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Posts Tagged ‘books

“Printing…is the preservative of all arts”*…

 

dunhuang-diamond-sutra-frontispiece

Frontispiece of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra

 

In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape [around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang] when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff.

Among the hundreds of caves was a chamber that served as a storeroom for books. The Library Cave held more than 50,000 texts: religious tracts, business reports, calendars, dictionaries, government documents, shopping lists, and the oldest dated printed book in the world. A colophon at the end of the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra scroll dates it to 868, nearly six centuries before the first Gutenberg Bible…

Learn more at: “The Oldest Printed Book in the World.”  Then page through the British Libraries digitization of its restoration.

* Isaiah Thomas (the 19th century publisher and author, not the basketball player)

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As we treasure tomes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1990 that  Tim Berners-Lee published a formal proposal for aa “Hypertext project” that he called the World Wide Web (though at the time he rendered it in one word: “WorldWideWeb”)… laying the foundation for a network that has become central to the information age– a network that, with its connected technologies, is believed by many to have sparked a revolution as fundamental and impactful as the revolution ignited by Gutenberg and moveable type.

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Written by LW

November 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When I got my library card, that’s when my life began”*…

 

Orlean-Libraries

I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. My family lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, about a mile from the brick-faced Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me there a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.

Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted. On the way home, I loved having the books stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. We talked about the order in which we were going to read them, a solemn conversation in which we planned how we would pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought that all the librarians at the Bertram Woods branch were beautiful. For a few minutes, we discussed their beauty. My mother then always mentioned that, if she could have chosen any profession, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been…

In an excerpt from her newest, The Library Book, the superb Susan Orlean on the crucial treasures of the public library:  “Growing up in the library.”

* Rita Mae Brown

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As we check it out, we might send learned birthday greetings to Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, better known simply as Erasmus; he was born on this date in 1466 (though some sources place his birth two days later).  A Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, translator, and theologian, probably best remembered for his book In Praise of Folly, he was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, the first editor of the New Testament (“Do unto others…”), and an important figure in patristics and classical literature.  Among fellow scholars and philosophers he was– and is– known as the “Prince of the Humanists.”

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger

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Written by LW

October 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When in doubt, go to the library”*…

 

libraries

 

Two great champions of reading for pleasure remind us that it really is an important thing to do – and that libraries create literate citizens: “Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell on why we need libraries – an essay in pictures.”

* J. K. Rowling

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As we browse in bliss, we might recall that it was on this date in 1779 that Sir Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Quebec, asked British dramatist Richard Cumberland to select books for the first subscription (public) library in Canada.

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The library of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, which incorporated the collection of Haldimand’s library in the mid-19th century.

 

Written by LW

September 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*…

 

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It was in Athens in the 4th Century BC that a man named Zeno walked into a bookshop. He had been a successful merchant, but suffered a terrible shipwreck on a journey out of Phoenicia, losing a priceless cargo of the world’s finest dye. He was 30 years old and facing financial ruin, but this catastrophe stirred his soul to find something new, though he didn’t quite know what.

One day, immersed in browsing a bookstore collection, many volumes of which have been lost to history forever, Zeno heard the bookseller reading out loud a passage from a book by Xenophon about Socrates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. With some trepidation, he approached the owner and asked, “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, began a philosophical journey that would literally change the history of the world. That book recommendation led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of SenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.

All from a chance encounter in a bookshop.

It would be an understatement to say that great things begin in bookstores, and that countless lives have been changed inside them…

 

Why spend time amongst the shelves? “Good Things Happen in Book Stores.”

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we browse in bliss, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Jonson; he died on this date in 1637.  A poet, actor, literary critic, and playwright (he popularized the comedy of humours), he is best remembered for his satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox (c. 1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614), and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry.

Eclipsing Christopher Marlowe, Jonson is generally regarded as the second most important English playwright during the reigns of Elizabeth I of James VI and I (after Shakespeare, with whom Jonson had a professional rivalry, but on whose death Jonson wrote “He was not of an age, but for all time”).  Indeed, while Shakespeare’s impact continues apace to this day, Jonson’s impact was arguably even bigger in the relatively-more immediate timeframe: he had broad and deep influence on the playwrights and the poets of the Jacobean era (1603–1625) and of the Caroline era (1625–1642).

220px-Benjamin_Jonson_by_Abraham_van_Blyenberch source

 

Written by LW

August 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“My best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read”*…

 

The books were a big deal. Nobody had books on death row. They had never been allowed, and it was like someone had brought in contraband. Only six guys were allowed to join me in book club, but every guy on the row was now allowed to have two books besides the Bible in his cell. Some didn’t care, but others made calls out to family and friends to let them know they could send in a book or two. It had to be a brand-new book and be sent directly from a bookstore to the prison. It was like a whole new world opened up, and guys started talking about what books they liked. Some guys didn’t know how to read, others were real slow, almost childlike, and had never been to school beyond a few grades. Those guys didn’t know why they were on death row, and I wondered about a world that would just as soon execute a guy as treat him in a hospital or admit he wasn’t mentally capable of knowing right from wrong.

The very first book club meeting consisted of Jesse Morrison, Victor Kennedy, Larry Heath, Brian Baldwin, Ed Horsley, Henry, and myself. We were allowed to meet in the law library, but we each had to sit at a different table. We couldn’t get up. In order to talk to everyone at once, you had to kind of swivel around in your seat so no one felt left out. If someone wanted to read something out of the book, we had to toss the book to each other and hope that the guy caught it or it landed in reach of someone because we weren’t allowed to lift our butts up off the seats. The guards seemed nervous when they walked us to the library. We weren’t planning a riot or an escape; we were five black guys and two white guys talking about a James Baldwin book. Perfectly normal. Nothing to see here…

When Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to death for two murders he didn’t commit, he used his time to create a book club for death row inmates: “The Death Row Book Club” (excerpted from Hinton’s new book, The Sun Does Shine).

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we celebrate close reading, we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the psychedelic properties of LSD.  Hofmann had synthesized the drug five years earlier, but its hoped-for use in treating respiratory problems didn’t pan out, and it was shelved.  On this day, he accidentally absorbed some of the drug through his skin (as he touched its container).  He became dizzy with hallucinations.  Three days later he took the first intentional dose of acid: 0.25 milligrams (250 micrograms), an amount he predicted to be a threshold dose (an actual threshold dose is 20 micrograms).  Less than an hour later, Hofmann experienced sudden and intense changes in perception.  He asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home and, as use of motor vehicles was prohibited because of wartime restrictions, they had to make the journey on a bicycle… which is why April 19 has been celebrated (since 1985) as “Bicycle Day.”

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Written by LW

April 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion”*…

 

The ascent of the Prophet over the Ka’bah guided by Jibrā’īl and escorted by angels. (via the British Library)

The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan is a book lover’s fantasy: a bespoke manuscript, hand-painted and hand-written by the greatest artists and calligraphers of its day. The patchwork book is pieced together from a wide range of texts, from epic poetry to learned disquisitions on astrology, medicine, and the interpretation of dreams. It is a fifteenth-century library distilled into a single volume and a relic of another world. In a time before copyright, texts could be borrowed, copied, and recycled into something new. In a time before mass-scale printing, a book could be a deeply personal affair, curated exactly to its patron’s unique set of interests. In a time before the internet, a pocket-sized library was the best way to carry a world of knowledge everywhere you went.

The Miscellany’s patron was Jalāl al-Dīn Iskandar Sultan ibn ‘Umar Shaykh, ruler of Shiraz and Isfahan and grandson of the world-famous conqueror Timur…

The remarkable story in full at “The ultimate bespoke manuscript“; browse the manuscript on the British Library’s Digital Viewer.

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we contemplate comprehensiveness, we might recall that not too long after this exercise in collecting everything relevant to a single reader, there was a seminal move to make a single thing available to many, many readers: on this date in 1484, William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England and was its first book publisher (see here and here), published his English translation of Aesop’s Fables.

The fable of the farmer and his sons from Caxton’s edition, 1484

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“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking”*…

 

A market doubles as a bookstore in Obidos, Portugal

What makes a book town?

It can’t be too big—not a city, but a genuine town, usually in a rural setting. It has to have bookshops—not one or two, but a real concentration, where a bibliophile might spend hours, even days, browsing. Usually a book town begins with a couple of secondhand bookstores and later grows to offer new books, too.

But mostly, they have a lot of books for sale…

Tour some of the world’s best at “Book Towns Are Made for Book Lovers.”

* Jerry Seinfeld

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As we browse in bliss, we might send a combo birthday and St Patrick’s Day greeting to Catherine “Kate” Greenaway; she was born on this date in 1846.  Creator of books for children such as Mother Goose (1881), Little Ann (1883), & The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1889), she was one of the most the most accomplished illustrators of her time– and the inspiration for The Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded annually by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the U.K. to an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway’s illustration of the Pied Piper leading the children out of Hamelin; for Robert Browning’s version of the tale.

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Written by LW

March 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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