Category Archive 'Books'
08 Apr 2017

The $2.5 Million Rare Book Heist

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More on the Great British Book Heist that took place last January in Daily Beast:

Late in the night on Jan. 29, three still-unknown thieves drilled through the skylight of a building near Heathrow Airport and rappelled 40 feet to the floor, bypassing the security alarms.

They went straight to six specific crates that contained three dealers’ worth of books that were en route to the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland.

Over the course of several hours, they unloaded the books they wanted into duffel bags, belayed their loot to the roof, and took off in a waiting van. The haul totaled nearly $2.5 million.

“Behind these books there is a lot of work because we have to search to try to find out where the books are—auction houses, collectors, colleagues—and there’s big research behind these books,” Alessandro Meda Riquier, one of the affected dealers, tells Sky News. “They are not only taking money away from me but also a big part of my job.”

Riquier was the owner of several of the most noteworthy tomes that were taken in the heist. The most expensive book was a second edition of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres from 1566 in which the astronomer introduced his revolutionary theory that the sun—not the Earth—is the center of the universe.

That book alone is worth over $250,000. Among the rest of the trove are several rare editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy and a smattering of Galileos, Newtons, and da Vincis, among other titles from the luminaries of the early sciences.

All in all, it is the quantity of books stolen rather than the individual titles that make this heist so significant.

“The books were there for only a short time in that warehouse, and this is a very exotic commodity so this is not something that the average person thinks that they can sell,” Jeremy Norman, a rare book dealer with a specialty in the early sciences, tells The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a real mystery. You really wonder how they knew the stuff was there, and the timing of it, and how they were shipped off, and what the real motivation was.”

Several theories have been offered as to why the thieves went after this quarry. One suggests that this may have been a “made to order” theft, one in which a buyer specifically commissioned the thieves to take these titles.

Similar to fine art, stolen antique books are very difficult to sell on the legitimate market—and thereby net the title’s full value. When a rare book crime becomes known, organizations like the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) quickly take action to alert their members to the volumes that were stolen so dealers can be on the lookout for anyone trying to offload a tainted treasure.

Full Story.

Earlier report.

02 Apr 2017

Book Tunnel

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Boing Boing: Chinese bookstore Yangzhou Zhongshuge in Zhen Yuan, China has arguably the most breathtaking bookstore entrance in the world.

My Modern Met:

The dizzying space contains a grand optical illusion that you only see once you’ve set foot inside. Its lobby is a cavernous tunnel that most notably features striking black mirrored flooring. Together, the reflective ground and curved shelving creates the feeling that you’ve stepped into a perfectly circular room, making you question which way is up. Luckily, there’s help in finding the path forward. The shelves are split by a lightning bolt-shaped gap in the ceiling that leads you into the rest of the store.

Shanghai-based studio XL-Muse were the ones to come up with this clever configuration. Inspired by Yangzhou’s proximity to water, they designed the ground to mimic liquid. “In the past, guided by water, many literati and poets visited and gathered here,” they told Dezeen. “[The bridges] used to be the guiding factor of culture and commerce, and they represent that the bookstore is the bond between humans and books at the same time.” The mirrored flooring acts as a water current that draws you further into Yangzhou.

17 Feb 2017

Red

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Dyers at work. Bartholomeus Anglicus and Jean Corbechon, Le Livres des Propriétés des Choses, Manuscript, Brussels, 1482.

Arts and Letters Daily excerpts a bit from Michel Pastoureau’s Red: The History of a Color.

The late Middle Ages and the modern period have left us works by great painters that are particularly remarkable for their range of reds. Let us mention Van Eyck, Uccello, Carpaccio, Raphael, and later, Rubens and Georges de La Tour. But all artists seemed to love this color and tried to draw various tonalities from it. Accordingly they chose their pigments, taking into account not only their physicochemical properties, their ability to cover or make opaque, their resistance to light, and how easily they could be worked or combined with other pigments but also their price, availability, and—what is most disconcerting to us—the name they went by. Indeed we can observe in the laboratory that in panel paintings from the late Middle Ages, symbolically “negative” reds—those coloring the fires of hell, the face of the Devil, the coat or feathers of infernal creatures, and all impure blood of one kind or another—were often painted with the same pigment: sandarac, a resin lacquer more commonly called “cinnabar of the Indies” or “dragon’s blood.” Various legends circulated in workshops regarding this pigment, a relatively expensive one because it had to be imported from far away. It was believed to come not from a plant resin but from the blood of a dragon, gored by its mortal enemy, the elephant. According to medieval bestiaries, which followed Pliny and the ancient authors here, the inside of the dragon’s body was filled with blood and fire; after a fierce struggle, when the elephant had punctured the dragon’s belly with its tusks, out flowed a thick, foul, red liquid, from which was made a pigment used to paint all the shades of red considered evil. Legend won out over knowledge in this case, and painters’ choices gave priority to the symbolism of the name over the chemical properties of the pigment.

Unlike the dyers, the painters of the modern period hardly profited at all from the discovery of the New World or the settling of Europeans in the Americas. No truly new colorants resulted from these events. But Mexican cochineal, transformed into lacquer, allowed them to perfect a subtle, delicate pigment in the range of reds, superior to earlier lacquers from brazilwood or kermes for fixing a glaze over vermilion. Beginning in the sixteenth century, vermilion experienced a steady rise in popularity and its production became something of an industry, first in Venice, the European capital of color, and then in the Netherlands and Germany. It was sold in apothecaries, hardware shops, and paint stores, and even though it was more expensive and less stable than minium, it eventually contributed to that pigment’s decline.

15 Feb 2017

Rare Book Heist in London

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The Guardian reports on a highly unusual case of burglary.

Antiquarian books worth more than £2m have been stolen by a gang who avoided a security system by abseiling into a west London warehouse.

The three thieves made off with more than 160 publications after raiding the storage facility near Heathrow in what has been labelled a Mission: Impossible-style break-in.

The gang are reported to have climbed on to the building’s roof and bored holes through the reinforced glass-fibre skylights before rappelling down 40ft of rope while avoiding motion-sensor alarms.

Scotland Yard confirmed that “a number of valuable books”, many from the 15th and 16th centuries, were stolen during the burglary in Feltham between 29 and 30 January.

According to the Mail on Sunday, one dealer lost £680,000 worth of material. Experts said the most valuable item in the stolen haul was a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, worth about £215,000.

Among the other books stolen were early works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Alessandro Meda Riquier, a rare book dealer, said a number of his volumes had been taken. He told Sky News: “I’m very upset because this is not something you can buy everywhere. Behind these books there is a lot of work because we have to search to try to find out where the books are – auction houses, collectors, colleagues – and there’s big research behind these books.”

He added: “They are not only taking money away from me but also a big part of my job.”

Brian Lake, of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, said: “Nothing like this has hit the rare books trade before.” Authorities have not yet ascertained what will become of the books but it is thought that the most likely scenario is that they were stolen to order.

Complete story.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

04 Sep 2016

Still Audible Defeatism

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JohnCFremont
John C. Frémont

S.C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell — The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 2014, p. 319, on the impending Battle of Cross Keys, June 8, 1862:

(emphasis added)

Frémont should’ve won the battle quickly. He had a two-to-one numerical advantage, and better than that in artillery. If he had thrown his entire force at Ewell’s line, which was set up on a long ridge, he would very likely have broken it. But with Frémont nothing was ever that simple. He was facing not just Stonewall Jackson now but also the myth of Stonewall Jackson, and the myth told him and his officers that they were facing twenty thousand battle-hardened Confederate troops instead of the five-thousand-plus effectives in front of them. At Frémont’s council of war he and his brigade commanders worried about this terrible numerical disadvantage and bemoaned the poor condition of their ragged, starved-out, exhausted army. A hundred and fifty years later, you can almost hear the defeatism.

Result: Decisive Confederate Victory.

Battle-of-Cross-Keys

26 Aug 2016

C.S. Lewis’s Reading List

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CSLewis

Intellectual Takeout:

Brenton Dickieson has done something kind of cool.

He has taken C.S. Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism—in which Lewis attempts to answer the question “what makes a great book?”—and listed in chronological order all of the great books that Lewis references.

The list serves not only as a window into the knowledge-base of one of the great authors of our time, but also as a reading program for those interested in preserving a Western tradition that is in danger of being forgotten.

18 Aug 2016

Duelling Nostalgias

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Rod Dreher reviews Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism:

According to Levin, the great conceptual barrier to reforming and modernizing American politics is baby boomer nostalgia for the 20th-century Golden Age of their memories. He writes:

    Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.

What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunction—in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classes—that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.

As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant cost—including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choice—that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced “the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”

America’s political, social, and economic life of the last half-century has been a working-out of that belief—thus, the Fractured Republic. The inability of the U.S. political class, now dominated by boomers, to deal with the consequences prevents them from coming to terms with realities of the 21st-century world. We are stuck in what Levin describes as a “politics of dueling nostalgias.”

Read the whole thing.

16 Aug 2016

A Vietnam Marine’s Memoir

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SemperCool

Not many Vietnam memoirs refer to “fond memories,” but Barry Fixler is not your ordinary memoirist. Fixler was a feisty little (130 lb. — 60 kilo.) Jewish kid from Long Island, who decided that he needed more discipline and joined the Marine Corps instead of going straight to college in the late 1960s, during the War in Vietnam, when pretty much everybody else was dodging the draft.

Fixler survived the ordeal of Marine Corps boot camp, and indeed went to Vietnam.

We landed in Da Nang and walked down the stairs from the plane to a Marine sergeant waiting on the tarmac. He started in alphabetical order, handing guys their orders telling them their assigned units.

“Okay, Adams? You’re alive! Baker? You’re dead! Crawford? You’re a basket case!”

“Fixler?”

“Here sergeant!”

“You’re dead!”

I’d been in Vietnam for an hour and the sergeant was telling me I’m already dead. I turned to Mike Ali, my good buddy from boot camp. “Fuck, I’m dead!”

“Yeah,” Mike said. Sergeant just told me I’m a basket case.”

We didn’t realize at the time just how ominous that label was for him.

If you are alive, that meant your unit was in one of the less dangerous places in Vietnam. If you were a basket case, your unit was in a pretty bad place. If you were dead, that meant you were headed straight into the deep shit. Your unit was in the middle of the worst of the worst combat.

The sergeant probably should have only designated Fixler “a basket case,” as he was initially headed, for the first part of his 13 month tour, to Phu Bai to walk combat patrols and arrive by helicopter into hot landing zones.

Fixler really became “dead” in the second portion of his tour, consisting of defending the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh, where Fixler and other Marines were overrun on Hill 861-A, February 5, 1968. Despite being overrun, Barry Fixler actually survived Khe Sanh, and later got to patrol the DMZ out of Con Thien and Dong Ha.

Fixler finished his enlistment showing the flag in Dress Blues in the Mediterranean. Unlike a lot of people who complain, Barry Fixler tells his readers that he enjoyed his time in the Marine Corps, that he liked the discipline and comraderie so much that, when he got home, he re-enlisted in the reserves.

Barry Fixler is the kind of guy who remains a Marine all his life.

Many years later, his home of Rockland County was looking for combat veterans to counsel soldiers who’d returned from Iraq and Afghanistan complaining of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fixler volunteered, but he was never assigned a position as a counselor because he simply does not believe in PTSD.

Some great anecdotes from the book illustrate his position.

During a course given to volunteer instructors, preparing them for their roles, there was a lecture and book signing by a nationwide PTSD specialist, at which Fixler encountered quite a coincidence and expressed his own opinion.

He was only 10, 15 minutes into a two-hour lecture, and he started describing one of his patients who had fought in the siege of Khe Sanh. He described how traumatized the Marine was, how his hill was overrun, how he had to kill or be killed, how his life was torn apart, how he lost his soul right then and there.

It was obvious to me that Dr. Tick was describing the night of February 5, 1968 – the night we were overrun on Hill 861-A.

Tick was quoting this patient, speaking for the Marine now:” I lost my soul! My life is gone! Everything is gone! I can’t continue! I can’t fight! I can’t do anything!”

People sat with their mouths open in awe, listening to Tick talk about the so-called warrior who lost it all, lost his soul, everything, died, spiritually died at that point, and I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. ..

I stood and introduced myself.

I was at Khe Sanh. I have credibility, a unit citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson. And I was on that hill, at that exact place, at that exact moment. If what that Marine said to you about losing his soul and losing his life, losing everything, if he had said that to me then or now, I would say to him, “You are a coward!'”

Then I sat again. The room was silent. Tick lectures for living –he’s a professional –but he struggled to regain his composure.

“I see your point,” he mumbled. “I see your point.”

As the talk proceeded:

I kept my peace and let the other veterans speak for the rest of lecture, until one of the West Point cadets stood and asked Tick, “What can we do to stop this PTSD?”

I blew it then. She asked Tick the question, but I popped up.

“That’s easy. Are you guys trained to get used to seeing bodies scattered all over the place? Well, when we kill a bad guy in Iraq, when we blow their skulls apart, we should freeze that body and send it to West Point and scatter it around so you could smell the blood and the horror and get used to fighting that way. If you’re used to fighting with blood and dead Iraqis all over the place, it will be nothing. That’s what needs to be done. Period.”

Everyone was quiet again. I glanced at the three West Pointers. Their eyes were wide, mouths still, like “Whoa!” I got that look from some others in the crowd, too.

My WWII Marine father would have said exactly the same kind of thing.

I recommend Semper Cool (great title, isn’t it?) highly, as a fun read for any aficionado of Marine Corps culture.

The author, by the way, is donating all the book’s earning to help wounded veterans.

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More evidence of just how hard-core little Barry Fixler remains, long after Vietnam:

On Valentine’s Day 2005, Barry Fixler proves to two armed robbers that you don’t want to try to rob a former Marine.There were actually two more of them outside in the car, equipped with a body bag. The robbers had intended not only to rob the jeweler, but to murder him as well. This security camera video shows that their plans did not work out.

06 Aug 2016

The Loebs

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John Talbot, in New Criterion, has a tribute to the Classics Department’s bête noire, the Loeb Classical Library.

The gist of an old joke—it has a dozen local iterations—is that the Loeb Classical Library translations are so baffling that you have to consult the original Greek or Latin on the left-hand page to decipher the English translation on the right.

Funny or not, the wisecrack catches the condescension long directed at the Loebs, that venerable series of Greek and Latin classics in uniform volumes with facing English translations. Professors of classics in particular used to frown upon them. Until recently, merely to be seen on campus with a Loeb was to court scandal. There were gradations of disgrace. Those Loeb editions of Boethius, Bede, and Augustine I saw on the shelves of the professor who taught me Anglo-Saxon: those were permissible for an English scholar. But I, as a classics major, was to eschew the very same volumes. Even as an undergraduate, though I prized my Loeb edition of The Republic, edited and imaginatively annotated by Paul Shorey, I knew better than bring it to my seminar on Plato. That same tact—that same hypocrisy—accounts for the care I took, as a graduate student, to avoid detection as I sifted the used bookshops of Cambridge for second-hand Loebs. For many of us, the pleasure we took in the Loebs was tinged with guilt.

Full story.

02 Aug 2016

New Garrison Book

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EverettGarrison
Everett Garrison, 1893-1975

Everett Garrison was an exceptionally-admired maker of custom split cane fly rods. Trained as an engineer, Garrison designed his rods using rigorous mathematical stress formulae. He produced relatively few rods. His total lifetime production is estimated as around 650. But his strikingly simple aesthetics and their superior function made Garrison’s rods popular with the angling community centered around Wall Street and the Anglers Club of New York City. Garrison rods are much in demand and fetch extraordinary prices, these days ranging close to five figures for the most desirable and perfect examples.

The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum has a collection of letters to Garrison, which have recent been edited into book form by Kathy Scott. There is an introduction by Hoagy Carmichael.

The book is not currently on Amazon, and the Center does not have a functioning book sale web-page. I guess the only thing one can do is send them an email to ask the price.

UPDATE:

I tried phoning again: (845) 439-4810, and got through. It’s only $20 with shipping, and they do take credit cards.

01 Aug 2016

Recommended Reading

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St. Paul’s

What with the rebellion of the low-information voter and the ascent of Donald Trump, the white working class is in the news a lot these days and everyone is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (previously mentioned here), a personal eulogy from an upwardly-mobile ex-Marine to his rust-bucket hometown and left-behind family and friends.

The perfect counterpoint book to read, I think, is Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

J.D. Vance describes how History and Culture have failed our society’s losers.

Shamus Rahman Khan describes, with a mixture of astonishment and congratulatory applause, just how one of the absolutely snobbiest and most expensive secondary boarding schools in America (the place that educated John Kerry and Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau) educates future winners in a combination of graceful personal ease, the ability to fake your way through anything you don’t actually know, and a nihilistic belief in the complete equality of all things (excluding only your own special elite status).

St. Paul’s often touts its academic program as the best in the nation. In its advertising literature, the school boasts that it has “the highest level of scholarship” and that its “students stand at the top of their peer group in terms of academic preparation.” And according to eager administrators and lackadaisical adolescents alike, the centerpiece of St. Paul’s academic program is undoubtedly the humanities. The humanities program introduces students to the history, literature, and thoughts of different moments in world history. The humanities division describes in some project is an interdisciplinary, multi-vocal investigation of “great questions.” …

This program, significantly, does not teach students to know “things.” The emphasis is not on memorizing historical events, for example. Instead it is on cultivating “habits of mind,” which encourage a particular way of relating both to the world and to each other. …

The enormity of this program is both thrilling and terrifying. The thought of knowing all of that, being swept up and carried through the tide of history, is tantalizing. It is also the product of St. Paul’s hubris. How can any one person possibly teach everything..? As I prepared to teach my own class at the school, I soon found out that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the expectations were ridiculous. No high schooler could ever learn all that the course offers. The more important question, I eventually realized, is much harder to answer: what this mean to present material in this way to teenagers?

Perhaps the point is not really to know anything. The advantage the St. Paul’s installs instills in its students is not a hierarchy of knowledge. As we have seen, knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite. And these days, information flows so freely that to use it to exclude others is increasingly challenging. By contrast, the important decisions required for those who lead are not based on knowing more but instead are founded in habits of mind. St. Paul’s teaches that everything can be accomplished through these habits, even while still in high school. What strikes me as presumptuous, even shocking, about this vision of the world is taken for granted by pretty much every teenager at St. Paul’s.

Though I marveled at how impossible it seemed to teach students all these things, the school itself seems largely unconcerned about this. Indeed, St. Paul’s approach seems closer to Plato’s outline of education in Republic. Building upon his famous cave metaphor, Plato tells us, “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely putting knowledge of the souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes …” ..In short, education is not teaching students things they don’t know. Rather it is teaching them to think their way through the world. …

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”

“What do you mean how to think?” I asked.

“I mean I learned how to think bigger. Like everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”

The emphasis of the St. Paul’s curriculum is not on “what you know” but on “how you know it.” Teaching ways of knowing rather than teaching the facts themselves, St. Paul’s is able to endow its students with marks of the elite –ways of thinking or relating to the world– that ultimately help make up privilege. As the exclusionary practices of old the become unsustainable, something new has emerged from within the elite. …

[S]tudents learn to consume from an enormous variety of sources. They learn to work and “interact” with art, literature, history, from the popular to the scholarly, and have a huge range of materials their disposal. For example, one of the major assignments in Humanities III is to compare “Beowulf” to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Students are asked to think about the ways in which Beowulf is a monster [Beowulf is the hero. Grendel is the monster. –JDZ] that man must confront, just as “Jaws”‘s monster prowls the waters of humanity (and perhaps even our own internal waters [And the BS keeps on flowing. –JDZ]). The goal is not to endow the students with a kind of highbrow elite knowledge. Rather, they are taught to move with ease to the broad range of culture, to move with felicity from the elite to the popular. They learn to be cultural egalitarians. The lesson to students is that you can talk about “Jaws” in the same way you can talk about “Beowulf.” Both become cultural resources to draw upon. And most important, the world is available to you –from high literature to horror films. They’re not things that are “off-limits” –limits are not structured by the relations of the world around you; they are in you. Students are not to stand above the mundane, perhaps lowbrow horror flick. Instead they are taught the importance of engaging with all aspects of culture, of treating the high and low with respect and serious engagement. As our future elite, the students are taught not to create fences and moats but instead to relentlessly engage with the varied world around them.

The consequences of St. Paul’s philosophy can be seen all over campus, evident even in how students carry themselves. Students have the sense that they could do it. The world is a space to be navigated and renegotiated, not a set of arrangements or a list of rules that are imposed upon you. The students are taught that they are special, and they begin to realize this specialness. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy –thinking everything is possible just might make it so.

30 Jul 2016

No Amazon Back Then

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Alexis C. Madrigal, in the Atlantic, describes reading about the astonishing impact of the Paperback Revolution.

I’m reading a fascinating book called Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, published in 1984 by the popular historian Kenneth C. Davis. …

I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers.

Among the normal complaints about book publishers selection processes, we find this staggering stat about the retail business of selling books (emphasis added).

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

I’m old enough to remember all this first-hand.

When I was a boy, the only books for sale in our town consisted of one short shelf of children’s book series (Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters) and classics intended for kids (Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, Little Women) at Hook’s, our local greeting card and gift shop plus one revolving metal rack of paperbacks, Mickey Spillaine, James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, invariably featuring some partially-unclothed bosomy blonde.

I was about 8-years-old when I was surprised to find a brand-new rack of paperbacks near the checkout counter in Newberry’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store on North Main. I made my first personal book purchase that day, buying Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for 45 cents.

Books were extremely difficult to obtain. I exhausted the resources of the Shenandoah Library, and would take buses to search the libraries in Pottsville and Jim Thorpe. I once walked five miles each way, over the mountain to Ringtown to pick up a Life of Washington someone offered me for free. (Rather a cornball story, but true).

Four or five years later, a paperback bookstore opened next to the Strand Movie Theater on South Main, and my self-education via the Signet Classics was off and running. I read fast and obsessively and when I entered college, I had already read a lot more than your typical Ivy League graduate.

I still accumulate books obsessively, and my wife and I own so many that we have to maintain two storage facilities outside the home to house them all.

My guess is that even provincial autodidacts in future will never be so obsessed with book acquisition and ownership as myself. The Paperback Revolution delivered quite a lot of the literature of the world into my hands for only a small price. Today, the Internet can deliver most books published before 1925 in eBook form absolutely free.

No one will ever need to buy a great big set of Dickens or of the Waverly Novels any more. They are all right there, just a few mouse clicks away.

15 Jul 2016

At Least She Has Not Hanged Herself So Far…

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Helen DeWitt

Helem DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, made a big splash when it was published, but the author had publishing problems. Time has gone by, and she is not yet rich. In fact, she is so broke that she is struggling with a dying laptop she cannot afford to replace, and when she tried to donate a second time to Bernie Sanders recently, her credit card was declined.

Christian Lorentzen, describes the author’s hard luck story in New York Magazine, reprinted by Vulture:

The Last Samurai was a sensation even before it appeared. The toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries, the novel came out in 2000 to wide acclaim, sold in excess of 100,000 copies in English, and was nominated for several prizes. But for DeWitt, this was the beginning of a long phase of turmoil that still hasn’t abated. The book’s success was marred by an epic battle with a copy editor involving large amounts of Wite-Out; typesetting nightmares having to do with the book’s use of foreign scripts; what she describes as “an accounting error” that resulted in her owing the publisher $75,000 when she thought the publisher owed her $80,000; the agonies of obtaining permissions for the many outside works quoted in the novel, including Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — which was the title of The Last Samurai until it was deemed legally impossible. …

When DeWitt talks about her artistic breakthroughs, she has a way of quickly turning to her travails with the publishing industry. “Of course, at that point I had never talked to an agent, so I had never had the kind of conversation where you have some hotshot agent saying, ‘No publisher will allow that.’ ” DeWitt had earlier compared publishing to the pharmaceutical industry: The way drug companies suppress negative trial results in her view is similar to the way agents’ and editors’ failed deals are never reported, nor the way they stifle literary talent in the cradle. “There could be all these people out there having these ideas and being told, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ”…

DeWitt has a keen interest in David Foster Wallace. The two writers have some important things in common: a rigorous academic background, an aesthetic of fracture, suicide as subject matter. She believes that if all had gone as smoothly as it could have with the publication of The Last Samurai, it would have been in the cohort of Infinite Jest. I took this to mean that she would have been considered a rival to Wallace and Jonathan Franzen for the unofficial title of Greatest American Novelist of Her Generation. Instead she sees herself as a writer who hasn’t yet fully emerged. “Plato did not have an editor,” she said. “Plenty of writers that we admire struggled along somehow without the help of Michael Pietsch,” referring to the editor of Infinite Jest. But it seemed to me that for all she had against the publishing world, DeWitt was still looking for a savior to rescue her — not unlike Ludo looking for a father. She disagreed: All she needed was a competent partner to put her books out without screwing them up and to pay her an advance she could survive on. (She had nice things to say about New Directions, but its advances are small.)

27 Jun 2016

Hunting From the Other Side

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CharlesFoster

Charles Foster is a modern incarnation of the madly eccentric British naturalist, traveller and explorer. He teaches Medical Law & Ethics at Oxford, is a Barrister, and is a qualified veterinary surgeon.

In his latest book, Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, Foster has a go at living as a badger, an otter, an urban fox, a red deer and a swift. Frank Buckland would be proud.

Outside Magazine excerpts Foster’s account of being hunted, like a red deer, by one of Britain’s bloodhound packs.

I was behaving very much like a hunted deer. My adrenals were pumping out cortisol and adrenaline. The cortisol made me taut. (The next day its immunosuppressive effect threw open the drawbridge of my throat to an invading virus.) Blood was diverted from my gut to my legs. Though I was slumping from the effort, I’d stop from time to time, hold my head up high, and reflexively sniff. If I’d had mobile ears they’d have pricked and swiveled. Though I looked for water, as deer do, to cool me and to send my scent spiraling away, I ran on the driest ground I could find. I knew (from well before birth, rather than because I’d read books and watched hounds) that dry earth doesn’t hold scent well, or, if it holds it, hugs the particles close, leaving few for snuffling noses.

Unlike a deer, though, I longed to be out of the wood. It’s often very difficult for staghounds to push deer into the open. Sometimes it takes hours. The deer double back, lie flat in deep cover, and saber-rattlingly confront hounds rather than breaking out.

It would have made sense for me to stay in the wood. Scent bounces off trees like balls in a pinball machine and eddies like the dark, curd-coated corners of the East Lyn River. It’s hard for even the most educated nose to read it there. Out in the open, there’s a slime trail of scent through the grass. It points in the direction of the prey.

My preference for the open was therefore strange. I suppose we want to die where we’ve evolved, just as an overwhelming majority of people say that they’d prefer to die at home.

Read the whole thing.

What can I say other than: “Lieu in, hounds! Hunt him up! Tear him and eat him!”?

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