To mark Burns’ night here’s a game from The Scottish Book Trust, via Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I’m always saying nobody outside America calls him Rabbie, but I guess I’m hereby proved wrong!

Two of Charles Darwin’s 1837 notebooks are missing from Cambridge University Library. They’ve actually been missing since 2001, but only now has the Library decided they must have been stolen. This has been reported to the Cambridgeshire police. The University Librarian asks us all to fess up if we have any information.

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Needless to say the library continues to search for the missing books. They’ve got a lot of places in which to look. “Overall, the University Library is home to more than 210km (130 miles) of shelving, roughly the distance by road from Cambridge to Southampton.” Their Ely back office has another 65-miles-worth.

Before they went missing the two notebooks had been digitized. You can examine them here: (Notebook B and Notebook C). Thus not all is lost: nice to have the real things back though.

There’s a bit of a thematic connection here to last week’s post, E-library?

The Los Angeles Times tells us 250 writers, professors, agents and publishers have signed a letter seeking to have publishers refuse to publish books written by the ex-president or members of his administration.

Now I can object to stuff just as much as the next person, but just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean I have any business trying to suppress it. The best defense against bad arguments is always more and better argument. I always think appeals of this sort are more about the originators wanting us to know how good and honest they are, rather than any attempt to protect our innocent minds. I really don’t believe that reading a Pompeo puff or a Barr bombshell is going to damage my sensibilities, and the more I think about it the more I resent some do-gooders trying to save me from such a fate. Yes, yes — we all understand that you didn’t like the last four years: but just forgetting all about them isn’t an option. Frankly I think the more we find out, the better.

It’s a bit tortuous to argue that Son of Sam laws* apply here. When (and if) the ex-president or members of his administration are convicted of a crime, that might be more appropriate. Not allowing criminals to profit from their crimes by writing about them (and making money from that writing) is an understandable response, but is of questionable utility (and no doubt legality). Moreover I can think of lots of books by criminals which we’d all like to read. For instance an inside account of the “organization” which went into the insurrection on 6 January would be fascinating.

Is there any point in asking publishers to turn up an opportunity to make money off controversy. The letter vapors “our country is where it is in part because publishing has chased the money and notoriety of some pretty sketchy people” which is of course utter nonsense. I doubt if there are any book publishers sitting there regretting that the attempted coup failed. But just because they disapprove of promoting lies about an election and encouraging rioting doesn’t mean any publisher would refuse to publish anyone associated with the encourager in chief. Don’t we need to understand? Such a letter, in other words, is unlikely to cut much mustard. And besides, publishers come in all colors and shapes — even if compliance with this letter were to be gained among all the big trade houses, there are still hundreds and hundreds of smaller houses and indie publishers who will be happy to snap up scraps from the top table. Witness last week’s decision by Regnery Publishing to take on Senator Hawley’s book after S&S refused. (Regnery, ironically, is distributed overseas by Simon & Schuster, so having gotten out of it, they’re now back in it.) Also relevant here is the Apropos of Nothing saga discussed in my post Middle man. Arcade published Woody Allen’s memoir which Hachette had pulped.

At the other end of the telescope, those irredeemably “liberal” publishers are falling over themselves to sign up youthful Biden acolytes.

See also Prior restraint = no restraint?


* Son of Sam laws are laws designed to keep criminals from profiting from their crimes, for example by selling their stories to the newspapers or publishers. The class of laws takes its name from serial killer David Berkowitz, who used the moniker “Son of Sam” during his murder spree in mid-1970s New York. The Supreme Court has ruled the original New York State law unconstitutional, as a denial of free speech rights.

American Libraries Magazine brings us a brief report (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.): “Overdrive reports that libraries all over the world collectively loaned more than 289 million ebooks in 2020, a 40% increase from 2019. Audiobooks also gained last year, but not as much as ebooks because people were commuting less. The report says 138 million audiobooks were checked out in 2020, a 20% increase from 2019.”

Now let us not be beguiled into over-interpreting this information, either as evidence of digital triumph or as presaging the death of print. Remember that most libraries were shut for most of the past year, and the library borrowing of physical books, in so far as it was allowed to take place, was hedged about with all sorts of restrictions. Thus we would expect people to have increased their borrowing of ebooks: it was just so much easier than getting hold of a printed library book. It does seem that reading qua reading had a bumper year in 2020 as we all looked around for things to do while stuck at home.

Whether this “preference” for ebooks will turn into a permanent change of behavior remains to be seen. No reason to fear such an outcome however — publishers are in the business of facilitating reading after all. And librarians always have storage problems for all those print books. Still, for myself, I suspect things will revert to the norm when we are all liberated.

It is true of course that book publishers are still feeling our way forward on the “right” terms under which they should supply ebooks to libraries. We can work it out.

The Wine Society advises us that RLS called wine “bottled poetry”. They provide a few literary wine references. No doubt you can come up with others.

“Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.”
Paulo CoelhoBrida

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

“Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current be felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me.”
Marguerite YourcenarMemoirs of Hadrian

“The fragrant odour of the wine, O how much more dainty, pleasant, laughing (Riant, priant, friant.), celestial and delicious it is, than that smell of oil! And I will glory as much when it is said of me, that I have spent more on wine than oil, as did Demosthenes, when it was told him, that his expense on oil was greater than on wine.”
François RabelaisGargantua & Pantagruel

“I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his.”
Evelyn WaughBrideshead Revisited

‘A Drinking Song’
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
W.B. Yeats

“. . . There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!’ I yelled. ‘Have a shot!’”
Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I often wondered what Hippocrene was — though clearly not enough to look it up: it would appear that the dull brain perplexes and retards in this context too. (It’s actually a spring on Mount Helicon, sacred apparently to the muses.)

O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.

As far as I can discover Hippocrene doesn’t actually bubble forth in the form of red wine as Keats seems to imply.

If you want to get in on this book/wine, wine/book thing, maybe you (if female) could join the Book & Wine Club. They say they have groups in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, and Toronto. I would imagine their activities are a bit restricted just now though.

This site might be good as a quizzy pastime, as well as a way to generate suggestions of different new books to read. Recommend me a book invites you to read the first page of a book and then guess what book it is. You can go on and on.

Actually I do think reading the first page is good way to recognize a book you might want to read. (I found a couple.) In dealing with the pile of manuscripts which would come in over the transom publishers often/usually would make their assessment on the basis of the first sentence — if it doesn’t make you want to read on, you don’t. If it does, you’d next look at the last page. Attention piqued? Back to page one and start in again.

Link via Book Riot.

The Scholarly Kitchen quotes from Niko Pfund’s Martin Luther King Day message to my Oxford University Press colleagues. Niko, the head of OUP’s New York office, emphasizes the relevance of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to the events we are living through. We need to recognize that while MLK was advocating for a non-violent campaign against oppression, what we recently experienced was a violent campaign in support of maintaining the oppression of the underprivileged.

Niko writes “On rereading the Letter, we were particularly struck by King’s invocation of the phrase ‘collection of the facts’ to advance his argument. Whereas we well know that publishing is a great deal more than a collection of facts, the marshalling of facts to advance knowledge and argument is core to our work. At its best, the work of publishing can enlighten, can (from the Letter) ‘carve a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.’”

For myself, I was struck by King’s words “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” Our agitators in the past couple of weeks have unambiguously been ‘inside agitators’. Relevant to our current situation King expresses his impatience with the moderate who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”, and criticizes a church whose tacit support has egged on these rioters — “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership”. “The people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.”

As Niko points out publishing is indeed importantly involved in the collection of facts, which King lists as one of four basic steps in a non-violent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action”. Collection of the facts and their preservation for posterity has always been an important duty of publishing. I’m not referring to trade publishing so much here as to academic publishing.

Once upon a time I was involved in archaeology publishing. An important strand of this business is the publication of site reports — the highly detailed account of what was found during an excavation. Historians can always reexamine that document, and the sciences thrive on repeating experiments. Archaeology is the Schrödinger’s cat of the sciences: by examining the evidence you destroy it. The only excavation I ever took part in involved digging up the burying ground of a deserted medieval village at Clopton cum Croydon. There are hundreds of DMVs so nothing too surprising would be expected — thus idiot students like me were allowed to be involved — but obviously every village is unique, and nobody can ever again put their spade through that individual skeleton. The painstakingly described description of everything that went on in an excavation is an ideal which can never be achieved. Once you’ve dug it up, nobody can ever again figure out what the associations of this flint scraper or that hand axe might have been. Of course Grahame Clark would use the most up-to-date techniques when excavating Star Carr in 1949-51, but there are hundreds of new scientific techniques now available to archaeological research, and by and large these can never now be tested on an excavation which has been completed. Clark’s model detailed report on the excavations was promptly published by Cambridge University Press in 1954. These sorts of volumes are wildly expensive to publish, and will never attract anything more than a tiny specialist sale, yet without them the discipline would collapse. Nowadays the internet must greatly facilitate the collection of facts about excavations.

In a totally unrelated development Oxford announces that it has made available the entire World’s Classics series online. Needs a subscription though. A library card will get you in but won’t allow you to access the texts at the site. No MLK texts there of course. He was more of an orator than a writer — when I first came to this country six years after his death I was given an LP recording of several of his speeches as a sort of signing bonus by the trade union I joined. At the Scholarly Kitchen link at the top, you’ll find a link to the text of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as well as a YouTube recording.

We’ve been down this road before. The Guardian reports on the mistakes on a new British £2 coin commemorating the 75th anniversary of H. G. Wells’ death.

The top hat on the invisible man isn’t supported by Wells’ words. He is described as wearing “a wide brimmed hat”. The space ships in The War of the Worlds are referred to as tripods: last time I looked a tripod had three legs not four. The designer of the coin, Chris Costello, responds “The characters in War of the Worlds have been depicted many times, and I wanted to create something original and contemporary. My design takes inspiration from a variety of machines featured in the book – including tripods and the handling machines which have five jointed legs and multiple appendages. The final design combines multiple stories into one stylized and unified composition that is emblematic of all of H.G. Well’s [sic] work and fits the unique canvas of a coin.” OK?

In the picture of the coins above you can’t see the inspiring quotation around the edge of the coin, “Good books are warehouses of ideas”, but apparently Wells never wrote it. He did in an early work, Select Conversations With an Uncle (Now Extinct) and Two Other Reminiscences, have a character who said, ironically, “Good books are the warehouses of ideals”, which was where he wanted them to stay. Just because googling QuoteFancy, QuoteMaster, etc. tells you that H. G. Wells said “Good books are warehouses of ideas” doesn’t unfortunately make it true.

A similar Royal Mint mess-up arose over the Jane Austen £10 note, which was printed with the quote, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” – a line spoken not by Austen but by her character Caroline Bingley, a book-hater who was also being ironic. At least in that case they did quote the inappropriate line correctly. You’d think these guys would learn that it might be a good idea to consult some expert on matters other than die stamping.

Those of us who go weak at the knees when we see signs of the Ye-Olde-Tea-Shoppe kind just have to bite our tongue and put it all down to yoghs and thorns.

Before the Latin-alphabetic-conquest, Germanic languages were written in a runic alphabet. I grew up thinking runes were those scratches on the edge of a stick or old stone: and of course they often were — but more important than that physical manifestation was the fact that they made up a coherent alphabet! Anglo-Saxon “futhorc” (named after the first six letters of its alphabet — just as ours is after the first two in the Greek alphabet)   is the most familiar runic alphabet to an English-speaking audience. There’s the thorn in third place; yogh is also in the top line under the guise of X. Yogh migrated to the form resembling the number 3 in Middle English.









A few letters from Anglo-Saxon times didn’t make the jump across to the Latin alphabet. Notable among these are yogh (ȝ) and thorn (Þ). In rough terms yogh represented the -ch sound in the Scottish word loch. It used to be written at the start of the word ȝear (year) which would occasionally be transcribed as “gear”. An Anglo-Saxon speaking about that twelve-month span of time would begin with this sort of throat-clearing sound.

In the case of the word year, yogh did move to y, but generally it would turn into -ch, -gh, -g, -z, or -x. The name Menzies (which in Scotland we pronounce Ming-iss) is an example of ȝ being replaced by z. The culprit in “Ye olde” is the thorn, a straightforward -th sound as in, temptingly, “the”. However “ye” as a sort of antique-ish form of “the” shouldn’t be conflated with “ye” the personal pronoun, plural of you, as in “hear ye!”. This “ye” (“y’all” in the southern USA, or “yous yins” or indeed just “ye” in Scotland) would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe.

However over the years the shape of the thorn does seem to have moved towards that of y — see the illustration below of the Wycliffe Bible. This can surely be the only justification for thinking that our ancestors ever said (well, wrote) “ye” instead of “the”, because if you’d taken off from the thorn in it’s original shape, Þ, wouldn’t you have been more likely to have ended up with Pee Olde Tea Shoppe?

The website Bellaria from Classics for all comes up with an explanation of why we got lots of “ye”s in the King James Version. Their idea just doesn’t sound right to me. If you go to the link, scroll down to the bottom. On the way down you can work through an interesting series of examples of different translations of the Bible, moving from Greek and Latin, through a very German-looking English, and up to the 1611 King James translation. The Bellaria idea is:

“If you go back to the Wycliffe manuscript and look carefully at ‘In þe bigynyng was þe word . . . .’, you will see that þ (‘thorn’, = th) has changed its shape to Ƿ. But while this was happening, ‘th’ was becoming more common and starting to win the day.

“This is where the fun starts. The original printers of the KJV preferred not to use ‘th’ for the word ‘the’ because it would take up too much space, and opted for Ƿe instead. Unfortunately early printing presses came from Germany and Italy and did not possess such a letter. So in the very first texts of the Bible, the London printers replaced it with ‘y’. Result? ‘Ye’, meaning and pronounced ‘the’ at the time, but in time becoming the ‘ye’ we know and love as in ‘ye olde village shoppe’.”

Here is the Wycliffe illustration, followed by Bellaria‘s illustration of the KJV.

Of course it wasn’t the press which was the defining feature in this argument: any press will be happy to make an impression on anything you place below it — a grape, a piece of type, a recusant’s thumb. It’s the metal type that makes the difference. If the printers of the King James Bible really wanted a thorn of þ or of Ƿ shape what was to stop them obtaining one? 1611 isn’t exactly prehistoric times in the story of British printing, and there must have been any number of die sinkers and punch cutters available to create a mould for a thorn if they really needed one.

To me the unconvincing bit in Bellaria‘s story is that if you look at that 1611 edition of the KJV, there’s nary a Y in place of þ or Ƿ. All the “the”s are perfectly happily rendered as t-h-e, just as if the thorn had never stuck in printer’s flesh. In fact I believe that the only “ye”s in the KJV are in fact of the plural personal pronoun sort, where we are addressing a group. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”. (Acts 7:51 for example.) All the “the”s in the KJV are in fact, and have always been, rendered as “the”. So the printers of the King James Bible didn’t suppress the thorn; they actually got rid of yogh in a different “ye”: a switch which may well have occurred many years earlier.

And isn’t that thorn, Ƿ, in Wycliffe getting dangerously close to wynn, ƿ, another lost Anglo-Saxon letter, which stood in for the -w sound, which was not one the Romans used? Maybe there’s a story in that too.

See Mental Floss for an article about 12 letters which didn’t make the alphabet.

Anther literary connection is to J. R. R. Tolkien, a friend of all medievalia. He introduced runes into The Hobbit. Thorin’s map has lots of them:


Jane Freedman provides this infographic setting out the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one route to book publication over another.  Her advice is straightforward and reasonable. She’s even prepared to be a bit spikey: “Authors may not have the experience to know what quality help looks like or what it takes to produce a quality book”: doubtless driven by years of experience helping authors who think they know best.

Click to enlarge, or if you still can’t read it go to her website to download a PDF version.