Archives for the month of: February, 2015

locked-diaryThe determined snoop would not be deterred by this little lock on his sister’s diary. We are all aware of the impulse to keep this stuff private, and the little lock may at least send a clear signal to those not utterly lost to conscience’s twinges. Apart from this application, locks on books tend to be a security measure rather than a deterrent to reading.

Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS G.140, brass hook-clasp fastening and fore-edge book marks.

Auckland Libraries, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Med. MS G.140, brass hook-clasp fastening and fore-edge book marks.

Medieval books written (or printed) on parchment usually had a clasp to keep them closed. This clasp isn’t there to deter reading. Parchment will swell in damp air, and being held tight at the spine by the binding will cockle and fan out unless restrained. Erik Kwakkel explains this, and more in his post “Hugging a medieval book”, on body analogies in book making.

Hereford Cathedral's chained library

Hereford Cathedral’s chained library

Early libraries often chained the books so that readers wouldn’t walk off with them. All those chains in the Hereford Cathedral library must have led to a lot of “Sh, Sh”s from the librarian.


A post from Medieval Fragments shows other pictures.

Zutphen chained library

Zutphen chained library










This video (sent by Ink, Bits, & Pixels) has a clasp with a more serious intent. I’m not sure why you shouldn’t be allowed to read this book if you look too enthusiastic though.


Later: Erik Kwakkel now has an extensive account of locked books on his blog, Medieval Books.

I just did a piece on this topic for Literary Manhattan which you can find there under the title “From Manuscript to Production”.

Literary Manhattan is a valuable resource for New York book lovers. Its mission statement reads “Literary Manhattan was formed to promote literacy and the benefits of reading and to bolster the general public’s awareness of Manhattan’s rich literary history.  We will accomplish this goal with our website, which contains literary information and resources, by conducting guided tours of areas of literary significance in Manhattan, by developing cutting edge resources for literacy programs, by sponsoring writing contests and scholarships, and by establishing a museum to house historical artifacts of Manhattan’s literary heritage.”

Here’s an introductory video from a small exhibition I saw in Washington a few years ago. It gives a good account of the (lengthy) process of researching, designing, paper engineering, printing and binding these elaborate books.


This second video shows one rather gruesome example of the genre.

eadwine01Scribes from the Middle Ages are mostly anonymous — almost all monks. Bibliographers can often identify the work of individual scribes by stylistic quirks and trace their work from book to book: Scribe 1, Scribe 2 etc. But only one or two are still remembered by name. Eadwine, a 12th century monk, is one of those whose name we do know.

The Eadwine Psalter is in the Trinity College Library in Cambridge. It is 13″ x 18″, written on vellum. The book was probably planned, rather than entirely written out by Eadwine to whose portrait in the back of the book a fulsome comment is appended. You can just make it out in the rectangular box framing the picture. It reads SCRIPTOR (supply loquitur). SRIPTORUM (sic) PRINCEPS EGO NEC OBITURA DEINCEPS LAVS MEA NEC FAMA. QVIS SIM MEA LITTERA CLAMA. LITTERA. TE TVA SRIPTVRA QUEM SIGNAT PICTA FIGURA Ɵ- (top L. again). -Ɵ PREDICAT EADWINVM FAMA PER SECULA VIVUM. INGENIUM CVIVS LIBRI DECUS INDICAT HVIVS. QVEM TIBI SEQUE DATVM MVNVS DEUS ACCIPE GRATVM. Loosely paraphrased this basically says “I am Eadwine and my name shall live for ever”. It is thought that this is not boastfulness, but a tribute paid by another scribe. To the extent that we still remember Eadwine in the 21st century, he’s not wrong!

The book can be examined here at the Trinity College site. If you go to the back of the book you’ll find this illustration on folio 283 verso.

Notice that a scribe would work with two tools (not of course in a bound volume — that’s just artistic license): a quill and a knife. The knife would be used to keep the page flat without marking it with finger prints, but was essential for correcting errors. The ink used was encaustic, burning into the parchment, and if you noticed a mistake you needed to scrape it away with your knife at once, so you could write the correct version in its place. Unfortunately paper does not give us this same flexibility.

UnknownThe Economist, which alerted us to Cambridge’s decision not to publish Karen Dawisha’s latest book, reviewed the volume in question, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who owns Russia? in November. The book has been published, in USA only, by Simon and Schuster. The New York Review of Books also reviewed it in their issue of 18 December, and now the TLS weighs in in the 6 February issue. The reviews allude to Cambridge University Press’ decision not to publish the book, and the TLS allows that that was probably a wise decision even though there have been some changes to UK libel law recently. The book is obviously explosive, laying bare as it does the way a clique has spirited state funds away into private pockets. To criticize Karen Dawisha for not proposing a solution, as does the TLS reviewer, seems a little tough. Isn’t what she’s done enough? After all she does identify and delineate the problem with full backup. She doesn’t have to do everything does she — why not ask her to solve the politics of global climate change, or of the middle east?

“Prior restraint”, about the libel implications and a publisher’s “duty” to publish, relates.

I hope that Professor Dawisha’s courage in going ahead with this project leads only to the best of results.


Infographic produced by The University of Southern California, delivered via Publishing Perspectives.

The next Book Industry Guild of New York meeting on Tuesday 10 March will feature Tony Marx, head of New York Public Library in conversation with Skip Dye of Random House Penguin.

UnknownOn Paper by Nicholas Basbanes is a large, handsome book published by Knopf. Given their commitment to fine book making, exemplified by their informing readers about typefaces in a colophon (I guess maybe they’ve stopped doing this) it’s a little surprising that they don’t tell us what paper the book was printed on. I don’t think they did anything extra special though: it’s a perfectly nicely formed cream/natural sheet, probably 55#, bulking at about 384ppi. It gives the book a satisfying heft, and has been nicely printed.

I’m afraid I find Nicholas Basbanes’ writing utterly soporific. By all rights I should love what he does — he writes about stuff I am fascinated by — but I seem unable to finish any of his books. The subtitle of the book may hint at my problem: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by a Self-Confessed Bibliophiliac. The bit about the Bibliophiliac is actually not really part of the subtitle: it’s more a catch-line on the jacket. But that’s the bit that gets me I suspect. It’s just overdoing it. You’ve got a perfectly good story here: don’t gussy it up with fancy writing. Having managed to struggle on to about two-thirds of the way through, I can’t really remember anything I’ve learned from his book, though it is true that the account of visiting hand papermakers in China with which the book starts does go pretty well.

Meanwhile I get, via Publishing Cambridge, this THES review of Lothar Müller’s White Magic, (Polity Press). It sounds from the review  a more lively book, but of course the review of On Paper in The TLS is what made me want to read that book in the first place. White Magic seems an altogether livelier account: one can get a pretty good flavor at Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

When life was slower and less efficiency-driven we used to spend time thinking about which paper was most appropriate for this or that book. The rule at the University Printing House in Cambridge was that mathematics would always be printed on a smooth white sheet. The less scientific you got the yellower the paper could be. Belles lettres (does such a category really exist or is it just a handy label for those lightly literary books published for the carriage trade?) might get a cream laid paper, with, if you wanted to go really wild, a watermark. We tended to want to put an entire series on the same paper: thus all the volumes of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence would be printed on the same Mohawk sheet. The trouble with this is that such series take years to complete, and in the meantime mills rationalize their lines or even go out of business without regard to whether you have finished your series or not. Some university presses have inventoried large quantities of paper and book cloth for this reason: with often tragic results. After a few years knocking about in a warehouse your stock will by looking slightly different, and will certainly be less than you started out with. Damage, decay and loss are endemic, though leaking roofs are rarer. Now that our industry is so driven by profit targets and ever greater efficiencies, the idea of buying paper for an individual book is incredible. Now we use a couple of standard sheets and sizes, and shoehorn our books into the mould.

16660_houdini_PrimeNow_ECG-2_NewZip_v7How do you compete? (The video doesn’t mention books . . . You can only inventory so much I guess: “Tens of thousands of items” must be a tiny proportion of what they offer.)



220px-Aldus_ManutiusThis year marks the quincentenary of the death of Aldus Manutius (c.1451-1515), a pioneer from the heroic age of printing. He was particularly known for his translations of Greek and Latin texts and he was the first to make libelli portatiles, small portable octavo books. In 1501 he employed Francisco Griffo to create a font modeled on chancery script. The resulting font, the first Italic type made, had the additional advantage of saving space. You can see from the book page illustrated below that critics have been rather severe as regards the aesthetics of Aldus’ fonts. His most famous typeface was first used in a book by Cardinal Bembo, De Aetna, 1496, the typeface taking its name from the author. For myself I have a definite soft spot for Bembo. However it is perhaps as an influential printing/publishing innovator that Aldus is most deservedly remembered.

The website The Manutius Network at CERL (Consortium of European Research Libraries) lists the events marking the quincentenary of Aldus’s death this year. The Aldine Press founded by Aldus was celebrated in the exhibition Collecting the Renaissance: The Aldine Press (1494-1598) part of Treasures of the British Library exhibit at the Ritblat Gallery which I managed to see in December. Unfortunately it ended on January 25th. The TLS blog had a little piece on it. This link will take you to an introduction to the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Aldus Manutius: The Struggle and the Dream with 17 illustrations. It ends on 22 February.

Bembo sample from Stanley Morison: A Tally of Types.  © Cambridge University Press 1973

Bembo sample from Stanley Morison: A Tally of Types.
© Cambridge University Press 1973

Graphic Design History has a good website which has much information about Aldus, and almost everything else, if you click around in it.


Brian Dettmer makes some pretty elaborate book sculptures. This TED Talk shows many samples and describes his working method. I suppose it’s better for an old book to get this treatment that to be thrown into a landfill. But still . . .

The mystery Scottish book sculptor (or sculptress as it turns out) has surfaced and allowed BBC Scotland to interview her. She still maintains her anonymity.

(I posted about her sculptures a in 2012-13. You can follow up via the index if you care to.)