Category Archive 'Books'
13 Apr 2019

The Lost Library of the Son of Columbus in Summary

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The Guardian reports on the discovery of a bibliophilic treasure house.

[A] huge volume containing thousands of summaries of books from 500 years ago, many of which no longer exist… has been found in Copenhagen, where it has lain untouched for more than 350 years.

The Libro de los Epítomes manuscript, which is more than a foot thick, contains more than 2,000 pages and summaries from the library of Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus who made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known in the early part of the 16th century. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels. Today, only around a quarter of the books in the collection survive and have been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552.

The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is “extraordinary”, and a window into a “lost world of 16th-century books”, said Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the recent biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

“It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries,” said Wilson-Lee. “The idea that this object which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project and which one always thought of with this great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved, for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”

The manuscript was found in the collection of Árni Magnússon, an Icelandic scholar born in 1663, who donated his books to the University of Copenhagen on his death in 1730. The majority of the some 3,000 items are in Icelandic or Scandinavian languages, with only around 20 Spanish manuscripts, which is probably why the Libro de los Epítomes went unnoticed for hundreds of years…

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato…

Because Colón collected everything he could lay his hands on, the catalogue is a real record of what people were reading 500 years ago, rather than just the classics. “The important part of Hernando’s library is it’s not just Plato and Cortez, he’s summarising everything from almanacs to news pamphlets. This is really giving us a window into the entirety of early print, much of which has gone missing, and how people read it – a world that is largely lost to us,” said Wilson-Lee.

Wilson-Lee and Pérez Fernández are currently working on a comprehensive account of the library, which will be published in 2020.

RTWT

HT: Karen L. Myers.

10 Apr 2019

Books Do Furnish a Room

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Perigold has very nice, and quite expensive lamps, and it also sells books for entirely decorative purposes, grouped by color and style of binding.

Above we see 50 book (five linear feet of them) in green. You can get red and blue and beige and even colorful dust jacketed books! Perfect for morons who do not read.

04 Feb 2019

13th-Century Tale of Merlin and Arthur, Found Reused as Bookbinding

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Merlin’s name appears in recently discovered MSS. text.

Atlas Obscura:

Medieval fragments of Arthurian legend have been sitting in the Bristol Central Library for hundreds of years and no one noticed—until now. The newly discovered text—hidden in a later book—tells of a battle in which Merlin leads a charge using a dragon banner that actually breathes fire.

The 13th-century manuscript pages were tucked away in the binding of a later, printed book, a four-volume set of the works of Jean Gerson, a French scholar and theologian. The Gerson text was printed in Strasbourg, on the French-German border, sometime between 1494 and 1502, before making its way to England. ”The [Gerson] text would have come to England unbound, without covers—it’s lighter and easier to travel that way,” explains Leah Tether, a librarian and president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society. “In England, whoever ordered them would then have taken them to a local bookbinder, and he would have added the covers.” That’s where the much earlier Arthurian pages came into play.

Paper-making and bookbinding weren’t yet codified crafts in 16th-century England, and piecing together fragments of old manuscripts to hide unsightly binding features of new books was a trick of the bookbinding trade. Vellum pages like those of the Arthurian fragments were written on painstakingly prepared calfskin. Too precious to be thrown out, vellum, regardless of what was already on it, would have been kept in a workshop to be used again in a pinch. In this case, they had been repurposed as pastedowns, or the endpapers covering the boards of the Gerson book’s inside cover.

Then, sometime in the 19th century, a Bristol book conservator carefully lifted these pages off the hard inside cover of the book and rebound them as flyleaves, those extra blank pages at the beginnings and ends of books. “Sometimes things that don’t have value to one person might have some value to someone else,” says Tether. “Maybe they thought, ‘Let’s turn them into flyleaves so someone who wants to can read them one day.’” …

The Arthurian manuscript is written in Old French, the first language in which the tales were recorded. “We can tell immediately by the handwriting style that it’s from the 13th century,” says Tether. While library scientists are still working to pinpoint its age, they believe it dates from some time between 1250 and 1270. The earliest known Arthurian texts are from 1220, so this is a remarkably early version. Tales of King Arthur were passed along orally long before they were written down. It would still be at least a hundred years from this French text’s time before they were written down in English.

The librarians have determined that the newly discovered pages tell the story of the Battle of Trèbes, in which Merlin, King Arthur’s advisor, exhorts Arthur and his worn-out troops to persist in their fight against King Claudas, after which he leads the charge with the fire-breathing magical banner. There are some minor differences between how the battle is described in these pages and the version commonly accepted today. For instance, the story usually states that King Claudas suffered a thigh wound in this battle, considered a metaphor for castration or impotence. In the newly discovered version, the type of wound isn’t specified. These early details may change our understanding of the familiar tale, and tell us more about how the story changed as it went from oral renderings to French to English—and to modern versions.

RTWT

01 Jan 2019

Edward Gorey

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“The Gashlycrumb Tinies: or, After the Outing,” an abecedarian book by Edward Gorey, published in 1963.

The New Republic pays tribute to the late Edward Gorey, who made a career out of eccentricity and tongue-in-cheek morbidity on the occasion of a new biography: Born to be Posthumous by Mark Dery.

Although he played up his eccentricities in public, Gorey was fundamentally a shy, private man who seemed to take a perverse pride in the dullness of his own existence. “My life is as near not being one as is possible I think,” he wrote to a friend in 1951, and things didn’t pick up much from there. He had relatively few friends, and virtually no close ones. He lived alone (or, rather, with cats) for decades, first in Manhattan and later in a Federal-style house on Cape Cod. He had no sexual or romantic relationships that we know of, and his rise to relative fame in the 1970s and ’80s changed his lifestyle very little.

Born in Chicago in 1925, the only child of middle-class parents, Gorey taught himself to read at three and a half, and was soon consuming Victorian and Edwardian classics in copious doses, including Dickens and Dracula, as well as the then-new detective novels of Agatha Christie. (All of these left a permanent impress on his imagination: Though Gorey never visited England, he was a lifelong Anglophile; many of his more casual fans still assume he was British.) In 1942, he won a scholarship to Harvard, but the draft delayed his matriculation. He spent the duration of World War II doing clerical work at an Army base in Utah, and amused himself by writing closet dramas under the pseudonym “Stephen Crest.” In these plays, Dery reports, “the characters have names like Piglet Rossetti and Basil Prawn and dress more or less the way you’d imagine people named Piglet Rossetti and Basil Prawn would dress—in purple espadrilles and ‘mauve satin ribbons [that] cling like bedraggled birds to bosom, thigh, and wrist.’” His fellow recruits were, presumably, baffled.

Gorey’s aesthetic idiosyncrasies blossomed when he finally arrived at Harvard in 1946. It was during this period that he adopted the extravagant costume he would later be famous for: Dery describes him “swanning around campus in his signature getup of sneakers and a long canvas coat with a sheepskin collar, fingers heavy with rings.” (Later on Gorey would favor raccoon coats, but he never ditched the tennis shoes.) He also grew a full beard that made him resemble the solemn Edwardian patriarchs who would soon populate his books. He roomed with the poet Frank O’Hara (they shared a fondness for Marlene Dietrich, and had a tombstone for a coffee table) and befriended other future literary luminaries like John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Barbara Epstein, and Alison Lurie.

After college, Gorey moved to New York to take a job at a new paperback imprint called Anchor Books. There he designed book covers for reprints of classic novels by Herman Melville, Henry James, and others, and crucial elements of his style evolved, including his distinctive hand-lettering, which arose from his frustration working with type. It was also around this time that he developed a quasi-religious devotion to the choreographer George Balanchine, the artistic director of the New York City Ballet, where Gorey maintained an almost perfect attendance record between 1956 and 1979; he would later call Balanchine “the great, important figure in my life … sort of like God.” (Dery observes that “Gorey’s characters often strike balletic poses and tend to stand with their feet turned out, in ballet positions,” as Gorey often did himself.)

Gorey’s reputation built gradually. From the start his works were prominently displayed at the counter in the Gotham Book Mart, a legendary independent bookstore in midtown Manhattan, which brought him to the attention of literary tastemakers. His first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953. It told the story of Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, an author afflicted by writer’s block; Graham Greene called it “the best novel ever written about a novelist.” His small cult following expanded considerably when Edmund Wilson devoted a column to “the albums of edward gorey” in the pages of The New Yorker in 1959. In 1972, Amphigorey, a mass-market omnibus reprinting 15 of Gorey’s little books, became a surprise best-seller. Other milestones were the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, starring Frank Langella, for which Gorey designed the sets and costumes, and the 1980 premiere of the PBS television series Mystery!, featuring an animated credit sequence based on images from Gorey’s books.

By the time he died in 2000, Gorey was a minor celebrity, much sought after both as a freelance illustrator and as a profile subject. He devoted his last years on Cape Cod, touchingly, to writing, designing, and directing avant-garde plays for a local theater troupe called Le Théatricule Stoïque. One of them, Omlet, or Poopies Dallying, was a collage of garbled texts from early versions of Hamlet, performed with handmade papier-mâché puppets. From Dery’s descriptions, these shows, few of which ever made it off the Cape, were as strange as anything in the Gorey oeuvre, and proof of the strong streak of perversity that never deserted him.

28 Dec 2018

Really Expensive Wittgenstein Memoir

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Ludwig Wittgenstein was so influential a philosopher that, back when I was in college, Philosophy instructors on both sides of the Atlantic were notoriously prone to imitate his very mannerisms.

I’d say myself that Wittgenstein’s fame, influence, and popularity were ultimately based not so much on either the logical force of his arguments or his definitive contributions to Philosophy, but rather upon his eccentric personality, his striking good looks, and the literary appeal of his aphoristic statements.

Wittgenstein was a tremendously Romantic figure, who wrote the Tractatus, the work he asserted at the time that resolved all the questions of Philosophy, while fighting as an artillery officer in the trenches of WWI.

Born to a fabulously wealthy and conspicuously talented noble family (of Jewish origin), Ludwig Wittgenstein renounced all his inherited wealth and lived a famously tormented, eremitical life of the greatest simplicity and abstemiousness. (He was presumably simultaneously battling against his homosexuality and atoning for his rare and reluctant surrenders to those impulses.)

Having, in his own view, solved all the main issues of Philosophy, he simply walked away from a prestigious teaching position at Cambridge, and the comradeship of Bertrand Russell and G.E Moore, to work as a primary schoolteacher in a primitive rural village.

He concluded that he had been mistaken, and that he had not actually solved all of Philosophy’s problems, so he returned reluctantly to Cambridge, where he endeavored to “cure” people of Philosophy, trying to persuade his students to do something useful instead.

His engagement with ideas was intense and passionate, and he could be seen to be struggling passionately with his own thoughts as he conducted his classes. However ultimately inconclusive his results, his prose was poetical and aphoristic, yet also compelling, and attempts to follow, or merely imitate, his mode of philosophizing became the dominant academical approach throughout the English-speaking world.

I like Wittgenstein myself every bit as much as the next fellow, and I normally buy any book about him at all, but I was dismayed last night to come upon (Gawd help us!) the abridged reprint edition of F.A. Flowers III and Ian Ground’s Portraits of Wittgenstein, a collection of 50 portraits of, and reflections upon, dear old Ludwig, going for $255 in hardcover and $37 in stinking paperback.

The 2016 original two-volume hardcover edition (obviously the one you want) goes these days at the lowest for around 500 clams.

You can picture Wittgenstein shaking his head, and launching into a condemnatory rant.

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Frank Freeman’s review here.

Wittgenstein took philosophy personally; it was a struggle of intellectual integrity, clear thinking, sincerity. And because Wittgenstein was such a charismatic figure, this meant that his philosophy was inextricable from his life. It was as if he was all alone in the world and everyone else witnesses of his struggle.

This is why a book such as Portraits of Wittgenstein makes such compelling reading. First published in 2016 in two volumes (1138 pages), the book has now been cut in half by its editors, making it more accessible. It is a collection of essays written by people who knew or came into contact with Wittgenstein over the years. Most people who did so either hated him or loved him; almost all feared him. John Maynard Keynes, a friend, wrote about Wittgenstein, “God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.” Even someone, such as this writer, who thinks there are philosophical problems, can find himself fascinated by, even rapt in this kaleidoscopic portrait of a genius, a saint-like holy fool of philosophy who lived his philosophy to the uttermost.

11 Dec 2018

Sweet Valley High

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Nigerian-born Bim Adewunmi fell in love as a teenager with the characters and California milieu of the (My god! there were nowhere nearly that many Hardy boys books.) 181-volume young adult series Sweet Valley High.

Last night I dreamt I went to Sweet Valley again.

I dreamt I went to high school with Bruce Patman, Lila Fowler, Todd Wilkins, and of course, the most important fictional twins of my young life, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. I dreamt I knew those twins — identical in every way, right down to their perfect size-six figures, honey-blonde hair, and aquamarine eyes. At one point in my life, I thought about these twins and the assorted all-American boys and girls that made up their high school class as often as I did anything of significance in life. The novelistic tales of the Wakefields and their frenemies, pals, and rivals were interwoven with the fabric of my own real life in a way that felt close to irreversible. My school transcripts might suggest otherwise, but I know in my heart that I attended Sweet Valley High.

For those who weren’t there, or choose not to remember, Sweet Valley was the fictional town created by New York author Francine Pascal (now 80), and the setting for a series of young adult books that shook the world for generations of readers. The first of what would go on to expand to 181 books was published when I was barely a year old, in 1983, but I know that when I first got my hands on them, a decade later, everything still felt fresh, exciting, and, oddly enough, very relatable.

In the Wakefield twins — perpetually 16 years old or thereabouts — I found a sort of kinship. These blondes were as familiar to me as any single one of my friends at my all-girls boarding school in the southern Nigerian city of Sagamu, one state over from our home in Lagos. I knew them intimately and could probably have picked them out in a crowd of similarly blonde and peppy Californian teenagers with no difficulty. The sun beating over my head was a few time zones and thousands of miles away, but it was the same sun. And most days that was enough.

RTWT

I can understand. When I was in elementary school, I absolutely loved the Rick Brant Science Adventure series. Who would not, as a small boy, want to live on an island, have access to a laboratory, get to help adult scientists, and own his own airplane?


Bim Adewunmi.

24 Nov 2018

New Must-Read Nietzsche Bio

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This must be the European edition dust jacket.

Hugo Drochon, reviewing Sue Prideaux’s new Nietzsche biography, I Am Dynamite in the Irish Times, explains that this one is a revolutionary revisionist bio that fans of Fred will have to read. I bought mine.

On the morning of January 3rd, 1889 a half-blind German professor, sporting a luxurious moustache, left his lodgings on the third floor of Via Carlo Alberto 6 in Turin. He was used to taking his daily walk through the famous arcades of the city, which shielded him from the light, and along the banks of the river Po. He would walk up to five hours a day, which explained his muscular frame: somewhat in dire contrast to the various illnesses that notoriously plagued his life.

But that day he did not get very far. He walked less than 200m to the Piazza Carignano, and what happened next is the stuff of legend: seeing an old recalcitrant horse being flogged mercilessly by its owner, the professor threw his arms around the horse to protect it – perhaps even whispering “Mother, I have been stupid” in its ear (how can anyone have heard that?) – and collapsing. He was saved from being escorted by two policemen to the asylum by his landlord, Davide Fino, who brought him home. We might never know exactly what happened on that fateful day, but one thing is certain: the productive and intellectual life of the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had come to an end.

In her wonderfully gripping new biography of Nietzsche – the type you stay in bed all Sunday just to finish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. Indeed, the horse only makes an appearance in the legend 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death – when a journalist interviewed Fino, the landlord, about the events of the day. And only in the 1930s – more than 40 years later – do we hear about the horse being beaten and Nietzsche breaking down in tears; this time in an interview with Fino’s son, Ernesto, who would have been about 14 at the time.

Despite no corroboration on the German side – from neither his sister nor his friend Overbeck, who brought him back to Basle – the “Nietzsche horse meme”, to put it in today’s terms, has proved hugely popular. It features in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the horse itself has got its own biopic in the form of an 2011 film The Turin Horse by Hungarian film-makers Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, which proposes a storyline of what happened to the horse after the event. To make things even stranger, the story of a horse being flogged to death appears in Nietzsche’s favourite author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, written when the latter was 44: exactly Nietzsche’s age when he broke down.

Prideaux casts even more doubt on the cause usually attributed to this insanity: syphilis. Popularised by Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which has a Nietzsche-like character contract syphilis in a brothel, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up. Although diagnosed as such when admitted to the asylum in Basle, Nietzsche showed none of symptoms now associated with it: no tremor, faceless expression or slurred speech. If he was at an advanced stage of dementia caused by syphilis, Nietzsche should have died within the next two years; five max. He lived for another 11. The two infections he told the doctors about were for gonorrhoea, contracted when he was a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War.

Instead Prideaux puts forward the – correct – view that Nietzsche probably died of a brain tumour, the same “softening of the brain” that had taken away his father, a rural pastor, when Nietzsche was a boy. Indeed both sides of the family showed signs of neurological problems, or of suffering of “nerves”, as one put it at the time. Nietzsche’s younger sister Elisabeth certainly seemed prone, in posthumously making him palatable to the Nazis in her Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, to a degree of megalomania herself (she had herself buried in the middle of the Nietzsche family burial ground, on the spot originally reserved for her brother).

At stake is whether Nietzsche’s writings, and especially his theory of the Übermensch, should just be dismissed as the ravings of a madman. Here the story of the horse takes on particular importance: if true it would mean Nietzsche repented his views, asking for forgiveness for having demanded that modern man should “overcome” himself, to become “hard” by eschewing pity. This is certainly Kundera’s view, and it makes for a much nicer, more docile Nietzsche. But if there is no horse, or at least if there is no sobbing and protecting a flogged horse – that there is a mental breakdown is beyond doubt – then Nietzsche means what he says and his thinking is, in the words of Prideaux, dynamite.

RTWT

20 Nov 2018

Your Library Needs This

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Christie’s — Sale 17162 — Russian Literary First Editions & Manuscripts: Highlights from the R. Eden Martin Collection, London, 28 November 2018.

Lot 68
DOSTOEVSKY, Fyodor (1821-1881). Brat’ia Karamazovy. [The Brothers Karamazov.] St Petersburg: Brothers Panteleev, 1881 [but December 1880].

Estimate
GBP 22,000 – GBP 30,000

(USD 28,754 – USD 39,210)

The first edition of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, in a superb contemporary cloth binding – arguably the most attractive surviving copy of ‘the most magnificent novel ever written’ (Freud). Dostoevsky’s lifetime publications were typically issued in sober cloth bindings; this colourful and decorative binding is otherwise unrecorded and may have been commissioned by the publisher for presentation. Karamazov in any contemporary cloth is very rare; RBH and ABPC record only one: a set with only volume 1 bound in cloth (sold, Christie’s, 21 May 2014, lot 56). Kilgour 286.

Four parts in two volumes, octavo (210 x 143mm). With the half-titles and the final blank in vol. 1 (occasional light scattered spotting, mainly to the edges and some margins.) Contemporary decorative green cloth by V. Kiun with his printed label in the first volume; front covers with a large decorative block in gold, black and red incorporating the text ‘Sochineniia Dostoevskago’ [Works of Dostoevsky]; covers with a black foliate border; spines titled in gilt and tooled in gilt and blind; plain endpapers (negligible rubbing); custom brown morocco backed clamshell case. Provenance: ‘I 36’ (penciled press mark).

31 Aug 2018

Ray Chandler and Ian Fleming

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Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming

Writers Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler oddly enough actually formed a friendship in the 1950s. After Chandler’s death in 1959, Fleming wrote a long piece about his friend in the December 1959 issue of the London Magazine, which they’ve thoughtfully reprinted.

I first met Raymond Chandler at a dinner party given by Stephen and Natasha Spender some time in May 1955. He was just coming out of the long spell of drinking which followed the death of his wife. She died after a three years’ illness in their house at La Jolla, in California. When the police arrived they found Raymond Chandler in the sitting room firing his revolver through the ceiling. Chandler never recovered from the tragedy and, whatever the reality of his married life, his wife became a myth which completely obsessed the following years.

He sold his house in California and every scrap of furniture that reminded him of her and came to England, perhaps in one of those flights back to one’s youth and childhood (he was educated at Dulwich and worked for some time in London) that badly hurt people sometimes resort to.

He was very nice to me and said that he had liked my first book, Casino Royale, but he really didn’t want me to talk about anything much except the loss of his wife, about which he expressed himself with a nakedness that embarrassed me while endearing him to me. He showed me a photograph of her – a good-looking woman sitting in the sun somewhere. The only other snapshot in his note case was of a cat which he had adored. The cat had died within weeks of his wife’s death and this had been a final blow.

He must have been a very good-looking man but the good, square face was puffy and unkempt with drink. In talking, he never ceased making ugly, Hapsburg lip grimaces while his head stretched away from you looking along his right or left shoulder as if you had bad breath. When he did look at you he saw everything and remembered days later to criticize the tie or the shirt you had been wearing. Everything he said had authority and a strongly individual slant based on what one might describe as a Socialistic humanitarian view of the world. We took to each other and I said that I would send him a copy of my latest book and that we must meet again.

RTWT

29 Aug 2018

“Mysterium”

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It’s easy to sell me $1.99, even $2.99, eBooks for my Kindle reader, but I generally avoid newly issued titles costing $13.99. Susan Froderberg’s essay on how she came to write her new mountain-climbing novel Mysterium has a lot of the same kind of over-the-top enthusiasm I like about the writing of my friend Steve Bodio. And she sold me. I’m buying both of her books.

In 2008, one of the climbing heroes I had read and heard tales about, John Roskelley, led the way for a group of us to the 17,000 foot base camp of Gangkhar Puensum, in Bhutan, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. In 1978, Roskelley was one of the first Americans to summit K2. An American expedition team had first made an attempt in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the Italians would be the first to arrive to its summit. I still have the 1979 National Geographic Magazine with Roskelley’s K2 photograph on the cover: Rick Ridgeway looking like the tin man shackled in a high altitude suit with face covered by a silver mask, walking a knife-edge snow crest. (And looking relaxed!) Every time I gaze at this picture it blows me away.

For three weeks I followed behind Roskelley on the Bhutan trek, and when I wasn’t thinking through this or that notion or ambition or life complication, or simply letting my mind wander not pondering at all (what is walking for, after all?), I was listening to his stories. I still recall details of a few that will forever stick in my mind, even when I reach the age of not being able to recall my children’s names (or remember that I don’t have any). For example, he did not change his clothes at all (at all!) on one two-month-long expedition, day or night, for the sake of carrying less weight, and when he got off the mountain and finally had a chance to bathe he discovered the fabric of his clothing had embedded into his flesh and could not be washed away. Another time, he and a friend showed up to the base of a mountain in the Canadian Rockies they had hoped to ice climb the next day, and found the floor of the women’s restroom in a park campground a suitable enough place to bivouac for the night in below zero cold. (The men’s room was, evidently, unacceptable.) Roskelley was full of anecdotes like these, but he was reticent about incidents having to do with the Nanda Devi expedition. His hesitancy to speak about the Unsoelds or what happened on that trip fascinated me all the more. He had written a book and published an account of the team’s ascent (he and Lou Reichardt made the summit) and maybe there he had said all he wanted or needed to say.

Willi Unsoeld was one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest on an expedition in 1963. He and Tom Hornbein traversed the west ridge—a legendary climb that has not since been accomplished. (Ueli Steck, the famed Swiss climber, plunged 3,200 feet to his death in 2017 on an acclimatizing climb for an attempt on the Unsoeld/Hornbein west ridge route.) Unsoeld taught philosophy and theology at Evergreen College. He died at the age of 52, two years after the death of his daughter on the Nanda Devi expedition, as he was guiding a group of his students on a summit climb of Mount Rainier. He and a student, a young woman who would have been about his daughter Devi’s age when she died, were killed in an avalanche on the descent.

Unsoeld named his daughter Nanda Devi after what was once the highest peak in India (it is now the second highest peak: in 1975 Sikkim joined the republic of India). “I dreamed of having a daughter to name after the peak,” he said. He did, and she grew up wanting to summit the mountain for which she had been christened.

It was the irony of the naming that compelled me to write the story. How would a father manage such a tragedy? A philosophy professor. What did he feel? How did he think? How did he carry on?

What would it be like to be him?

What would it be like to be Devi? To follow an ambition given to her by the name she had been named? To climb with her father, one of the most highly regarded climbers in American history? To meet and fall in love with a fellow team member on the trip and halfway up the mountain be engaged to be married to him? To be young and in love and at the top of the world with all of everything ahead of you? I don’t know, I can only imagine. No one can know. She is not here to tell us. I realized I would have to write the book I had been hoping to read.

27 Aug 2018

Most Searched For Books of 2017

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The rise of the Internet revolutionized book-selling. The bibliophile actually visiting bookstores has become passé. The thrill of finding a treasure-trove in some remote New England village or investigating the wares of a dusty shop in a distant city is basically gone. All one needs to do these days is to summon up a major BookSearch Engine (try BookSearch which includes multiple searches, including ABE), fill in the form, and click.

ABE is perhaps the leading individual book search engine. They send promotional emails from time to time containing features about books. The latest contained their calculation of the most searched-for books (according to Bookfinder) last year. I thought the results were rather interesting.

The most searched for out-of-print book in 2017, according to the annual BookFinder.com report, was a collection of short stories addressing the issues facing Indian girls and women in arranged marriages who come to live in the United States as immigrants.

Highly topical due to the current focus on women’s rights in India and the debate on immigration in the States, Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was published in 1996, but is now winning a new readership.

Divakaruni, who lives in the US, is best known as a poet and this was her first foray into short story writing. The 11 stories detail numerous problems associated of arranged marriages – from physical abuse to psychological torment – and also highlights the problems in starting a new life in a country with a radically different culture.

Divakaruni was born in Kolkata and came to the United States in 1976 to study at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio and the University of California, Berkeley. Since writing Arranged Marriage, she has produced several novels and her latest, Before We Visit the Goddess, was published in 2017. Her novel, The Mistress of Spices, published in 1997, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Arranged Marriage was not the only book about immigration to appear on the BookFinder.com list. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, first published in 2003, is a novel about coming to the United States that spans Kolkata, Boston and New York. The last edition to be published was in India in 2012.

The BookFinder.com list of in-demand out-of-print titles also contains novels from bestselling authors Neal Stephenson, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Lethem. Aside from books that appear year after year (Sex by Madonna, Fast Times at Ridgemont High etc), there is also a sprinkling of books covering niche subjects such as knots, reptiles and coins.

08 Aug 2018

Seven Unread Books Make The Paris Review

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Some Unread Books.

Adam O’Fallon Price is a staff writer for The Millions (whatever that is) and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink (Tin House Books, 2019). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, the Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and many other places.

Wikipedia notes that: “The Paris Review is a quarterly English language literary magazine established in Paris in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. In its first five years, The Paris Review published works by Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Terry Southern, Adrienne Rich, Italo Calvino, Samuel Becket,” &c. [worst BS authors omitted].

So, you’d figure that this Price guy is a pretty darn serious litterateur and you’d expect a think piece appearing in The Paris Review to be pretty deep stuff.

But what we get today, in our lamentable age, from both of them is a sort of “consolation to all the non-readers out there,” a feature titled unabashedly “Seven Books I’ll Never Read.

I was intrigued, and conflicted, by the teaser image (above) of his first three life-time discards.

Although I’m intrinsically hostile toward, and profoundly contemptuous of, people who do not read a lot, I myself loathe and despise David Foster Wallace. I’ve read enough of him to acquire an intense aversion to his world-view, persona, and affected style, and I’d rather go in for a root canal than read Infinite Jest. I read Woolf, years ago, but I’m basically unsympathetic toward her and I do not expect to be reading To the Lighthouse ever again.

Moby Dick is a different matter. Price, slightfully shamefacedly, admits never having read the single greatest work of the literature of his native country, which, in my book, ought to disqualify him automatically from writing any novels, and justifies himself thusly:

I know a lot about it. Is that good enough? The names alone—Ishmael, Ahab, Pequod, Queequeg—somehow ward me away. They manage to simultaneously evoke the Bible, nineteenth-century New England deprivation, and fish. My intention to read Moby-Dick feels like the equivalent of my intention to clean out my office closet—well-meaning and more or less sincere, yet too easily averted by things that are more fun (a category that includes almost everything).

Well, he is a fool. Melville is prolix in Moby Dick. He seems to have swallowed some 19th century equivalent of Speed and is consequently compelled to tell the reader absolutely everything he knows about whales and whaling, but it is unquestionably worth continuing through all the rants. Moby Dick is an absolute epic masterpiece addressing in prose that often rises to the level of poetry the most profound metaphysical issues of the human condition. And there are excellent reasons for the Biblical names, proving emphatically that Price also ought to be reading another of his seven neglected books, the Bible.

The first book on his list is actually four books, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I read it, years ago, in my youth, and found myself alienated from the British classically-educated homoerotic Hellenism of it all, while being at the same time moved with envy of the author’s obviously greater learning and sophistication. The Alexandria Quartet is, I expect, out of fashion these days, and may feel a little dated. All the mystical mumbo jumbo boldly transgressive authors used to find in sodomy is inevitable old hat in an age in which Gay Marriage has been institutionalized. Nonetheless, Durrell’s languors and vapours are worth experiencing, and the multiple novels, featuring extremely differing viewpoints on the same personalities and events are a definite tour de force.

We mentioned the Bible already. Heathen hipsters like Price need to read at least some of it. That way, he’ll get the reference when some of us refer to him as a Philistine.

The last book Price intends to spurn is To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I did read it as a child, and happily years before the Forces of Right-Thinking and Moral Uplift adopted it and made TKAM into a force-fed instrument of propaganda. It’s quite well-written, and there was a time long, long ago, in a very different country, when it was delivering a needed message and fighting a good fight. The pendulum has swung so far since in the opposite direction that I expect TKAM reads to today’s first-time reader like the worst possible kind of cant. So I’ll give Price a pass on that one.

By one of life’s odd coincidences, I’m reading at the moment the pre-publication draft of a novel written by a friend of mine who is one of those people who has read everything. It shows in his writing, too, which is damned good. Look for Tiger Country by Steve Bodio early next month.

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Adam O’Fallon Price.

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