Category Archive 'Books'
13 Jul 2018

That Scamp Alcibiades

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Peter Thonneman wittily reviews David Stuttard’s new Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens.

Of all personality traits, charisma is the hardest to appreciate at second hand. We read Cicero’s letters and can instantly tell that he was vain, insecure and ferociously clever; we read scraps of Samuel Johnson’s conversation in Boswell’s biography and know at once that he was magnificent, lovable and desperately unhappy. But as to what it was like to have Lord Byron turn the full force of his attention onto you – well, we have no conceivable way of knowing. We just have to trust his contemporaries that it felt like ‘the opening of the gate of heaven’.

This causes problems for a biographer of Alcibiades. On the face of it, the man was utterly insufferable. Born in around 450 BC into one of the oldest and richest families of ancient Athens, Alcibiades was the only Old Etonian (as it were) to play a leading role in the late-fifth-century radical democracy. The account of his childhood in Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades suggests a bad case of antisocial personality disorder: biting during wrestling, mutilating dogs, punching his future father-in-law in the face for a dare. His later political career makes Boris Johnson seem like a man of firm and unbending principle. Exiled from Athens in 415 BC over some particularly odious Bullingdon Club antics, Alcibiades promptly sold his services to Sparta (where he seduced the king’s wife) before double-crossing both sides and wheedling his way into the court of a Persian satrap.

But Alcibiades, like Byron, clearly had that indefinable something. One catches a glimpse of it in the unforgettable last scene of Plato’s Symposium, when he crashes into the room, blind drunk, flirting with everything on legs, shouting about his love for Socrates. Thucydides captures it in his report of Alcibiades’s speech whipping up the Athenian assembly to vote for the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415 BC – an extraordinary stew of egotistic bragging (about how successful his racehorses are), mendacious demagoguery and brilliantly acute strategic thinking. The unwashed Athenian masses, not usually prone to atavistic toff-grovelling, absolutely adored him: when Alcibiades finally returned to Athens in 407 BC after eight years of exile, sailing coolly into Piraeus on a ship with purple sails, they welcomed him back with paroxysms of joy.

Behind the Peloponnese-sized ego, Alcibiades was a general of spectacular genius – when he could be bothered. In 410 BC, shortly after his controversial reinstatement as admiral of the Athenian navy (on the back of a bogus promise of Persian support), he wiped out the entire Spartan fleet at the Battle of Cyzicus; two years later, through sheer chutzpah, he captured the city of Selymbria near Byzantium with only fifty soldiers, and without striking a blow. When things went wrong – as in 406 BC, after a disastrous campaigning season in the eastern Aegean – he showed an infuriating ability to wriggle out of trouble. His final years (406–404 BC) were spent once again in exile from Athens, holed up in a private castle on the Gallipoli peninsula. The circumstances of his death are still shrouded in mystery. One story tells that he died in the remote mountains of central Turkey at the hands of the brothers of a Phrygian noblewoman whom he had decided to seduce. This is, I fear, all too believable.

RTWT

14 Apr 2018

“Hamlet” — Really, A Book About Hunting

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Legend has it that the young William Shakespeare was caught poaching deer at Charlecote Park and was brought up and charged before Sir Thomas Lucy, the owner and local magistrate.

James Shapiro, in the New York Review of Books, explains that Rhodri Lewis’ Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, Princeton, October 2017, serves up a new interpretation of Hamlet.

No Freudian obsession with Gertrude, no too-much-cerebration-leading-to-inaction, no Harold Bloom and “The Invention of the Human”, no Humanism, at all.

Hamlet, it turns out, is really all about hunting.

    Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn…. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham…. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be.

The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: “Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.”

The absence of any moral certainties means that it’s a “kill or be killed” world, and the most impressive chapter in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness establishes how the language of predation saturates the play. Lewis’s brilliant analysis here gives fresh meaning to long-familiar if half-understood phrases, including the “enseamed” marital bed, “Bait of falsehood,” “A cry of players,” “We coted them on the way,” “Start not so wildly,” “I am tame, sir,” “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers,” and “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Thirty years ago this analysis might have been the basis of an important, if localized, study—but that sort of book could never find a major publisher today. Here, it becomes a clever way of establishing what for Lewis is the play’s bass line:

    Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of hunting—one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey.
29 Mar 2018

An Irish Farmer’s Story

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The Guardian published a moving excerpt from extract from The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm by John Connell. (Not on sale in the U.S., but you can buy it via Amazon.UK.)

It has been a busy week and I am tired, for between the days and nights I am but a servant to the cows. Sometimes I have wondered what it is all for. I do not earn money doing this work: the farm pays for itself and no more. To make a living through farming is hard work, and there are few full-time farmers in the area; most men have other jobs, as builders or tradesmen or teachers. Da is one of the few full-time farmers, but that was not always so. For more than two decades he was a builder with my uncle John, but he retired 10 years ago, for the work had grown too hard and, though he was still young, it had aged him. …

I take the calf in both my arms and the adrenaline is such that I do not feel his weight. I carry him to the fresh bedding, jack, ropes and all. I must move quickly , for we have lost calves with fluid on their lungs before. I pour water in his ears and he shakes his head and comes to life. But then he coughs, and I can hear the fluid, so I take a breathing tube with a mask on its end and fit it over the calf’s muzzle. You extend the pump and its vacuum pulls the fluid up and, in theory, the calf should cough up the fluid. I do this three times, but the fluid does not come up, and he begins to wheeze. I cannot lose him. I pick him up with a roar and carry him over to the gate and sling him across it.

I have seen this done before, but the calf has always been lifted by two men, so I must have found new strength. I massage his lungs and give him a slap, and soon I see the mucus emerge. He lifts his head and I know that he is won. I release him down into my arms and carry him back to the fresh bedding, alive and safe. And with that, the half-door opens – it is my father, bright and smiling.

And I know now that something has happened. I’ve passed a test of some kind, and I am glad. He opens the half-door and walks in. He is in his jobbing coat, which is his blue velvety coat for the mart. My uncle Davy follows behind, along with my young cousin, Jack.

“There’s money being made here,” says Davy, and we laugh. I stand up now and they admire the calf. He is a fine wee bull. I unloose the cow and leave her and her newborn to each other. She licks him, gently and softly, despite her size. Nature will do the rest. I am 29, but I feel so much older tonight. …

When the weanling calves had reached 14 months and put on the required weight, Da decided it was time to sell them. There are just four calves left now, too young to sell; we will fatten them on spring grass soon. Walking through the shed, I miss the presence of the others, their noise and smell and rumble. But they are the payment to the bank for the land. They are money embodied, nothing more. That is what Da says.

On this we do not agree. I cannot see them just as products. They are animals, not mere steak-holders. They may carry flesh but they carry personality too – memories and feelings. But to go down this route is not businesslike. And farming above all is a business, I am told.

The reality of beef farming is that the cows live so that they can be killed. They are here so that they may die. If we did not eat meat, they would not exist, or not in such great numbers. All our cows on this farm will be killed at one time or other; they shall get old, or reach their weight, and all shall know the butcher’s knife. But even knowing this, and even for the businessman-farmer, I do not believe it is solely about the money, nor that he sees the animals only as future beef. If it were, I do not think he should get up so instinctively in the middle of the night to deliver a new calf or tend to a sick lamb. There must be nature in the man for the beast, nurturing in the human for the non-human.

Through its relationship with man, the cow has been transformed into a carefully programmed “product” in the food chain. Where once the cow was man’s most valued companion from the natural world, now its value in some nations depends on removing it entirely from this world. It has lost its sentience, it seems, in the minds of those involved in the industrial process.

In the west, the break with farm and butcher is nearly complete. As consumers, we buy most of our meat from supermarkets, packed and sealed. Sometimes it is dyed with red colourant to make it more appealing, or injected with water to add extra weight. Few children have seen farms other than on television, or in a bedtime storybook. Most people have never seen a slaughterhouse or a cattle carcass. When we are so alienated from the living source of our food, it is perhaps inevitable that the next step is to cut out the cow altogether. …

There may well come a day when cloned meat is available in the supermarkets of London and the delis of New York, when steaks are grown in labs and test tubes from stem cells. But we have a choice over whether we want this future.

And yet, even as some manufacturers are taking these radical steps towards an artificial future, other farmers are following an alternative path. The organic and grass-fed movement has allowed a small group of growers and farmers to survive corporations, conglomerates and cloners. Organic beef or grass-fed beef may be more expensive to the consumer, but the beast has had a better life, one free of housing, confinement and stress. We raise them to die, but they live a life of peace and nature. Our way of farming here in Ireland – our family’s way of farming – may be seen as a backward step, but it is a way in which the animal can live with dignity, and in which the farmer has retaken the old and respectful role of custodian of the land and the environment for the next generation.

RTWT

Nobody wins the fight against the iron laws of Economics in the long run. Nobody. But you can’t help rooting for John Connell, who is perfectly right, aesthetically and morally. Human beings have an ancient, countless millenia long, relationship with our domestic animals and fulfilling our role as their servants, masters, friends, and admiring associates makes us and them both happy.

Alas! the world only gets older, stupider, and more urbanized. The middlemen get all the money, and farming is either an impersonal heartless, soulless, factory operation or a personal hobby supported by the farmer’s real job. But the consumer gets cheaper meat. The cruel god of Economic reality giveth as well as taketh away.

John Connell is essentially the same kind of thing as the Jacobite rebels of the 18th century: sure to lose, a doomed cause, but a cause you cannot help rooting for.

11 Feb 2018

Nietzsche’s “Untimely Meditations” with Author’s Autograph

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Heritage Auctions, 2018 March 7 Rare Books Signature Auction – New York #6186:

Friederich Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, 1874, an early work by this major philosopher with author’s presentation inscription.

Opening bid: $15,000 (plus 25% buyer premium.)

Friedrich Nietzsche. Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen. Zweites Stück: Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben. [Untimely Meditations, Part II]. Leipzig: E. W. Fritzsch, 1874. First edition of the second work (of four completed) in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations series, this being on the subject of history; association copy, inscribed by the author on the front wrapper to Wilhelm Vischer Bilfinger who appointed Nietzsche, sans dissertation, to the First Chair of Philology at the University of Basel: “Herr Rathsherr Prof. Dr. Vischer / in treuer Gesinnung und mit / der Bitte um Wohlwollen und / Nachsicht überreicht vom / Verf.” Octavo (8.75 x 5.5 inches; 223 x 140 mm.). 111, [1, printer’s note] pages. Twentieth century green cloth, spine lettered in gilt; edges sprinkled gray; patterned endpapers; publisher’s bluish green wrappers laid down and inserted. Spine gently leaning, spine ends and corners very lightly worn; boards very slightly splayed with a touch of soiling. Front endpaper with some light pencil erasure causing some minimal bruising; wrappers very lightly soiled; front wrapper with a couple horizontal closed tears, expertly mended when laid down, just a single letter of the inscription affected (the “N” in “Nachsicht”); rear wrapper with some paper filled in in the gutter margin; title-leaf faintly browned; text-block with some trace foxing. Near fine. Dr. Vischer died shortly after publication, in July of 1874, making this an early presentation. Carl Pletsch. Young Nietzsche. New York: 1991. pp. 99-100. From the Marilyn R. Duff Collection.

07 Jan 2018

Fragment of Printed Page From Pirate Blackbeard’s Ship Identified

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Picture of a fragment of paper discovered on Queen Anne’s Revenge

National Geographic reports on a pretty clever piece of historical detective work.

A handful of paper scraps recovered from the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge have been identified as fragments of the 1712 book A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711, by Captain Edward Cooke.

The discovery was announced Thursday during a presentation by conservators from the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Lab at the annual meeting of the Society of Historical Archaeology held in New Orleans.

Queen Anne’s Revenge went aground outside of what is now Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1718, and Blackbeard was killed while battling British naval forces in the Pamlico Sound a few months later. The wreck of the pirate’s flagship was found by private salvagers in 1996 and excavation by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources began a year later.

The fragments were embedded in a wet mass of textile scraps removed from a breech-loading cannon chamber during its cleaning and conservation in 2016, according to QAR Lab conservator Erik Farrell. The wad, blackened with gunpowder residue, may have served as a gasket for the wooden tampion, a plug that protected the cannon muzzle from the elements.

Sixteen paper fragments, none larger than a U.S. quarter, were eventually identified, and seven of the fragments had legible text. As conservators gently pried the fragments of paper apart, they noticed that the text on successive layers was running in the same direction, leading them to suspect that they had the remains of several pages from the same book.

Eventually, they could make out words including “south” and fathom,” which suggested the fragments may have come from some sort of maritime or navigational text. But there was a particular word that led to the book’s ultimate identification, says QAR Lab conservator Kimberly Kenyon.

“There was one really key word that stood out: ‘Hilo.’ It was very distinctive and italicized, which might indicate a place name,” Kenyon tells National Geographic.

“It really was luck.”

RTWT

06 Dec 2017

Lost Icelandic Translation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”

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Smithsonian reports that the Icelandic translation of Dracula amounts to a different book, possibly better and more sexy.

The Icelandic version of Dracula is called Powers of Darkness, and it’s actually a different—some say better—version of the classic Bram Stoker tale.

Makt Myrkranna (the book’s name in Icelandic) was “translated” from the English only a few years after Dracula was published on May 26, 1897, skyrocketing to almost-instant fame. Next Friday is still celebrated as World Dracula Day by fans of the book, which has been continuously in print since its first publication, according to Dutch author and historian Hans Corneel de Roos for Lithub. …

The book’s Icelandic text was unknown to English-speaking aficionados of the Dark Prince until recently, de Roos writes, as no one had bothered to re-translate it back into English. Although Dracula scholars knew about the existence of Powers of Darkness as far back as 1986, they didn’t know it was actually a different story. Then, he writes, “literary researcher Richard Dalby reported on the 1901 Icelandic edition and on its preface, apparently written specifically for it by Stoker himself.”

The preface was what got English-language scholars interested in the Icelandic book, but still, nobody thought to compare the actual text of Makt Myrkranna to the original Stoker novel, assuming, as Dalby wrote, that it was “merely an abridged translation of Dracula,” de Roos writes. Finally in 2014, de Roos writes that he went back to the original text of Powers of Darkness to verify something, and discovered that the Icelandic story diverged from the English original.

As de Roos worked on the translation, patterns emerged: many of the characters had different names, the text was shorter and had a different structure, and it was markedly sexier than the English version, he writes. It’s also, he writes, better: “Although Dracula received positive reviews in most newspapers of the day…the original novel can be tedious and meandering….Powers of Darkness, by contrast, is written in a concise, punchy style; each scene adds to the progress of the plot.”

“The nature of the changes has led de Roos to argue that they could not have been the work of Valdimar alone,” according to Iceland Magazine. “Instead he has speculated that Valdimar and Stoker must have collaborated in some way. Stoker could, for example, have sent Valdimar an older version of his story.”

RTWT

29 Sep 2017

Cambridge Librarian Returns First Lady’s Books

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Liz Phipps Soeiro, School Librarian, Cambridge, Massachusetts

First Lady Melania Trump, as part of National “Read-a-Book” Day, sent ten Dr. Seuss books complete with White House bookplates bearing the donor’s name to one specially-selected school in each of the 50 states.

One might suppose that the local authority figures would smile at the thought of the small children of their neighborhood enjoying such a gift. But, not in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In Cambridge, School Librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro spurned Melania Trump’s gift responding with a remarkably pretentious and ungracious letter, filled with partisan political venom, published in Horn Book Family Reading, reading in part.

My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.

* * * * *

My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. Multiple studies show that schools with professionally staffed libraries improve student performance. The American Association of School Librarians has a great infographic on these findings. Many schools around the state and country can’t compete.

Yearly per-pupil spending in Cambridge is well over $20,000; our city’s values are such that given a HUGE range in the socioeconomic status of our residents, we believe that each and every child deserves the best free education possible and are working hard to make that a reality (most classrooms maintain a 60/40 split between free/reduced lunch and paid lunch). …

Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.

* * * * *

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them. I hope you share these books with your family and with kids around the country. And I encourage you to reach out to your local librarian for more recommendations.

Warmly,

Liz Phipps Soeiro
School Librarian
Cambridge, MA

What a self-righteous, self-important pill!

Dr. Seuss a racist? His “Mulberry Street” book (read aloud on YouTube) features a child’s imaginative reference to a rajah riding and elephant and a Chinese man who eats with sticks. Wow! How terrible.

13 Jul 2017

Swedish Suburb Burning Childrens’ Classic

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Bruce Bawer, at PJ Media, has the story.

What is Swedish culture? A lot of people who still believe in such things would put Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) at or near the top of that list. During her lifetime, Lindgren was beyond question the most beloved figure in all of Sweden. Her books, about Pippi Longstocking and other characters, were translated into countless languages.

I didn’t grow up on them, but millions of children did, not only in Sweden but around the world. After I moved to Norway, I caught up with the wonderful television series Emil i Lönneberga, based on her novels about a rambunctious farmboy, and came to appreciate Lindgren’s distinctive humor and charm, her skill at handling both the harshly realistic and the extravagantly fanciful, her ability to touch one’s heart without being treacly and sentimental, and her striking combination of delight in subversiveness and respect for moral responsibility.

Lindgren’s influence in her native country was immense. When she revealed in a 1976 article that her income tax rate as a self-employed writer was 102 percent, it brought down the Social Democratic government that had been in power for forty-four years and resulted in an overhaul of the tax system. In 1979, spurred largely by a speech by Lindgren, Sweden became the first nation to make it illegal to strike children.

Despite her role in bringing down the government in 1976, Lindgren was, like pretty much everyone else in Sweden’s intellectual and cultural elite, a committed Social Democrat. And when her books were first coming out, they caused a degree of concern among cultural conservatives.

As the Washington Times noted in its obituary, “Pippi Longstocking was an instant hit among children” but “parents often were shocked by the unruly Pippi, who rebelled against society and happily mocked institutions such as the police and charity ladies.” One admirer, author Laura Pedersen, told the Times that Lindgren’s books had a “wonderful subversion. … She talked about breaking the rules … we often see rules that are wrong, and they should be broken.” But not everyone approved.

In 2017, however, it’s not conservatives who are criticizing Lindgren. The other day came the news that the library in Botkyrka municipality, on the outskirts of Stockholm, had burned older editions of one of the Pippi books, Pippi in the South Seas (1948), because local officials have decided that they “contain racism.”

After this action came to light, the municipality issued a press release acknowledging that the books had indeed been destroyed because they contained “obsolete expressions that can be perceived as racist” – but that they had been replaced on the library shelves by a 2015 edition of the book from which those expressions have been carefully scrubbed.

Since Lindgren died in 2002, of course, she was not around to grant anybody the right to fiddle with her prose. Her publishers had simply taken it upon themselves to do to her work what a lot of people would love to do to, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Mark Twain, Lindgren was the very opposite of a racist. But her use of language in Pippi in the South Seas, like that in Huck Finn, violates the Left’s current ideological tests.

RTWT

05 May 2017

Steve Bodio

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John Muller profiles Steve Bodio in New Mexico Magazine.

There are a lot of reasons people might want to call Steve Bodio. For just about any question on the world’s wild places, the living things you’ll encounter there, and in particular how one might go about catching or eating them, he’s as knowledgeable as they come. If a hawk’s been snacking on your chickens and you need to find it a good home, his might be the only adobe in the state with a raptor roost in the dining room. If you’re a gun gal, he’ll talk your ear off about the craftsmanship of English antiques. He’s written volumes on pigeons and coursing dogs, both of which have a place in his rambling menagerie. More than anything, though, the man can talk about books.

Bodio is what can only be called a writer’s writer’s writer. Callers to his far-flung office include a roster of authors that could rival any nature-writing prize committee’s Rolodex. He and Annie Proulx go back to Gray’s Sporting Journal in the seventies, where she made her name publishing short stories and he wrote a book review column that’s still talked about in reverent tones among the cognoscenti. He keeps letters from people like Jim Harrison, who died last year, and Thomas McGuane, one of his heroes, who checks in occasionally from Montana. Helen Macdonald, the author of H Is for Hawk, summed up her admiration in an introduction to one of his books: “You might have come across Bodio’s elegant book reviews. … You might have read Querencia, his great and moving meditation on love and loss and home. But if Bodio is new to you, then know that the book you are holding is by one of the great modern sportsman-naturalist-writers.”

RTWT

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

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