Archives for the month of: October, 2016

Who knew that what my parents looked on as destruction of books actually had a respectable name? I would add illustrations to my books when I was young, and I used to get told off for doing so. (Maybe that’s why as an adult I’ve always been reluctant to write notes in a book.)

Page from James Granger's Biographical History, extra-illustrated by Anthony Morris Storer with prints of Edward III dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. Eton College Library.

Page from James Granger’s Biographical History, extra-illustrated by Anthony Morris Storer with prints of Edward III dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. Eton College Library.

James Granger (1723-76) was a clergyman whose Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution was published in 1769. This book, which was printed without any illustrations, seems to have set in train a fashion for adding illustrations to a book which lacked them. About 100 years after Granger’s death this procedure took on his name — even though it wasn’t something he had actually ever done himself. The procedure, also apparently called extra-illustration, was of course somewhat more formal than my childish scribbles filling the margins, and as necessary running over the text itself. At a time when readers would probably have to get their books bound for them, adding extra material was obviously a simpler option than would be tipping pictures in to an already bound volume.

The “Kitto Bible” in the Huntington Library, an extra-illustrated book, is thought to be the largest Bible in the world. An extra-illustrator added 33,000 illustrations, turning the original two-volume set into 60 extra-large folio volumes, each weighing 25 to 30 pounds.

The following video shows extra-illustrations from Samuel Rudder’s A New History of Gloucestershire which was part of an exhibition at The Huntington Library in 2013. A longer version of the video can be found at that link, as well as one instructing you on how to inlay a print. Their press release about the exhibition contains numerous illustrations.


Literary Hub tells us about the history of extra-illustrating your books. Somehow I think this procedure isn’t going to become fashionable again, though one could imagine a technique for customizing illustrations for your e-book. But who’s got the time nowadays?

Never much of an enthusiast, though I don’t have the strong negative reaction to that voice that many have.

I do however have a fairly strong negative reaction to all the snobbish shock and awe being evinced at the Nobel Prize’s being awarded to him. Of course Bob Dylan doesn’t need the money, but sneering at the work because it’s just songs is surely élitist nonsense. Who really thinks that song lyrics are inferior? Robert Burns wrote quite a few which we hold dear. Did those trash merchants Schubert, Wolf, Loewe, Schumann, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss, Britten fatally diminish the poems of Goethe, Heine etc. etc. by daring to set them to music?

As far as I know the remit of the Nobel committee is not to reward only stuffy art. And in any case don’t you remember Christopher Ricks’ serious, and to many, no doubt, sufficiently stuffy analysis of Dylan’s poetry? Professor Ricks’ book Dylan’s Visions of Sin compares Dylan to Marvell, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Yeats, and others. Well, I wouldn’t of course argue that being seriously discussed by Professor Ricks is sufficient reason to be awarded a Nobel Prize, but surely it’s reason enough to make those who have condescended blush. The Passive Voice gets in on the act.

More interesting to me than the embarrassment such élitists should be experiencing is the (typical) publishing confusion. In so far as the Nobel laureate is less well-known, or from our perspective, foreign, we will never have as many of their books available straightaway as we might wish. Scrambling to get books into the marketplace is an inevitable follow up to the announcement almost every year. New translations of Patrick Modiano are still trickling out. Maybe we could have expected someone as famous as Bob Dylan to be more widely available, but no. As The Wall Street Journal tells us, “Simon & Schuster Thursday announced it would move up publication of a new edition of Dylan’s book, “The Lyrics: 1961-2012,” by one week. It is now scheduled for release on Nov. 1. The new volume is a revised edition of a collection first published in 2014. The original was a 960-page large-format hardcover, priced at $299. The new version is 688 pages and priced at $60.” This appears to be the only book. At $60 it is certainly better than $299, but it’s not the sort of mass-market pricing that would make the book sell. Of course, we should not forget that Mr Dylan himself is alive and well, and no doubt controls the publishing trajectory of his works.

So while we await a mass-market collection, it’s probably better for the eager reader to take the low road and go to those sites which reproduce song lyrics, for example AZ Lyrics. If you are a member of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon is offering you Bob Dylan: The Complete A-Z Songbook: All the Songs, 1957-2016 Guidebook free of charge, but caveat emptor: it doesn’t include the lyrics, which, given the price, is hardly surprising. The title is surely willfully deceptive. The publisher, Music Sales, does have one or two meatier Dylan books on offer.

Later: An honorable exception to the sneering (others are now appearing) comes from Luc Sante at The New York Review of Books.

. . . and here’s Simon & Schuster’s reaction.

We recognize the term Book + as referring to things like a book for tweens shrink-wrapped with a cheapo plastic bracelet or similar. It’s a book plus a gift. No doubt the main source for this sort of thing remains Hong Kong where not only do you have access to cheap printing, but also access to the mass production of chachkies which Chinese industry churns out. I still periodically get a catalog from an importer offering every cheap gift item you could image, and then a lot more. Books plus tend to reach the market more through special sales, though you might find some in bookshops.

Book + might however have a longer, if slightly different history when we look at these books + tools produced in medieval times. These books incorporate things like spinning arrows which you can turn to point at a part of the printed page. These had to be mounted to a hole made in the paper or parchment, and secured on the other side of the page. We all think of hand work utterly beyond any reasonable budget, but this of course is because we have developed a powerfully efficient book manufacturing industry. Hand work on a page by page basis is almost unimaginable to the modern production manager. However, if you are hand writing a manuscript, adding a bit more one-off stuff isn’t much of a gear shift. Erik Kwakkel shows us several examples.

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century)

The nearest we get to this sort of thing nowadays is pop-up books, but these rely on paper folding tricks. Pop-up books do have to be mass produced, and every cunning trick, while often very cunning, has to be producible by machine with minimal hand work.


LATER: This piece from Atlas Obscura showing the use of flaps in early medical books is also relevant here.

Do you really need help deciding which book to read next? Early last year The Digital Reader told us about five sites which offer this service.

My feelings about this are mixed. Given that I’ve sat on the link for over a year one might posit a certain lack of interest. I mean — if you can read, surely you can decide what to read next.

I ended up test-driving them, using Loving by Henry Green as the not common, but not utterly obscure test case. The first site, What Should I Read Next, returned no result, though when I deleted the author’s name it hopefully delivered ten other books entitled Loving; well nine actually as one was a duplication. The second Your Next Read did register a hit: I was offered six editions of the self-same book, one other book by Green, plus a book about a dog called Henry, no doubt a lovable scamp, and a collection of sermons by John Henry Cardinal Newman. The Fussy Librarian involved me signing up, so I resisted the temptation and moved on to The Book Seer. He did pretty well offering me five other books by Green, all from the same publisher, and a not altogether idiotic group of five other titles from the same source (New York Review Books). Which Book works in a different way: you have to select the sort of book you are looking for by indicating how Happy/Sad, Funny/Serious etc. the book you’re looking for should be. My crazy selection did turn up some books which looked interesting.

As the commenters on The Digital Reader post vociferously pointed out there are several other options. I didn’t sign in to Goodreads. This may be a fatal blow to my bona fides as a researcher, but I get enough e-mail guff from Goodreads that I don’t want to encourage them to send any more.  These sorts of site are probably fairly easy to construct. If you Google “What book should I read next?” you’ll get lots of them. As to whether they help anyone — who can know?

In conclusion, if I am sitting around in vacant or in pensive mood, I might just consult The Book Seer, with the expectation of finding something useful. A idle few minutes could be filled at Which Book.

Old farts notoriously always think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Mario Vargas Llosa probably ought to know better, but here he is, in an extract on Literary Hub from his Notes on the Death of Culture, advising us about the end of culture “in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term”. Now of course we rubes may not be cultivated in exactly the same way as T. S. Eliot was, as indeed nobody could be who wasn’t raised in the same environment that he was, but while our betters may not approve, we do all have a culture. As social human animals we can’t avoid it. Things of course are never as good as they used to be, except for the fact that things are always getting better and better.

It is true that George Steiner makes cultural demands on us — we feel we have to read everything before he’ll allow us to judge anything — but this has nothing to do with “post-culture”, a meaningless term, surely, which Mr Llosa persists in using. If he were to adjust his terminology to say we are now living in an age which has a culture different from the culture that obtained, say, in the court of Louis XIV, then nobody would have a problem with that — other than the fact that it isn’t worth saying.

“Culture was born within religion” — nonsense. Christian culture (and that’s what Eliot was talking about), yes, but again hardly worth stating. It’s true that it was 1971 when Steiner wrote: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist”, but nobody today would contend that poetry was merely in “the keeping of the specialist”. It may not be a mass-market phenomenon but more poetry is being written and published today than at any time in the past. Elitists may disapprove of poetry slams and rap, but so what. Just today traditionalists have had to cope with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Llosa joins the elitist pack, sneering at the motives of the masses who visit cultural landmarks like the Sistine Chapel: just because there weren’t many English aristocrats on the Grand Tour back before Napoleon doesn’t mean their appreciation of what they saw was any better or more valuable than that of lots of modern tourists. We forget at our peril the fact that trivial reactions from long ago tend to get lost in the garbage heap of history.

The TLS just told us that “we now find it hard to imagine a world in which a successful currency trader like Eliot would subordinate his profession to his literary endeavors”. If that’s true, then it’s only a failure of our imagination. I am aware of lots of Wall Street types who give up their profession (many after making their pile) and do something completely different. The one I know best became the publisher of a well-known culture sheet; another opened a restaurant; another’s a stay-at-home dad; many become philanthropists or angel investors. I just read a novel by an ex-trader. It’s hardly surprising that the financial industry hasn’t produced a T. S. Eliot clone recently. What other business has? We might as well moan that the insurance industry owes us another Wallace Stevens. The rarity is not the readiness to leave one’s profession, it’s the having the requisite talent. And if there is a brilliant new star just waiting to burst out of the City, we can be absolutely certain it won’t be a T. S. Eliot clone. Some oldies might like it to be, but it will be something different, altogether different: that’s what originality is all about. Sitting around waiting for another doctor, say Atul Gowande, to write like a reincarnated John Keats or William Carlos Williams is just stupid.

Isn’t it a bit paradoxical for a business we can refer to as Merchants of Culture to persist in publishing books about the death of culture? I guess there are people who read this sort of navel-gazing: well at least people who buy this sort of navel-gazing. Anything to make a buck, to be sure.

Don’t worry Mr Llosa, it may not be the same as you remember, but it’s still culture even if it has been influenced by global entertainment.

unknownWho wouldn’t want to live in the library? Seemingly a hundred years ago lots of people got to do exactly this. Andrew Carnegie provided funds for libraries to contain apartments for a caretaker and family. Some of these apartments survive, though whether any are still occupied for their original purpose seems doubtful.  Atlas Obscura brings us a story about the empty apartment on the top floor of my local branch library.

I can’t decide whether to go for this one, or perhaps the old gatekeeper’s cottage at the southern end of Fort Tryon Park which I’ve never known to be occupied by anything more than a wheelbarrow and a couple of bags of mulch stored there by the Parks Department. It does have a beautiful view over the Hudson River.

Serifs are those little strokes at the top and bottom of most typefaces — but not the one used here. Here’s a basic picture of serifs (in red) from the Wikipedia article on the subject:


There’s more to this than that of course. The Mergenthaler Type Library categorizes its typefaces by the nature of their serifs. They classify into five groups, “Old Face”, “Transitional”, “Modern Face”, “Slab Serif”, and “Sans Serif”, which last describes the font in which you are reading these words.

Gutenberg’s earliest types were all Fraktur/Black letter (occasionally referred to as Old English), 200px-schriftzug_fraktur-svgwhich does of course have twirly bits which could be referred to as serifs, or at least could justify the Italian printers who first introduced Roman types in their decision not to eliminate serifs. Of course, serifs, although unnamed at that time, were familiar from ancient Roman stone inscriptions, and these were an explicit model for the early typesetters. There’s some suggestion that the flicks which serifs mimic represent the action of the pen as it is released from the paper at the end of a stroke. The Roman precedent however seems satisfactorily determinative for a craft being developed in the Renaissance, where classical knowledge was being busily recovered and distributed.

img_0400was the first Roman font (though it was done as Italic only initially). You can see that the serifs are bracketed — they get thicker as they get closer to the vertical stroke of the letter. Classic old style. One might imagine Francesco Griffo who cut it for Aldus Manutius modeling his letters on Trajan’s Column:


img_0005may be taken as the typical transitional font. Though transitional serifs are little different from old style: the label seems almost to be there as a signpost rather than as anything actual. John Baskerville (1705-1776) gained a huge reputation as a printer, though his main business was japanning. The serifs on his types are bracketed still, but a little less so, and the whole letter is lighter, thinner than old style types. This was related to advances in printing technology, but doesn’t really amount to a revolution, though much excitement was aroused across Europe.

Designers exist to create difference so naturally someone thought “Why must there be brackets?” Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) designed the first modern face, img_0401with serifs which are just straight lines.  The brackets, however, remain on the serifs at the righthand ends of horizontals: the cap E has unbracketed at the left, but bracketed serifs at the right. Aesthetics prevail over theory again!

Slab Serifs are unmistakable. Memphis can stand as an example. img_0006 As you can see the serifs are aggressively straight. Such mannered fonts ought really to be restricted to display, but naturally enough we can always manage to find some innovation-mad designer who can’t resist the temptation of setting text in a slab-serif typeface.

The origin of the word “serif” is not altogether clear. The OED suggests it may have come from the Dutch schreef, meaning line, stroke or mark, though its earliest example (1785) spells the word “ceriph” which might appear to argue against that derivation. On the other hand the word is odd enough to scream “borrowed from another language” and schreef does appear to be the Dutch word for it.

Are serifs any use, or are they just decorative convention? The eye chart you are exposed to at the optician’s tends to use sans serif type, but whether sans serif or serif type is more legible seems to be difficult to establish. Legibility is affected by many factors, and little real research has been done. In so far as any conclusions can be made, it would appear that serifs are actually irrelevant to legibility. Some research seems to indicate that (surprise, surprise) we find it easier to understand the familiar than something new. So serifs are probably there because we are used to their being there.

Is this really a good way to spend our (well, Mr Mellon’s I guess) money?

Publishers Weekly brings us the overwhelmingly exciting news (via Literary Hub Daily) that the National Book Foundation will be conducting a study, funded by the Mellon Foundation, which will “examine translation trends in America, including how much work in translation is published and purchased, how the availability of translated works affects readership, and how the network of translators in the U.S. functions. Additionally, the study will look at how the availability of translated work affects the way people read.”

Who’d bet against the conclusions of the study turning out to be “We don’t do enough translations. Translations are a good thing. Translators could be paid more. We must try to publish more translations”? One’s knees weaken at the idea of spending money to discover how the availability of translations affect the way people read. I wonder if the conclusion might turn to to be something like — if there are lots of translations available people will read more translated works, and of course a minatory finger wagged at the opposite possibility. We wouldn’t want to be thought to be America Firsters in literature would we?

How much better used Mr Mellon’s money would be (as it often has been in subsidizing the publication of academic monographs for instance) if it were given to subsidize the translation or publication of important but less than best-selling works from other languages. Let’s hope that this study is just a preliminary to such an initiative.

Go to Slate and you can click on this tree of allegedly funny books selected by a succession of their authors. (Link via Peter Ginna.) At Slate you can click on each image and get details.


I suspect that working your way straight through all 82 books might prove no laughing matter.


Photo: Carl Parkes, via flikr.

Calcutta. Photo: Carl Parkes, via flikr.

There’s really no reason to be thinking which Indian languages most deserve translating. Why would any language not be worth translating? Sure there are a lot of them: the 1961 Indian census identified 1652, though it is believed that only about 880 survive. India has 51 state or national “official” languages (the 22 languages mentioned in the constitution are not actually official in the usual sense). Some of these languages have smaller numbers of speakers but there are 29 languages with more that 1 million speakers. The languages of India are written in 13 different scripts. ReadmeIndia has detail (which I at least found very interesting).

Obviously no one publisher can cover all this variety but surely you just do what you can: translate a good book, and then someone else will maybe translate another. Publishing Perspectives shares an earnest discussion of some likely candidates. Translating into English is our own understandable priority, but the need to translate works in one Indian language into another is an even bigger problem.

In another Publishing Perspectives post marking the recent international translation day Mini Krishna of OUP, India reports on a sharp increase in the number of translations in recent years. Of course getting the tone right in any translation is always a problem, but with the variety Indians must perpetually be accustomed to experiencing, their multi-linguality as she puts it, the issue must be even harder. Still that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plough ahead.

The Murty series is an standard bearer.

I had assumed that Sanskrit was like Latin and classical Greek, a dead(ish) language. Turns out it is the official language of the state of Uttarakhand and is spoken by about 14,000 people. More than 3,000 works have been written in Sanskrit in the last 60 years!