Archives for the month of: November, 2015

Founded in 1853 by Uriah Maggs this splendid old bookshop is moving from its current premises in Berkeley Square to new quarters at 46 Curzon Street. Spitalfields life has an account with some great photos.

Thanks to Cabbieblog from bringing this to my attention. He also tells me that Maggs’ new address, 46 Curzon Street is London’s most haunted house.

Here’s a union of two of the crazier book fads of recent years — the coloring book, and augmented reality.

The guy describing it in this Disney Books video, sent our way by The Digital Reader, sounds so serious, but he is talking about children’s books after all, and education is serious business.

Everyone seems to be clambering to get in on the coloring act. My industry colleagues from the trade houses suggest that “everyone is rushing out a coloring book”. Of course, Dover Books have been doing them for years. The Book Industry Guild of New York is planning a meeting on the subject for early next year. Coloring books for adults may have originated in a therapy setting, but now seem to be viewed as some sort of relief from overexposure to screens. I guess Internet-exhaustion-relief is just therapy brought home. It seems that coloring books are being purchased mainly by women, and I have heard of book groups meeting to color together rather than have those more demanding conversations about the content of a book they’ve all read. One hears serious discussions of colored pencils all over.

If you are keen on this sort of thing here’s notice of a Kickstarter campaign that you can give to to help Free Period Press fund their new inspirational coloring book. Link via GalleyCat.

Well, onwards and upwards. Whatever sells, eh?

This seems like a really good idea: New York Review Books is introducing a children’s book club. Give your grandchildren such a subscription and you can be confident they’ll be exposed to some classic children’s books. You can bask in the hope that they’ll grow up book worms. Even if they don’t, they may have read one or two good books along the way.

In the digital world we all keep hearing how we should get nearer to our ultimate customer. The old-fashioned route of the book club is surely just as (maybe more) effective than many of the trendier social media methods.

NYRB also have a successful club for adults: you can sign up here and get a free book for doing so. I suppose a publisher can only run a book club like this if they have a coherent list. After having read several of their books, you know the sort of thing you can expect. Still I do think lots of publishers could try such a club, maybe for subsets of their list: it makes subscription publishing a little less remote and trendy.

“Some readers and commentators really want to scrape your insides out to make sense of your work. Others say, there’s the work, it speaks for itself.” Thus J. K. Rowling recently on NPR’s Morning Edition talking about her wish to “start over” as an unknown author when she adopted the name Robert Galbraith for her mystery writing. I suspect that the choice of imagery tells us where she stands on the issue.

I too find it difficult to understand why people are so keen to know details of their favorite authors’ lives. Just the other day I was having a conversation about this. The idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays is a sorely beaten horse, but it just won’t lie down and die. Lord Francis Bacon, the Earl of Essex, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I have been touted as contenders in a conspiracy-theory-like debate over the last century and a half. I say what does it matter? The person I was talking to admitted that his fascination with Shakespeare’s true identity could be compared to the pleasure one gets from reading a good mystery, but insisted (correctly, I have to admit) that that doesn’t make it a worthless activity. But I’m with the New Criticism in my disdain for this biographical fallacy. In reading D. H. Lawrence you do get the feeling that this the sort of guy who’d run off in with a professor’s wife in a fit of passion. But I don’t really think that knowing about Professor Weekley’s troubles adds anything to my appreciation of Women in Love etc. Indeed I might be willing to argue that biographical knowledge of the author was rather a barrier to enjoyment of the work: you have to spend time puzzling over the relationship of this plot twist to that real-life event, rather than taking it in as part of the story, which to me is what it should be all about. But on this as on all things, alii alia sentiunt.

Here’s a piece from The OUP blog seeking to tell us about Shakespeare’s reading in the classics. It cleaves to orthodoxy of course. Charlton Ogburn, who’s vast and rather manic book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, opts for the Earl of Oxford as the real “Shakespeare”, cites the knowledge of classics as one of his “proofs”. The whole craze has basically been driven by snobbery — the literati can’t stand it that a country lad could possibly have been so clever. Get over it: the plays were written by someone we call Shakespeare, about whom we know very little. So what?


Oxford Dictionaries lists a few fanciful definitions of the book at their post A book by any other name. I was mainly drawn by their “word cloud”. Unsurprisingly, word clouds are easily generated. Search the web and you’ll find there are several sites offering the service. This one, Word Cloud Generator, created this word cloud based on my 2012 post, Book.


Ideally I’d like a word cloud to be interactive though, so that when you click on it it would take you to the word in question.


The BBC is to launch a campaign encouraging Brits to read, Dennis Abrams tells us at Publishing Perspectives. “Get Reading” will take place in 2016, and will work with a variety of partners including the Reading AgencyBookTrust, the National Literacy Trust, the Society Of Chief Librarians and the Scottish Library and Information Council. With all those organizations on the case it’s perhaps surprising anyone over there dares leave home without a book under their arm.

Perhaps coincidentally The Publishers Association is making moves to promote book publishing in the USA, as reported by BookBrunch (link via Jose Afonso Furtado).

Even the UK government is getting in on the reading business. The Guardian reports in its Bookmarks blog, that the minister responsible for schools has called upon publishers to issue cheap editions of classics for schools. Scholastic Books has already responded by making 26 books available to schools for £1.50 (about $2) each. Of course Wordsworth Editions already do lots of titles at £1.99 (in America they tend to be priced at $4.99 or $5.99). Dover Thrift Editions (now owned by R. R. Donnelley) have a base price of $2.50 now, though they appear not to be competing vigorously in this market in the UK.

Seems to me the real reason for kids’ reluctance to read has less to do with the price point problem identified by Mr Gibb, and more to do with the superior attractiveness of other methods of spending you time, leave alone your money. It was ever thus.

The New Yorker brings us this discussion of the history of editing Shakespeare’s text, stimulated by the news that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned new translations of Shakespeare’s plays. We live in an age which values the “genuine”, the real, the ancient almost above content. If you can’t understand Chaucer, just get a dictionary and work harder, the purists would say. To them it is obvious that Shakespeare must be experienced exactly as Shakespeare intended, though of course there’s a long-running academic debate as to what that might actually mean. In the same vein, if you can’t follow an opera sung in Italian, a purist probably thinks you don’t deserve to be there. But Verdi wouldn’t have arranged for there to be words in his operas if he thought it unimportant that the audience should understand them. Shakespeare would (presumably) be aghast at the idea that the audience might miss half the text because the vocabulary was no longer understood. You purists! Language exists to communicate; language evolves; words’ meanings change over time while others words disappear. You can’t insist that everyone going to a Shakespeare play or a Wagner opera memorize and translate the text before turning up. Dare I remind you that you demonstrate your hypocrisy by happily attending translated (and quietly adapted) versions of Euripides et alia.

The New York Times takes a de haut en bas attitude to the whole thing and points out to the Oregonian rubes that they are after solving the wrong problem. “However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.” Does this imply that if you say “quantum mechanics” to me with authority, knowing in yourself what it is, I will instantly appreciate the implications of superposition? Some words are just opaque however loudly you say them. The Times probably thinks if you shout slowly at foreigners they’ll understand your English.

The New Yorker is broadly in favor of the translation plan. As they say “Until the late Victorian era, stage performances usually observed the setting and period implied in the play, but they transformed the language. Shakespeare’s script was the first problem that a production had to remedy.” We now knee-jerkily tend to do the opposite. Publishing Perspectives votes against the idea. They quote with approval James Shapiro who says “Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language. It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 percent IPA, and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.” I dare say it’s possible Professor Shapiro is embarrassed when he reads what he is said to have said.

Here is part of Timon’s speech from Timon of Athens Act IV, Scene 1:

                                          Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large—handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law. 

And here’s Kenneth Cavander’s translation for the Oregon project:

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

Well, of course it’s not Shakespeare’s 8.2% text, but it’s certainly not Bud Light. If someone stood before you and spoke Mr Cavender’s words, you would immediately understand what they were saying, whereas the original takes a bit of working out. Time for that just isn’t available in the theatre where the next lines will be rushing at you on the instant. I find it hard to see what’s wrong with letting your audience understand the words. If they really want to read the original they can do so at home, just as classicists can read their Euripides and try to imagine how a Greek audience might have received the hallowed words. I do wonder, way at the back of my mind, whether Shakespeare’s original was really instantly understandable when first performed, or whether it was slightly obscure in its day. If Shakespeare intended us to be a bit fazed by his text, maybe the attempt to make it clear actually is an error.


Advertisement for 1819 edition of The Family Shakespeare. From Wikipedia

The Bowdlers who gave rise to their own addition to our vocabulary with their bowdlerized “Family Shakespeare”, set out to “remove from the writings of Shakspeare, some defects which diminish their value”. Their interventions were more doctrinaire than the likes of Rowe, Steevens, Malone and the long line of academics who have followed since the late seventeenth century, all vying with one another to produce a genuine Shakespeare text, a floating target because of the lack of any authoritative original like say a manuscript. Collating differences in the Folio and Quarto editions can be a lifetime’s occupation, and I think it remains impossible to say exactly what Shakespeare wrote. Still what we have works pretty well, so what matters the exact form the text takes?

The Lambs, Charles and Mary, did their Tales from Shakespeare in 1807 and it’s still in print. E. Nesbit published Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare 100 years later. An abbreviated version, The Best of Shakespeare: Retellings of 10 Classic Plays is still available from Oxford University Press. NYRB have just published Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories, originally published in Britain in two volumes, the first in 1985, the second in 1994. As Meghan Cox Gurdon says in The Wall Street Journal children’s books round up on 20 November, “In these lively and evocative pages a child will hear Shakespeare’s poetry set in prose that will lay the groundwork for many a future enchanted evening at the theater.” These are all perfectly good, readable “stories”, directed primarily at a juvenile audience. And there is nothing wrong with doing this: indeed much good may come of it. Maybe eggheads and purists are scornful of the thousands who must have read these low-alcohol versions, but read them they have.

We have, have we not, reached a point where almost everything written prior to the eighteenth century is verging on the incomprehensible. Language evolves, and the outburst of digital media has probably meant that language is now evolving faster than ever before. Even eighteenth century texts, while probably altogether understandable word by word, are off-putting to most modern readers, and are thus as good as incomprehensible. If you’re not going to read Paradise Lost because of the syntax, it might as well be written in Greek for all the good it’s doing you.

Inevitably the Internet provides a translated Paradise Lost, and this one by Joseph Lanzara is also available as a paperback. Not that I’d want to read his version: Milton is still well this side of the linguistic dividing line, surely, and it’s the way he put things which is the whole point. I find this other translation a bit more adventurous (maybe a bit too adventurous): its unconsciously ambiguous opening is “Hey there Muse, can you tell me about Man’s first Sin? It had something to do with that fruit, right?” Still, one day soon a translation will be needed. Maybe some poet, looking for a project, might take this up. For the time being Shakespeare seems to be in good hands in Oregon.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century The Inland Printer ran competitions for printing and typesetting excellence.

IMG_0350In 1890 Fred B. Crewe of  The New York World submitted this stag’s head design, created entirely from bent brass rules and bits of metal from his typecase. Extravagance like this may typify over-mature industrial processes. There’s absolutely no reason for doing a stag’s head this way: a draughtsman and an engraver would have done it much more efficiently: but it’s just the fact that it can be done that makes it worth doing as an exuberant expression of skill by a master craftsman.

Illustration from Walker Rumble: The Swifts.

For years the common unit of measurement in typesetting was the em. As the name implies it comes from the letter “m”, the widest in the alphabet. Allegedly, whether the font is large or small, the average over the line, page, book, will be 2.5 to 3 characters per em. (I haven’t checked this assertion.) We used to use “em” when we meant 12pt em, but that was strictly speaking incorrect: this pica em was often used as a quick and dirty standard measure. An em space will actually be as wide as the type size in question. An en space is half that size. Thus if the font being used is 10pt, the em space will measure 10pts by 10pts. This doesn’t have to mean though that you can just measure the width of the printed letter “m” and discover the font size. Although it gets its name from there, the em doesn’t have any real relationship with the image. There must have been type founders back then who did make an “m” which was as wide as the font size, but this is no longer an absolute rule.

Printers like to be able to measure precisely. Hart’s Rules tells us that Oxford University press used a 96-unit system. Using this system you can see the relationship between the various spaces — though this has nothing to do with font size. Whatever size the type, the em will still be divisible by 96.

Em quad space = 96 units

En quad space = 48 units

Thick space = 32 units

Middle space = 24 units

Thin space = 19 units

One point space = 8 units

Half point space = 4 units

Quarter point space = 2 units

Just to keep confusion levels well elevated, I should point out that you cannot assume that OUP’s one point space will measure 1 point. Unless that is, you are setting 12 point type. The one point space is 1/12th of the em quad; thus with a 12 point font, you will have a one point space measuring 1 point. If you are using 9pt type, the one point space will actually measure 3/4 of a point, with 6pt type, 1/2 of a point, and so on. Furthermore, the point size of the font cannot be measured by any bit of its printed manifestation, since the type size is the size of the body, not any of the characters. This handy picture shows with its red bracket the measurement which would yield the type size.

Of course this is all stuff which the passage of time has taken care of: we don’t get our books set in hot metal type any more (unless we are in the de luxe business). These physical things which had to be combined into a row of tiny metal objects to create a line of type exactly the same length as the ones above and below it, have all been replaced by a rather simple calculation by a computer. You will also find direction all over the place telling you that you can measure font size by measuring the type on the page: they’ll say it’s the distance from the top of the ascender to the bottom of the descender. Maybe on your computer that’s even true: there has to come a point when if everybody says “x”, “x” becomes true. Insisting on talking in terms of an obsolete technology is just dumb, unless, I guess, you are talking to other technologists.

“Being published by Cambridge University Press is an endorsement of excellence”, so there!

Quite uplifting, but I suppose most publishers do something like this. Here for comparison is the Oxford University Press version.

Despite recognizing more people in the OUP film, I remain more “uplifted” by the CUP one.