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Posts Tagged ‘books

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”*…

 

librarian

A “Pack Horse Librarian” returning for a new supply of books

 

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time…

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. “Libraries” were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week…

A New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in the most remote areas: “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.”

* Stephen King, On Writing

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As we check it out, we might send shocking birthday greetings to the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854.  In his adolescence and early adulthood (he wrote his final work when he was 21), and with his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s   – Paul Valéry

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“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation”*…

 

library

 

The librarian greeted me, asked for my name, and scanned a shelf of books along the wall. She pulled one from the collection, and placed it on the counter—but left her hand on the book. She smiled. “Don’t remove this white band,” she said. “Don’t rip it. Don’t touch it. It will cause problems.” I nervously smiled in return. There is nothing more frightening than a confident librarian.

The white band on the book, as fellow devotees of the glorious InterLibrary Loan system know, contains all of the information to facilitate return of the item to the lending library. Removed bands slow down the system. And the last thing that I would ever want to do is hurt, in any way, a system that has been so good to me…

A brief history (and celebration) of the apex of human civilization: “InterLibrary Loan Will Change Your Life.

* Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

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As we disobey Polonius, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a jealous Robert Frost heckled Archibald MacLeish at a reading of the latter’s poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vt.  Bill Peschel recounts:

The gathering was held at Treman Cottage, and Frost was among the attendees, sitting in the back. It was a time when Hitler was on the ascendant, and the United States was divided between warning against the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, and those who didn’t want to intervene in another European war. MacLeish was anti-Fascist, and Frost despised MacLeish’s support of Roosevelt.

That night, as MacLeish read from his poetry, Frost began heckling him. “Archie’s poems all have the sametune,” he said in a whisper that could be heard. When MacLeish read the single-sentence poem, “You, Andrew Marvell,” smoke could be smelled. Frost had accidentally, on purpose, set fire to some papers and was beating them out and waving away the smoke.

Most people accepted the story of the accident, and the reading eventually concluded. MacLeish was still the center of attention, and he was asked to read from one of his plays. But Frost was not done with him. As [Wallace] Stegner wrote:

“His comments from the floor, at first friendly and wisecracking, became steadily harsher and more barbed. He interrupted, he commented, he took exception. What began as the ordinary give and take of literary conversation turned into a clear intention of frustrating and humiliating Archie MacLeish, and the situation became increasingly painful to those who comprehended it”. Even Bernard DeVoto, a scholar and friend of Frost, had enough, calling out, “For God’s sake, Robert, let him read!” Frost ignored him, but shortly thereafter, on some pretext, “said something savage,” and left.

Afterwards, Frost’s defenders tried to kick sand over the events. One friend wrote only of “unfounded allusions” and “behavior not proven by fact.” There were people there who didn’t even notice what Stegner saw that night. But baiting MacLeish had caused a permanent rift between DeVoto and Frost. At the end of the conference, when they met and shook hands, DeVoto told him, “You’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man.”

 

“I rather think that archives exist to keep things safe – but not secret”*…

 

mauritania-books-006

 

For hundreds of years, families in Mauritania have been maintaining libraries of old Arabo-Berber books.  Originally on the route of pilgrims traveling to Mecca, the libraries are now at risk from the spreading Sahara and ever dwindling numbers of visitors, in part because of security restrictions due to terrorism.  One center of this preservation is the vanishing city of Chinguetti.

Most of Chinguetti consists of abandoned houses which are being swallowed up by the ever encroaching dunes of the Sahara. But this was once a prosperous city of 20,000 people, and a medieval center for religious and legal scholars; it was known as “The City of Libraries.”

Seen as a legacy from their ancestors, the families feel it’s an honor for them to care for these books:

About 600km north-east of the capital, in Chinguetti, once a centre of Islamic learning, the Habott family owns one of the finest private libraries, with 1,400 books covering a dozen subjects such as the Qur’an and the Hadith (the words of the Prophet), astronomy, mathematics, geometry, law and grammar. The oldest tome, written on Chinese paper, dates from the 11th century…

Precious Arabic manuscripts from western Africa are under threat as Mauritania’s desert libraries vanish.  Learn more– and marvel at the photos that you’ll find at “Mauritania’s hidden manuscripts” (source of the direct quote above) and “Desert libraries of Chinguetti” (general source).  See also @incunabula and the photos at Messy Nessy.

* Kevin Young

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As we treasure treasures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1846 that President James K. Polk signed the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a “trust instrumentality” of the United States, to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Based on the founding donation of British scientist James Smithson, and originally called as the “United States National Museum,” it now houses over 150 million items in 19 museums, nine research centers, and a zoo, several of which are historical and architectural landmarks.  “The Nation’s Attic,” as it is fondly known, hosts over 30 million visitors a year.

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The “Castle” (1847), the Institution’s first building, which remains its headquarters

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Written by LW

August 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I subscribe to the Fiona Apple school of titles: I wanted people to know exactly what they were getting into”*…

 

sub-titles

 

How many words can you fit in a subtitle? For a slew of modern books, the answer seems to be as many as possible. Just look at Julie Holland’s “Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy,” Erin McHugh’s “Political Suicide: Missteps, Peccadilloes, Bad Calls, Backroom Hijinx, Sordid Pasts, Rotten Breaks, and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes in the Annals of American Politics” and Ryan Grim’s “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”

Blame a one-word culprit: search. Todd Stocke, senior vice president and editorial director at Sourcebooks, said that subtitle length and content have a lot to do with finding readers through online searches. “It used to be that you could solve merchandising communication on the cover by adding a tagline, blurb or bulleted list,” he said. But now, publishers “pack the keywords and search terms into the subtitle field because in theory that’ll help the book surface more easily.”…

The whole story at “Book subtitles are getting ridiculously long. What is going on?

* W. Kamau Bell

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As we search for optimization, we might spare a thought for Lois Duncan Steinmetz– better known by her pen name, Lois Duncan– she died on this date in 2016.  A journalist, poet, and novelist, she is probably best remembered as a pioneering author of young adult novels, dubbed the “queen of teen thrillers.” (Indeed, in 2014 she was awarded the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America, alongside James Ellroy.)

220px-Lois_Duncan_Steinmetz_in_a_field_of_daisies_in_Taos,_New_Mexico_(crop) source

We might also send puffing birthday greetings to Wilbert Vere Awdry; he was born on this date in 1911.  Better known as “Reverend W. Awdry,” he was a train enthusiast and children’s author, who married his passions to create Thomas the Tank Engine (the central figure in Awdry’s Railway Series, and the star of a long-running animated children’s show).

220px-The_Rev._W._Awdry source

 

“You cannot bore people into buying your product”*…

 

messam

“… Unclear why Messam thinks it’s wise to feature a photo of himself running away from the voter.”

 

For those who think it trivializes our political process to judge candidates by their typography—what would you prefer we scrutinize? Qualifications? Ground into dust during the last election. Issues? Be my guest. Whether a candidate will ever fulfill a certain campaign promise about a certain issue is conjectural.

But typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?

Book publishers spend a lot on cover design. [The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” dates from the time before books were sold with colorful jackets.] Candidates likewise spend a lot on their public presentation. Why? For the same reasons: voters (or readers) are going to make judgments based on design factors (whether consciously or not). So just as we should feel justified judging a book by its cover—because that’s what it’s for—we should likewise feel justified considering how typography reflects on each candidate.

Along those lines, my pet political theory is that even as they labor to reveal their characteristic strengths through typography, candidates tend to be more successful revealing their characteristic limitations. The evidence is left as a thought experiment for sufficiently motivated readers…

Writer, typographer, programmer, and lawyer Matthew Butterick‘s witty and wise observations on the design choices made by presidential candidates (so far): “Typography 2020: a listicle for America.”

* David Ogilvy

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As we face up to face-value, we might recall that this is the “birthday” of the earliest-known dated printed book: the sacred Buddhist text the Diamond Sutra.  A copy of the Tang-dynasty Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1900, and has been dated back to May 11, 868.

Jingangjing

Frontispiece of the Chinese Diamond Sūtra

 

 

Written by LW

May 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”*…

 

idea_sized-codex1-add-ms-43725

Codex Sinaiticus (4th century, eastern Mediterranean)

 

“Codex” is just the Roman name for a book, made of pages, and usually bound on the left. Its predecessor was the scroll or book roll, which was unrolled as you read. The codex is manifestly superior: one can hold many volumes (from the Latin for book roll, volumen); codices have a built-in cover for protection; and pages that can be numbered for reference, from which arose a cornucopia of tables of contents and indices.

The codex didn’t catch on until surprisingly late in the ancient world. The early Christians, however, took to the codex with singular enthusiasm. Wider adoption of this form seems to have corresponded to Christianity’s spread. In the 4th century, no less a figure than St Augustine illustrates the difference between a codex and a roll – and the nagging ‘Christianity’ of the codex.

Not yet baptised, in his garden where he had been reading, Augustine tells us he heard a child’s voice chant: ‘Tolle Lege!’ (‘Take up and read’). So he grabbed his book and flipped to a random page. His eyes lit upon a passage in Paul’s ‘Letters to the Romans’. The words he found were the key to his conversion. The book couldn’t have been a roll: it was a codex of the Gospels. But many of his other, often non-Christian books, were rolls.

Virtually all ancient Christian texts were codices, and with each new scrap pulled from the Egyptian sands, this has been confirmed, rare exceptions ‘proving the rule’. Historians have concluded that, while Christians probably didn’t invent the codex, their scribes had gifted the general use of it to the Roman world and, in so doing, passed it, and much of what survives of Classical literature, on to us. But an inability to explain the exact origin and nature of this ‘Christian codex’ clouds every investigation, and for good reason: this conclusion is wrong. While nearly every early Christian text is a codex, not every early codex is Christian…

The fascinating story in full: “The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex.”

* Groucho Marx

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As we turn the page, we might send speedy birthday greetings to Samuel Finley Breese Morse; he was born on this date in 1791.  After establishing himself as a successful painter, Morse returned to a school-day obsession, electricity, and began to experiment with using it to communicate…  sufficiently successfully that he is now less well remembered for his (then celebrated) art work, than for his success as contributor to the development of the single wire telegraph– which revolutionized global communications— and as the co-developer of Morse Code.

220px-Samuel_Morse_1840 source

 

Written by LW

April 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”*…

 

Books hopper

As the year draws to a close, some of us like to look forward, and some of us backward—and some way backward. Last month, while working on the not-at-all-controversial Books That Defined the Decades series, I was often surprised by the dissonance between the books that sold well in any given year and the books that we now consider relevant, important, or illustrative of the time. I repeatedly regaled my colleagues with fun and interesting facts like: “Did you know that in 1940 the best-selling book of the year was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn? That was also the year The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Native Son came out!” They made me stop eventually, and so I compiled all my comments into this very piece…

Some general takeaways:

1. The biggest bestsellers of any given year are not necessarily the books we remember 20, 30, 50, or 100 years later. (Something to remember when your own book goes on sale.)

2. Sometimes books take a little while to work themselves onto the bestseller list. Books suspiciously absent from the list of the year they were published sometimes show up in the next year, likely due to paperback releases and/or word of mouth (or they may have simply been published too late in the year to compete with the spring books).

3. People like to read the same authors year after year.

4. John Grisham owned the 90s.

5. There are so very many books, and we have forgotten almost all of them.

Here’s to remembering (the good ones, at least)…

A century of best-seller lists, compared with the books published in the same years that are well-remembered today: “Here are the biggest fiction best-sellers of the last 100 years (and what everyone read instead).”

* Haruki Murakami

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As we turn the page, we might spare a thought for Henry James III; he died on this date in 1947.  The son of philosopher and psychologist William James and the nephew of novelist Henry, he was an accomplished attorney, administrator (manager of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and Chair of TIAA), and diplomat (e.g., a member of the Versailles Peace Conference).

But like his famous elders, he also wrote– in his case, biographies, for one of which (a life of Charles W. Eliot) he won the Pulitzer Prize.

HJ III

Henry James III holding his sister, Mary Margaret, in his lap (source)

 

Written by LW

December 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

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