Saturday, December 30, 2006

Book titles foreshadow the hangman's noose

Having just handled these books earlier in the week, oddly enough, their titles became rather topical sounding this morning. No digging in the leaves here--just some quick surface observations of the jacket titles in the wake of Saddam Hussein's execution last night. At a New Year's Eve-Eve-Eve party I attended, the host turned the tv onto a cable news channel, and about 9:00 p.m. C.S.T., somebody in the room alerted the rest of us that he was dead. We looked away (tv on the east wall, no less!) from our drinks and conversations, uttered a few comments--mostly about fears of the effect the news would have on our troops over there--then somebody changed the channel to one of the football bowl games, and life resumed at a cocktail party 7500 miles away. Barely a ripple in the rhythms of a festive evening. I hope for the same for all the troops in harm's way.

The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveler to the shore.
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

- Longfellow

Monday, December 25, 2006

Joyeaux Noel en Provence

Here’s one for Christmas: Little Saints of Christmas: The Santons of Provence, by Daniel J. Foley; Dresser, Chapman & Grimes; Boston, 1959. This book tells the story behind the handcrafted terracotta figurines that have decorated the countryside in Provence, France for centuries at Christmas time. In addition to the traditional manger scene figures, the folk of Provence have included figurines representing themselves--peasant in the field, tradesmen, and artisans--all bearing gifts and paying homage to the Saviour. These figurines have become quite collectible, the author being a collector himself. As has been the tradition for generations, families prepare the crèche, or manger, at Christmas. The santons, which are often handed down from generation to generation, are placed in the crèche. Below are some photos from the book that show the artistry and tradition behind these special figurines.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Hunting a limner in South Africa, 1855

Here’s an intriguing, if not interesting, little book that’s come into my possession: Pen & Ink Sketches in Parliament, by Limner; published by the “Monitor” Office, Castle-Street, Capetown (South Africa) in 1855.

The more I dig into this slim, leather-bound volume, the more interesting it becomes. I wanted to find out who Limner was, and I believe I've discovered an early Victorian satirist named John Leighton, who published under the pseudonym of Luke Limner. Leighton [Limner] not only wrote social satire, he also designed books as well. Seems he came from a line of book people and was a respected designer in his own right. From the University of Rochester's Rare Books & Special Collections, a sample of Leighton's work:

His design skills and interests stretched beyond bookbinding into bookplates. Recently, I found another blog about book plates (see Bookplates with reference to Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie), and I wonder if Mr. Leighton is mentioned there or in links to related sites. Apparently, Leighton was one of the pioneers in bookplate study and collection. He helped found an Ex-Libris Society and published a journal for the society called the Book-Plate Annual.

But it’s his wit that shows through the writing in Pen & Ink Sketches, if he is indeed the author. There is little to the book's design to suggest an artistic undertaking, so it would appear he had little if anything to do with that area of publication. And Leighton certainly fits the time frame, having lived from 1822-1912. The publication date of Pen & Ink Sketches (1855) would have made him about 32 or 33—young and energetic enough to travel to South Africa and stay awhile. That couldn't have been an easy trip. In a section about the himself the author of Pen & Ink Sketches purports to be a much older gentleman, but that could be part of his efforts to remain anonymous.

Much of Leighton's known work seems to have occurred after the Pen & Ink Sketches book was published. As the Exhibition of 1862 approached, London-based Leighton, an illustrator and publisher of some growing reputation was in charge of the committee collecting designs for industrial art for the exhibition.

Back to the book itself, which started all this digging for the pseudonymous author, another intriguing aspect is the section of ads in the back. It offers a good look into the business community of Capetown, South Africa in the 1850s. The colored pages are fascinating to look through for the historian interested in that area. I am neither an historian or particularly interested in that area, but I enjoyed leafing through the ads as a general reader with a lay interest in history. Sample pages follow.

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.

Friday, October 27, 2006

At war with books

At a recent library sale, this book caught my eye, but the inscription inside made me buy it. Just a few words--brief, but poignant. My thoughts went immediately to the mixture of fear, love, and pride the mother must have felt for her son. Then I thought about her son and what he was experiencing and feeling at that time during that horrendous war. I wondered if he came back alive. Or did this book and other gifts from Mother, as well as his personal effects, return home without him? I wondered what his mother’s gift meant to him, assuming he survived to receive it, as well as the letters she must have sent to him.

Psalm 16:11 - Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence fullness of joy; at thy right hand pleasures for evermore.

The name of the young soldier in the inscription, Carroll, reminded me of another Carroll involved with books going to soldiers in America’s current war: Andrew Carroll of the Legacy Project, a component of which is distributing Armed Service Editions (popular in World War II) of literature and popular books.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Unseen Hands

This didn't come from inside a book, but it's about the inside of books. And the outside, too. Princeton University has a wonderful online exhibit, which I found while searching for some information on a book. An enjoyable bit of serendipity this morning. The exhibit is titled: Unseen Hands: Women Printers Binders and Book Designers. For book lovers, this is an interesting historical look into women's roles in the printing business. It's interesting to note that women were much more involved in the business from the 14th through 18th centuries, but by the 19th century male-only unions relegated women to low-level duties such as folding printed sheets and sewing bindings. Some women, however excelled in spite of such restrictions and created lasting works of art and craftsmanship in the book trade. Their work is featured in this exhibit as well, one of several exhibits sponsored by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Princeton University Library

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Oil Makers (and one retirement breaker)

Cataloging a recent acquisition, Oil Makers, by Jeffrey Share (Rice University Press, Houston, 1995), I found a section in the book called New Vision. Curious about what the top level oil industry folks were forecasting a decade ago, I turned the page to the first chapter--a profile of Ken Lay of Enron. Hmmm... It starts by touting the company's "innovative business practices." Yeah, "innovative" is quite the euphemism. The chapter concludes with Lay talking about the company's vision, where he is quoted, "Perhaps a future edition of your book can see how well we did on this vision." I don't think that will be necessary. We all know what happened to "the vision." Besides, Kenny Boy ain't around to interview. Or is he? Some folks think Ken Lay is alive.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Edward Gorey gave me a friend

A few years back I acquired a signed Edward Gorey book, Category, or CATEGOR Y (Gotham Book Mart & Gallery, Inc., NY, 1973). I researched it and offered it for sale, first on ebay, with no bites, then through various bookseller listing sites. One day I got an email from a potential customer who wanted photos of the tiny flaws that existed, including a light smudge from Gorey's signature on the facing page. That killed the deal for him. And that's turned out to be one of the better sales I never made! The next potential customer that came along also requested photos after we played phone tag and I offered to email a few digital shots to help with the decision. This was a collector item priced well over $200 and I wanted the customer to know what she was getting, as much as she could via the Internet. After some careful thought and some discounted pricing, she pulled the trigger and bought the book. We corresponded several times more about an edition question pertaining to the book and again on something Gorey-related a couple of times during the next year. Eventually, another book order (Gorey, of course!) and more emails, which grew more personal, as the death of a family member delayed fullfillment of the order. Condolences and health chat followed. Pretty soon we were corresponding on a regular basis about family, work, news about our respected parts of the world--all the usual things friends might get into during conversation. And we realized we had indeed formed a nice friendship. All thanks to a little book Edward Gorey wrote. Many readers and collectors subscribe to the philosophy that a good book is like a good friend. And so it goes that good books can also create good friends.

Puffing along in the world's slowest race

For the pipe smoking aficionado, The Ultimate Pipe Book, by Richard Carleton Hacker (Autumngold Publishing, Beverly Hills, 1984), offers pretty much the ultimate in all things pipe smoking. There is even a plug for the World's Slowest Race--a pipe smoking contest--with an accompanying photo of a typical (I assume) competition. I especially like the way they have the contestants roped off like a boxing ring. Is that for the pipe smokers' protection from crazed fans who might want a piece of their favorite pipe smoker? I doubt you will see this competitive event on ESPN anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

You've come a long way, baby

In the 1960s, advertisers seeking to capitalize on the changing times, targeted a growing women's movement by lauding their social progress and rewarding them with their own cigarette brand, along with a more equal chance with men for contracting all the smoking-related illnesses. The ad slogan was, "You've come a long way, baby." The absurdity of these ads, especially in hindsight, fell short of using burning bras to light up.

But just how far had women come? A long way when you consider the content found in A Manual of Elementary Law, by Walter Denton Smith (Instructor, Law Department University of Michigan), West Publishing Co., St, Paul, Minn., 1894.

From a legal perspective, women in 1894 may have felt somewhat justified in adopting their future granddaughters’ slogan, You've come a long way, baby. Chapter XIII in this book is titled The Law of Domestic Relations, and provides some insight to just how far perceived women's rights had come.

Addressing historical, outdated philosophical and social views of marriage in America, there is the following:

In general, it may be said that the husband assumed control over the wife and her property in such a way as to leave her in a position little better than that of a slave of the higher order.

The next paragraph contrasts the archaic with the then modern or current enlightenment:

At the present time, most of the disabilities imposed upon the wife by virtue of her relation to her husband have been removed.

Most being the key word here. So how far had women come by 1894? Read on:

By virtue of his position as the head of the family, the husband still controls, to a limited extent, the actions of his wife. The latter is bound to accompany him whenever he changes his domicile, and she owes to him the duty of reasonable obedience. He has, however, no right to chastise her. He is entitled to his wife’s services at common law and in most of the States of this country. In return for the performance of these duties on the part of the wife, the husband is bound to support and protect the wife. If he fails to provide her with the necessaries of life, she may purchase them in his name, and he will be compelled to pay for them.

There are too many flashpoints for groans and grimaces—at least one in every sentence—to even start commenting on them. Suffice it to say that by the 1960s women had indeed come a long way from the social mores bound in the legal presentation of that 1894 law book. Feminine cigarettes notwithstanding.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Among the nudists

Last week, I came across a report from the Boston Globe about a bunch of bored, restless young folks in Brattleboro, Vermont, who had resorted to taking their clothes off in public. One of the photos in the link above features a bookseller who seems a bit put out by all the shenanigans outside his bookstore.

I wondered if that bookshop had in stock a copy of Frances and Mason Merrill's, Among the Nudists, Garden City Publishing, NY, 1931. I have a tattered copy I found in a large batch of books I bought earlier this year. I put it in the keep pile because of the novelty of it--an early treatise on nudists. And because I thought it might have some resale value based on age and content (in spite of condition). It may have some, but even fine copies will not fetch much more than $50, so my poor copy went into a box of misfits and poor intuition to be dealt with later. Bigger fish to fry in the meantime. But maybe one day some nudist collector will want it cheap on ebay. Nudiana? You never know. Perhaps I should print the Globe article and place it between the leaves and recirculate it into the resales for another book hound to find and ponder.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fifth grade reading... in 1897

Came across a beat-up, dirty copy of an old elementary school reader from 1897: School Reading by Grades: Fifth Year, by James Baldwin, American Book Company, NY. I usually set these down as fast as I pick them up, once I see the title. Most of these old things have no resale value. But I am drawn to the antiquarian-looking book, and will give it at least a cursory look. For this title, I think I was curious to see what the curriculum for a 10- or 11-year-old boy or girl was like more than a hundred years ago. I was surprised, but really shouldn’t have been.

The titles and authors listed on the Contents page read like a Who’s Who of literary lions—authors and their works I studied much later in high school and college. Names like Longfellow, Hawthorne, Homer, Tennyson, and Dickens. And the illustrations gave clues to the subject matter of some of the selected writings, such as one of Gutenberg in thoughtful repose over his invention of the printing press. Another historical figure and invention I didn’t learn about until later.

I have little recollection of what I read at that age in the mid-1960s, other than sports and adventure biographies and nature/animal stories. Homer and Tennyson took a back seat to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Lewis & Clark and Daniel Boone—just about anything from Bobbs & Merrill’s Childhood of Famous Americans series. Also high on my list were Emil E. Liers’ tales of otters, beavers, and black bears. That was my extracurricular reading. I have no recollection whatsoever about the contents of our literature textbooks back then. Maybe Steinbeck’s Red Pony made the cut, but something of that ilk would be about as literary as we got, I’d bet. Or maybe I’m just too damn old to remember that kind of detail 40 years later.

So what are fifth grade students reading in 2006, as the fall semester commences?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bob Dylan, America's newest folksong sensation!

Or so said the 1963 advertisement I found over the weekend in a copy of Eugene O'Neill's, A Long Day's Journey into Night (Yale, 1956, sixth printing). The ad appeared in a playbill for O'Neill's play being performed at Princeton's McCarter Theatre that year. The playbill, which was laid in the O'Neill book, had a blurb on the rear cover about Dylan appearing later that fall, so I flipped through the dozen pages or so and found a larger ad announing America's newest folksong sensation making his only college appearance that fall. And shouldn't that be "America's newest folksinging or folksinger sensation?"

Grammatical correctness aside, as I flipped through the pages, I also found the star of the play, whose photo on the front cover I hadn't recognized: Olympia Dukakis. Aha! I thought she looked familiar. What else might be in this playbill? More plays that Ms. Dukakis was starring in, plus an ad for a famous Russian puppeteer, Sergei Obratsov. Quite a lot of celebrity packed into that little college playbill--a well-established "star" of puppet theater, plus two up-and-comers in their respective fields: Dukakis and Dylan.

Trying to find some cosmic coincidence of fate for these two items being paired in the 1960s, one has to look no further than the play's 1912 character, Mary Tyrone (Dukakis) and her drug addiction (morphine). And it was drug addiction, or the drug culture and drug usage, that permeated and partially characterized the artistic, political, and philosophical counter-cultural movements of the 1960s.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, a reluctant icon for his generation, had just recorded his second album. The seeds of his enormous success and cultural influence and the wave of counter-culture revolution were, at that time, just blowin' in the wind.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The art of coffee history… or the coffee of art history

Working in my study the other morning, with a mug of hot coffee, I could hear the morning news show chatter from the tv in the den. One of the morning shows’ medical experts was talking about some new study linking heart attacks and coffee drinking.

Coincidentally, on top of the book pile next to me, which I had been cataloging the night before was the following volume: The Saga of Coffee: The Biography of an Economic Product, by Heinrich Eduard Jacob, First English publication 1935 (translation by Eden & Cedar Paul) by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London. Some coincidences are a bit uncanny, so I took the cue and started digging into the coffee beans.

The German original of this title is Sage und Siegeszug des Kaffees, die Biographie eines weltwirtschaftlichen Stoffes, published by Rowohlt of Berlin in 1934. The American edition was published under the title, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity.

I found a fascinating history with numerous reproduced antique engravings and sketches that depict coffee culture around the world from the 1700s forward—coffee drinkers, coffee houses, coffee plantations… just about anything coffee. Connoisseurs, aficionados, and fanciers, from drinkers to proprietors, could find something interesting in these pages. How about this: One legend has it that coffee beans were first discovered in goat excrement by herders in Yemen. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any coffee concoctions or flavors alluding to this fabled origin. No Yemeni Goat Mocha Bean at Starbucks, or any neighborhood coffee house, I don’t think.

From Yemen in medieval times to Brazil in the 20th century, there are some interesting chapters with titles like Islam’s Wine, Napoleon’s Alliance with Chicory, Pleasures of the Ladies of Berlin (not a misprint!), and Reason Becomes Nonsense—Bonfires of Coffee.

But it was the artwork that captured my attention. It gave me an historical overview of coffee’s role in cultures from the Middle East to Europe to South America and places in between. And that is what I wanted to share in this blog entry.

As for the doctor’s report on coffee and heart attacks, I watched a little until I noticed I needed a refill in my mug. I shut off the tv, got another hot round of java, and settled in with the coffee book. Watching too many reports on health studies can give you indigestion.