Posts Tagged ‘books’
On Friday morning, January 25, 2013, 15 jihadis entered the restoration and conservation rooms on the ground floor of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Sankoré, a government library in Mali. The men swept 4,202 manuscripts off lab tables and shelves and carried them into the tiled courtyard. They doused the manuscripts—including 14th- and 15th-century works of physics, chemistry, and mathematics, their fragile pages covered with algebraic formulas, charts of the heavens, and molecular diagrams—in gasoline. Then they tossed in a lit match. The brittle pages and their dry leather covers ignited in a flash.
In minutes, the work of Timbuktu’s greatest savants and scientists, preserved for centuries, hidden from the 19th-century jihadis and French conquerors, survivors of floods, bacteria, water, and insects, were consumed by the inferno.
In the capital city of Bamako 800 miles away, the founder of Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidara Library, a scholar and community leader named Abdel Kader Haidara, saw the burning of the manuscripts as a tragedy—and a vindication of a remarkable plan he’d undertaken. Starting with no money besides the meager sum in his savings account, the librarian had recruited a loyal circle of volunteers, badgered and shamed the international community into funding the scheme, raised $1 million, and hired hundreds of amateur smugglers in Timbuktu and beyond. Their goal? Save books…
The whole heart-warming story at “The Great Library Rescue of Timbuktu.”
* Thomas Jefferson
As we check it out, we might wish a spectacularly happy birthday to Phineas Taylor (“P.T.”) Barnum; he was born on this date in 1810. Barnum founded and ran a small business, then a weekly newspaper in his native Connecticut before leaving for New York City and the entertainment business. He parlayed a variety troop and a “curiosities” museum (featuring the ‘”Feejee” mermaid’ and “General Tom Thumb”) into a fortune… which he lost in a series of legal setbacks. He replenished his stores by touring as a temperance speaker, then served as a Connecticut State legislator and as Mayor of Bridgeport (a role in which he introduced gas lighting and founded the Bridgeport hospital)… It wasn’t until after his 60th birthday that he turned to endeavor for which he’s best remembered– the circus.
“I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”
source: Library of Congress
The Athenian Oracle – a sort of 17th-century version of Quora – had its roots in The Athenian Mercury, a magazine published twice a week in London between 1690 and 1697. Its Editor-in-Chief John Dunton had come upon the idea of having an advice column in the magazine, giving the readers a chance to send in their questions which would then be answered by a group of experts. This group, called The Athenian Society, consisted of a Dr Norris, the mathematician Richard Sault, the clergyman and author Samuel Wesley, as well as Dunton himself. The questions received by the society covered everything from natural sciences and philosophy to literature and religion, and in 1703, they were collected and published as The Athenian Oracle. Questions range from why horses neigh or how dew is produced, to asking if there is a cure for stammering, as well as philosophical questions on what happiness is – or what death is. Some of the questions were written by women, resulting in a spin-off called The Ladies’ Mercury which was published for four weeks in 1693 and was the first periodical specifically aimed for women.
All will be answered– page through “The Athenian Oracle (1820).”
As we celebrate certitude, we might recall that it was on this date in 1717 that, as the announcement of the event had it:
A catalogue of curious and valuable books, belonging to the late reverend & learned, Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton, consisting of divinity, philosophy, history, poetry, &c. Generally well bound, to be sold by auction, at the Crown Coffee-House in Boston, the second day of July 1717. Beginning at three a clock afternoon, and so, de die in diem, until the whole be sold. Also a valuable collection of pamphlets will then be exposed to sale. The books may be viewed from the 25th day of June, until the day of sale, at the house of the late Reverend Mr. Pemberton, where attendance will be given.
… the first book auction held in America. The proceeds helped educate the recently-departed Mr. Pemberton’s son, also named Ebenezer, who went on to become a celebrated minister whose sermons were widely circulated in print.
“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors”*…
There are dead encyclopedias lurking everywhere, in basements and garbage dumps and church sales, because the publishing industry had such success at selling them to Americans in the 20th century. At their 18th-century Enlightenment origins, encyclopedias were for the educated elite. In the United States, historian Ann Katherine Johnson writes, reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries began the 19th century as a luxury good—“tools for a relative few”—and exited as “mass-produced books designed ‘for the people.’ ” By the 20th century, in North America, encyclopedias had become a middle-class social tradition.
“Through most of the twentieth century, as many as 90 percent of American encyclopedias were sold door to door,” writes Jack Lynch in his book You Could Look It Up. Encyclopedia salespeople became so common as to be the butt of some pretty good jokes. But their pitch—“If you want to get ahead, you’ll invest in a set”—hit on some serious anxieties. “They were selling not books but a lifestyle, a future, a promise of social mobility,” Lynch writes. “You are holding your family’s future in your hands right now,” a 1961 ad for World Book, featuring a feminine hand grasping an order form, promised.
The advent of the home personal computer, and then the internet, killed the print encyclopedia dead. Why does this feel like such a tragedy to me? Encyclopedias were full of ideology, but pretended to be neutral; as proponents of the Wikipedia model point out, there is some advantage to the way we perceive authority now, as a distributed, ever-evolving web of edits and updates, performed by self-appointed experts who should be trusted only so far and no further. Yet my sense of nostalgia persists.
Artists Brian Dettmer and Guy Laramée tap these feelings in their work. Dettmer explodes encyclopedias, ransacking their interiors for illustrations and scattered words, putting them on display in new configurations. When you look at the resulting pieces, you recover some of that feeling of endless browsing, catching your eye on one image, then another; in fleeting impressions, you get a sense of the kind of world the encyclopedia portrayed. Laramée, on the other hand, approaches the books as objects, leaving them closed and monolithic, their art and words lost to the viewer. Sculpted into landscapes, they transcend their form, becoming something totally new…
More examples of Dettmer’s and Laramée’s work, and Rebecca Onion’s interview with them at “How Two Artists Turn Old Encyclopedias Into Beautiful, Melancholy Art.”
* Charles Baudelaire
As we look it up, we might that it was on this date in 1897 that Karl Elsener patented a pen knife with a large blade, a second smaller cutting blade, a corkscrew, and wood fiber grips, which he called the Officer’s and Sports Knife. Six years earlier Elsener had produced the second knife requisitioned by the Swiss Army, the first to be produced in Switzerland. That knife– the Soldier Knife— was issued to officers and soldiers as a rifle maintenance tool (it also had a can-opener for ration tins). This original model was issued for almost 60 years, until 1951, with only small updates. With the addition of the Officer’s and Sports Knife, Elsenser launched his company, Victorinox, into pocket knife production for the general public, and created the “prepared for anything” category we’ve come to know as Swiss Army Knives.
“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”*…
The Annual Library Budget Survey, a global study that queries 686 senior librarians about their budget spending predictions for the year, was published last week by the Publishers Communication Group (PCG), a consultancy wing of Ingenta, the self-described “largest supplier of technology and related services for the publishing industry.” The survey found uneven growth expectations for libraries worldwide…
Check it out at “How Are Libraries Doing Around the World?”
* (Groucho Marx’s buddy) T.S. Eliot
As we keep our voices down, we might send informative birthday greetings to Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS; he was born on this date in 1955. While working as a Fellow at CERN in 1989, he invented the World Wide Web, developing and demonstrating the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet. Currently the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the continued development of the Web, he remains a staunch defender of an open Web and the free flow of information.
Just in time for summer reading…
Goldman Sachs: financial giant, hotbed of enthusiasm for subprime mortgages, and hapless recipient of your hard-earned money. Who better to tell you what to read?
Well, now they are telling you what to read, in the form of a recently-published recommended book list. We’re talking about people who incurred $550 million in fines for schemes to turn a profit on the civilization-threatening financial crisis they themselves had helped create, and the line between genius and chutzpah is notoriously hard to draw, so, yeah, I’d like to know what’s on these folks’ bedside tables.
First things first, and no big shock: they’re really into capitalism…
More at “Don’t know what to read? Let Goldman Sachs tell you.” The list is here.
[Image above, sourced here]
* Arthur Schopenhauer
As we pack for the beach, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.
Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, two Michigan public librarians, have struggled for years to prune their collections.
As The New Yorker notes, librarians call it “weeding,” and the choice of words is important: a library that “hemorrhages” books loses its lifeblood; a librarian who “weeds” is helping the collection thrive. The key question, for librarians who prefer to avoid scandal, is which books are weeds…
Seven years ago, we visited the blog on which they memorialize their choices. Now Kelly and Hibner have written a book, Making a Collection Count: A Holistic Approach to Library Collection Management, which proposes best practices for analyzing library data and adapting to space constraints.
Learn their lessons at “Weeding the Worst Library Books.”
* Edgar Allan Poe
As we dither over deacquisition, we might recall that it was on this date that “the brave engineer” Casey Jones died in a train wreck in Vaughan, Mississippi, while trying to make up time on the Cannonball Express. He was killed when his passenger train collided with a stalled freight train on a foggy, rainy night. His dramatic attempt to stop his train and save lives made him a hero; he was immortalized in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper for his line, the Illinois Central, and later recorded, among others, Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, Furry Lewis, Johnny Cash, and played live by the The Grateful Dead (hear it on Spotify here).
“I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since”*…
Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in 1744 and now in the collection of the British Library, is the oldest surviving published collection in the genre. Some of its rhymes are still familiar; others, like “Piss a Bed” (above), have faded away.
While the mid-18th-century Tommy Thumb’s represents the oldest collection of nursery rhymes on paper, the oral tradition is, of course, much older. In a preface to his 1843 collection of English nursery rhymes, scholar James Halliwell-Phillips could pinpoint the origins of some verses in his collection to the 16th century but believed that some could be “ancient.” Later studies have dated most of today’s familiar rhymes to the 16th through 18th centuries, with some earlier outliers coming from the medieval period.
Tommy Thumb’s is a milestone for another reason; as the British Library writes, it “represents one of the very first attempts to make books in which children would delight.” It’s small—3 by 1 ¾ inches—and has an engraved illustration on every page; the library suggests that the scheme of alternating ink colors (red, black, red, black) may have been intended to add even more interest for young readers…
* G.K. Chesterton
As we count to three bags full, we might recall that this date each year is UNESCO’s “World Book and Copyright Day.”
23 April is a symbolic date for world literature. It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla, and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.
It was a natural choice for UNESCO’s General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those, who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity. In this regard, UNESCO created the World Book and Copyright Day.