Archives for the month of: February, 2019

According to The Bookman’s Glossary (R. R. Bowker, 4th edition 1961) Lettre de forme, lettre de somme, lettre de bâtarde are “the three general classifications of Gothic type forms as found in the 15th century. The first is the Pointed and most formal; the second is the Round and less formal; the third is a Cursive form. They correspond to similar classifications of lettering used in the manuscripts that preceded printing.” Nomenclature is of course confusing with something as old as this: lots of people referred to the same thing by different names, and some minority usages still survive in unexpected corners. Just choosing to privilege the French terminology represents a choice of road taken.

In the examples below “Pointed” is referred to as Textura.

From The Dawn of Western Printing at Incunabula.

Here, from Incunabula, is a full discussion of the three forms. It tells us that Gutenberg’s type was based on the script textura quadrata, commonly used for bibles and derived from the “protogothic” script which developed in northern France around the eleventh century. A more rounded script, called rotunda, evolved in Bologna in the 12th century. Lettre bâtarde derived from less formal writing and tended to be used for documents in the vernacular, not in Latin.

Of course it was all more complicated than this, but we can think of scribes using half uncial, chancery hand, and insular scripts, which began to seem unreadable to many as different regions of Europe favored one version over others. Different scripts would be used for different types of book. Alcuin of York (c.730-804) succeeded in persuading scribes to use the more elegant Carolingian minuscule for most purposes, thus allowing international comprehensibility. While the Pointed, Textura style was the basis for the type used by Gutenberg in his Bible, the Carolingian minuscule, a few years later formed the basis for the types which we recognize today as Roman which were introduced by printers in Italy.

Simplified relationship between various scripts, showing the development of Uncial from Roman and the Greek Uncial. From Wikipedia.


Any account of these matters must inevitable over-simplify. Researchers look back on what was the individual practice of thousands of scribes and printers, and impose a pattern on their myriad activities. Such a pattern does provide a sort of history, but doesn’t of course imply any intentionality on the part of the actors. It’s not like Gutenberg said to himself, let’s copy the pointed script. He just knew that this was how you wrote bibles, so, obviously, that’s how you’d print them too. No doubt Aldus Manutius didn’t sit there musing “Why do we have to copy this barbaric Gothic nonsense? Let’s go back to Alcuin and start anew”. He followed the style of earlier classical and secular works, formalizing things as printed types will inevitably do.

My post on Black letter may have some relevance in this context.

Plans exist to plant messages encoded in this tree alphabet created by Katie Holten, an artist active in all things tree-ish.

I’m not holding my breath in expectation of being able to read such a message. OK, crabapple is C, but what happens if you just think of it as apple? I’d sooner see a cottonwood here. Douglas fir would be a tree many of us have heard of; but dawn redwood? Dogwood would do too, but of course that gets you into difficulties with F — though surely most of us would recognize a fig leaf. And having to think of holly as I not H would always trip us up.

  • A = Ash
  • B = Birch
  • C = Crabapple
  • D = Dawn Redwood
  • E = Elm
  • F = Flowering Dogwood
  • G = Ginkgo
  • H = Hawthorn
  • I = Ilex
  • J = Juniper
  • K = Kentucky coffeetree
  • L = Linden
  • M = Maple
  • N = Nyssa
  • O = Oak
  • P = Persimmon — wouldn’t plane be an obvious city choice?
  • Q = Quaking aspen
  • R = Redbud
  • S = Sassafras
  • T = Tulip tree
  • U = Umbrella pine — I have heard of the upas tree.
  • V = Virginia pine
  • W = Willow
  • X = Xantholyxum — well, one sees the problem, which doesn’t go away with this answer.
  • Y = Yellowood — why not yew?
  • Z = Zelkova — ditto X

Xantholyxum unfortunately seems usually to be spelled with a Z not an X. It is “commonly” called Prickly ash. Zelkova, a Georgian relative of the elm, has been extinct in Northern America since the Pleistocene. Either Ms Holten is planning on reintroducing it, or maybe more likely avoiding messages with the letter Z in them. Nyssa turns out to be a tupelo: initial searching throws up such exciting options as New York Self Storage Association, or New York State Snowmobile Association. One might better go down the “northern” route for the N entry. Still, we can all appreciate the effort.

Here’s an arborically encoded message from Mary Oliver:

Good luck working that out if the trees are ever planted in Central Park! Punctuation appears to remain an unresolved issue.

You are invited to download the font here, so that you can (monkey) puzzle your friends. Of course the whole point of the exercise is not to provide a new communication medium, but to keep trees front and center in our consciousness. To the extent that Ms Holten can get publicity for her efforts, this is worthwhile. I’ve been up and down Grand Concourse quite a few times since 2009 when Ms Holten started the Tree Museum there, but I’ll have to go slower and look more closely next time.

Link via Hyperallergic.

There’s a bit of a flurry just now in the book-discussion universe about testing old books for their DNA. Parchment, being derived from animals, is of course going to have DNA in it: though I wonder what useful information it could give you about the book. Of course, as The Atlantic article which seems to have gotten this ball rolling tells us, the DNA research is really into matters other than bibliography. It’s just that old books provide a nice source of information for DNA researchers, and one which has lived for a long time in that protective environment which we know of as libraries. Turns out that you don’t even have to chop up a page to get a DNA sample: just using the residue from the act of rubbing the parchment with an eraser will provide enough DNA for testing.

For a more metaphorical DNA test we have to welcome “Story DNA Machine Learning”, the tool Wattpad plan to use in their publishing program. Well, it had to happen I guess: we are finally getting into the 21st century. Wattpad is establishing a publishing division and will use software, not fallible folks, to determine what books deserve publication. The New York Times tells us the ominous tale (link via Book Riot).

“Whereas traditional publishing is based on individual editors’ tastes, Wattpad’s technology will scan and analyze the hundreds of millions of stories on the app to find themes or elements that might determine a story’s commercial success.” Enough of these silly editors and their individual tastes! At last a way to overcome the inherent inability of editors to understand what’s good, and more importantly what it is that makes a bestseller! We have no alternative but to look forward to Wattpad’s inevitable success.

See also DNA ink, and DNA books.

from Forget Me Not Songster, 1840

Wikipedia refusing to beat about the bush, tells us that “Ballads are often 13 lines with an ABABBCBC form, consisting of couplets (two lines) of rhymed verse, each of 14 syllables. Another common form is ABAB or ABCB repeated, in alternating 8 and 6 syllable lines.”

Ballad and folk song, almost synonyms, typically appear in anthologies as by “Anon”. When the ballad was only an oral form, a narrative usually set to a simple melody as an aide memoire, it was an organic, constantly evolving form. Different performers would tweak the ballad intentionally or just by accident as they forgot a word here and there. Once the ballads were written down though they could stop evolving. In Phaedrus Plato has Socrates declare of writing “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.”* I think even more important than forgetfulness was the ability of writing to provide authority/authenticity. Before there was a written source nobody could accuse you of quoting it wrong.

Ballads were an early commodity of the publishing business: broadsides, single sheets of paper, would be printed often with a woodcut illustration, and sold around the country. They were probably the commonest printed document in early modern England.

The printed version of “Barbara Allan” shown above is quite different from others which have come down to us from different sources, including the version I learned at school. But such differences don’t contradict the idea of an end to textual evolution. What we see is several different versions, all frozen in time, all coming down to us in parallel. Joan Baez’s version (accompanied here by some fairly extravagant illustrations) is closer to what I remember singing. If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

If anyone can “edit” an oral form, why should collectors like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, et al. not “improve” their finds? Surely they can be said to be as legitimate “balladeers” as that busker at the local hiring fair. Bishop Thomas Percy used a “parcel of old ballads”, including two versions of “Barbara Allen”, as the basis of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). William Shenstone described them as “pure gold in dust or ingots” in a letter to Percy suggesting that printing them as is, unimproved, would be to miss an opportunity to reactivate their power, and would make them merely “a prize merely for . . . virtuosoes”. Percy did fiddle with the language and included modern ballad imitations, a decision which, contra Shenstone, we would now regard as an error. The need for authenticity in all things is a modern phenomenon. The word originates in the eighteenth century, just when ballad collection was getting going. It’s a bit odd isn’t it that we think of Robert Burns’ ballads as Robert Burns’ unaided work and Sir Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border as an academic collection (which is how it was presented) though Scott certainly intervened in the text as much as Percy? In an age eager to accept Ossian such concerns were not prominent.

Here’s a nice post about the ballad from The Book Wars.


* I’m not sure Socrates is right in any general sense though. True we can rarely remember entire ballads, but I suspect we use our memories just as much as Plato did. We have something like a hundred trillion synapses in our brains, and I suspect that we use pretty much the same number of them today as Plato’s contemporaries did. We just remember a whole lot more different things.

Why wasn’t I a political boss? My heart leaps up when I behold the words “He wears a fedora hat, pinstriped suit and a scowl, in his breast pocket he folds a handkerchief, colorful and silky” as The Economist describes Edward Burke, soon-to-be-dethroned Chicago pol-boss. Coulda been me. So what, I never had the hat, but I could have easily bought one. Didn’t really like pinstripes, but hey, a suit’s a suit isn’t it? And a hanky in the breast pocket always seemed a bit over the top to me. But I was pretty good at the scowl (and remain proud to be one of the sloppiest dressers in New York). Pushing people around is what it’s all really about, isn’t it? I don’t care if this book is printed here or there, but I sure as hell am going to make sure someone sweats blood over it.

Well, of course, such an attitude would be the exact opposite of my approach to book production management. There were plenty of contemporaries in the New York book business who did indeed behave in that sort of way, giving printers a hard time as a matter of principle — one would hear about their shameful antics from sales reps one knew well, especially after the person had retired. If you work for a huge company you can get away with this sort of behavior: no matter how horrible you are no printer can afford to call you on it and risk losing millions of sales. But just because you’ll be tolerated doesn’t mean you should be allowed to behave like a mob boss. Printers will respond to fear, but so they also will to rational encouragement. Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of social interaction, there may come a time when you’ll need the help of these suppliers. Imagine you’ve lost your job — and big bosses do often carry big pay-checks whose elimination is often a survival strategy for troubled companies — no point in even applying for a job at a smaller publishing house. Your reputation will make you absolutely ineffective. And then of course there is a circle of hell reserved for obnoxious purchasing managers.

I note with some satisfaction that the boss of Mensch Publishing, Richard Charkin agrees. He writes at Publishing Perspectives “Treat your suppliers with respect. I’ve taken a policy decision to pay cash owed into a freelancer’s account the same day I receive the invoice. My cash flow is important but respecting other people’s cash flow generates goodwill, and better relationships are vital for a small enterprise—perhaps for big enterprises too.” Prompt payment is always the single best way of ensuring good service.

I have held forth on the topic of Bosses before.

George Orwell’s 1936 essay Bookshop Memories (the text of which which may be found here) recounts his reactions to a short career in bookselling. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. A few years ago we might have kept our fingers crossed when reading his confident forecast “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”  — Now it’s the combines which are in trouble, and I think we are all feeling a good deal more confident about the future of the small independent bookseller — almost as confident as George Orwell did.

Shaun Bythell, owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, a used book store, starts each month of his The Diary of a Bookseller (Melville House, 2018) with an extract from Orwell’s essay and a brief comment about it.  The Book Shop is surprisingly large as you can see from this video, the making of which is described in the book.

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

The Diary of a Bookseller is predictably in day-by-day format and covers one year (2014-15). Mr Bythell writes an accessible, friendly prose commenting wryly on the frequent emergencies of bookshop life. He tracks the daily number of customers, amount of money in the till, and online orders. What surprised me most perhaps is how much money was involved, and at the same time paradoxically how little of it there was. He also recounts many purchasing forays: one feels that by the end of the year he must have had a lot more stock than at the beginning. As he says in the video “I’ve got more stock than an Oxo cube”.

Customers, as Orwell suggested, inevitably present problems, though discretion perhaps prevents too much open rudeness about them. My queasiness about the entire book is probably the result of a suspicion that the tone of his account of the book world is pretty much the same as mine would be. He often says things of the sort which I am quietly reminded are not as funny as I like to think they are. He even touches on one or two oddities of the book world which I’ve chosen to write about here in the past. Much fun is poked at Nicky, a surprisingly knowledgeable if somewhat erratic assistant, who leads off the rap performance in the video above (the third performer being Anna, Mr Bythell’s American girlfriend).

But despite any reservations I did like the book, and since, with this format, you can’t really have one without the other, I liked the author too, including the books he told us he was reading at the time he was writing his diary. I’m definitely not visiting Wigtown. I might decide to stay.

The Melville House webpage (linked to above) has a nice video featuring Mr Bythell’s helpful advice on Kindle repair. Making videos is one of his sidelines.

The Digital Reader brings us news of what is being presented as suicidal corporate greed.

I wrote about Patreon recently under the rubric Patronage. The idea behind the site seemed like a good one: funding for creative artists including authors by members of the public who believe in what these people are doing and are brought together by this site. They report over one million active patrons. But now it looks like the owners of Patreon may kill the goose because of their desire for a larger share of the golden eggs. At the moment they keep 5% of donations, with another 5% retained to cover costs. The Passive Voice has a thoughtful piece on the situation, focussed mainly on rights which Patreon take as they try to evolve into a SaaS (Software as a service) platform, helping in content creation. Rights ownership may be one method they want to use to increase profitability. While a writer might be willing to cut their patron in on some of the rights in their writing, granting that to the website facilitating the patron/client transaction might seem less obviously acceptable.

Patreon has been providing a service since 2013 and lots of artists have benefitted from it. As The Passive Voice points out, with an internet-based business “raising prices is very difficult because someone else is always ready to clone the business plan and offer the service for less”. The financial pressure may in fact be coming from the payment processors, basically bankers. Please stop at the edge and reflect on whether 5% of an amount which keeps growing isn’t better than having your client-base desert you. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. There are alternatives, including PayPal apparently, but Patreon does seem to be a useful option.

Of course there need be nothing ominous in a business offering new services. If some people want them, fine, and if nobody does, one hopes they haven’t become essential to the company’s survival. The company has raised $106 million in venture funding, and obviously needs to show some return. It’d be nice if something like bringing patrons and creators together could be done on a modest scale, but it seems like everyone with an on-line business wants to be a unicorn these days.

A Patreon reading list can be found here at TechCrunch. This piece contains an additional link to a helpful post from the same source entitled The Business of Patreon.


Finch, Pruyn & Company was formed in 1865 when Jeremiah and Daniel Finch, together with Samuel Pruyn, purchased the Glens Falls Company. Shortly thereafter they bought the Wing Mill, on which site they are still located. In 2007 the company was renamed Finch Paper LLC.

Still there — the 1911 office building

They started out with various lines of business including lumber, and it was only in 1905 that they started making paper. In the early years they made newsprint and hanging paper, the basis for wallpapers. Only in the 1950s did book-paper-making get going. Finch Opaque, the sheet best known to the publishing community, was only introduced in 1963, around the time when the company installed an odor-free pulping process and moved from coal power to oil. The mill is quite close to the middle of town — three or four blocks — so you can imagine the highly scented life in the town back then.

As is usually the case the mill is built next to a constant source of water, the Hudson River. In the early days this water would provide power. The falls are just upstream from the Finch Mill. In this old postcard view the mill is just to the left at the northern end of the bridge across the river. A mill lade leads off from the upper river and flows into the mill site. Not, I’m sure, that it had any influence on the founders decision-making, but the literary-minded may be interested  to know that just under that bridge one can find the cave  in which Hawkeye and his companions hid in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Part of the mill can be seen in the background of this photo of the cave.

Photo Kent Myers, Finch Paper

Doubtless in the olden days the lade would also serve as a delivery method for their raw material. Logs, as we all sort of know, used not to be hauled around on trucks: they were thrown into the river and dramatically floated downstream to civilization. The last river drive carrying logs from the Adirondack Mountains down the Hudson River took place in 1950. This video, from Finch, shows a drive from the thirties. A more exciting job than driving a truck for sure.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Can this really be the case? The Passive Voice links to Forward‘s piece Amazon is Dooming New Yiddish Publications. The trouble is that while CreateSpace used to support Yiddish, now that it’s been collapsed into Kindle Direct Publishing, that is no longer the case. Surely this must be a temporary situation which Amazon will eventually sort out. But I’m not sure whether the problem is just language, or the naming of authors. Does KDP really not permit pseudonymous publishing, something which, according to the Forward piece, is important to some Hasidic authors?

I wonder if, lying behind this, there’s something to do with a change from print-on-demand to ebook? To my mind CreateSpace was a print-on-demand operation while KDP offers both ebook and POD. If you do an ebook you need a character stream, so in a sense the system needs to “understand” your book, while a POD book can be made from a PDF, essentially a picture of the text, so that all the system needs to “know about” is a group of dots making no sense until a human eye/brain turns the picture into meaning. Does the fact that Yiddish is read from right to left cause an ebook problem which KDP can’t cope with? I don’t know if that’s all it amounts to, but I would doubt that Amazon has any plans to kill off Yiddish writing.

Like many small, formerly moribund languages, Scots Gaelic and Catalan notably, but also thousands of others, Yiddish is going through a bit of a renaissance. Whereas we used to think that language conformity was essential to national identity, we’ve now discovered that variety is desirable; though listening to current immigration debate over here might call this into question.

Does it matter whether Fiddler on the Roof performed in Yiddish, and now moving to Broadway, is in a Yiddish which has been phonetically memorized by non-Yiddish-speaking actors or is spoken by people who actually understand the words? Better it should have a run-out either way surely. Nowadays we crave authenticity in casting, and memorized Yiddish might be viewed as analogous to having a white man play Othello. But then who’s authenticity does insisting that that’s wrong represent? When Shakespeare wrote it the play was performed by the actors in the troupe. They didn’t get a Scot down to play Macbeth. (Or a lady of any kind to play Lady Macbeth.) Should fat guys not be allowed to play Cassius? What about a woman playing King Lear? What about characters with disabilities being played by actors who don’t have disabilities and vice versa? Personally I find these sorts of concerns beside the point: the play after all is the thing. And there’s no inherent reason why phonetically reciting Yiddish should be any more reprehensible than playing Greek tragedies in the original language. We once attended a play in Lisbon which was advertised as being played (in Portuguese) with English subtitles. It turned out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the subtitles just told you the stuff you knew already. Every now and then someone would emerge from the wings with a large placard in English saying things that you’d already figured out like “Joseph slaps Alberto, who leaves in tears” and that sort of thing. Their “subtitles” in other words told you exactly what you could intuit from the action going on before you, not the stuff you couldn’t understand. They never held up a card telling you what the hero just said which had made the entire audience titter. No doubt the audience at Fiddler on the Roof is familiar enough with the show and the songs in it that everyone will be perfectly capable of following the action without understanding every individual word.

I’ve no objection to employing actors from any particular group to play any role in any tongue: to me the question is rather whether they play well or not. It’s in the word: they are after all acting.

As far as publishing in Yiddish is concerned: one might work on the assumption that the bottom was reached by the end of the twentieth century. The bounce back may not yet be high, but it is detectable. On-line publication obviously offers a life-line to any kind of minority interest. The Yiddish Book Center offers free access to more 11,000 Yiddish titles.

Well Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in New York City (and in Crystal City, VA) was never of course a book story. The fact that they claimed there would be 25,000 jobs paying on average $150,000 a  year proves that. I wonder if there are that many people in the whole of book publishing making such money. I posted three months ago welcoming the decision to come to New York.

There was a lot of adverse reaction in New York to the fact that the deal had been negotiated in secret (as if negotiations like this can be conducted in public) and that a company as rich as Amazon should be given such large tax breaks. But no special deals were cut: all the tax incentives granted are laid out in state law, and are available to any company which wants to try for them and has an argument to support their case. It’s no doubt true that Amazon doesn’t really need the money, but the fact of the matter is that all cities and states play this game and if we hadn’t done it we would not even have been considered. Sure NYC’s a great place: but Amazon was trolling for tax breaks, and in order to play you needed to pay. I trust the calculations made by our governor and mayor were correct and that we’d have made much more back from taxes and spending over the years than it’d cost.

Amazon have now suddenly cancelled the deal overnight: the mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio, tells us on the radio this morning that just the day before the cancellation he was on the phone negotiating with a senior Amazon person the details of infrastructure spending the company was committed to making. Now of course a big company (a small company too) has an absolute right to change their corporate mind, but surely at the end of a year-long, publicly self-promoted campaign to provoke cities around the country to knock themselves out attracting the great and good Amazon, the company owed everyone a bit of notice and debate before just walking away from the deal. They can’t really have been surprised at the sort of objections that the original announcement provoked. People in Long Island City were bound to be worried that their rents would go up, and to suspect that they’d not be getting too many of those $100,000+ jobs. Their elected representatives could be relied on to voice these concerns, and while none of us has the inside story, the hassle cannot possibly have seemed too injurious to a company notoriously customer-oriented, and relentless in the pursuit of its objectives.

Is it possibly the case that Amazon’s anti-union position was a major factor? The unions were in negotiation with them and seemed to think they were making progress just a day before the pull-out.

I think Amazon’s sudden withdrawal from their New York deal teaches us two things. Firstly I think it suggests that Amazon probably doesn’t really need a second headquarters. They have said that they won’t be looking to replace the Long Island City establishment in any of the other cities that submitted bids. So it looks like they may have decided they didn’t really need to spend the money building up a new large establishment: they can just cope with things by beefing up staffing in this or that of their current offices around the country.

The second thing we learn relates to the complacency of politicians. They tend to assume that what looks to them to be self-evidently a good thing, will therefore look to be a good thing to the entire population. But the benefits of any deal need to be spelled out. Just because you, who spend your life immersed in politics, know this is the right thing to do, you cannot assume that all the people find it equally obvious. We saw this problem potentially take down a whole country when Britain’s elites blithely assumed that the economic and historical benefits of membership in the EU, which may indeed be obvious to anyone who has thought about the issue (and who remembers World War II) were obvious to people who’d never really thought about it because all their time is spent making a living and getting by, or watching television, responding to their friends’ posts on Instagram, or even God knows reading books. Just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean everyone is. Politicians surely know that emotion plays a larger role in people’s decision-making than reason. Yet Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio spent more time celebrating a big win, than in explaining the reasons why such a win was important.

Oh well, we’ll get by without an Amazon HQ.