Monday, July 31, 2006

Original Version of "On the Road" to be Published

The Boston Globe noted last week that the unedited first version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road will be published next year, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the work's original publication. Viking Penguin has the project. The original manuscript (on a 119-foot scroll) is currently touring the country, and is scheduled to appear in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, MA, next summer.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Book Review: "The Third Translation"

I can sum up my recommendation of author Matt Bondurant's debut novel The Third Translation (2005) in two words: skip it. I almost didn't finish this book; the only reason I did was to make sure that it didn't improve as it moved along - turns out I needn't have worried about that.

Some of my problems with Third Translation are perhaps stylistic: Bondurant doesn't put quotation marks around his dialogue, which I found incredibly annoying; he also repeats many of the same descriptive phrases and/or scenes (including a particularly repulsive motif in which the main character's neighbors come into his apartment to use the bathroom) and has the odd habit of referring to one character by his full name, "Alan Henry" (which creates a ripple effect of tortured pronoun usage that could perhaps have been mitigated by the efforts of an editor).

Those issues are minor, however, compared to the fact that the plot is barely developed (and then - perhaps fittingly - barely comes to a conclusion, most of which is to be found only in the epilogue). The characters are either too bland or too ridiculous to be believable (the introduction of a gang of American pro-wrestlers was yet another point where I almost gave up on this book), and the sections where Bondurant tries to discuss Egyptology are totally lost amongst the silliness of the rest of the book.

The author's interest in Egyptology and particularly in the unsolved puzzle of the Stela of Paser are evident. Unfortunately, I don't think his attempt to make a thriller out of them turned out particularly well.

Libraries Suspect Smiley in More Missing Map Cases

The Hartford Courant (which has been doing an exemplary job in coverage of the Smiley case, I must say) reports today that the libraries hit by map thief E. Forbe Smiley are beginning to realize that the thefts uncovered by the FBI may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Kim Martineau writes "The British Library, Yale and now Harvard are reporting more maps missing from their collections than those the map dealer has admitted to taking. The most valuable fall within Smiley's area of interest - early maps of North America - and several are copies of maps Smiley has already admitted stealing. The British Library suspects Smiley of taking three additional maps and has hired a high-powered Philadelphia lawyer to push its case. Privately, Yale and Harvard have also expressed concern."

On Friday, Harvard announced that five more maps are missing from its collections; the BL and Yale had made similar notices previously. Martineau reports that the libraries will meet with the FBI on August 7 to "sort out loose ends" before Smiley is sentenced; these new concerns will certainly be a part of that meeting.

Smiley's lawyer claims that his client has been entirely cooperative in the FBI's investigation, that he didn't steal the additional maps and is being scapegoated by the libraries. The FBI says they're happy to look at new information brought forth by the libraries, but much of the evidence is circumstantial, as Martineau outlines in depth.

I think it's entirely possible if not likely that Smiley did make off with at least some of the additional maps. However, the lack of proof only speaks more loudly to the need for institutional control by the libraries over their materials so that future Smileys won't have such any easy job of it.

Some New Links

I have been collecting a bunch of new links to add, and finally bit the bullet this morning and did it. These can now be found on the sidebar:

- Bookworm Droppings: A collection of funny and/or disturbing things overheard in bookshops.
- The Journey of a Sleep-Deprived Grad Student: The blog of a fellow library science grad student.
- Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie: All bookplates, all the time.
- Luminous Books: Book news and musings.
- The Book Depository: Bookselling and publishing news.
- Book World: "One woman's attempt to read what's worth reading and say something about it along the way."
- Shelf Life: Rare book news with links.
- Bibliophile Bullpen: "A whiff of old books with your coffee." Almanac, news, events and more.
- Books Rare - Conversation: New blog by an antiquarian bookseller, appraiser, and consultant.
- Spellbound Blog: Thoughts of an archives student at the University of Maryland.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book Review: "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop"

Former bookseller and publishing rep Lewis Buzbee's new memoir The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop found its way to the top of my pile this week. Interesting timing given the list of bookseller reminiscences I've been compiling lately. Buzbee's book (published by Graywolf Press) is a nice little volume, the design of which I like very much: nice dust-jacket, deckled edges, good paper with wide margins. More importantly, the content's not bad either.

Buzbee intersperses autobiographical anecdotes about his life among books with short sections which together comprise a very decent history of the book and bookselling from the early days to the present. This is carried off well, sometimes a tricky thing to do. Both parts are interesting, but it is the personal thoughts and musings which held my attention the most, particularly Buzbee's thoughts on how it was that he came to love books and know that they'd always be a part of his life. I think that many of us have very similar stories, and reading those of others is fascinating.

As Buzbee writes, "There's nothing exceptional in my reading history, and that's why I've chosen to detail it. For those who are afflicted with book lust, those for whom reading is more than information or escape, the road to our passion is quite simple, paved merely by the presence of printed matter."

There is much more to this book than a simple memoir: Buzbee offers thoughts for parents seeking to pass on a love of books to their children ("Take someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back"), some comments and statistics on the health and well-being of the book industry and the role that the internet has come to play in the book world. At the end, he even offers up an annotated list of his favorite bookshops, which is certainly a good resource for the traveling reader.

I quite enjoyed The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and recommend it to all you bibliophiles out there.

LC Cataloging Controversy

Inside Higher Ed has an excellent article on a major fight going on in the cataloging community after the Library of Congress announced that it will no longer provide series authority records, devolving the responsibilities to individual libraries.

The LC's move has been panned by researchers, the American Library Association, and other groups. The Library of Congress has provided very little information about what prompted this decision, and was "unprepared" to discuss the issue on Thursday, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Thieving Librarian Pleads Guilty

The Manchester Evening News (England) reports that Norman Buckley, a librarian at the city's Central Library, has entered guilty pleas on ten counts of theft after he pilfered more than 400 rare books and other items and began selling them on eBay.

More than £250,000 worth of stolen items were discovered in Buckley's apartment, including a 16th-century edition of Chaucer and a 1654 volume of John Donne's elegies. Buckley had already sold items for more than £11,000 when an alert rare books librarian at Central recognized an item up for auction and called the police.

After the raid on his apartment, Buckley admitted the thefts, "telling police that he had started to steal after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend." He issued guilty pleas on ten of the counts, and according to the paper "has asked for 445 offences to be taken into consideration." He could face a maximum of six months in prison for each count. Buckley will be sentenced on August 25.

My thoughts on this one: include all 445 counts when calculating prison time. And that still wouldn't be enough punishment for this guy.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Library of Parliament Reopens

The Canadian Library of Parliament in Ottawa reopened last month after a four-year, $136-million renovation project, reports The Record. The library's air handling and electrical systems were replaced, and the building's appearance was restored to its original 1876 look, complete with layers of translucent glass floors allowing light to enter from the library's dome, a new copper roof, paint job and floor. The new look is described as "breathtaking."

The article discusses the many fires that have plagued the library, as well as some of the rarer pieces held by the institution, including a copy of Audubon's Birds of America with marginal notes by John James Audubon himself (donated by his widow Lucy when the library's original copy was lost in one of the fires). The Birds and other rare items will now be housed in new underground vaults constructed during the renovation project.

Book Review: The Coffee Trader

I'm always open to recommendations for books, and a couple months ago in the shop a customer suggested that I try out David Liss; he's written three historical novels. I read A Conspiracy of Paper earlier this year and enjoyed it quite well, so I picked up the other two and have just finished the second, The Coffee Trader. While the first focused on the English stock market, Coffee Trader centers around the commodities trade in 1650s Amsterdam - in particular, as might be surmised, around a scheme to profit in the emerging coffee market.

Liss writes well, and is able to provide valuable insight into the intricacies of financial markets without losing even me. Also, one of the more interesting things about this book is its discussions on Jewish culture in Holland during this period, a most interesting subject and well handled. His plot in this book as well as Conspiracy is meticulously constructed, and I was kept guessing until the end how the whole thing would unravel. Certainly not a bad read.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Best Book Memoirs

A poster on the Ex-Libris listserv last night asked for suggestions of the "best memoirs by rare book collectors or dealers" - the responses (from some of the best in the rare book community) have been so excellent that I thought I'd compile the list and share them [updates have been added, and the suggestions are now in order alphabetically by author]. Biographies are included, links are to the LT page if available:

- Altick, Richard D.: The Scholar Adventurers (most often recommended, and highly).
- Basbanes, Nicholas: A Gentle Madness, Patience & Fortitude, A Splendor of Letters, Among the Gently Mad, Every Book Its Reader.
- Baxter, John: A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict.
- Collins, Paul: Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books.
- Dickinson, Donald C.: John Carter: The Taste and Technique of a Bookman.
- Everitt, Charles P.: The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter.
- Gekoski, Rick: Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books, published in the US as Nabokov's Butterfly and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books.
- Kraus, H.P.: A Rare Book Saga.
- Lake, Carlton: Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist.
- Lansky, Aaron: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.
- Lewis, Wilmarth: Collector's Progress (an excellent website on Lewis and the Walpole Library is here).
- Magee, David: Infinite Riches: The Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer.
- Markham, Sheila: Book of Booksellers: Conversations with the Antiquarian Book Trade 1991-2003 (some info here).
- Meyer, David: Memoirs of a Book Snake and Inclined Toward Magic: Encounters with Books, Collectors and Conjurors.
- Milne, Christopher Robin: The Path Through the Trees.
- Muir, Percy: Minding my Own Business: An Autobiography.
- Newton, A. Edward: Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections, A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book-Collector, The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers.
- Powell, Lawrence Clark: Bookman's Progress: Selected Writings, A Passion for Books, among others.
- Randall, David Anton: Dukedom Large Enough: Reminiscences of a Rare Book Dealer 1929-1956.
- Roberts, William: The Book-Hunter in London: Historical and Other Studies of Collectors and Collecting.
- Rosenwald, Lessing: Recollections of a Collector.
- Rostenberg, Leona and Madeleine B. Stern: Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad; New Worlds in Old Books; Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion.
- Rota, Anthony: Books in the Blood.
- Sims, George: The Rare Book Game, More on the Rare Book Game, Last of the Rare Book Game, A Life in Catalogue and Other Essays.
- Sowerby, E. Milicent; Rare People and Rare Books.
- Steloff, Frances and W.G. Rogers, Wise Men Fish Here.
- Storm, Colton and Howard Peckham: Invitation to Book Collecting.
- Tanselle, G. Thomas: The Pleasures of Being a Scholar-Collector.
- Weissman, Stephen: "What use is Bibliography? The Life and Opinions of an Antiquarian Bookseller" (PBSA, v. 89.2; 06/1995).
- West, Herbert F.: The Impecunious Amateur Looks Back: The Autobiography of a Bookman, The Mind on the Wing: A Book for Readers and Collectors, Sunny Intervals and others.
- Winterich, John: Primer of Book Collecting (several editions, some co-authored by Dave Randall).
- Wolf, Edwin: Rosenbach.
- Wrigley, Arthur: "From a Correspondent" in The Book Collector 52, no. 4
(2003): 490-7 and Nicholas Barker, "Arthur Edward Wrigley (1865-1952)" in the same issue, pages 529-36.

Slightly off-topic but still interesting:
- Benjamin, Walter: "Unpacking my Library," in Illuminations.
- Harvey, Miles: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime.
- Highet, Gilbert: People, Places, and Books.
- Martin, William: Harvard Yard.
- Towner, Wesley: The Elegant Auctioneer.

Additionally, collector Jerry Morris provides this extensive list of books pertaining to collecting and collectors in England; another good source for this will be the forthcoming Out of Print and Into Profit: A History of the Rare and Secondhand Book Trade in Britain in the 20th Century (to be published this fall by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press).

Wow, I have a lot of reading to do!

Best of Boston

The new "Best of Boston" issue of Boston magazine is out, and I was delighted to find that Commonwealth Books was recognized this year in the "Best Used Bookstore" category. The write-up focuses on our shop in Kenmore Square: "This independent bookstore's inventory might not be as large as the hangar-size Barnes & Noble across the street, but it wins on originality and quirkiness. Recent arrivals include La Bible Mythes et Realities, Bibliography of Islamic Philosophy, and A History of Haiku. Cluttered and cozy, the Comm. Ave. shop welcomes both literati and loiterers and has built up a solid following of crusty bibliophiles. Best of all is the bookshop's aroma: the musty, pungent odor of literary history. Browse the shelves and breathe it in for yourself."

While I think some of our customers might not liked being called "crusty," I know at least a few who'll wear that title proudly. If you're in town, do stop in and see any of the three Boston shops (Boylston, Kenmore, Old South) ... and of course don't forget all the other fabulous used bookshops in town: the Brattle, Booksmith, Raven, Harvard Bookstore - all are winners in my book (no pun intended, of course).

LibraryThing Unveils "Groups"

The good folks at LibraryThing keep finding ways to make a great thing even better (not to mention more addictive). "Groups" have made their debut, and they're proving very popular with the Thingamabrian set. From "Bostonians" to "Tea!" to "Chick Lit" and (way) beyond, there really is at least one thing for everyone ... and if the group hasn't been started yet, well then start it up! With message boards, group statistics, and more, this is certain to be still another way that LT will provide hours of fun and enlightenment.

If you haven't been subjected yet to my full review of LibraryThing, it's here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Webster's Dictionary Turns 200

Via Rare Book News comes this article from The Republican (MA) on the two hundredth anniversary of Noah Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, one of America's greatest early dictionaries.

Maria Antonetti, "curator of rare books at the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton and a past president of the American Printing History Association, said the 1806 dictionary is one of the most important publications in the history of American culture. 'It's the first great American dictionary, but it's more than just that,' said Antonetti, who described the work as a kind of declaration of independence from English as spoken by the British."

The first edition of Webster's dictionary ran to 408 pages, and contained some 37,000 definitions (about 5,000 of which were new words). A small volume (6.5 x 4 inches) with tiny type, the work cost just $1.00 when it was printed (today it would cost at least ten times that much to get even a facsimile of the first edition; I couldn't find a true first for sale).

Webster's 1828 two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language was his masterpiece, doubling his early effort (it cost $20 when published); it contained more then 70,000 definitions.

For more on Webster and his dictionaries, I suggest Jill Lepore's recent A is for American.

Irish Psalm Book Found in Bog

This story's been getting a huge amount of play in the mainstream press, but I thought I'd pass it along anyway just in case anyone missed it. A construction worker in Ireland discovered a small psalm book in an Irish bog last week, a find believed to be "the first discovery of an Irish early medieval document in two centuries."

The psalm book (or psalter) about twenty pages long, has been tentatively dated to 800-1000 AD by Trinity College (Dublin) manuscript experts, and is bound in vellum. Work will now be done to try and figure out how to conserve the book and (hopefully) allow access to its contents someday.

BBC quotes National Museum director Pat Wallace, who said of the book "Nobody has found anything like this for centuries - we are going to find it very hard to find people who know about it ... In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilisation of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

New Article on Hedges

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Avril has published an article on the new method of dating rare prints and engravings offered by Penn State biology professor Blair Hedges (my original post on the subject is here, with Terry Belanger's followup criticism here). Avril discusses the response to Hedges from within the rare book community (including Belanger's critique) and offers Hedges' rather glib response to it: "I would feel the same way if somebody from their area came into mine."

Avril does a good job of summarizing Hedges' method, and offers some interesting insights into his methodology as well:

"Printing pressure had no impact on copper plates, he says. Immense pressure would have made the grooves wider, not narrower. To prove this point, Hedges bought a new copper plate and engraved some lines in it. Then he covered it with a steel plate and drove over it with his SUV. No change in the engraved lines. Finally, he pounded the plates with a sledgehammer, exerting considerably more pressure than what would come from a printing press. Sure enough, the lines got wider, not thinner."

The article concludes by noting that Hedges is now working his method on the undated fourth quarto edition of "Hamlet." I hope that doesn't include running it over with his car.

Shelley Work Reappears

London bookseller Bernard Quaritch has announced the rediscovery of a long-lost early political pamphlet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written while he was an undergraduate at Oxford (and published very soon before his expulsion for refusing to disavow his authorship of another controversial essay).

Quaritch notes "Until now the very existence of the Poetical Essay has been doubted, remaining 'one of the unsolved mysteries of Shelley bibliography', deduced only from a series of advertisements in Oxford and London newspapers in March-April 1811 and from a few sparse references in contemporary correspondence. The text of the poem - 172 lines - is completely unknown, and represents a major find for Shelley and Romantic scholarship."

The poem, "Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things," was attributed on the title page to "A Gentlemen of the University of Oxford," a pseudonym used by Shelley several times in 1811. There is some suggestion that Shelley's sister Elizabeth colloborated with him on this work.

A lengthy article by H.R. Woudhuysen in the July 12 "Times Literary Supplement" adds "
The pamphlet is a quarto, consisting of twenty pages with a final leaf of notes on the recto and errata on the verso; printed on paper with a watermark date of 1807, it is stitched and uncut, still very much in the same state as it was when it was issued. The poem is dedicated 'TO HARRIET W–B–K', that is Harriet Westbrook with whom Shelley eloped in August 1811: this constitutes the first printed reference to the poet’s wife. The dedication is followed by a 'Preface', a short essay touching on politics and religion, calling for 'a total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involve society', not by warfare, which he vigorously denounces, but by 'gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions'."

It's always exciting to see "phantom" works like this reappear after long absences.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Missing Yale Maps Posted

While I was away, some movement on the rare map front; Yale University libraries have posted a list of the nearly 100 maps they believe are missing from their Sterling Library collections following a full survey in the wake of the E. Forbes Smiley arrest and subsequent plea deal.

Alice Prochaska, a librarian at Yale, wrote in a statement "We believe this list is as complete as possible, and we hope it will be helpful to the map community, including dealers, collectors and librarians. If additional material is recovered, or more items are discovered missing, this list will be edited accordingly. Missing maps from the Beinecke Library will be posted soon."

The missing maps range from a 1562 chart of Russia by D. Henrico Sydneo to several maps by Mercator and Ortelius from the 1590s all the way through the late nineteenth century.

A Hartford Courant story from July 20 provides some more details, and also notes "By making its list public, Yale has set a precedent among the libraries that inventoried their collections after Smiley's arrest. If other libraries follow, it could bring about a sea change in how maps are bought and sold, as dealers and collectors start to insist on proof of clear title."

Reputable map dealers seem to be wholeheartedly embracing Yale's action, as well they should. Harry Newman notes "This is what we need. If you realize something is missing, don't keep it quiet, let us know." William Reese adds "The more institutions make people aware of these problems, the further we come to solving them. The vast majority of people are selling maps conscientiously, but we have to understand that potential thieves like Forbes Smiley are at work. Anyone shopping in these markets has to be conscious of provenance."

Libraries and other institutions are often reluctant to admit that they've been the victims of theft, to avoid embarrassment. This must end. Yale's action is a good one, and I hope other libraries that have lost materials will follow suit; it is the best way to combat people like Smiley (although stronger penalties certainly wouldn't hurt either).

In a related story, the Boston Globe reported yesterday that the eight maps Smiley admitted to stealing from Harvard University libraries will be returned to Cambridge in September.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Book Review: "The Audubon Reader"

Richard Rhodes, author most recently of the excellent biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American, has edited another very useful Audubon volume, the Everyman's Library Audubon Reader. A collection of personal letters, autobiographical writings, and chosen segments of Audubon's extensive ornithological species accounts, this volume offers an open window into the writings of one of America's greatest naturalists through his own words. Rhodes has edited wisely, drawing from a wide range of materials covering the entire scope of Audubon's life and works.

For any Audubon enthusiast or nature-writing fans in general, this book will happily fill a gap on your shelf. Whether read straight through or dabbled at will, I recommend Rhodes' effort highly.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Vacation Reading

I'm headed "down east" tomorrow for a week on the Maine coast with my family; I figured I'd pass along the books I'm taking with me to read. I don't anticipate getting through all of them, but better too many than too few, right?

- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling: The fifth Harry Potter, which I've already started. I figured the first couple days of vacation would be a good way to get another of these under my belt.

- A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas Basbanes: This author's first book, which I am ashamed to say I've never read before. A collection of "book stories" covering many areas of book culture.

- The Audubon Reader: Edited by recent Audubon biographer Richard Rhodes, this Modern Library edition presents some of the great naturalist's best writings. I'm looking forward to reading this as I sit on the rocks watching the tide come in around me.

- Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte: Because, well, what's summer vacation without the adventures of a swashbuckler?

- A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski: A biography of Olmsted, who designed many of America's most familiar urban landscapes, including New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace.

I'll have reviews of these next week.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Playing Politics with Cultural Artifacts

I wanted to pass along this very troubling article from yesterday's LATimes, which discusses a case with tremendous implications for the field of cultural preservation. A federal court has ordered the seizure and sale of a collection of cuneiform tablets (estimated to number between 5,000-10,000) on loan from the government of Iran to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. The proceeds from that sale would be used to compensate American victims of a 1997 bombing in Israel, who successfully sued Iran for backing the Hamas militants who carried out the attack.

Another federal court hearing on the seizure will be held on Monday; Iran argues that the seizure is not allowable on sovereign immunity grounds. The Justice Department has filed briefs in the case "claiming that the country's national interest would be better-served if the dispute were settled through diplomacy instead of legal action," and the University of Chicago and Field Museum have also intervened on behalf of Iran.

"Museum officials said they worried that turning over the on-loan artifacts could create a chilling effect, and were concerned that nations would curtail their willingness to share priceless objects - and that American artifacts could be at risk of being seized while touring overseas." I have to say that I agree. This ought to be settled in another way, preferably diplomatically - to seize and sell these significant historical artifacts would set a dangerous and unfortunate precedent.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

What's on College Summer Reading Lists?

In the latest issue of College & Research Libraries News, UNC-Chapel Hill Reference Librarian Gary Pattillo provides a selection of the books chosen by various college and university summer reading programs:

- UNC-Chapel Hill: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Texas Tech: Proof by David Auburn
- Appalachian State University: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- Miami University (OH): Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq by Michael Goldfarb
- Louisiana State University: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
- San Diego State University: Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family by Ronne Hartfield
- Univ. of Louisiana at Monroe: Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
- Meredith College: No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- SUNY Brockport: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Shakespeare First Folio Sells

The BBC is reporting that the Williams copy of Shakespeare's First Folio (which I discussed on Tuesday) has sold at Sotheby's for £2.8 million ($5.15 million). It was purchased by an anonymous London book dealer.

[Update: The dealer who bought the First Folio has been revealed as Simon Finch, who was presumably acting on behalf of a client.]

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Book Review: "Team of Rivals"

I've just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and I thought I ought to just write my review now while my thoughts on the book remain fresh. This is a striking tour de force, capturing not only Lincoln's political genius but also his life and the intertwined lives of those around him, the famous 'team of rivals' that he created to guide this nation through one of its most turbulent periods.

I should say at the outset that my feelings on Mrs. Goodwin are mixed, but her previous errors notwithstanding I knew that this was not a book that I would skip, given my keen interest in the historical period generally and William Seward in particular (like me a graduate of Union College, Seward has been a personal research interest for several years now).

Goodwin gives the first portion of Team of Rivals over to biographical sketches of Lincoln and the men who would comprise his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 and later the core of his cabinet: Seward, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Salmon Chase of Ohio. In well-honed style, the early lives and careers of these men are outlined through the exciting Chicago convention where Lincoln found himself victorious over the other men (each almost certainly more qualified on paper than the former one-term congressman and twice-unsuccessful Senate candidate). From there the story moves quickly, and Goodwin deftly handles the process by which Lincoln carefully came to choose the members of his cabinet, playing regional, ideological and personal rivalries off each other with a skill unmatched before or since.

The president's talents were not sheathed once the cabinet was established, of course - one of the most amazing things about Lincoln that comes through in Goodwin's work is his nearly unending patience with his advisers, even as their ambitions, rivalries, jealousies and weaknesses manifested themselves in ways that would have driven a lesser leader to distraction or worse. Most if not all of those Lincoln brought into his cabinet probably thought themselves superior to him in all but name at the outset - it is to Lincoln's everlasting credit that before long he had earned the heartfelt respect, admiration, and loyalty of nearly all of them.

As a joint biography of Lincoln, Seward, Chase and Bates Goodwin manages well until the commencement of the Administration; at this point Bates falls by the wayside somewhat, replaced by Lincoln's eventual second Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Others get their due, including Mary Lincoln, Chase's daughter Kate, the key Blair clan, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and Generals McClellan and Grant. But it is Lincoln, Seward and Chase who rate the most attention, with justification.

It was Seward and Chase whose rivalry most infected the Administration's deliberations, and the two provide an interesting contrast: the New Yorker who came to admire and love the rustic president, enjoying night after night of amiable companionship and storytelling; the Ohioan whose presidential amibitions controlled him to the last and could never quite overcome his initial contempt for a man he felt had risen above his station. Lincoln somehow managed to play these two men off each other brilliantly (even to the point of managing to obtain both their resignations after one spat just so that he could reject both).

There are villains in this book - Chase fares poorly, while General George McClellan comes in for a well-deserved flogging from Goodwin's pen for his preening and self-serving (not to mention downright insubordinante) attitude as well as his not insignificant Napoleon complex. But on the whole, Goodwin focuses her narrative prowess on the interplay between and among Lincoln and his subordinates, masterfully detailing how it was that the team of rivals came together effectively under Lincoln's leadership.

Given Goodwin's recent troubles, I expected that careful attention would be paid to the way sources were cited in Team of Rivals. I was surprised that footnotes were not indicated in the text; only by going to the back of the book and searching for the cited quote (by page) could the source be obtained. While frustrating methodologically, at least the notes are there, all 120 pages of them.

Goodwin's treatment of Seward is excellent; I learned several things that I didn't remember from other biographies, including the views of WHS' wife Frances on the slavery question, which were somewhat more stringent than those her husband voiced publicly. Interestingly and unfortunately, Goodwin does not discuss the impact of Eliphalet Nott on Seward's thinking (Nott, the president of Union and another personal research interest of mine, was Seward's mentor and longtime correspondent; his advice was very important to Seward, who kept an engraving of Nott in his office).

The final section of Goodwin's book forms the best short treatment of the assassination that I have read, putting the simultaneous attacks on Lincoln and Seward into their proper context - coming as they did fast on the heels of the jubilation accompanying Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Perhaps the most compelling anecdote of the entire book comes here: Seward, recovering from his grievous injuries, was not told that Lincoln had been killed for fear that he would not survive the shock. Looking out his window on Easter Sunday, however, Seward declared to those with him "The President is dead." His companions tried to deny the fact, but Seward knew beyond a doubt, saying "If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me, but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there's the flag at half mast."

Like Seward, Stanton and the others, Goodwin's respect for Lincoln is evident throughout this book, and it has helped her to construct a great work of narrative history.

Book Review: "Nathaniel's Nutmeg"

Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg is an armchair history of the East Indian spice race, which might be interesting were it not so poorly done. Milton's work is basically a litany of voyage-facts interspersed with some (unfootnoted and unreferenced) quotes from "primary sources." While attention-grabbing at times, the majority of the text is unexceptional.

Additionally, the design of the book just bugged me; while I often find pictures joined with the text very useful and complementary to a book, those in Nutmeg rarely seemed to match the accompanying text, often referring to either something from pages past or an incident farther along. The large captions were distracting and disrupted the flow of the page.

Not a book I can bring myself to recommend.

Comments on Smiley

Thanks to Everett Wilkie for passing along this editorial from Bruce McKinney, the owner of Americana Exchange. McKinney takes on the plea deal reached with map thief E. Forbes Smiley, calling the disgraced dealer "the Edward Scissorhands of the antiquarian map business."

Wilkie also recently posted the addresses of the state and federal judges who will announce Smiley's sentence on September 21. He encourages those of us with interest in this matter to write: "You do not need to be at one of the libraries affected to have your voice heard in either case. In the federal case, especially, he is charged with cultural theft, and that is a crime against all of us, not just the library from which he stole that map. One reason that it is important that you let your feelings be known is that Smiley's defense team is no doubt lining up letters of support and commendation for this man. Those must be offset by reality."

I'll be writing.

A Response to Hedges

A couple weeks ago I mentioned a new method of dating engravings and other prints devised by Penn State biology professor Blair Hedges (you can read more about the method here, in an interesting "Seed Magazine" article).

Now Terry Belanger, Director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, has responded to Hedges' method in a post to the Ex-Libris listserv. Belanger writes that Hedges' "theories are based on the examination of the successive editions of only three books, and though some parts of his methodology may eventually prove to be of some use when used with larger samples and taking other kinds of evidence into account, his current conclusions cannot be not be taken very seriously."

Regarding wood block prints, Belanger notes "Wood blocks do indeed wear very little as the result of the actual printing process, though they will wear and develop damage during the process of cleaning them (by scrubbing) at the end of the day's press run. Improperly stored, wood blocks can develop cracks and otherwise deteriorate over long periods of time, and there may be some correlation between the age of a block and the evident deterioration of prints produced from it, but many other factors need to be taken into account (including climate, storage conditions, and the number of impressions within in an edition) before it would be possible to posit a simple correlation between time and wear." He expresses similar concerns about copper-plate engravings, with additional attention to the action of the printing press on the plate.

Belanger's concerns are quite important, and it will be worth watching to see what (if any) response is forthcoming from Hedges.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Shakespeare First Folio to be Auctioned

Western Mail (Wales) reporter Aled Blake has an article out on the July 13 Sotheby's auction of an exceedingly rare copy of the Shakespeare First Folio. According to early estimates, the copy could fetch as much as £3.5 million (around $6.5 million).

Printed in 1623 in a run of approximately 750 copies, the Folio contains eighteen plays which had never been printed before - meaning without it, there's a decent chance that some of Shakespeare's most famous productions would not have survived (including Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest, and As You Like It). Only around a third of those copies exist in any form today.

The copy that will be sold Thursday is a very rare complete edition, in nearly pristine condition. The Sotheby's catalogue notes "No other such textually complete copy of the First Folio in a mid-seventeenth-century binding is known to survive in other than institutional hands. ... This copy is further remarkable in that it shows considerable signs of careful reading in the seventeenth century by a contemporary or near contemporary reader, has been seemingly owned since that time by only two persons, Dr William Bates (1625-1699) and Dr Daniel Williams (c. 1643-1716), both Nonconformist divines, and has since 1729 been in the library founded by the second of these - a library which is today of primary importance for the history and study of Nonconformist history and theology. It has therefore the longest uninterrupted ownership of any copy in the world."

The Williams copy is being sold, according to Blake, by the trustees of Dr. Williams' library, "one of the oldest open to the public still conducted on its original benefaction." Library director David Wyckes says of the sale "We believe the sale will enable us to enhance the service we offer our readers and to better develop and conserve our unique collections."

Sotheby's has created a flashy display for the book, which is linked here. It contains a fair number of images, as well as an introduction [pdf] by Professor Stanley Wells, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University. You can also browse the full catalogue (the First Folio is Lot 95).

What a beautiful book, and enhanced so by the early annotations and terrific provenance. A rare find indeed. I wish I could find myself in London this week just to catch a glimpse of it!

[Update: Here's another article on the sale, from the Sacramento Bee, which highlights the Firrst Folio at the California State Library.]

Monday, July 10, 2006

Early Printed Books Profiled

The Republican has an interesting profile story today on the rare books collections at several Massachusetts institutions, playfully headlined "Valley home to ancient tomes." The focus is largely on the earliest printed books that have found homes in college and university rare books collections: Smith College's 1467 copy of St. Augustine's "De Vita Beata"; Amherst's 1471 "Suetonius Vitae XII Caesarum" (a biography of Julius Caesar); and Mount Holyoke's 1471 copy of Valla's Latin grammar.

Early books of New England importance also are mentioned, including Amherst's 1684 edition of an Increase Mather essay on supernatural happenings and the Springfield Library Association's copy (one of four) of William Pynchon's "The Meritorious Price of our Redemption" (printed in London in 1650, but burned en masse in Boston).

Of course the article wanders toward monetary value, but then meanders back around to security questions, mentioning the Smiley case. Most importantly (and apparently surprisingly to the author) is that the books are made accessible. She quotes Martin Antonetti, curator of rare books at Smith College: "We're not trying to keep people away from the books. In fact, we want people to have contact with these objects from the past. What other artifacts from the 15th century can people hold and handle? To me, that is part of the excitement of these objects. They are so rich and the experience of handling them can be so emotional."

Exactly. And that, of course, is their true cultural worth.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

LT Gets some Boston Press

LibraryThing rates a mention in the Boston Globe today as part of a Jan Gardner collection of short write-ups. Also, the LibraryThing store is now open at CafePress, so you can order that LT onesie/hoodie/tanktop/golf shirt/tote bag/thong/mousepad you've always wanted!

"Bookworm Droppings"

This great website (which accompanies a book) collects "Absurd Remarks made by Customers in Secondhand Bookshops," some of which are absolutely hilarious; others are just plain disturbing. I've heard at least a few of them in the shop, especially "You don't need a book, you've already got one at home," which seems to be a particularly (and most unfortunately) common message from some mothers to their children.

Another recent one was from a guy who came in asking for a book and kept calling it "really old, really old and hard to find." I asked when it was printed and he said "1998." There were several hundred copies online.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Some New Links

In rambling around the Internet looking for new book-related blogs, I've come across a few of particular interest, and have added links to them on the sidebar. They are:

- Books Found: "A Bookselling Family's Journal ... the books we find, the books that find us, and the little adventures along the way." From the Ashland Book Company.

- Journal: Written by the founder and CEO of Bookfinder, Anirvan Chatterjee. Mainly covers online bookselling.

- eNotes Book Blog: A little bit of everything.

- Off the Shelf: A group book-blog written by the book critics at the Boston Globe. One of my new favorites.

- The Playful Antiquarian: Covers "children’s literature, printing and paper history, rare books, and related topics" from the perspective of a Harvard Law School Library curatorial assistant (and a predecessor of mine at Simmons).

I'm sure I'll be adding more links every week or so; if you have suggestions (or a great blog that I'm missing!) please drop me an email.

Book Review: "The Time Traveler's Wife"

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife was recently recommended to me, so the next time a copy came through the shop I picked it up. Let me just say this at the outset: simply marvelous. This isn't something I'd normally have read, but I am very glad that I did - I couldn't put it down, and stayed up much too late reading the last few chapters.

At heart this is a story about love, but it is hardly your traditional guy-gets-girl romance novel. How could it be, when the guy (Henry, a rare books librarian at the Newberry) is an involuntary time-traveler who first "meets" the girl (Clare) when she's six and he's in his late thirties, having been zipped back from his "present"? It's a bizarre premise, and one which had to be terrifically difficult to manage in the writing process. But Niffenegger pulls it off - magnificently - and while all the zipping around can be slightly mind-boggling for the reader, one need only think about how infinitely more frustrating it must be for the characters!

This is at times not an easy book to read; once I started to identify with the characters it wasn't difficult to feel their frustrations, to understand Clare's fears that Henry, once disappeared, might never find his way back to reality (such that it was); that Henry never knew where or when he'd suddenly appear, without clothes, and have to make his way about until he did return to his present. Sometimes the foreshadowed plot twists are gut-wrenching, and I just had to keep reading until I got to that moment I knew was coming, hoping all the while that somehow that collision could be avoided.

The Time Traveler's Wife got a great deal of of hype when it came out - after reading it, I can only conclude that most of it was indeed well-deserved. This is the kind of book that will take you from tears to laughter and back again before you turn the page, and the kind in which you dread making that last page-turn because you know the trip has ended.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Washington & Lee Receives Newspaper Collection

The Roanoke Times reports that Washington and Lee University is now home to the newspaper collection of Frederic Farrar, an alumnus from the class of 1941. Farrar is slowly donating the documents to his alma mater, with 2,000 already delivered and "the best stuff yet to come." The focus of the collection is historic events as news stories, including the election of almost every president (he's missing a paper on Ike's reelection in '56), major battles and other events. The oldest piece is a 1559 item recounting the death of France's King Henry II.

A journalism professor at W&L has designed a class around the collection. The papers are also being catalogued and will be made available for public research, and a website has been created to highlight the newspapers.

Institutions Cooperate to Purchase Rare Books

The Chicago Tribune reports today on a partnership that has sprung up in Chicago between the Newberry Library and several universities to acquire and share rare books in order to keep them publicly accessible for researchers. Under the program, "when a desirable rare book comes up for sale, the library puts up two-thirds of the money and the school one-third. The Newberry keeps the book eight months a year; the school can have it for four." Given recent trends in university budgets, particularly when it comes to special collections, this is a great idea.

Institutions that have participated in the partnership include Notre Dame (the first, back in 1995), Western Michigan University, Illinois University, Spertus College, DePaul University, and the University of Minnesota. Over the course of the program, the Newberry has helped purchase some 23 books, with total costs nearing half a million dollars. Plans are in the works to "
make all documents bought in the partnership program available for travel to all member schools."

As the costs of rare books continue to appreciate (see the Hauck sale posts from a few days ago!), coupled with continued budget problems for educational institutions, this kind of partnership is going to become more and more necessary - it's going to take more imaginative solutions like this to preserve our cultural artifacts, so kudos to the Newberry and the other institutions for their leadership.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Missing Deed Probably Gone Forever

I missed this one last week but wanted to pass it along: the Boston Globe ran a short piece on June 25 discussing the ongoing, fruitless search for a "367-year-old deed that documents a critical land transaction between" early settlers of Milford, CT and the Paugussett tribe. The first such of nine deeds, cited in an 1838 history of the town, the document has been missing perhaps since that time (if it ever existed).

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Book Review: "Revolutionary Characters"

I've reviewed Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters over at Charging RINO to mark the Fourth of July.

Town Records Preservation Highlighted

The Sheboygan Press (WI) ran a short article last week on an effort to preserve early records of Sheboygan. City clerk Sue Richards has applied for and received several grants to fund visits by George Brisson of Excel Binding; Brisson has removed the early bindings from the record books and encapsulated the pages to stabilize them and allow for future use.

Spanish Art Book Presented to UNM

The mayors of Albuquerque (both New Mexico and Spain) joined Spanish book collector Bartolomé Gil Santacruz in a ceremony yesterday marking the donation of a rare book to the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico. The work is a special edition of Federico Garcia Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, illustrated by several Spanish artists.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Book Review: "English Passengers"

I saved a copy of Matthew Kneale's English Passengers from bargain-cart purgatory at the shop last week and brought it home with me to read as one of my "T-books" (that is, paperbacks, generally fiction, that accompany me on my jaunts about Boston). Typically I try and keep those in my bag when I'm at home so I'm not tempted to read them except when traveling - with this book, however, I quickly gave up that charade and succumbed to its siren's song.

Kneale has created something little short of a masterpiece with this work. His method of structure is superb (telling the story from many different first-person perspectives, each with their own unique voice), and his knack for language is simply brilliant. The development of each character is handled with a deftness for which I can think of no apt comparison. From Manx captain Illiam Quillian Kewley of the Sincerity to the Tasmanian aborigine Peevay to the deluded vicar Geoffrey Wilson and the twisted Dr. Thomas Potter, Kneale brings so much life to his pages that it is nearly impossible to feel for the characters (whether that feeling be respect, hatred or compassion) as the narrative proceeds.

This book was a finalist for the Booker Prize and has won several other awards, all well deserved. It is a fantastic yarn from stem to stern, filled with tension, humor, and all the ironies of human interaction. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Books on Gettysburg

Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College (and author of the forthcoming book The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows) offers his top five books about Gettysburg.

(h/t: Marshall Zeringue at Campaign for the American Reader)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

UI Paper Protects Charters of Freedom

Just in time for Independence Day, the Iowa City Press-Citizen features an article on the University of Iowa's papermaking outfit, which in 2003 created several sheets of paper specifically for the Charters of Freedom (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights) at the National Archives. The UI sheets, made of "American-grown, 100 percent textile-quality cotton," sit under the documents in their display cases to cushion them.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Vatican to Release Interwar Files

According to a Reuters report, the Vatican plans to allow access to the files of Pope Pius XI beginning on September 18. The documents encompass the pontificate of Pius XI, from February 6, 1922 through February 10, 1939; they are expected to shed light on the Holy See's involvement in the Spanish Civil War as well as the leadup to World War II.

The AP adds that the new materials may include an encyclical written by Pius XI but not released before his death: titled "Humani Generis Unitatis" ("The Unity of the Human Race") the document was "commissioned to denounce racism and the violent nationalism of Germany."