Archives for the month of: July, 2017

I just noticed that Pamela Paul has gotten a memoir out of her list of all the books she’s read since 1988 — My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I too have such a list, starting in 1987! She looks a good deal younger than me so she must have started the list at an impressively early age.

Although I have the list, even if such was my bent, I guess the memoir path is closed to me — been done. I actually started keeping records several years before that, but an ex-wife tossed out the book in which I was keeping my records. She claimed this was unintentional. My current list is in a dummy Bible (i.e. a thing that looks like a Bible but has no type inside, or in this case outside either). Should last me. Periodically I enter the titles into FileMaker Pro on my laptop, so the whole thing is searchable.

Pamela Paul’s book provoked Robert Gray into musing at Fresh Eyes Now on the fact that maintaining such a list might rather cramp your style when it comes to pretending to have read a book. Although I don’t do this a lot, I doubt if the existence of my BoB would inhibit me at all. I can’t remember, without looking them up, the books I read in 1996 (heck, even 2016 for that matter. Some of the titles I even have difficulty recognizing at all!) so why should I hesitate to claim to have read a title which might in fact turn out not to be there. One case he cites, that of assuring an author, falsely, that you have read and loved his book, always seems to me to be deeply fraught with potential disaster, and I have never done it. After all, if you express fervent delight, the author may feel the need to engage you in further chat about especially brilliant gems from the text. Much better to tell the truth, or at worst, the half-truth “I’ve started it” — after all reading the title could be regarded as a start.

Discoverability is vitally important. On the other hand discoverability is almost irrelevant. Both of these statements are paradoxically true.

Here are two blog posts, each taking the opposite side. The first one, from Publishing Perspectives of 20 March 2013 about Search Engine Optimization and Discoverability tells you you’ve got to do it. This is of course true: if you don’t get the metadata out there nobody on-line will ever be able to find your book.  But as Joe Wikert points out, at The Average Joe, 27 April 2015, there just aren’t people out there saying “Gee, I wish I could discover more content”. So it’s easy to get trapped into thinking discoverability is going to help sell books. It isn’t: but lack of discoverability will surely prevent sales. You’ve got to write a book people want to read. Getting them to realize they want to read it is of course the secret sauce. Having got their attention, then you need to ensure that the people can actually find your book.

See also Metadata and discoverability and Metadata glossary.


Not sure what I think about this. BookCrossing is a way of sharing your books by releasing them so that someone else can pick them up and enjoy then too.

You print a label and stick it in the front of the book, then leave the book where someone else will pick it up. They then go to the BookCrossing website and record the fact that they have the book. Then in theory on it goes again. They’ve been at it since 2001 and claim that there are currently 1,769,999 BookCrossers and 12,047,263 books travelling throughout 132 countries.

There’s a tab at their site called Book Map which appears to notify us of releases and captures as they happen. It seems to be active in Europe. Apparently nothing ever gets done anywhere else, which is odd because 29% of their members are in USA.

Foxing — those brownish yellowy spots you often see in old books — appears mainly to occur in machine-made papers from the 19th century. Surprisingly the cause seems to be unknown. The contenders are either impurities in the pulp or size leading to fungal growth, or the presence of iron leading to what in effect would be rusting, or some problems with the bleaching process. Such testing as has been done has unfortunately found no evidence of fungi. It does show acid and iron relatively higher in relation to the rest of the sheet, but nobody seems sure whether the iron is a result of the foxing rather than the cause. The process does seem to be accelerated by humidity. Foxing doesn’t affect the integrity of the paper, and methods of “curing” the problem seem likely to damage the paper (e.g. spot bleaching), so it’s better just to accept the splodges as merely an aesthetic problem.

The fact that we don’t make papers nowadays that fox seems to suggest a manufacturing problem. The paper industry makes constant process and cleanliness improvement, and even if we don’t know what the cause of foxing is it seems to be something we are no longer up to. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference to foxed paper is from 1848, but they do have one from the previous year referring to foxing in timber. To me that rather tilts the likelihood of causation towards an “impurities in the pulp” explanation. It seems odd that nobody has done the research though: I guess there’s no financial incentive to find out now that we don’t seem to do it any more.

Among other uses of the verb to fox are the following: to delude (as we’d use it in school, where we’d also use the same word to mean to unearth wrong-doing — it all depended on context); to have your nose turn red by excessive drinking; to turn sour in fermenting (of beer); to repair boots or shoes by renewing the upper leather; to trim a horse’s ears!


Atlas Obscura tells the story of Kevin Bradley’s cross-country haul to set up his Church of Type in Santa Monica. With the International Printing Museum there too LA looks like a place the typophile has to visit.

And this might just be the moment: The Great Los Angeles Wayzgoose is taking place from July 20th to 23rd. It is being hosted by the International Printing Museum in Carson. “The presentations will also have a special focus on the unique Los Angeles letterpress scene, from the bold and colorful Kevin Bradley and his Church of Type in Santa Monica, to Rebecca Chamlee, Otis College Lab Press, Art Center in Pasadena, The Bieler Press, and Kitty Maryatt of the Scripps College Press. Attendees will be encouraged to print, cast, create, and be inspired with the Printing Museum collections.” Roll up, roll up!

from Learn about Type at Monotype Imaging Inc.


Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press Oxford states “Unless instructions are given to the contrary, capitals, small capitals, numerals, and punctuation in displayed lines should be letter-spaced.” The lines above, in Sabon Initial cap & small cap, show the difference — which non-designers among you may consider pretty minor. I might argue with the third line and want even more space between the two Ts, but I do think the overall color of the two sets of lines shows how beneficial letter-spacing caps and small caps can be. That cap W in the second line really sticks out, but your letter-spacing can’t do too much about that.

Caps extend from the base line (a few typefaces have one or two descend below) up to the top of the ascenders. Small caps are designed to be the same height as the x-height of the face.

Hart’s Rules calls for small caps (which I cannot generate in this blog’s typeface) to be used for abbreviations like AD, AM, BC, and tells us that they should be set without letter spacing in these instances.

Quaintly they command “Text references to capital symbols in plates and line-blocks to be in small caps, except in scientific work, where capitals are used.” It is true that (to me at least) small caps tend to have a humanistic, as opposed to scientific, look — no doubt because that’s where one tends to meet them. In scientific setting symbols have so much significance that using a small cap for aesthetic reasons runs the risk of having readers stopping to ponder if there’s some meaningful distinction being made between upper case C and small cap C. For analogous reasons one will be unlikely to meet old style figures in scientific or mathematical setting.

Cambridge practice, as codified by Judith Butcher in her Copy-editing, is perhaps best just directly quoted:

Use of small capitals

Small capitals are often used for AD, BC, except with lining figures where small capitals would look too small: AD 1990. [I cannot make my AD small, so the point is lost. These are lining figures though.] In the USA they are used for a.m. and p.m. Small capitals are also used for quoted words originally in capitals and for most capitalized roman numbers, e.g. vol. XII [again I can go smaller], though full capitals are always used in titles such as Henry VII and for LXX (Septuagint). Some authors type lower-case roman numbers to indicate small capitals rather than full capitals; ask the author if you are not sure what is required.

I love typography has a detailed examination of small caps, demonstrating that small caps are not just scaled-down caps, but separately designed characters. If you are one of those who think the letter-spacing in the example at the top is not discernible or irrelevant, you might probably think it a waste of time to design small caps separately when you could just scale down the caps. But the whole typesetting craft, bearing 5½ centuries of trial and error, knows what’s right.

“It is a fair bet that there has not been a single day since 19BCE when someone somewhere has not been reading Virgil’s Aeneid, and it is hard to think of many other books, apart from the Hebrew Bible, of which one could say that.” Thus Mary Beard in her Guardian survey of Roman history.

Publius Vergilius Maro seems to have started having his name misspelled, if that’s what it was, early on. J. W. Mackail points out that the relatively common family name Vergillius was also spelled Virgillius in different times and places; the different spelling probably reflecting different pronunciations. In The Classical Tradition Gilbert Highet suggests that the vowel shift from e to i may have begun because of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias, apparently bestowed on him during his lifetime by the Neapolitans, which makes reference to the poet’s alleged sexual restraint. Get it? Vergil’s a virgin, I guess.

I wanted to make Vergil/Virgil into one of those Oxford/Cambridge arguments, like civilisation/civilization or medieaval/medieval, but even these examples appear to be of questionable validity. Probably we in Cambridge used just to brush off alternate spellings by sniffing that that was how they did things in the other place. (I certainly played a similar game after arriving in America. I became a much better speller as soon as I could claim that that was how a word was spelled over there.)

Amazon’s not messing around: search for Vergil, and they’ll deliver results for Virgil, knowing you made a typo. The Germans seem to go for Vergil. They attribute the spelling with i to late antiquity and early medieval periods. The French are in the i camp; Virgile is their man. They apparently (at least on Wikipedia) don’t acknowledge that e was ever an option. Ditto the Italians and Spanish where Virgilio reigns alone.

I guess it doesn’t matter how we spell his name, as long as we read him. Professor Beard’s claim must rely a whole lot on school children. I’m not sure at what age I was assigned my first book of the Aeneid, but I did two or three of them. Serious Latin students got to browse Georgics too, but I was never in that group. One of my retirement projects is to read the Aeneid in Latin. I’m a bit bogged down near the end of Book 1 in my Loeb Classical Library edition, dealing with Dido: I always found her a bit trying. Aeneid was forever being extracted and reworked, and the Dido and Aeneas story was one of the favorites. On to Book 2 and the Trojan war!

Even a hesitant Latin reader like me can appreciate the efficiency of Latin as a language for verse. Because the words conjugate and decline you can put almost any word anywhere in the sentence without risk of misunderstanding, and thus the poet can make dramatic juxtapositions and focus on the melody in the words, almost allowing the sense to take care of itself because of the agreement of word endings. Consider the famous line 462 of Book 1, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” It consists of two phrases made up of verb, subject, qualifying noun, and then object, subject, verb. “Are — tears — of things. Mind — mortal-things — touch.” The Loeb translation does as well with this as any I’ve found “here, too, are tears for misfortune and human sorrows pierce the heart”. Tough for a non-inflected language to match the concision and also the slight ambiguity as to whether the “rerum” are themselves weeping or being wept over.

I wonder if there’s any way to count how many copies of Vergil’s various books have been printed. While the print runs, except perhaps for things like a school edition of Aeneid Book VI, were probably always fairly small, they were constant. I’m sure best-seller Vergil could boast that his works have never been out of print. Amazon offers at least 15 different translations into English. In my post on tie-ins and fan fics I expressed surprise that fan showed 14 fan fics based on the Aeneid. In the two and a half years since then the number has gone up to 30.

One Book events have been sponsored in many places since the first one in Seattle in 1998. Basically the idea is everyone in town reads the same book at the same time, and starts to talk about it with their neighbors. The Library of Congress shows there have been hundreds of these events. Their site, which seems to be in dire need of updating, lists 108 of them just for books by authors whose names begin with A, and that doesn’t include the NYC one just completed where we all read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. (“We all” does not, I’m ashamed to say, include me.* Nor did anyone try to discuss it with me.)

This year’s New York event is over, and Literary Hub brings a report on its success. A lot of people participated — can it really be eight million? The Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment promoted the mass reading, and here, including an hour-long video, is their round-up which took place at New York Public Library on 5 June.

Get geared up for next year.


* Good citizen that I am, I am hastening to make up for this lapse. The book’s main character is a blogger who uses the WordPress platform with great success. A Nigerian who’s moved to America, she is blogging about more provocative material: race in America. Maybe it’s just me, but the bits about the blog and writing in general are the bits where the book comes alive: most of the narrative just strikes one as words freewheeling downhill. The book is valuable for its portrayal of what it means to be black in America — most of this occurring in the blog posts reproduced.

The New York Times Book Review named Americanah one of the ten best books of the year. It’s not that it’s bad; far from it — just somewhat short of what I’d like to think of as “the best”. I guess I don’t read a whole lot of modern fiction! Great that eight million may have read this one though.

All you have to do is pay a $75 entry fee and write a 250-word essay on why a bookstore is important to a community, and you can win the ability to turn your words into action. The bookstore’s in Wellsboro, PA, so I guess you might need to be prepared to move there. Wellsboro is a small town (pop. c. 3,300) in the north of the state about halfway along, not close to any large cities. Details of the competition, which were noticed by Shelf Awareness, can be found at the From My Shelf store’s blog. You have until 31 March 2018 to come up with your 250 words.

Here’s the bookstore’s website. As they want a minimum of 4,000 entrants you could try offering them $300,000 if you develop writer’s block.

Both of these techniques arrive at the same destination, a wooden block with the background carved away, leaving a raised image which can be inked and printed by letterpress along with the types making up the text.

Boxwood sample from Hobbit House Inc.

They differ in that wood engraving is done on the end grain of a block of wood (often boxwood) whereas a woodcut will be done on the more easily worked side grain. In this photo the end grain is seen on the right hand side.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is credited with the invention of wood engraving, and he certainly was a master of the craft, engraving fine lines which the end grain could hold in a way that the side grain couldn’t.

However, one has to recall the detail which Albrecht Dürer had been able to achieve in his woodcuts four hundred years earlier. Here for example is St. John devouring the book from Revelations X.9 “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.” Dürer’s book is surely a bit more than a “little book” but he does manage to get lots of fine detail into this woodcut. One commentator claimed you could read the words on the pages. The Web Gallery of Art enables you to increase the size of its image to 200%, but even at that I can’t tell whether the words really are recognizable.

By the early years of the nineteenth century the technology of printing illustrations in books had advanced to quite sophisticated levels. The peak of excellence was offered by copperplate engraving, whereby a craftsman delicately gouged out little lines of metal from a smooth plate to allow the remaining image to be printed either as an intaglio or a relief print. The stability of the metal allowed for delicate lines, and marked a significant advance over the earlier method of woodcuts.

But do not assume that just because something is better it automatically takes over from all contenders. There was a hefty installed base of woodcut operators, and because copperplates cost more and required printing on a separate press they were thus only employed on deluxe projects. (Because these copperplates had to be printed on a different press and added in later to the text pages, they were known as “plates”, a term we still use in a rather debased sense, sometimes even using it to designate just a full page halftone.)

One cannot perhaps argue that this whimsical vignette contains more detail than Dürer’s work; but this feather just wouldn’t have been possible as a woodcut.

Bewick was born in Mickley near Newcastle upon Tyne, and spent his working life in that city (recoiling from an eight-month stint in London). A better draftsman than scholar, Bewick was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Ralph Bielby, an engraver, and quite quickly switched from engraving on metal to doing his work on end-grain boxwood. This was not only cheaper but enabled the engravings to be incorporated into pages of metal type and printed in one pass. The pinnacle of their partnership was the publication of Bewick’s A History of British Birds in two volumes, Land Birds (1797) and Water Birds (1804).

One of Bewick’s blocks







Here’s a video showing Thomas Shahan making a woodcut

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

And now a video of a wood engraving:

The project described in this video was set up by the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. The engraving is being done on end grain maple off-cuts from their wooden type. As you can see the techniques are very similar, with a wood engraver being able to use finer tools to create tinier detail.

Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick is an excellent biography.