all around--one made all the more memorable by an evening a few of us spent the night before at Progressive Field for a Red Sox-Indians game (won in the 10th inning by Boston on a Jonathan Van Every home run.)
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, by Christopher I. Beckwith; Princeton University Press, 472 page, $35.
A region often overlooked in the grand continuum of world history--a huge, landlocked part of the world between Europe and Asia that has been home to such empires as those of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Tamerlane and the Timurads, the Anatolians, the Tibetans, and the Scythians--is given its just due in this majestic work that spans a sweep of five thousand years, from the Bronze Age to the present. In the process, Christopher Beckwith, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, tackles a number of misconceptions, not least among them that the peoples of an international trading network in Central Eurasia known collectively as the Silk Road were primarily nomadic, warfaring, barbarous and generally slothful groups. Indeed, he argues that for several critical centuries in the development of global civilization--and despite incursions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and Chinese, among others--Central Eurasia led the world in science, economics, and the arts. In the process of illuminating this essential piece of the human past, Beckwick constructs a scrupulously researched narrative that is wholly accessible, and demands close attention.
Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier; Basic Books, 411 pages, $27.50
If the subject is about how a single book has the power to impact the way people think and comport themselves in intimate relationships, then you have to include the release in 1966 of Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a blockbuster with international consequences that was followed four years later by a powerful followup, Human Sexual Inadequacy. Prior to these books, what people knew about the mechanics of sexual relationships came from text books. Their first-hand reports of human sexuality, reported clinically in their books--Masters and Johnson observed 10,000 sexual acts in pursuit of their data--changed the entire paradigm. Thomas Maier--the biographer previously of another inhabitant of this exclusive group of attitude-changing authors, the baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock--has written a compelling profile of the two pioneers that concentrates on their own relationship and working patterns. Altogether a fascinating book.
World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, by Laurence Rees; Pantheon Books, 442 pages, $35.
As creative director for the BBC, documentary filmmaker Laurence Rees has produced several television series on war and the atrocities that usually follow, including “The Nazis: A Warning from History,” “”War of the Century,” “Horror in the East,” and “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution.’” He also is the author of five books on the same subjects, and was the recipient three years ago of the British Book Award for History . This effort--which is being released to coincide with a PBS series that will air on three successive Wednesdays beginning May 6--draws on the testimony of more than a hundred witnesses to the events which had been kept secret for decades, only available recently since the opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union. Though not likely to alter prevailing evaluations of the war, the book does offer fresh insights on the relationship between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill.
Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers, by John Sutherland, illustrations by Mark Rowson; Skyhorse Publishing, 273 pages, $22.95.
Last--but not by any means least--we have this thoroughly engaging compendium of literary arcania (and plenty of significa as well) to salute. British academic John Sutherland has culled every manner of primary source to unearth such nuggets as the longest novel in the English language (Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa,” c. 1 million words), an interesting enough fact in its own right, but for him the springboard for a learned essay that explores the phenomenon of “writing long” in depth, citing Stephen King’s “The Stand” (464,216 words) and Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” (591,554) as particularly egregious examples of tomes that require, as a condition of being read, the development of “considerable upper body strength.” In a chapter he calls “The Body of Literature,” Sutherland tells of the battle among provincial forces for the right to bury the corpse of Thomas Hardy, with a compromise finally being hammered out that provided for the novelist’s remains to be divided among home-town loyalists in Stinsford--they got the heart--and Westminster Abbey, which got the cremated ashes of what was left. Similarly, Lord Byron’s heart was interred at Missolonghi, where the swashbuckling Romantic died in defense of Greek independence, while his body--too carnal, apparently, for sacred interment in the sanctity of Poet’s Corner--was laid to rest in the family vault. This is a really fun book, and smartly written to boot. Highly recommended.
At SIU, the commitment involved the appropriation of $56 million five years ago to take a building that had been built in the 1950s and make it suitable for use in the twenty-first century, quite a courageous stand for a publicly supported institution to make at a time when so many others feel that computers are the only way to go. The 235,000-square-foot structure is the central repository for the university’s three million volumes--SIU is an Association of Research Libraries (ARL) member--and maintains an extensive battery of terminals and laptop connections to satisfy all electronic needs. Fully accessible to the 25,000 enrolled students, the library also serves the general public, giving the taxpayers a mighty bang for their buck.
An attractive building located at the virtual crossroads of the campus, the Morris Library has been newly fitted with common rooms that make it particularly inviting as a gathering place; there is a coffee and food gallery, of course, but also eleven nicely appointed group study areas that are ideal for reading and contemplation. During a walking tour provided by Dean of Libraries David Carlson, I was especially taken by what he called the “time out” room--a soundproofed cubicle where students can take a break from tedious routines without annoying others.
Carbondale is in the extreme southern section of the state, just 96 miles from St. Louis, 330 miles from Chicago. To be expected, special collections are strong in the history of the Middle Mississippi Valley, but there are outstanding holdings too in American philosophy, twentieth-century world literature, British and American expatriate writers of the 1920s, the Irish Literary Renaissance, and freedom of the press and censorship issues. Rare Books Librarian Melissa Hubbard provided a nice introduction to some of her favorite items, including a Kelmscott Chaucer, several of the nine first-edition copies the library has of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and a few incunables that any curator would be pleased to have in the vault.
In anticipation of my visit to SIU, Gordon Pruett, editor of Cornerstone, a quarterly publication of the Morris Library, did a lengthy Q&A with me that was published in the current edition of the magazine on pages 4-5 and 11; click here for a PDF.
All in all, it was a very busy trip, but there was still time for a whirlwind visit to the local second-hand/antiquarian book store, a terrific place called The Bookworm, conveniently located at the Eastgate Shopping Center on East Walnut Street, owned and operated by Carl and Kelly Rexroad. I found three books from their stock of 50,000 volumes that added to the weight of my suitcase, and thank them for the terrific job they did to make for such a successful signing following my public talk.
What occasions its use today is the discovery I made this week of a nine-volume work by one Robert Waln Jr., titled “Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” published in Philadelphia in 1823 by J. Maxwell and R. W. Pomeroy. Each volume is bound in lovely marbled paper boards with calf-skin spines, and all are in remarkably fine condition. There is no foxing to speak of, no loose hinges, no missing plates, all of the steel engravings are present, with original tissues in place. Each volume bears the elegant signature of a prior owner, “Robt. Winthrop,” who I hope, in time, to learn more about through further research.
In the meantime, I did due diligence on the title, running a quick ABE search, and coming up with a number of dealer quotes and descriptions for individual volumes, finding only one for the entire set, which leads me to believe this is an item of some scarcity. I’ll obviously have to do more work on this baby, but what is fun about it right now--indeed, what prompts the writing of this entry--is the circumstance of its discovery.
It happened that a couple of days ago I was in a tizzy about locating my first-draft manuscript for “A Gentle Madness,” this being part of an ongoing effort to put some order in my sprawling archive of research papers. My best recollection was that I had put the thing in a cardboard box and stored it in my bedroom closet, a walk-in affair that contains its share of objects that have nothing whatsoever to do with my wardrobe, including a bunch of nineteenth-century Harper’s Weekly prints, my old Navy sword, some superannuated cameras that I don’t have the heart to part with, altogether a pack rat’s paradise. Well, it was in this closet where my wife, who was participating in the frenetic search, located the box with the manuscript, underneath which was another box, containing some books.
And the books? You guessed it--this splendid set, which I immediately recalled having bought some years ago on Cape Cod at Titcomb’s Book Shop in East Sandwich, but misplaced, and forgot about entirely over time. Why I put them away back then in the closet remains a mystery to me, but there they were--and I am thrilled to welcome them back into the fold. Score another one for Zack Jenks. Anything, indeed, can be anywhere.
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson; University of Iowa Press, 112 pages, $19.95.
Winner of the Bancroft Prize two years ago for “William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism,” and the Francis Parkman Prize in 1996 for “Emerson: Mind on Fire,” Robert D. Richardson is one of the outstanding literary biographers at work today. This taut, beautifully written monograph explores the relationship between the voracious reading habits of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the thoughtful sessions of writing that followed. He draws the title from an essay Emerson wrote in The American Scholar. “First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.” Richardson reports how Emerson--taking his cue from Coleridge--identified four classes of reader: the hourglass, that gives back everything it takes in, unchanged; the sponge, that gives back everything it takes in, only a little dirtier; the jelly-bag, which squeezes out the valuable and keeps the worthless, and the Golconda, which runs everything through a sieve, keeping only the nuggets. He saw himself, needless to say, as a Golconda.
All the Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some that Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page, by Jerelle Kraus; Columbia University Press, 260 pages, $34.95.
Before there was a blogosphere to serve as a gathering place for multiple thoughts and commentary, there was the Op-Ed Page, introduced by the New York Times in 1970, and now a staple in newspapers everywhere. As an art editor at the Times for thirty years--thirteen of them with the Op-Ed Page--Jerelle Kraus worked with the many non-staff artists who were commissioned to execute original drawings for the section, a good number of them, as we discover here, never published, some because they were found too offensive--or too cutting-edge--for the newspaper’s top editors. This splendidly produced, over-sized effort--and it could comfortably grace the most discriminating of coffee tables--reproduces many of the works that never got onto the streets; Kraus explains that she was able to print these pictures because they are not the property of the Times, but the artists who drew them. “A rich trove of censored graphic treasures appears in this book for the first time,” she writes. Her history of the page, and its contributors, is must reading for those of us who begin each day with the Times immediately at hand.
Carolina Clay: The Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, by Leonard Todd; W. W. Norton, 316 pages, $25.95.
Author Leonard Todd first learned of the slave potter known as Dave in 2000 while reading an account of an exhibition of the man’s work. Known for having created some magnificent jugs and storage jars while living as a slave in South Carolina, Dave was attracting considerable attention by virtue of his having signed his name and scrawled lines of original verse on many of the pieces he had fashioned by hand, quite an accomplishment since it was illegal for blacks to read or write in much of the South before the Civil War. A native of Edgefield, SC, where Dave had lived and worked, Todd soon learned that the man at one time had been the property of his ancestors, prompting him to embark on an exhaustive investigation into the man’s life and times, which he details here, in this fascinating book. Todd also includes a thorough discussion of Dave’s clever couplets.
Mathematical Works Printed in the Americas, 1554-1700, by Bruce Stanley Burdick; Johns Hopkins University Press, 373 pages, $55.
Rarely do we think of the earliest printed works in the Americas being mathematical texts, since most scholarly works for use in the Colonies were imported from Europe, though quite a body of interesting titles, it turns out, were produced in Mexico, Peru, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York, among other places.This learned work, ostensibly an annotated bibliography, offers a number of surprises that students and collectors of mathematical books and books of science will find particularly useful.
Because a noteworthy event such as this demands a fabulous book, the title acquired for the occasion was an exceedingly rare copy of the 1617 Barcelona edition of “Don Quixote.” Part one of the world’s most consequential work of fiction had been published separately, in 1605, part two in 1615; this edition marked the first time the two parts had been issued together, and appeared in print just a year after Cervantes’s death. To give you an idea of just how scarce this edition is, it is the only perfect copy held in any North American library, making it more scarce, in fact, than the Gutenberg Bible, with copies in twelve American institutions. At Texas A&M, it joins a collection of one thousand other editions of “Don Quixote,” along with a substantial archive of digital images, and contributes mightily to the mission of the university’s Cervantes Project, which has received support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The four millionth book ceremony was part of a double celebration, the other being the tenth anniversary of the reopening of the Cushing Library as repository of the university’s rare books and special collections, and to showcase, with a splendid exhibition and a terrific catalog, both called “A Decade of Promise,” the new acquisitions that have been made over that period. I plan to write at length about the arrival of Texas A&M as a major player in the world of rare books in a forthcoming Fine Books & Collections column, but I do wish to note here the essential role of the Friend--with a capital ‘F’, as I said in my remarks--in this process.
Making this milestone possible was Sara and John Lindsey, A&M Class of 1944, who purchased the book for the university; they also purchased for the library the two-and-a-half millionth book, a Kelmlscott Chaucer of 1896, and the three millionth book, a first issue, 1855, of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and contributed to the purchase of the one millionth and two millionth volumes as well.
Libraries require a lot of elements to achieve greatness, not least among them administrators with foresight and librarians with vision, but never, to my knowledge, have they been able to accomplish anything of substance without the help of their friends--excuse me, their Friends--and that applies at every level of participation. Those with modest means--but eager all the same to help preserve our literary patrimony--can participate in other ways, such as the Adopt-a-Book program sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. It’s all for a great cause.
Doiron speculates that this passion for books and reading might have something to do with the long winters, which I know, as a person who went to college in the Pine Tree State (Bates, ‘65) can be formidable. But there is also something wonderfully complex in the Maine character, I think, that savors a good story, and maintains an enduring respect for things in print. (One response on Doiron’s blog offered this: “It’s dark. It’s cold. There’s a lot of empty space and the mind wanders. The options? Read, write or drink a lot. In really tough winters, sometimes we go for all three.”)
What has made me think about all this was a quick trip my wife Connie and I made this past week up to Bar Harbor for a bit of research, a pleasant getaway that allowed us to enjoy a leisurely drive home along U.S. 1, visiting one second hand bookstore after another, six by my count, over one forty-mile stretch between Trenton and Searsport, all of them open for business, which is saying something, since there is still scattered snow on the ground despite the official arrival of spring, and most of the summer tourist attractions still off-season.
Browsing was pretty much the order of the day for me, though I was nonetheless impressed by the numbers and the variety of the offerings. One place I would certainly put on the must-visit list for anyone trekking Down East is Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques in Ellsworth, a perfectly appropriate name for a converted chicken barn one hundred yards long, three stories high, and filled on the first floor with every manner of antique and knick-knack, and lined on the second with 120,000 books, magazines and pieces of ephemera. The place was bustling when we stopped by Saturday afternoon, so there was little time to chat at length with owners Annegret and Mike Cukierski, who opened this splendid curiosity twenty-three years ago, and have every intention of keeping it going, what with son Chad now fully involved in the operations. There’s lots of stuff in here on Maine, a healthy section of regional history and literature, and remarkable runs of magazines and periodicals. The owners say this is the largest book store in the state, and I don’t think this is a case of hyperbole. It is easily the longest book gallery I have ever seen--a football field, one end to the other, and a fabulous chicken sign out front.
We had great fun, too, at Country Store Antiques, Books & Wine, just outside of Bar Harbor in Trenton, a pretty spacious operation in its own right, with a fine variety of offerings, including a full floor devoted entirely to 50,000 books. I especially enjoyed schmoozing with owner Vicki Landman, a former county librarian in Maryland, now a full time books and antiques seller in her native state. I told her of my interests in the Maine paper industry, and she suggested a number of titles that might be useful, and gave me the names of some people to contact for more information. “Hey, I’m a librarian,” she said.
We didn’t get a chance to stop at Harding’s Rare Books further down the coast in Wells, a lot closer to my home in Central Massachusetts, and always a favorite stop of mine whenever I’m in the area. Any booking odyssey to Maine has to include a stop here--with ample time set aside for serious examination of each and every one of the fourteen rooms. Founder Doug Harding has been in the business here since 1960, and is a widely respected professional in the trade. (I got my deathbed edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” from him twenty-five years ago, a lovely copy in mint condition, and my collection of Winslow Homer wood engravings has been greatly enriched by my many visits here over the years as well.) For those who need a navigational fix, Wells is 48 miles south of Freeport, home of L.L Bean. There are many splendid places to stop for lobster in between.
Finally, if I may, how about a picture of yours truly in Acadia National Park, courtesy of CVB, to prove that one does not live entirely by books alone (at least not all the time):
The most recent case in Europe involves a 60-year-old Iranian businessman, Farhad Hakimzadeh, who was sentenced to two years in prison in January for having removed pages from rare books in the British and Bodleian libraries over a seven-year period. He did this, it was later learned, to improve imperfect copies in his own collection--“augmenting” them is the bibliographical term--which he could then sell at better prices on the open market. One of the books he vandalized contained a 500-year-old map painted by Hans Holbein, an artist in the court of Henry VIII, and valued at 32,000 pounds.
The two earlier cases discussed in the article involve the thefts in France of Stanislas Gosse, a 30-year-old former naval officer whose particular passion was for illuminated manuscripts plundered from the library of a monastery in eastern France, and the five-year feeding frenzy of one William Jacques, also known as Mr. Santoro, David Fletcher, and to those who finally apprehended him on charges of making off with rare books from the London Library, Cambridge University Library, and British Library valued at 1 million pounds, as the “Tome Raider.”
The details of these cases are fascinating, and those interested in learning more should read the Financial Times piece. But what puzzles me the most, I have to say, is not the disclosure of the crimes--since book theft has been with us for centuries--but for the incredulity of it all--as if such crimes are a recent phenomenon, and that anyone should be shocked that the perpetrators turn out to be “respectable” persons.
Let me note that there is a very good reason for why it is pretty difficult to go into the reading rooms of special collections libraries in much of the world these days. Bags and coats must be left outside, surveillance cameras are operating, and people are being watched. You can credit a good deal of that to the lessons learned from the twenty-year campaign of book theft undertaken by Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who I wrote about at length in “A Gentle Madness,” and who we can safely say was the quintessential book thief of the twentieth century. His toll over a twenty-year spree: 23,600 books stolen from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia, booty conservatively valued at the time of his arrest in 1990 at $20 million. Part of Blumberg’s MO, it should be noted--one way he gained the trust of libraries--was to masquerade as a visiting scholar.
I shall remember always the words of W. Dennis Aiken, the FBI special agent who supervised the investigation of the case:
“My conviction is that Steve Blumberg was going to get this stuff no matter what he had to do. He did nighttime burglaries. He defeated sophisticated alarm systems. He threw books out windows. He knew what was going on in the life of libraries, and he picked their weakest moments. I suppose if these people were willing to dig a fifty-foot hole in the ground and encase everything in concrete, he might not have been able to get in, but I wouldn’t bet on that either. This is a very clever man. Book theft was his life.”
Cautionary words if ever there were any.
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter; Alfred A. Knopf, 586 pages, $30.
I admit I’m a sucker for books about books, and that I am particularly partial to trenchant works of literary biography and literary criticism, especially when new ground is clearly being broken. Elaine Showalter, professor emerta from Princeton University and author previously of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from From Bronte to Lessing (Princeton University Press, 1977), a standard work, now offers a penetrating history of American women writers in America, as the subtitle states, from the early seventeenth century, up to the present moment (a nice touch, that--Anne to Annie.)
“I believe that American women writers no longer need special constituted juries, softened judgment, unspoken agreements, or suppression of evidence in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage,” she writes, explaining her purpose. “What keeps literature alive, meaningful to read, and exciting to reach isn’t unstinting approval or unanimous admiration, but rousing argument and robust debate.”
Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships, by Tom D. Crouch; Johns Hopkins University Press, 191 pages, $35.
This copiously illustrated overview of lighter than air aviation chronicles an adventurous period in human accomplishment with style and insight, focusing on the earliest attempts to take flight by way of inflated envelopes, with two French paper-makers, the brothers Jacques-Etienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, leading the way in the 1780s. “Why did it take so long to learn to fly?” Tom Crouch, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, asks. “The Greek philosopher Archimedes (287-212 BC) explained the basic principle of buoyant flight more than twenty centuries before human beings first took the sky aboard balloons.” He offers a fascinating account of the thrilling quest for human flight.
Babylon, edited by I. L. Finkel and M. J. Seymour; Oxford University Press, 238 pages, $40.
Few names from antiquity conjure up images of exotic mystery and curiosity more than biblical Babylon, the city of the wondrous Hanging Gardens,the Tower of Babel, King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the Ishtar Gate, despite the passage of 2,500 years since its fall. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now war-torn Iraq, what remains of the vanished city today are mostly dim memories and second-hand accounts passed on by such historians as Herodotus and Ctesias, and, of course, a range of exquisite artifacts that have been recovered over the years and removed to a number of great museums.
Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour have edited this comprehensive catalog issued in conjunction with what by all accounts has been a dazzling exhibition at the British Museum in London (it closes on March 15), showcasing treasures from numerous collections, the BM’s, of course, but also twenty-three other lenders, including the Louvre in Paris and the Vorderasiatisches in Berlin. “Babylon, in all its manifestations,” they write, “is at once remote to us and all around us. Like no other city, its history has become bound up with legend.”
History buffs, art buffs, and archaeology buffs alike with love this book.
This posting will be fairly brief, because it’s not quite noon on Saturday morning, and I have a presentation to make in a couple hours, offering a tribute to the late Matthew J. Bruccoli, who died last year at 76. I wrote about Matt on a number of occasions--first in Fine Books & Collections, later as a featured profile in my 2005 book, “Every Book Its Reader” (p. 193-208). Matt was a lot of things--scholar, writer, teacher, editor, publisher, consummate collector of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other twentieth-century authors--but most of all, he was, in his own words, “a bookman.” (Charles McGrath once described him in the New York Times as the “senior packrat of American letters.”) In the course of our many conversations, Matt and I became good friends, so I was more than happy to accept an invitation from the good people here in South Carolina to talk about him at a festival he helped establish thirteen years ago.
I was reminded of this by the arrival a few days ago of not one, but two, impressive catalogs, each one a splendidly assembled list of collectible material, with every item scrupulously researched, authoritatively described, and beautifully illustrated.
Especially noteworthy is “The Bruce Kahn Collection,”
issued jointly by Ken Lopez Books of Hadley,
Mass., and Tom Congalton, owner of Between the Covers Rare Books, of Gloucester City, NJ, a one-collector catalog that in itself is something of a rarity. The 154 items listed represent the creme de la creme of a 15,000-volume collection of modern first editions gathered over many years by Bruce Kahn, a Michigan lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions; other books in the collection will be offered in later catalogs.
In a prefatory note, Lopez explains that Kahn collected in the “style of the old-time book collectors,” meaning he sought out authors “in depth, pursuing all their published titles, variant editions, such as proofs, advance copies and broadsides.” In a note of his own, Congalton quips that he agreed to have Lopez, his partner in this collaboration of two prominent booksellers, be general editor of the catalog, and write the descriptions, for the paradoxical reason that he knows the collection too well, having sold many of these same books to Kahn in the first place. “I got sick of writing ‘Very fine in dustwrapper. Signed by the author.’ Where’s the fun in that, anyway?”
And impressive, as always, is the latest catalog from William Reese Co., of New Haven, Conn.--his 266th --this one featuring 205 choice selections of Western Americana. In addition to being one of the outstanding booksellers of his generation--I was pleased to have a profile of Bill in the chapter I called “Hunters and Gatherers” in Patience & Fortitude--he is also one of the leading scholars in his field. Numerous entries in this new catalog bear that out, with comprehensive, detailed descriptions that are little essays in their own right.
The item on the cover--pictured herewith at right--is a detail from an 1893 oil painting titled “Buffalo Bill and the Frenchman’s Bottle Gag,” a comic tableau from the Wild West Show, by the French artist Alfred Agoust.
According to the catalog entry, almost all images of the Wild West Show are to be found in lithographic posters and photographs. “Period oil paintings of the Buffalo Bill act are very rare indeed.” The price for this rarity: $47,000. Happily, I have the catalog in hand to enjoy.
Inspired by the Big Read program introduced a couple years ago by Dana Gioia, the director of the National Endowment for the Arts (and a subject of a recent column I wrote for Fine Books & Collections), the initiative in Sandwich has improvised by focusing on more than one book for community reading, and organized a continuing program centered around one basic theme, in this instance books that have touched people’s lives.
The context of our discussion was the mysterious collector Haven O’More (see chapter 6 of AGM, “To Have and to Have No More”), and the sale in 1978 of a Gutenberg Bible. O’More had come by the auction gallery one day unannounced before the auction to look at the book, and there were some heated words exchanged between the two, with Massey saying, finally, that if O’More wanted to see it, he’d have to make an appointment. “I wasn’t worried about losing him,” Massey told me with great candor--and he was speaking at this point about bibliophiles and bibliomanes in general--“because if the book’s good enough, they will always call back--they will crawl--if they really want the book.”
For those of us who care about these things--the library in California that had loaned the waterlogged book to Sullenberger had declined, for privacy reasons, to identify the title--the book turns out, in a delightful twist of aptness, to be “Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability” (Ashgate Publishing, paperback, $29.95, hardcover, $39). According to the dustjacket blurb, the author, Sidney Dekker, is a Professor of Human Factors and System Safety, and Director of Research at Lund University School of Aviation in Sweden.
Two I heartily recommend:
Ron was a great champion of books and of promoting contact and communication among book people everywhere. Members of FABS (Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies) will recall with pleasure Ron’s dedication to the group and to its principle of solidarity among book people. I first met Ron in 2004 when he invited the book artist and bookmaker Barry Moser and myself out to Columbus to participate in the Celebration of the Book, organized by Aldus and held in July of that year at Ohio State University. It was a most memorable event.
Updike was very gracious that night to the assembled book critics, who all looked up to him, I must say, as visiting royalty, which as America’s outstanding man of letters, he pretty much was. His talk, which lasted no more than ten minutes, was directed at what he called the “casual readers” among us. After taking a mild whack at the fickleness of literary fame and the unfairness of bestseller lists, he concluded with a plea for everyone to seek out from time to time “the underpublished wall flower on the edge of the dance floor and giving her a twirl, by reminding ourselves that literary delights are rarefied delights, that today’s blockbuster is tomorrow’s insulation, that books are at best a beacon in the darkness but at second-best a holiday that lasts and lasts.” The New York Times published the full text of his remarks a couple weeks later; those interested in savoring it all can read it at this link.
Updike was always on my short list of authors I most wanted to interview for my weekly literary column, but he had a reputation for not talking too much to journalists about his writing, especially if the subject dealt with his many works of the imagination. His feeling, quite correctly, I think, was that fiction should pretty much speak for itself, though he did, from time to time, give some outstanding interviews, one, of particular merit, early in his career with the Paris Review.
But in 1996, I got my chance, and leaped at the opportunity offered by an Alfred A Knopf publicist. Updike had just published a charming little book of essays and magazine pieces he had written over the years about golf--the one abiding passion he had away from his typewriter. We met in Boston for lunch, had a splendid conversation, and I got my story (which is posted on my web site); true to form, I also brought along some books for him to inscribe--the book we had met to discuss, of course, “Golf Dreams,” but also “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Trust Me,” a collection of short stories. I have to say that what delighted me most of all about the ninety minutes we spent together was that he knew my book, “A Gentle Madness,” which had been published the previous year, and that he had enjoyed the brief segment I had written about his wonderful continuing character, the fictional novelist Henry Bech, “who had his friends, his fans, even his collectors.” (See AGM, pp. 54-55.)
I was already a serious Updike collector at that point, but I became even more determined after that, and am pleased to say that I have all of his trade books--and we are talking well over forty published volumes--except for that still elusive first book of his, “The Carpentered Hen.” What easily is my favorite Updike item, however, not any of these books, nor many dozen limited edition fine press titles he has authorized over the years, but a piece of ephemera I got on December13, 2001--for me, it was a lucky Friday 13th--at Boston Athenaeum, one of the world’s great membership libraries.
The occasion was a reception arranged by Luke Ives Pontifell, owner of the Thornwillow Press, to announce the forthcoming release of a limited edition book he was publishing of three Updike stories, to be be printed by letterpress on hand-made paper, bound in leather, and issued in an edition of 250 signed and numbered copies--$650 each if ordered in advance of publication, $850 afterward. A prospectus with all of the salient information printed on beautiful paper was stacked on a table near the lovely hors d’oeuvres that had been spread out. I helped myself to a couple of them, and walked up to Updike, who was enjoying a glass of red wine by himself in a corner of the room. “Ah, the bookman,” he said with abundant good cheer, and wrote a lovely inscription on one of them, which I share with you herewith.
There is a poem in Tuesday’s New York Times, “Requiem,” taken from Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems,” to be published by Knopf. “For life’s a a shabby subterfuge,” he writes: “And death is real, and dark, and huge.”
As of 11:30 this morning, Amazon ranked the special “movie tie-in” paperback edition of “Revolutionary Road” (Vintage Contemporaries, $14.95) at 46 on its list of top sellers--a list that includes, by rank, millions of available titles--and pegged the just-issued one-volume hardcover edition of “Revolutionary Road, “The Easter Parade,” and “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” (Everyman’s Library/Knopf, $26) at 656. Sales figures for paperback editions of Yates’s other books are equally robust, a circumstance that would undoubtedly have caused this man universally admired during his lifetime as a “writer’s writer” to smile with wry amusement at the fickleness of it all.
I’m sure, too, that Yates would smile at the success of the film version of his 1961 novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and while he might grouse over a beer or two at his favorite haunt in Boston’s Back Bay--the Crossroads Irish Pub at 495 Beacon St--about the movie’s being snubbed this week for an Oscar nomination, he would quickly point out that he didn’t write the filmscript, somebody else did.
Much has been made in recent years of the fact that not one of Yates’s books ever sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime, a circumstance regarded as especially egregious for a man who contemporaries such as William Styron, Alfred Kazin , Robert Stone, and Andre Dubus looked up to as a model of perfection. This irksome paradox, in fact, was one of the central points of a discussion I had with Yates on Dec. 17, 1981, in Boston.
We got together that day to discuss the recent release of “Liars in Love,” Yates’s seventh book, and his first collection of stories since “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” had been published some twenty years earlier. In the newspaper column I later wrote, I riffed at some length on such concepts as literary respect and commercial success, and quoted a piece from Saturday Review that had described Yates as a writer with “astonishing skill and a robust intelligence,” a craftsman whose “prose is urbane yet sensitive, with passion and irony held deftly in balance.” How was it possible, I wondered--and I asked Yates this directly--that so many critics and authors held him in such high esteem, while the buying public, for the most part, had no idea at all who he was.
Yates thought for a few moments and took a sip of his beer before answering. Being called a “writer’s writer” pleased him a great deal, to be sure, but “I’d much rather be known as a reader’s writer, and I don’t mean for the money or the fame,” he said. “It’s having the reader that counts. It is indeed painful not to have as many readers as I’d like. If you asked me how to go about writing a best seller, I’d say I haven’t the slightest idea. What I do when I write is to sharpen a lot of pencils and do the best I can.”
We covered a lot of ground in that interview--in fact, I’ll be getting the entire piece posted on my web site later in the week, so check back in a couple days, if you’re interested in reading it--but the final quote I used as my kicker is the one that lingers with me. I asked him what it was about the human condition that drove him to develop so many sad and lonely characters. “Perhaps,” he said, “because sad and lonely people are more interesting than happy people. Loneliness does not mean just physical loneliness. I would think it means a sense of being separated from the main stream of the world.”
Towards the end of our long liquid lunch I asked Dick Yates to inscribe my copy of “Liars in Love,” which he did most generously, and which I include herewith.
Needless to say, I very quickly became a zealous Dick Yates collector, and given the relative disinterest in his books at the time, had no trouble acquiring first edition copies of all of his books in fine condition, and at very good prices. His best known effort remains “Revolutionary Road,” which was shortlisted for the National Book Award given in 1962 for work published in 1961, along with Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” J. D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” Bernard Malamud’s “A New Life,” William Maxwell’s “The Chateau,” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories,” and the winner that year--in my view one of the truly outstanding years in the annals of American fiction--Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”
For the record, I paid $50 for my copy of “Revolutionary Road.” A search of abebooks.com this morning shows four first edition copies available for sale: one, inscribed, is going for $6,500; two good-plus copies, without signatures, list for $800 and $900 respectively. Now that kind of approbation, I assure you, would please Dick Yates in no small measure.
today’s New York Times, and focuses on the books that have helped to shape the character and inform the evolving convictions of Barack Obama. She cites specific works Obama has discussed in his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”--the writings of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, the Bible, Shakespeare, Melville, Toni Morrison among them-- as having been particularly influential. “Mr Obama tends to take a magpie approach to reading,” Kakutani writes, “ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry.”
Quite apart from this, of course, has been the widely discussed influence of “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the way Abraham Lincoln selected a cabinet of independent thinkers, on Obama’s own policy of reaching out to former opponents to staff his inner circle, a circumstance that has propelled a book published four years ago back to the top of all major best seller lists.
On the matter of George W. Bush, there has been, in the waning days of his administration, a determined attempt by Karl Rove--the former chief adviser to the 43rd president and the proclaimed “architect” of both his presidential victories--to depict his former boss as a voracious devourer of books with whom he maintained a running competition to see who could read more. “There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one,” Rove lamented in an OpEd piece for the Wall Street Journal. “Mr Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”
My 2005 book, “Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World,” examined what important and influential people have read through history, and included an extended riff on presidents; I write, for instance, about how much we can learn about John Adams--according to David McCullough, the greatest presidential reader of them all, superior, in his view, even to the outstanding “bibliophile president,” Thomas Jefferson--by reading the copious annotations he carefully penned in the margins of his books, which are now housed in the Boston Public Library, and which were the subject of a fabulous exhibition there a couple of years ago. (A Fine Books & Collections column I wrote about this is included in “Editions & Impressions.”)
To mark the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln next month, I will have in the forthcoming issue of the FB&C newsletter an appreciation of the books this most famous of self-educated Americans used to prepare himself for greatness, most notably one work in particular he walked twelve miles to acquire as a young man in New Salem, Illinois. I call the essay “Honest Abe’s Book of Grammar.”
Whether we are what we read is a judgment we must all make for ourselves; I, for one, subscribe to the old saw wholeheartedly. The most penetrating piece thus far, by the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michiko Kakutani, appears in
Aptly titled Reading on the Rise--the last report in 2002 was called Reading at Risk--the new survey shows the most dramatic improvement among young adults aged 18-24, with a 9 percent spike over the previous period. “This jump,” according to the report, “reversed a 20 percent decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.” That study also showed that adult readers had fallen from 54 percent to 46.7percent.
Among ethnic groups and minorities, reading has also shown dramatic increases among Hispanics and African-Americans, and for the first time in the quarter-century history of the periodic survey, “literary reading” has increased among both men and women.
This is all splendid, of course, and I embrace it with great pleasure, though I do have one quibble, the same one I had when the last survey was released seven years ago, that involving the murky matter of what, exactly, constitutes “literary reading.” By the definition offered by the NEA, a person can be defined as a “literary reader” if he or she reads “novels, short stories, poems or plays” of any kind--fictional works and works of the imagination, in other words--and this includes every conceivable genre in addition to the kinds of “serious” works that we typically regard as being literary, be they mystery, horror, fantasy, whatever.
While I have no complaint whatsoever with this conceptually-read what you like, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all the same to me--but to suggest that if what you like happens to be, let’s say, a wonderful biography of Charles Darwin or Emily Dickinson, or a penetrating history of the Great Depression, or a trenchant work of art criticism, then it doesn’t track, according to this paradigm, even if the name of the author you admire is David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman, you still do not qualify as a “literary reader.” So does that make a person who prefers nonfiction to fiction any less of a reader than someone who devours romance paperbacks they pick up at the supermarket, or more to the point, does that offer a balanced report card of a nation’s reading habits? I don’t believe so, which is why I think these surveys should look more thoroughly at the kinds of books that people read on a regular basis, and not just as a subset of what’s passing out there these days as “literary” works.
Other than that, how can you knock a finding that discloses a “slight majority” of American adults--113 million people--now reading literature? All in all, this is a great report for Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman of the NEA, whose Big Read initiative has brought reading programs to millions of people throughout America. They’ve been a stunning success.
Of initial interest to the contributors was surprise among so many of them not only that several thousand of Adolf Hitler’s personal books had survived the destruction and looting of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, but also that a good number of them are housed today in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Early into the thread, one contributor mentioned my book, A Gentle Madness, and the profile I wrote of Walter Pforzheimer, an extraordinary bookman and lifelong Central Intelligence Agency officer who died in 2003 at 88 (see New York Times obit, or far better yet, read my take on him in AGM, pp. 362-368.)
Pforzheimer’s name came up in the ex libris thread by virtue of an admission he made to me in a 1990 interview I had with him concerning five books he said he had taken from HItler’s Chancellery office in August 1945. He told me he gave one of the books to the Army officer who had cut his orders for the assignment to Berlin, donated another to the Grolier Club in New York, of which he was a grateful member, presented a third to his alma mater, Yale University, where several notable collections he built are now housed, and kept the remaining two for himself, one of which--Robert Allmers’s --he showed to me, and which I photographed. (My guess is that these two volumes from the shelves of Pforzheimer’s remarkable Watergate apartment--the floors had been reinforced to his specifications with extra steel beams to support the heavy load of books--went to the Beinecke Library at Yale along with the 15,000-volume “spy” collection he gave to the university, arguably the best of its kind anywhere.)
Without getting too specific here--those who are interested in the various arguments being put forth should check them out on the ex libris site--I would like to address briefly a question that has been raised regarding the propriety of Pforzheimer having taken a few books from the chancellery, and his justification for doing so. I went back to the tape I made of the interview, and Pforzheimer is pretty clear in what he said to me. (As a condition of granting me the interview, I might add that he insisted on seeing what I wrote about him before publication, something I very rarely agree to do, but did so in this instance, given the highly sensitive nature of our discussion--and because I really wanted to talk to him about his collecting.)
Pforzheimer told me that each of the books he took were not works of any apparent rarity, that all bore the personal bookplate of Hitler, and that most contained a personal inscription to Hitler from the authors--meaning that they were not the property of the defeated (and by then defunct) Nazi government, but the private property of the deceased former dictator, a subtle yet significant point, I think, in this context. “I was in this fellow’s office in Berlin, and a few of these things were lying around,” Pforzheimer said, dead-pan. “I didn’t think the Fuhrer was going to be needing them anymore,” and so “I took five out with me.” End of story.
As a coda to the story, I should note that none of these books were ever sold on the open market, and other than the volume that went to the officer who cut Pforzheimer’s orders--of which we know nothing--it can safely be said that all are now in institutional collections. “I was acting instinctively,” he explained, “that’s all.”
It wasn’t a pleasant sight to watch, the slow, agonizing demise of an institution that had welcomed thousands of bookseekers over the years with a sign above the door that proclaimed, wonderfully, that “Wise Men Fish Here.” Founded by the legendary bookseller Frances Steloff, the Gotham occupied a number of locations over the years, all of them within a two-block area bounded by West 45th and West 47th Streets. In time it became the haunt of such literati as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Salvador Dali, J. D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bishop, John Updike--the list is endless.
In 1967, Miss Steloff sold the store, by then a literary salon in the grand tradition, to Andreas Brown, a bookseller, like herself, with a deep passion for authors and literature, but she very much remained a presence until her death in 1989 at the age of 101. I became a regular parishioner in 1978, the year I started making the first of many annual trips to New York for meetings of the National Book Critics Circle and to attend awards ceremonies of the National Book Awards. My hotel of choice in those days, of course--where else?-- was the Algonquin at 59 West 44th St., a three or four minute walk from the Gotham, and thus a requisite stop whenever I was in town. Before long I developed a nodding acquaintance with Miss Steelof, who was always seated on a stool behind the counter. (I also became a pal of the famous Algonquin Cat, an urban feline who patrolled the lobby of the hotel with as much elan as the many celebrity writers who held court in the cozy bar, but that, as they say, is another story.)
The painful tale of the store’s wrenching decline need not be recounted here in any depth. Google it, if you wish, it’s all there for the finding, but very much old news, as far as I’m concerned. What is new, and what is truly exciting, and perhaps even unprecedented for an antiquarian book store is the report that the 200,000 books and related materials from the store’s general stock representing a veritable treasure trove of twentieth century literature have been purchased by an anonymous buyer for $400,000 and given to the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Among the treasures en route to Philadelphia, beginning this week, are items from the personal libraries of Anais Nin and Truman Capote, but most exciting of all are the surprises that will reveal themselves as the boxes are opened, cataloged, and made available to new generations of students and readers. According to an announcement made by the university, the gift includes uncorrected proofs, advance reader’s copies, publicity material, photographs, posters, broadsides, publishing ephemera, and postcards.
“The collection is so big that no single person from the university has really seen it,” Penn curator of rare books Daniel Traister told the Philadelphia Inquirer. David McKnight, director of the library, agreed. “It’s our New Year’s baby,” he said. “It’s going to be accessible to Philadelphians. Our doors are open.”
We might have hoped that the utter humiliation suffered less than three years ago by Doubleday with the acknowledgment it had been duped into believing James Frey’s best-selling “account” of beating drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces, would have occasioned more aggressive fact checking in the industry. But now we have Herman Rosenblat, and the unmasking of Angel at the Fence, his “true story of a love that survived”--that’s the subtitle--being disowned by Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin, on the eve of its release in February.
In yet another twist of coincidental embarrassment (I won’t use the word irony here), it was two appearances Rosenblat made on the Oprah Winfrey television show that helped create a groundswell of interest in his story, which purports to be an authentic tale of love triumphing over evil during the horrors of the Holocaust. Unlike A Million Little Pieces, however, which was selected by Oprah as one of her top picks, Rosenblat’s fabrications were exposed before the book got into print, and before it could have been touted to Oprah’s audience as a love story for the ages. (I can only imagine what sets of the uncorrected proofs will be going for shortly on eBay.)
For those who wonder how Berkley might have gone about investigating the various claims made by Rosenblat in his manuscript, I suggest they take a look at the outstanding piece of hard-nosed journalism researched and written by Gabriel Sherman for the most recent edition of The New Republic, published on Christmas Day. It was this article--a tutorial, really, on how it should be done--that led very quickly to yesterday’s decision by the publisher to deep-six the work, and to demand return of the $50,000 advance he had been paid against royalties.
There is one bit bit of irony here, and it comes in the announcement by Hollywood film producer Harris Salomon that he will proceed with plans for a movie based on the book, with the caveat that it now will be pitched to a credulous public as a work of the imagination, not nonfiction. Hey, nobody ever said Angel at the Fence wasn’t a good story, which leads me to wonder why the author and his agent didn’t shop the thing around as a novel in the first place.
On Oct.3, 1984, I was in Boston interviewing Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s wife, and a distinguished author in her own right. The occasion for our meeting was the publication of her book, The Weaker Vessel, a richly informative study of women in seventeenth-century England.
It was a gorgeous fall day--no city in America is more beautiful than Boston in autumn--and Pinter, who was traveling with his wife on her publicity tour across the United States, was anxious to see a famous Rembrandt painting on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the Fenway (the same painting, in fact, that was stolen by masked bandits six years later). About twenty minutes or so into the interview--I usually had an hour to talk with the authors I profiled for my literary columns--he walked briskly into the main room of their suite at the Ritz-Carlton, and said, “I think it’s time we got going. Do you mind terribly if I take my wife to the museum?”
Lady Fraser looked at me apologetically; I assured her that I had plenty of material for my piece, and thanked her for her time. But I did wonder aloud if she could inscribe my copy of her book before they left, and opportunist that I am in these matters, asked Pinter if he could sign it as well. “It’s not my book,” he said with an edge of annoyance. “I know,” I replied, “but I’d love to have your signature in it anyway.” So there, on the title page of The Weaker Vessel, beneath the nice inscription from Antonia Fraser, is the signature of her husband, Harold Pinter. I’m very pleased to have the book on my shelves
The obituary in today’s New York Times, I might add, is curious for the fact that it was mostly written by Mel Gussow, the outstanding critic and cultural reporter for the newspaper who died three years ago. The Times is famous for writing obituaries of notable people well in advance of their deaths, then keeping the articles on file and updating them only with the particulars of their passing. This is a most unusual instance--I’m sure there have been others, but I can’t think of any more at the moment--where the principal reporter of an obituary has predeceased the subject of the article. It’s a beautifully insightful piece of writing about a major contemporary writer, and I recommend it highly.
Dunne’s observations were expressed through the voice of a fictional Irish-American bartender, one Martin Dooley, who held court in a South Side pub and expounded on all matters political, cultural, and social, typically in conversation with his good friend and foil, Mr. Hennessy. What captured the fancy of readers everywhere was the spontaneity and infectious good nature of Mr. Dooley, and the fact that his sardonic words of wisdom were expressed in the barely penetrable voice of a thick Irish brogue.
Dunne wrote some 700 Dooley pieces, a good many of them collected in eight volumes published between 1898 (Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War) and 1919 Mr. Dooley on Making a Will and Other Necessary Evils), all runaway best-sellers of their day in a manner that prefigured the enormous popularity of the great newspaper humorist Art Buchwald, who died last year at 81. Because the Dooley collections are all in the public domain, full texts for most are available online through Google Books or Project Gutenberg. In each instance, just do a search for Finley Peter Dunne, and follow the directions.
Alternatively, you might want to borrow a real copy from the public library, in which case I suggest you go to WorldCat, the online database for materials held in thousands of libraries worldwide. Find the item you are looking for by author, title, keyword, or a combination, plug in your zip code, and the nearest copy near you will be displayed. This is one of the most remarkable tools available online to readers everywhere, and it is absolutely free. I regard it as indispensable to what I do.
But I digress: what prompted me, you might ask, to think about Mr. Dooley today, and to recall his comment about what he had just read in the newspaper (“I see be th’ pa-apers,” which Dunne tells in the preface to the 1898 collection of the columns that his alter ego read every day “with solemn care”)? A couple things: the first, a terrific piece in today’s New York Times about the small Brooklyn, NY printing firm that has been awarded the contract to print the invitations for Barack Obam’s forthcoming inauguration, the second a review that appeared last week in the Christian Science Monitor, and brought to my attention by another electronic miracle known as Google News Alerts.
The review in question was written seven years ago by the noted reviewer Merle Rubin for my second book, Patience & Fortitude and republished last week with this explanation: The Monitor occasionally reprints book reviews from its archives. This review originally ran on Dec. 27, 2001.
It’s hard enough these days to get new books reviewed in the major media, never mind books that have been around for a couple of years. This was one of the most perceptive reviews, I must say, written of P&F, and certainly one of the most gratifying for me to receive as the author. To see it again like this--indeed, to run across it in a fashion that recalls the words of Mr. Dooley--makes for an unforgettable Christmas gift.
But what has sparked my thoughts today of the deft pen of Halberstam is another piece that ran in the Times, and brought to my attention this morning by my wife Connie (who had the newspaper first.) It’s about the venerable New York Society Library at 53 East 79th Street in Manhattan, a 254-year-old subscription library that has been loaning books out over the generations to such luminaries as George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Barbara Tuchman, and David Mamet. As nice as today’s piece is, I thought immediately of a truly superb appreciation Halberstam had written about the institution a number of years ago, in this instance from the perspective of a grateful reader who often went there for repose and refuge as much as for reading.
Through the magic of Google, I found the 1997 essay quite quickly, on the web page of the society itself, in fact. Like the institution Halberstam celebrated, the article has lost none of its magic with the passage of eleven years, and I recommend it as a heartfelt profile of a great book place. You can read it here: http://www.nysoclib.org/articles/halberstam_1997.html
What made this disclosure especially egregious was that the book --known as the Nurnbergische hesperides, and one of just eight held institutionally worldwide--was one of more than 2,000 culled from the collection of the once-proud Boston organization, and sold off to pay for such necessities as a new roof for the society’s building and to help underwrite its annual flower show. All told, the MHS raised more than $5 million from the fire sale of a library once regarded as one of the strongest of its kind in North America.
As shameless as this desecration was--the MassHort director at the time rationalized that many of the books “hadn’t been used in decades”--there were tepid assurances that what remained, at least, would be safeguarded for future users. Well, so much for half-hearted promises, as the results of a sale this week of fine books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s in New York make so painfully clear.
Not content, apparently, to keep at least a couple of the treasures that remained from a tradition that goes back to 1829, MassHort found another 27 high-end items on its shelves to put on the block--all of them beautifully illustrated, and all of them prime targets for the kind of cultural cannibalism that took place with the Nurnbergische hesperides--were offered up on Dec. 11, and projected to bring in $700,000 to $1 million, almost a third of the $3.42 million realized in the sale of 247 lots.
Top grossers among MassHort books included: $98,500 for lot 222, Hortus Sanitatis (Mainz, 1491); $86,500 for lot 219, a work known as the Grete Herbal (London, 1526); $22,500 for lot 226, Edwin Hale Lincoln’s Orchids of the North Eastern United States (Pittsfield, MA. 1931), and $15,000 for lot 229, a two-volume collection of lithographs of the garden of Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau (Stuttgart, 1834.) What was expected to be highest-ticked MHS item of the sale--a seven volume set of stipple-engraved plates by Henri-Louis Duhamel Du Monceau depicting various fruits (Paris, 1807-1835) valued at $80,000 to $100,000--failed to reach its reserve, and was “bought in,” as the saying goes, and will undoubtedly go on the block in another sale, or be sold privately.
“It’s certainly one of the best groups of illustrated botanical books we’ve auctioned in several decades,” Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president in the books and manuscript department at Sotheby’s in New York, told the Boston Globe. “It includes masterworks, as well as some lesser known but unique books.”
Betsy Ridge Madsen, president of the MassHort board of trustees, said she was saddened by the decision to put on yet another garage sale of irreplaceable treasures, “but we see this as the only way to go forward to clean up our debt.” Like her predecessor four years ago, she said the society will maintain the five hundred rare books that still remain in the collection, along with 12,000 other volumes. But she added this caveat: “We did a member survey, in which we asked members what was most meaningful about their membership, and the rare books were their lowest priority.”
Which is short-hand for fasten your seat belts. The founders and earliest benefactors of this venerable institution--some of the giants of nineteenth-century Boston society--must be turning over in their graves. The Athens of America, indeed.
“This is no time for the collector to quit his books. He may have to quit his house, abandon his trip to Europe and give away his car; but his books are patiently waiting to yield their comfort and provoke him to mirth. They will tell him that banks and civilizations have smashed before; governments have been on the rocks, and men have been fools in all ages. But it is all very funny. The gods laugh to see such sport, and why should we not join them?”
Words of wisdom, if ever there were any.
I was reminded of this by the announcement a few days ago that a book newly made at a cost of 100,000 euros--$127,120 at current conversion rates--had been given to the New York Public Library, which promptly put the sixty-two-pound volume on view in an impromptu exhibition expected to last for about a week. Called Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano (“Michelangelo: The Learned Hand”), the book was crafted in Italy over several months as a 264-page celebration of the great Renaissance master’s work, and is adorned with a bas-relief depiction of “Madonna of the Steps” sculptured on a piece of white marble from one of the quarries in Carrara, Italy, that supplied stone for his statues. The NYPL copy was a gift from the publisher.
According to an article in the New York Times, the book’s “positively sybaritic binding is swathed in red velvet from the same Italian workshop that supplied stage curtains to the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala in Milan. And the book’s photographs and plates of drawings and images of the Sistine Chapel are printed on luxurious paper of pure cotton produced in Italy.” The book is one of thirty-three made thus far by an Italian company called Gruppo FMR, twenty of which have been sold; ninety-nine altogether are planned.
I find especially interesting the assertion each book comes with a 500-year warranty. Lost in all this, though, is any real discussion of what’s inside, other than some wonderful black-and-white photographs by the noted museum photographer Aurelio Amendola. What the NYPL put on display behind glass was simply the marble exterior. Unlike the Book of Kells in Dublin--where the pages are turned once a day--this volume remains closed, though the Times did put up a slide show of a few pages as a kind of teaser. For a complete view, I guess we’ll all have to wait for the facsimile edition, which is sure to come along before long--and at a much more affordable price.
The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, $34.95. 738 pages), a masterful intellectual biography by Kevin J. Hayes, professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, that deals fundamentally with the books that helped shape the mind and thought of our greatest bibliophile president.
The Man Who Loved China (HarperCollins, $27.95, 316 pages), Simon Winchester’s wonderful account of the life and times of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), the eccentric British scientist sometimes called the “Erasmus of the twentieth century” for his magisterial multi-volume work, Science and Civilization in China, published by Cambridge University Press.
Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 276 pages), by Timothy W. Ryback, an original consideration of the person who created the Third Reich based on an examination of the books that were recovered from his personal library, and which are now in the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C.
Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books (Yale University Press, $30, 295 pages), a scholarly look at how people acquired books from the sixteenth century to the present, by Margaret Willes, publisher of the National Trust in England.
Among art books, two, on related themes, have been helpful to me in my continuing research on a cultural history of paper and papermaking; both include exceptional text, and both are richly illustrated.
Chinese Calligraphy (Yale University Press, $75, 520 pages), by Ouyang Zhongshi and Wen C. Fong, and translated from the Chinese and edited by Wang Youfen, the latest installment in the Culture & Civilization in China series launched ten years ago by Yale University Press and the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, and covering the history, theory, and importance of a remarkable art form over the three millennia of its development.
The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy (Thames & Hudson, $75, 240 pages), by Abdelkebin Khatibi and Mohammed Sijelmassi, a hugely influential work first published in 1996, and now back in print in this new edition.
Finally, four paperbacks from a new series recently introduced by Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas, under the general editorship of Edward Hirsch, called The Writer’s World, each volume priced at $24.95:
Irish Writers on Writing, edited by Evan Boland; Mexican Writers on Writing, edited by Margaret Sayers Peden; Hebrew Writers on Writing, edited by Peter Cole; and Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski.
Feel free to enter your own “Picks” in the comments area below.
While the basic theme of this blog will involve the general concept of book culture--and everything that implies--I thought it appropriate to begin where my professional life on the book beat began more than thirty years ago, as a critic and book review editor for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in Massachusetts. A lot of water has passed beneath the keel since then--thousands of interviews with every manner of book person, hundreds of literary reviews, features, and essays for a variety of newspapers and magazines both large and small, seven published books, dozens of lectures presented at universities and libraries throughout the country--but reading remains the central pursuit, and the one, at root, that matters the most to me.
So without further ado, I’ll begin modestly by referring you to a review I recently wrote for the Los Angeles Times on The Private Patient, the latest Adam Dalgliesh novel by the incomparable British crime writer P. D. James, one of my very favorite contemporary authors, and a woman I have had the great pleasure to interview three times over the years. (In time, I hope to have many of these literary features I have written available on my website, which very much remains a work-in-progress; on newer books, I’ll also be posting a regular selection of Nick’s Picks.)
Meanwhile, here is a brief excerpt from my Times review:
“Since introducing Adam Dalgliesh 46 years ago in Cover Her Face, Phyllis Dorothy James has not been coy about the genuine affection she has for her signature character. It is no surprise, then, that Dalgliesh, a published poet, is never boring, never predictable, always complex. All of the traditional conventions of the crime novel, moreover, are present, not least among them a circle of suspects who each possess motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime.”
You can read the full review at: www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-book22-2008nov22,0,7749354.story