Sunday, January 31, 2010

Big books

The Klencke Atlas holds the distinction of being the biggest book on the planet at about five feet tall and six feet wide. It's never been publicly displayed with its pages open, but that's about to change. The 350-year-old atlas will be displayed as part of the British Library exhibition on maps later this year.

Not to be outdone (actually I have been), here's my biggest book--a collection of New York Times newspapers from 1936, hardbound by the New York Public Library.

While it takes six people to hoist the Klencke Atlas, I can lift my Times book all by myself. I'm over six feet tall, so you get an idea from the photo how big my book is. At two feet, eight inches tall by a foot-and-a-half wide, it's not exactly dwarfed in my hands. It wasn't that easy to hold open. I only thought I was holding a Krecke Atlas! So I can't imagine actually trying to wrestle with that monster.

Following are some interesting things I found in my little bitty 1936 New York Times book.

First up is an Eastern Air Lines ad. I didn't know they went back as far as 1936, but I was pleased to find it because it complements an old Eastern ticket I have and wrote about on one of my ephemera blogs, Paper Matters. Some pretty cool video of the old "Connies" in that post.

Next, President Roosevelt pays a visit to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl days. Deep into the Great Depression, Roosevelt hits the road to visit those who are really suffering through some tough times.

Back east, Carl Hubbell and the New York Giants are playing some good baseball on the way to the National League Pennant. I know all this because I used to hear first-hand stories from one of Hubbell's teammates, Joe Moore, the left fielder. That's a subject for another time, but I got to know Joe and become friends with him for a good ten years before he passed away in 2001 at age 92. He had a bunch of articles like this in a scrapbook. So you can see why I had to include this one.

The Yankees also made it to the World Series in '36 and whipped the Giants. I'm a huge Lou Gehrig fan so was pleased to find him doing a pitch for anything--in this ad it's milk.

Entertainers from yesteryear are in these old radio ads.

Here's the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, before the Kennedy machine started cranking out political leaders. Looks like he's doing okay with the Roosevelt administration in the White House.

Down on the farm, the latest technology in farm equipment promises to boost production. You might be able to find one of these in a museum now.

The New York Times wouldn't be complete without news and reviews of books. Here are a few pages from yesteryear and old books that were once new with stiff bindings on the shelves.

There's so many interesting articles, ads, and photos--I could go on and on with the history found on these pages, but need to stop here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dorothy's new jacket

Dorothy's new jacket arrived in the mail today.

My beat-up, signed copy of Dorothy Parker's 1933 collection of short stories, After Such Pleasures, now has something nice to wear over the old fraying threads she was sporting when I found her a few months ago. Before pictures are here in a previous post.

I purchased a first edition from Argosy Book Store in New York for the jacket. They had the best copy available, price-wise, and the jacket ain't that great, but it'll do for the price.

The book is a first edition, so presumably the jacket is first state unless somebody did with it what I've just done with it--marry it to another book. I'm putting this first state jacket on my second printing of After Such Pleasures.

For this book, I wouldn't spend the extra money adding a jacket, but this book was special despite its flaws. It had that nice inscription in it from Dorothy Parker.

So she was begging for a jacket and now she has one. And, of course, you know that...
Bibliophiles seldom collect it
If the book lacks a jacket.
Okay, that was a lame attempt at parodying Parker's famous couplet:
Men seldom make passes
at girls who wear glasses.
Couldn't resist it; it was too easy.

As a bonus, the First Edition I bought had a bookseller's ticket affixed inside the rear cover (I collect and write about these occasionally on Bibliophemera). It's for House of Books Ltd, located at 555 Madison Ave. in New York.

This is why I brought up Argosy before. It looks like this Dorothy Parker stayed in New York the past 77 years, which is longer than the author lived (73). I don't know how far Argosy is from House of Books or what used to be House of Books, but it can't be that far. Now the book has retired down South for awhile.

It's warmer down here. No need for a jacket anyway.

Library and social history found at the book sale

Going through a few boxes of treasure (books) purchased at the Houston Public Library book sale last year (and then set aside), I recently came across a little booklet about the state of Texas. And I began to learn (or remember from history) that, for several decades, folks in Houston could not all go to the same library to look at this book. Skin color determined which buildings they could enter, and, ultimately, which books they could read.

Ironically, this is the least significant book I found at that sale, in terms of value or content, but it may turn out to be the most interesting in terms of the historical window it opened.

Tell Me About Texas is a booklet published by the Press of Van Boeckmann-Jones in Austin for the Convention and Publicity Bureau of the Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1935. It reads like a little factoid piece on Texas history, geography, and culture. There are even a few colored plates depicting the state bird (Mockingbird) and state flower (bluebonnet).

But there is also another colored item--the library stamp on the top of the front cover that states Houston Public Library Colored Branch. A fading relic from the segregated past that really makes you pause and consider that, as long ago and incredulous as it might seem to us today, it really wasn't that long ago that such segregation was not only tolerated, but perpetuated by conventions such as separate library facilities for black and white citizens.

This cover seemed to be asking, Tell me about... the Colored Branch, the word Texas itself segregated from the message of the rest of the cover. So I bought it for eight bits and put it in a box to research at home.

The authority on the history of racially segregated public libraries is Cheryl Knott Malone, an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, School of Information Resources and Library Studies. Most of what I found is from her exhaustive research and writing here and here.

The Colored Branch has its roots in the Houston Carnegie Library, completed in 1904 with a $50,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie. African American citizens were denied access to the new library, so in 1909 they organized their own under very modest circumstances in a local high school and later secured a Carnegie grant for construction of a new building. By 1913, the Colored Carnegie Library opened its doors and operated independently of its whites-only counterpart. That changed in 1921 when the Houston Public Library system was formed and brought the Colored Carnegie Library into their system as the Colored Branch.

That is the branch that had the booklet with the faded Colored Branch stamp, which I bought at the sale last year. That segregation would begin to unravel in 1953 with a shift in city policy, but it was a slow development. The Colored Branch continued operating through desegregation and finally, in 1961, the plug was unceremoniously pulled on that branch, closing that chapter of the city's segregated library history.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The passing of a bookseller in Maine

One of the more heartwarming reminiscences I've read lately is Sarah Faragher's Pleased to Meet You post, in which she lovingly remembers her relationship with a bookseller after coming across her obituary. If you have a passion for books that Lawrence Clark Powell espoused (my previous blog post), love going into old book shops, and being around book people and their books, have a look at this poignant tribute.

A Passion for Books

That is the title of a book I'm currently reading by Lawrence Clark Powell (World Publishing, Cleveland, 1958). My copy states further on what would normally be the half-title page:


A Passion for Books




Christmas 1958

I liked the right justification for the text alignment, so I duplicated it above.

I had started reading this book a few weeks ago while trying to prepare for a book show, so I didn't get very far. I did find a passage early on that I wanted to repeat here. As I've resumed reading and am about finished, I find myself wanting to post here just about everything I read in the book! Mr. Powell's passion is contagious. I also liked the woodcut by Antonio Frasconi on the title page and learning something about his life and art work.

By one of the greater coincidences I've had in a long while, I obtained a Lawrence Clark Powell broadside at the book show in Austin and met the man who designed it--William R. Holman. The story about that is on the Bibliophemera blog, but an image of the broadside is appropriate for this post.

Back to the book... The first essay of Part One is titled, My Favorite Four-Letter Word; Or, How I feel about the B--K. Powell has some interesting thoughts that are still pertinent 50 years after he published them in this book. To wit:
I view with alarm the invasion of the book world by barbarians who neither believe in books for their totality of being, their fusion of form and content, nor have any sentimental feelings toward the book as a thing-in-itself.

There is no way of communicating with people who, by an imbalance of thinking over feeling, do not respond to the wedding of form and content...

It is proper to confer about the future of "the book," even to ask is the book obsolete, but when library school prospectuses are issued which run to thousands of words without once mentioning the word "book," then the bounds of propriety have been exceeded. The appeal is to would-be housekeepers, analysts, probers, and planners, to unsocial scientists who can be led to literature but not made to read and who long to de-emphasize books, mechanize the library, and change the name to "Materials Center," a term more properly applied by anatomists to the dissecting room.

Books are to be used as instruments in binding men closer in thoughtful good will...

Machines can do much for us in controlling the flood of "firmed up but not finalized" near-print, off-print, or un-print material, but machines cannot communicate--at least not yet--by what Lester Asheim aptly calls "a kind of poetic shorthand." This simple act of reading is universal, transcending time and place...

I believe that books--those beautiful blends of form and spirit--have a future fully as glorious as their past; that to disbelieve is an act of faithlessness, is dangerous, and could lead to the downfall of the kind of librarianship in which the book is central and basic. I know that I am not alone in my belief, my faith, my love, and I call on booklovers everywhere to close ranks, face the invaders, and give them the works--preferrably in elephant folio.
There's so much more to quote, but I'll stop here for now. I don't know what was going on in the 1950s to raise these kind of concerns, but these thoughts seem to prophesize what's happening today with digital readers gaining popularity and even a library getting rid of its books.

I wonder what Mr. Powell would say about a library with no books?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Wittliff Collection at Texas State University

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post about Bill Wittliff's photographs on the set of Lonesome Dove, the miniseries screenplay he wrote and produced, adapting it from Larry McMurtry's novel. After blogging about the book and its photos (my reproductions didn't come close to doing them justice), I got my monthly issue of Texas Highways in the mail. This morning, I discovered an article in it about the Wittliff Collections at Texas Sate University in San Marcos, Texas. There is an entire room devoted to the Lonesome Dove miniseries. Fans won't want to miss this issue and may want to plan a visit when in the area.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lonesome Dove photographs by Bill Wittliff

This past weekend, my wife and I watched our favorite movie again, Lonesome Dove, which was actually a miniseries for television that originally aired in 1989. This was the first time in about ten years to see it. It had been long enough for us both to forget a few scenes and some dialogue. I was hoping Gus might make it this time, but it ended the same as it always does. Maybe some day...

Afterward, I got out a book that Bill Wittliff put together a few years ago called A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove (University of Texas Press, 2007). We got to see Wittliff at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston in 2007 when the book first came out. He autographed a copy for us and it is the centerpiece of our Western bookshelf.

What can I say about this book. It's gorgeous! You don't have to like Lonesome Dove to appreciate the fine photography from Bill Wittliff (but it would enhance your appreciation), who adapted the screenplay from Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But if you are a Lonesome Dove fan, you should consider adding this book to your library if you haven't already done so.

Larry McMurtry wrote a nice Foreword for the book. Texas writer, Stephen Harrigan, wrote the Introduction, and Bill Wittliff contributed the Afterword, with interesting and humorous anecdotes about the production of Lonesome Dove, as well as the photographs that comprise this book.

The photographs are in sepia tone and many have the appearance of something out of an old history of period images. Wittliff shot these photos during the filming of the miniseries and they are simply elegant and beautiful works of art.

Bill Wittliff has worn many artistically creative hats as book designer, writer, photographer, and publisher. Harrigan writes in the Introduction that photography was Wittliff's first love and it shows in all the photos. Here are just a few to give you an idea.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Winter: Notes from Montana (and Texas)

I'm actually in Texas, but Winter: Notes from Montana, by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), is a favorite book of mine that I enjoy reading this time of year.

This week seems especially appropriate to crack open the book again, as an Arctic front that passed through Montana a few days ago is about to descend upon Southeast Texas. We're expecting some of the coldest weather we've had in a number of years--the low 20s and perhaps into the teens. Our northern neighbors, in the wake of this Arctic blast, are feeling the wrath of Old Man Winter much more than we could ever imagine in this part of the country.

Winter is a book not only about the change of seasons, but Bass' own personal transformation into a new life in Montana, learning to survive and thrive in a new, wild and isolated environment.

He and his girlfriend (artist Elizabeth Hughes) were moving from Mississippi, looking for that special place where they could feel free and practice their crafts as writer and artist. They found what they were looking for in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana. Uprooting from the Deep South to stake a claim in Montana is about as big a change as leaping from summer directly into winter.

Bass had to get busy in his new adopted home and figure out how to get ahead of winter and live in a valley with no electricity, phones, or paved roads. He knew he couldn't live there and just write and commune with nature; he had to learn and prepare for his existence in a sufficient enough way that would allow him to write.

There was a price to pay, a labor of love actually, but the rewards were more than worth it. More than 20 years later, he and Elizabeth are still there, still thriving, with a family. Bass matured as a writer, with many more books to his credit, and he has grown into an experienced woodsman, naturalist, and environmental activist.

By the way, Rick Bass is from these parts. He was born in Fort Worth, but grew up in Houston. He went to my high school, but I didn't know him or that he even went there until years later when I discovered his first few books. He's a year younger than me and graduated with my brother.

At a signing some years ago in Houston, we talked briefly and he remembered both my brother and sister. I've been to a few of his readings and he has always been friendly and obliging with his readers and with signing their books.

I was thinking about the cold winter we're having in this part of Texas and thinking about how ridiculous the comparison is between what we have to do to prepare for a cold blast and what folks in the Yaak Valley have to do for a cold blast that brings several feet of snow and won't go away for months.

Bass writes of the urgent need for wood and propane to stay warm through the winter. He writes of the isolation (only about 30 inhabitants in their neck of the woods. The prospects of the unknown in a new place are both scary and alluring to him.

Back in Southeast Texas, it's been in the 30s a lot this winter (a lot for us), even a few 20s. And we had nearly an inch of snow last month! Okay, nothing to write a book about. No struggles for wood, heat, and survival in extreme conditions.

In Winter, Rick Bass had to get about 900 gallons of propane and chop about 30 cords of wood, by his estimates, to make it through the harsh winter near the Canadian border. We keep warm just fine on natural gas, though I did have a woodpile at the end of my fence line down by the creek. Doesn't count, though--that's for outdoor fires. And most of the wood came from generous neighbors who lost trees to Hurricane Ike. It's lasted--we don't burn a lot. I also have a couple of propane tanks, but they're for the gas grill. I haven't cooked with wood in many years. My house stays warm and I don't have to shovel snow to get out of the house or scrape ice off my windshield and shovel off the driveway to drive down to the store. And my roads are paved.

I live on a creek that runs into the Brazos River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico in short order. I love the winter time because the bare trees on my little acre and the acreage across the creek create an expanded view of a neighboring ranch. It feels like an extension of my property and for several months I can indulge the fantasy of a having a few hundred acres for my viewing pleasure.

Rick Bass has about two million acres in his backyard and doesn't have to fantasize about enjoying them. He can wade into it as far as he cares to. He can see elk, bears, wolves.

When we moved out here to the country west of Houston, we met up with some new experiences we hadn't encountered in the suburbs. Things like cutter ants that stripped our trees of their leaves in July, giving them the appearance of trees in winter. We met up with many snakes weren't used to seeing--the five-to-six-foot variety that took us awhile to realize as beneficial and that they shouldn't be killed. We also had run-ins with the venomous variety: water moccasins, copperheads, and coral snakes (quickly dispatched with the business end of a shovel). Of the four-legged critters sharing the creek and at times our property, there were feral hogs, coyotes, armadillos, and even a herd of loose cattle, to name some.

Inspired by Rick Bass and Annie Dillard, I started a blog in 2003 about these experiences in a new environment: A Pilgrim Tinkers on Bessie's Creek (with Apologies to Annie Dillard). I thought it a clever title with the twist on Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but I never got more than a few entries past the title.

Bass and Dillard share a literary lineage according to a quote by Jim Harrison on Winter's jacket notes. He remarks:
Rick Bass writes with care and beauty out of the lineage of Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen.
To that literary genealogy, I would add Thoreau, but any of these are fine company for a young writer (Bass was in his late 20s). Thankfully, he was serious about his craft and stuck with his writing amid a new world of distractions at every turn. The world of literature is better for it.

Back to Winter (I've just come in from wrapping the fruit trees in sheets and blankets), Bass takes us along on his journey of discovery in both his landscape and his thoughts about dealing with it and living a good life. He opts for a journal format, or a kind of diary, of his days preparing for winter and then actually living with the bitter cold and snow.

In the Prologue, having just arrived at his new home, Bass concludes with a passage that sets the theme of survival for this book:
It was still hot back in Mississippi and in Texas where I used to live, but it was already cold in the mountains, up in the North, in this place where I was going to start a new life. The immediate, pressing problem, I realized, was that winter was perhaps a month away. I knew nothing about winter. I had never seen it before, and I felt dizzy with fear, giddy with wonder, anticipating it.

The dogs, I could tell, were worried too, and missed Mississippi. I could tell they thought I was making a mistake.
In an entry dated September 15th, Bass writes of his struggles to understand his new environment:
I don't know how to write about this country in an orderly fashion, because I'm just finding out about it. If a path develops, I'll be glad to see it--as with math, chemistry, genetics, and electricity, things with rules and borders--but for now it is all loose events, great mystery, random lives.
Bass is at home in the woods--the wilderness nourishes and sustains his spirit. In his September 20th entry, he draws analogies between his need to learn how to make it through winter and how animals in the wild learn how to survive:
It can be wonderful finding out you were wrong, that you are ignorant, that you know nothing, not squat. You get to start over. It's like snow falling that first time each year. It doesn't make any sound, but it's the strongest force you know of. Trees will crack and pop and split open later in the winter. Things opening up, learning. Learning the way it really is.

All through the forest, they say, you can hear the trees on the coldest of nights: cracking and popping like firecrackers, like cannons, like a parade, while rabbits, burrowed in the snow beneath them, sit quietly, warm and white, saved, having learned--having made the right bet.
Later in the same entry, Bass reveals an inner conflict between his environmental concerns and his desire for the pleasure of burning wood:
If everyone in the world burned as much wood as I'm going to this winter, the planet would be obscured, one great wood-smoke cloud. I don't know what to think about that. We're all dirty, but we're all sweet!

I recycle my aluminum! I don't litter!I try to pee on the rocks, not on the soil, to keep from killing things with too much nitrogen!

We all have dirt in us. Wood is better than coal, but not as good as gas.

No, that's hypocritical rationalizing. Wood is bad, inefficient, dirty, but it smells good. It's fun to chop, and I like to watch the flames, watch the erratic, pulsing heat it gives, and I like the snaps and pops, and when I'm dead and gone, I'll be glad I did it.

"Mo-ron," the children of the centuries after me will cry. But there will be jealousy as well as anger in their cries (and we are all the same, always have been), and there is wood lying all around, wood everywhere, and it is free, and I have a life to live. Me first, it feels like I am saying. It is my turn and you may not even get yours.
His September 27th entry devotes a few pages to the caribou and their fight for existence in the lower 48. He draws on that for an analogy of his own place in the world:
Living up here in the woods--just a mile or two from Canada--I feel as if I've got my back against that line, up against a wall, and like the caribou, there are increasingly fewer places where I'll fit in.

Perhaps that is what drives so many wilderness advocates--fear, as well as love.
More than a month later, reflecting on his progress, he berates himself for not working hard enough, for not chopping enough wood for winter fires:
I did not get all the wood in. I dallied in Libby (neighboring town), some days, when I'd go in to make photocopies, and I jacked around and didn't buy a new truck soon enough. I've got a deer hunt coming up, with my family in Texas. I've got some wood in, a lot of wood--eighteen, maybe twenty cords--but I'm burning some of it everyday now out here in the greenhouse and in the kitchen stove. I didn't get the thirty cords I wanted to have by this date.

Writers. Half-assed at everything, it seems, except, occasionally, their writing.
By November 3rd, he seems to have redeemed himself, or at least come to acceptable terms with the amount of Herculean preparation he has made for the approaching winter. He hides his anxiousness for winter to commence. He writes on this day:
The wind is blowing hard from the north. A fine mist is sleeting, and I step outside the greenhouse to watch it, to feel it. When I go back inside, I am surprised at the woodshed's smell, like a smokehouse, and its warmth. The sleet is bouncing off the old shingles, spitting against the glass.

I'm surprisingly calm. I don't know if this is it. But I've got almost all of my wood in. I'm about ready to get on with it, if it really is winter this time.

What a good sound the wind is making. What if this is the sound you hear after you lay down and die? I am not ready for that, but I am ready for this.
And this seems an appropriate place to stop. This post has been cobbled together over the last few days as I have found time to read through Winter again. As I write now (Thursday morning), the front is here. The wind is howling out of the north across my corner of Texas. Cold air is pouring in fast, should be down in the 30s by early afternoon, with chances for sleet and light snow flurries.

I expect to lose some fruit trees. At least we got a huge (for one tree) harvest of lemons in before the cold air hit. I don't know how the winter vegetable garden will fare--my cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. These winter veggies are for milder winters, I suspect. We may not climb above freezing for several days the forecasters say. Not much I can do about it, but water all the plants and cover them as best I can and then hope for the best. That's something Rick Bass has never had to do in Montana.

Nothing to do now but adjust the thermostat and, for effect and a bit of warmth, turn the gas on in the fireplace, light a match to it, and watch the neatly aligned flames dance over the fake logs. And finish reading how Rick Bass took on his first winter in Montana.

December 4th, 2009: The earliest snowfall on record for Southeast Texas--Houston and surrounding areas.