Archives for the month of: July, 2017

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.

We all know what this means to us nowadays: an old book which has been photographed and the negatives from these photos used as original copy for an edition printed by offset lithography.

Leaf 18 from James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s 1857 photographic facsimile of The famous victories of Henry the fifth. London, imprinted by Barnard Alsop, and are to be sold by Tymothie Barlow … 1617. Folger PR2411 .F3 1857 copy 2.

But it wasn’t always thus. After the invention of photography but before the full development of lithography there were few options. Here, from The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation, is an account of an 1857 photographic facsimile of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. The label, photographic facsimile is literal: each page is a photographic salted paper print made from a negative. In 1857 they would all look fine, but the ten copies only which were made by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (who annotates each copy to the effect that the negatives have been destroyed) have all faded to greater or lesser extent — as photographs will of course tend to do as the chemicals involved keep on working.

Writing about the marginal surrealist Leonora Carrington in The New York Times Book Review of 4 June, Parul Sehgal introduces us (me anyway) to the concept of exophonic writers: writers who wrote in languages other than their native tongue. Wikipedia has, inevitably, a list. Ms Sehgal alludes to the following:

  • Leonora Carrington: incomprehension brings liberation. “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words  . . . This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.”
  • Vladimir Nabokov: was kind of forced into it. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom.”
  • Joseph Conrad: did it to gain a larger audience (?)*
  • Yuko Otomo: English is more democratic than Japanese. “I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you’.”
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: a sort of rebirth: She finds writing in Italian makes her “a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way”. (Which seems to have involved the rediscovery of the comma!)
  • Emil Cioran: purging the past. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past, I changed my entire life.”
  • Samuel Beckett: a desire for self-exposure. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

Quite interesting. I often say that I have found myself able to say things in a foreign language which I’d never say in English. So I’d add a category of de-inhibitor to Ms Sehgal’s list.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch has attracted some comment. The Economist examines the move, while Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books provides a devastating review of the result. Success in writing confronts the writer with the burden of expectations. People liked your first book; lots of them bought it; and they are now waiting for more of the same. Maybe switching to a different language provides a bit of cover?

Arthur Koestler is another who changed language in mid-career. The New York Review of Books has a piece by Michael Scammell. Darkness at Noon was originally published in English. It was translated as it was being written (from German to English) by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy. In the chaos of wartime they were scrambling to get the book done before the Germans authorities caught up with them. They did get rough translation off to England, and sent the original German manuscript to Swiss publisher Emil Opprecht. Everyone assumed that the original was lost, hence the need to publish from the English translation. When a German edition was published it had to be freshly translated by Koestler into German from the “original” reworked English version. As it turns out the manuscript sent to Opprecht did arrive, and has recently been unearthed. The publisher of the German edition “Ullstein noted that Koestler was using ‘a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions’ in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal.”

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement of 26 May 2017 raises yet more complications. “A Moscow-born assimilated Jew, I left the Soviet Union forty years ago for Israel where, for a year, I ran a student theatre in Jerusalem; the, while staying in Paris (my first novel [which was written in Russian] had just been translated into French), I was invited by the BBC World Service to cross the Channel and settle down in Britain. Ten years later I became a British citizen. Like many of my contemporaries I think, speak and write in two, if not three, languages. What unites these foreign personae is my foreign accent.” He points out that Conrad liked to visit Paris at least in part because there nobody detected his accent; they all thought he spoke perfect English. (But Conrad spoke excellent French, so I’m not sure why he’d need to be speaking in English.) My stepfather, also a Pole, never lost his heavy accent, and although not a writer, would I imagine have written in Polish where his vocabulary remained much larger. In the mill buttons were always referred to as guziki (goozh-eekee). Many’s the time I’ve run upstairs for him to “get that . . . you know what . . . that thingummy”; one would just bring objects downstairs until inspiration lit on the right one.

Zinik mentions Adalbert Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemiel, a classic of 19th century German literature, who was born of French émigré parents who were fleeing the revolution and was bi-lingual all his life. There have always been lots of people like that. Surely now the pace of population movement has accelerated to such a pitch that one can no longer rely on an inhabitant of say Edinburgh speaking English (in so far as one ever could; many would claim that lowland Scots is incomprehensible to a “real” English speaker. It is however an English dialect, whatever they say, unlike Gaelic.) So the expectation that a native citizen of any country should think, dream, speak, write in the language of that country becomes less and less tenable. And I refrain from a discussion here of Jewish identity; it just gets too complicated. Yiddish is in a similar position now to Scots Gaelic: very few speak it; many wish they did.

Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het;
The trees in rank along a ledge
Do show where woonce did bloom a hedge;
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
The grass ageän the mwoldrèn door
’S a tóken sad o’ vo’k a-gone,
An’ where the house, bwoth wall an’ vloor,
’S a-lost, the well mid linger on.
What tokens, then, could Meäry gi’e
That she’d a-liv’d, an’ liv’d vor me,
But things a-done vor thought an’ view?
Good things that nwone ageän can do,
An’ every work her love ha’ wrought
To eyezight’s woone, but two to thought.

Is this written in English? Of course it is, but William Barnes wrote in the dialect of his native Dorset. It’s his poem “Token”. How about Burns? A dialect speaker writing in the nation’s formal language shares much with the exophonic writer. Many a folk critic would want them just to pull up their socks and write proper English. Some of us seem to find it hard to believe that people can really communicate in ways which we don’t readily understand. The demand that everyone write like “we” do is a bit like shouting English words slowly at a Spaniard, and concluding that his failure to comprehend betokens idiocy. The funniest thing I’ve read recently is this from a review in the same issue of the TLS “When de Waal asked colleagues why primate face recognition tests used human faces as the target data, he was told it was thought to be an easier test for primates to pass, since human faces differ so much.” The review does not go on to mention all these chimpanzee ethologists who are scratching their heads despairing of their human subjects’ inability to distinguish between ape faces which of course “differ so much”. (De Waal himself writes in English though he was born in the Netherlands and only moved to the USA in his early thirties. You wouldn’t know he wasn’t writing in his native language. Of how many academics must this be true?)


* But his father was a translator of English into Polish, and Conrad did spend 16 years in the British merchant marine, became a British citizen in 1886 at the age of 28, and lived in England for the rest of his life. He claimed to enjoy the “plastic” freedoms the English language provided him. All of which might seem more explanatory, or at least relevant.


A watermark is an area of a paper sheet where the fibers are less thick allowing for a design or signature to be detected when the paper is held up to the light. In handmade paper a watermark is created by thickening up some of the wires on the mould on which the paper is formed. This is usually done by winding wire around the mesh of the mould, as you can see in the photo below.

Mould detail from Simon Barcham Greene’s website


The original purpose of a watermark seems uncertain: the circumstantial evidence suggests that they were used as a sort of trademark, an indication of which mill had made the paper. The suggestion that watermarks may have been used to identify different paper sizes and qualities, while superficially plausible, collapses under a complete lack of evidence. (See Foolscap.)

My theory of the watermark’s origin is that they started as a personal mark, identifying the individual vatman who made the sheet. After all a craftsman would in all probability provide his own tools, and how better to mark your own mould than to wind wires into it carrying your own mark? Over the centuries this watermark might easily become linked to the mill at which this craftsman ruled the roost. Of course, however plausible this suggestion may be, it too is not supported by any hard evidence.

You can see them creating the watermark on a mould at 6 minutes into this fascinating video (if you don’t see the video, click on the title of the post so you can view it in your browser). You will have to click through to YouTube to see it as Anglia Television seem to have restricted access.

The Gravell Watermark Archive at the University of Delaware provides a searchable database where the many and various watermarks used by papermakers may be consulted. Their information page does indeed provide much information.

Nowadays, commercial book papers made on Fourdinier machines can, and often do, have a watermark. Although it works in the same way by thinning out the paper to form a translucent design, the watermark is now applied after the sheet has been formed, by putting a raised design on the dandy roll, whose main function is to extract water from the sheet and to even out its formation. Papers for currency incorporate several different types of security feature including watermarks, some of a more complex chemical origin than a mere dandy roll kiss.

Colleen Theisen/University of Iowa Special Collections

To count as a miniature book you’ve got to keep it under 3 inches apparently. What international standard organization has given time and thought to making that decision?

Atlas Obscura brings us an account of many tiny books, housed at the University of Iowa. This photo shows their Book of Genesis.

We humans have enough trouble finding our glasses after we’ve put them down to answer the door. We could spend the rest of our lives looking for the book we’re half-way through too!

Obviously called for at this point is a picture of the world’s largest book. And here it is:

This Australian volume,  6 feet x 4 feet 6 inches (1.8m x 1.4m), was printed in Italy and bound in Hong Kong. It has just dislodged the Klencke Atlas from the perch.

The British Library is clearly not above a little promotional arrangement. They appear to have selected carefully among their employees (no six footers need apply) to create the impression that the Klencke Atlas is even bigger than the 5′ x 3′ that it is.

We’ve never really managed to get a grip on signaling irony or sarcasm in written communication. Notoriously conveying tone of voice in an email, text message, or before that in a business memo, is almost impossible. If your readers can misunderstand you it seems almost certain that they will. Apparently we have formalized this problem as Poe’s law.

Obviously we’d benefit from some punctuation mark that said “I’m making a joke here”, “This is ironic”. One might have hoped the universe of emojis might have thrown up a contender, but these two attempts seem to fall short.




Apple’s version, the wry cat, doesn’t seem to convey “irony”: more like “I just eat something that disagreed with me”. I don’t really know why the upside-down face should be ironic rather than upsetting. Still I guess if Apple were to offer the cat every time you typed “irony” enough texters might adopt it, so that everyone might begin to think that that’s what the cat means. Thus far it doesn’t though. Perhaps those fluent in emoji-speak will be able to provide a more viable example. I suspect what we really need is software that detects when we are trying to be ironic and offers us the appropriate sign. But of course if people can’t detect irony, why would software do any better?

So the search continues. Here, courtesy of Shady Characters are a few of our attempts to fill this gap in our communications repertoire.

⸮ — the reversed question mark, called the percontation point, from the the six­teenth cen­tury

¡ — the in­ver­ted ex­clam­a­tion mark from the seventeenth century. Apparently this mark is in current use in this sense in some Ethiopic languages

‽ — the interrobang from 1962 by Martin K. Speck­ter. Remington even made a typewriter with an interrobang key. The name is a combination of its constituent elements, the interrogation mark, and the bang, which is a printer’s term for the exclamation mark.

~ — the tilde, pro­posed in the early 2000s

* — the asterisk, denoting sarcasm, a more re­cent entrant

   — reverse italic, invented by H. L. Mencken and pushed by Bernard Levin and Tom Driberg. Apparently Brooke Crutchley, former Printer to the University of Cambridge, once misattributed the original idea to Driberg in a letter to The Independent.


And then there is my per­sonal fa­vour­ite, the ironi­eteken as de­signed by Bas Jac­obs


Another recent applicant for the job, designed for indicating mild irony, is the jè (pronounced yeah) as here illustrated on a subtle T-shirt. Don’t know if the shirt can catch on though: The Beatles certainly weren’t dealing in irony. “And you know that can’t be bad” jumps into reverse with all that irony larded on. 

In an earlier post Mr Houston brings us this page from Hervé Bazin’s Plumons l’oiseau, di­ver­tisse­ment © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967.

Lots of ideas, no progress. I guess it’s hard to get agreement on this sort of thing. Nobody thinks you’re serious.

Maybe the opening today of a Dallas bookstore called Interabang Books, will boost public acceptance of the need for an irony marker in our lives. Clearly we’re going to have to sort out the spelling once we adopt the concept.

Photo from Shelf Awareness