Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Revealing my ignorance here... I was surprised to find this book on the game of Checkers: Lees' Guide to the Game of Draughts or Checkers: Giving the Best Lines of Attack and Defence on the Standard Openings, with Notes and Variations, Revised and Extended by the Late John W. Dawson of Newcastle-on-Tyne; David McKay Company, Philadelphia (1931). Surprised because I always thought of checkers as a simple game that came boxed with about a half-page set of instructions. So here is a 271-page tome, albeit only about 4 X 6 inches in decorative cloth boards with a jillion illustrations and complicated looking diagrams of strategy and maneuvers. Did they confuse this with chess by some chance? And what is "draughts?" Checkers only gets second billing in the title.

Think of checkers and you (I) get an image of old men sitting around the cracker barrel or old Franklin stove in a country store, slowly pondering their next move on the checker board. I don't think of detailed books, with bloated titles, and this one was originally published in 1897. I guess by 1931 (this edition), the game had changed enough in some way to warrant a new edition. Revised and enlarged. What is there to revise about checkers? Perhaps this falls under the heading of "You can't judge a book by its cover."

John Adams' books

An exhibit at the Boston Public Library, titled John Adams Unbound, reminded me of a book on my shelves: The Adams Papers: The Earliest Diary of John Adams, edited by L.H. Butterfield; The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1966.

I looked through the index for a clue to Adams’ book collection, the kinds of things he liked to read or collect, and any thoughts he may have recorded about a passion for books. By the way, here’s a related article in the Boston Globe. Anyway, I found reference to an entry in a later diary outside the scope of Butterfield’s book, which involved an eager acceptance of book recommendations from a Mr. Tyler.

As a rising young lawyer in 1770, Adams made the acquaintance of Royall Tyler, who recommended an eclectic variety of reading that, Butterfield writes, Adams took quite seriously. I assume this means he bought or borrowed and read these works, which provides insight to the curious and interesting tastes Adams had in books. The titles he took to heart from Tyler included Dr. South’s sermon upon the Wisdom of this World; Fable of the Bees, by Mandeville; Character of a Trimmer, by Halifax; Hurd’s Dialogue upon Sincerity in the Commerce of Life, Machiavelli and Caesar Borgia.

These books are mentioned by Adams in a diary entry dated 1770, August 19—much later than the date ranges for the entries in Butterfield’s Adams Papers. But Butterfield references them in that entry. The actual pages can be viewed online at the web site for the
Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This later diary entry lends credence, I believe, to a point Butterfield made of Adams’ persistent self-examination about his intellectual capacity and ability to live up to certain ideals. In other words, it appears self-doubt was constantly creeping up from Adams’ subconscious. And so he countered such negativism by reading classic treatises on law to better grasp the theory of law. He also read the great orators and poets to become artful in “moving the passions of men in a courtroom.”

May not Genius [of a different and lesser kind] be shewn in aranging a Mans Diet, Exercise, Sleep, Reading, Reflection, Writing &c. in the best order and Proportion, for His Improvement in Knowledge?... Patience or a great Superiority to a mans own unsteadiness, is perhaps one of the greatest Marks of Genius. Inatention, Wandering, Unconnected Thoughts, are the opposites to this Patience.

Lest you get the idea that Adams gobbled up books in a voracious manner, below is an interesting passage that seems to dispel that notion by reflecting on his struggle for self-improvement against the procrastination he felt at times. He worried about whether he had the right stuff to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself.

What is this Cause of Procrastination? To day my Stomack is disordred, and my Thoughts of Consequence, unsteady and confused. I cant study today but will begin tomorrow. Tomorrow comes. Well, I feel pretty well, my head is pretty clear, but Company comes in…
Ballast is what I want, I totter, with every Breeze. My motions are unsteady…. I have so many Irons in the Fire, that every one burns.

These self-revelations from Adams help to transform him from the dusty pages of history (dusty for the unacquainted such as myself) to a man any of us today could relate to. We all struggle at one point or another with self-doubt, our abilities, goals, or dreams. That one of America’s most revered founding fathers, and second president of the United States, could walk upon such common ground with the rest of us is a bit inspiring for moving beyond those barriers that get in the way at times of achievement. So taking a page from the Adams diary, literally, the way to elevate one's self... books, books, and more books!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Texas-Israeli War

I don't know if I've ever encountered a stranger premise for a novel than the one for The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop (Ballantine, 1974). Why would Texas and Israel go to war against each other? And how could they go to war? Wouldn't that be war against the U.S.? Not if Texas seceded from the Union first. Backing up a bit, the premise laid out is that a nuclear holocaust in 1992 (18 years in the future when the book was written) decimated more than half of the world's population. Israel, "painfully" overpopulated, somehow escaped the raining nukes and a couple of Israeli mercenaries decided to pull up stakes and head for America and new opportunity. Basically, they were just looking for some land to settle on, and apparently, America had a surplus after the war.

Now in the aftermath of a devastating war, Texas decides to secede instead of sticking with the other states to rebuild. They take their oil reservs and, to make matters worse, they kidnap the U.S. President. Why? Best not to ask at this point. It gets worse. Sol and Myra, the Israeli mercenary/settlers strike a deal with the U.S. government to rescue the President in exchange for land to settle on north of the Red River. They lead their little band of Israeli renegades deep into Texas on what is called Operation King. Given that name, I would almost expect to see Elvis make an appearance.

All that is bad enough, but the cover art goes the extra mile in goofiness. An Israeli tank positions itself somewhere in West Texas against a charging group of... Indians? Huh? I thought this was futuristic in concept, so what happened to the Israeli commandoes when they arrived in Texas to do battle? Did the author shift the time machine in reverse and pit Israel against the Comanches? And that tank... how in the world did Sol and Myra haul that thing all the way to America?

I only bought this book for the title, as a gag to show someone from Israel I know. But the synopsis on the rear cover and artwork on the front cover are really tugging on me to start reading this thing (in fairness, I have not read one page, only the rear cover write-up). It smacks of a humorous tongue-in-cheek, quasi-science fiction, time-travel kind of story. And the Jewish/Texas angle makes me think of the Lone Star State's most celebrated singer/songwriter/mystery novelist/gubernatorial candidate: Kinky Friedman. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the authors credited with this book actually comprised a dual-pseudonym for the Kinkster. If so, Willie Nelson just might be involved somewhere in the plot.


The other day, I found a link to The Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, an informative blog with relevant links for bookplate collectors. I got to thinking about some of the interesting bookplates I have found in old books. I have even sold some old books just for the bookplate affixed inside, which I included in the book's description. My interest in books goes back as far as I can remember, and was sparked by the antiquarian books in my grandmother's library, many of which had her mother's bookplate (illustrated by another daughter), shown below.

That would also be my introduction to bookplates, and I remember being intrigued by my great-grandmother's bookplate. The things that get imprinted on young minds tend to stay with you. Thus, my continuing interest in old bookplates and the confessions of a bookplate junkie.

Perhaps the most interesting bookplate I've come across in recent years, and still in my posession, is one that depicts Haiti's first military force, established in 1915 during U.S. occupation, and commanded and supported by U.S. Marines. Quite possibly, the previous owner of the book had been a U.S. Marine in the Gendarmerie d'Haiti during that time.The bookplate design features the words "Gendarmerie d'Haiti" and depicts a fort on a hill.

Researching the Gendarmerie d'Haiti also led me to the biography of U.S. Marine Major General Smedley D. Butler, a larger-than-life hero, and then the biography of the most decorated U.S. Marine in history: Chesty Puller. It is doubtful I would have known about these men and their brave exploits had it not been for the bookplate that opened that particular door of history to me.