Archives for the month of: August, 2019

A couple of years ago we visited the Highlands and Islands, and observed that Gaelic speaking is far from dead. Lots of young people were rattling on in Gaelic, not just the oldies as the pessimist might expect.  Undiscovered Scotland has an extensive article with maps and statistics. On their map, above, I’m intrigued by the 2%-6% spot in the Borders. It’s up Ettrick, as we used to put it, and is an area of very sparse population. Could it be that one household of Gaelic speakers tipped the scales?

The language, a member of the Goidelic branch of Celtic languages along with Irish and Manx, has been in long-term decline, but is now assumed to be making a bit of a recovery. No doubt this is due in some part to our now having a Scottish Parliament, though it is in keeping with efforts around the world to revive minority languages, e.g. Yiddish. In the bad old days we used to regard old languages as labels of poverty (of purse and mind) and strove to drive them out. Just in time, we hope, we’ve realized the silliness of these views. Scotland has three “official” languages, English, Gaelic and Scots. For Scots Gaelic the three components of language survival are in position: a reasonable-sized population speaking the language; lots of enthusiasts studying the language; a literature written in the language.

Glasgow and Edinburgh, which both used to be a huge centers of book manufacturing, are home to many new publishing houses, several of which are publishing books in Gaelic. Examples include Acair, LuathCLÀR, publisher of the Ùr-sgeul (New Story) project. I have a bi-lingual anthology of modern Gaelic poetry, Nua-bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig, published in 1976 by Canongate Southside, which has now grown into Canongate, and still has the book in print. It includes poems by Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean), Deòrsa Mac Iain Deòrsa (George Campbell Hay), Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn (Iain Crichton Smith), Ruaraidh Mac’Thomais (Derick Thomson) and Domhnall MacAmhlaigh (Donald MacAulay), who are the heavy-hitters of 20th century Gaelic poetry.

Iain Crichton Smith has a poem “Will Gaelic die?” One of the stanzas (22), in the author’s translation, reads: Death is outside the language. The end of language is beyond language. Wittgenstein didn’t speak after his death. What language would he speak? In what language would you say, “Fhuair a’ Ghaidhlig bas?” The poet footnotes these last four words as ‘Fhuair a’ Ghaidlig bas’ — ‘Gaelic is dead.’

The Wikipedia history of Scottish Gaelic Literature is pretty comprehensive. Notable among 19th century collectors who recorded old Gaelic texts was John Francis Campbell (1821-85), son of the Laird of Islay. He had grown up speaking Gaelic and was encouraged by the Reverend Norman MacLeod, hymn writer and essayist. Campbell’s four-volume compilation Popular Tales of the West Highlands (published 1860-62) contained the first evidence of a Gaelic prose writing tradition. Gaelic writing had started with poetry, and this still makes up a large proportion of the literature. The first novel in the language, John MacCormick’s Dùn-Àluinn, no an t-Oighre ‘na Dhìobarach, was published in 1911/1912.

There’s lots of promotion of the language going on. The Scottish Book Trust tells us that they are giving away a bag of kid’s books in Gaelic for any family that wants one. Their program has been in operation since 2009.

Bilingual publishing, an obvious good move, is increasing. This is a natural survival strategy. Though most buyers no doubt read just the one version, one can imagine that recessive Gaelic gene pairing up with another recessive to create a new Gaelic reader!

See also Publishing in Gaelic.

Get ready. Banned Books Week runs from September 22nd till the 28th. Read the rest of this entry »

Beware: the book you just bought from Amazon may not be what you expected.

On the face of it getting a screwed-up book like this doesn’t seem too much of a likelihood to a publishing person: of course if you want a proper version of George Orwell’s 1984 you should get it from the correct publisher. But of course most people aren’t tuned in to who publishes what: they just want a book, and it’s hardly surprising that most chose the cheapest one they can find. As this New York Times story by David Streitfeld tells us this means that, at Amazon, the customer is quite likely to be getting a pile of garbage. (Link via Jose Afonso Furtado.) Of course the main loser is the author, who isn’t getting any royalty from these counterfeit books.

One rather feels that Amazon maybe should be doing something about this. (Though remember that they were heavily criticized in 2009 when they removed copies of 1984 from Kindles because of a similar copyright issue.) It’s all well and good for these media behemoths to claim that they are merely conduits between provider and consumer, but if you went into a bricks-and-mortar bookshop you could expect that someone would have made sure that the text of the book you pick up would indeed be contained between the covers in your hands, and not some gobbledygook or other. Of course you would be paying full price, but still, I do think if you’re going to set up as a bookseller you need to behave responsibly. Just how this is to be achieved is beyond me, but these guys claim to be smart. Amazon has taken down a couple of the Indian editions the author of the article told them about, but they have no real overall solution as far as I can tell. They recently issued a statement saying “Today, there is no single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country that retailers could use to check copyright status. Retailers are dependent on rights holders to tell them where they have the rights for each title and for how long”!

Of course Amazon may in this area be laboring under the conceptual difficulty that when you “buy” a Kindle book, you don’t actually buy a book, you buy access to a file of a book. This might be seen as putting Amazon in a different relationship to its customers than a regular bookshop or publisher is when they sell physical objects. I wonder, the law being what it is, if this makes a difference in their duties to purchasers. But just because the ebook’s status may be different doesn’t mean you can just let the copyright issue in print books slide by too. No doubt this is a complicated problem, and, one assumes, a problem they’ve been working on for ten tears already: but they’re the ones making the money — let them work it out.

The Passive Voice’s story has a link to a Publishing Perspectives piece, which points out one way in which Amazon is actually exacerbating the problem by blurring the distinction between different editions of a book. They indicate that Mr Streitfeld writes  “Amazon sometimes bundles all the reviews of a title together, regardless of which edition they were written for. That means an unauthorized edition of Animal Farm can have thousands of positive reviews, signaling to a customer it is a valid edition.” The Passive Voice, ever anti-publisher and rabidly pro-ebook, suggests it’s the publishers with their “massive” profits who need to sort this. However as Michael Cader, quoted in that same PP post, points out, Amazon has created the problem and their response to criticism has basically been that of a naughty child: it’s hard; everyone does it; it’s your fault anyway and you should fix it.

President Obama’s Summer Reading

Reproduced from Shelf Awareness of 16 August.
President Barack Obama shopped at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., in 2014 (photo by Pete Souza)

In what has become a summer tradition, former President Barack Obama posted on Facebook a summary of his recent favorite reads, including the complete works of Toni Morrison, who died August 5. Obama wrote that her books are “transcendent, all of them. You’ll be glad you read them.”

His other suggestions:

“Sometimes difficult to swallow, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a necessary read, detailing the way Jim Crow and mass incarceration tore apart lives and wrought consequences that ripple into today.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang is a collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s epic fictionalized look at Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power, came out in 2009, but I was a little busy back then, so I missed it. Still great today.

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women examines what happens to characters without important women in their lives; it’ll move you and confuse you and sometimes leave you with more questions than answers.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is a whole lot more than just a spy thriller, wrapping together the ties of family, of love, and of country.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr came out a few years ago, but its arguments on the internet’s impact on our brains, our lives, and our communities are still worthy of reflection, which is something we all could use a little more of in this age.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about the life of a woman in science, a brilliant friendship, and the profundity of trees. Terrific.

Inland by Téa Obreht just came out yesterday, so I won’t spoil anything. But those of you who’ve been waiting for Obreht’s next novel won’t be disappointed.

You’ll get a better sense of the complexity and redemption within the American immigrant story with Dinaw Mengestu’s novel, How to Read the Air.”

If you prefer, you can wait for a list of good books to read from the present incumbent. And wait. And wait.

Via Lit Hub, Inside Hook brings us an appreciation of Barack Obama’s Influence on the Book World.

There were occasions on which, reeling from the condescension, I almost regretted my choice of career. Even if you don’t actually speak Scots, if you are born and brought up in Scotland you will inevitably often speak English like a Scotsman (after a drink or two is one notable and recurring occasion). One trap waiting for the publisher laddie was the word “book”, a rather common item of vocabulary in a publishing house. That I would pronounce this as “buik” rather than the flat, unemphasized “buck” favored by my English colleagues took me a long time to overcome. It never failed to provoke comment.

But Scots is mair nor English wi’ a Scottish accent. There’s a large vocabulary which just doesn’t feature in English English at all, though the syntax is largely the same. There’s aye been a tendency for the educated Scot to speak “proper” English, while at any moment being ready (and eager) to switch to the odd word of broad Scots. Certainly around our house there were words unknown doon England constantly in the air. Your familiarity with the language was reinforced by the singing of the old songs, and the reading of Burns’ poetry.

Scots is recognized as an indigenous language of Scotland, as a regional minority language of Europe and as a vulnerable language by UNESCO. 2019 is the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages, though I must confess to not feeling like I’ve been much bashed ower the heid aboot this. It was the language of the court, the courts and the kirk until we were rash enough to give up our independence. I still cling to the belief that Scots is totally comprehensible to the English speaker — the problem they all have is, I think, a simple refusal to try! Come oan! Gie ‘t shot. Here’s a wee introduction:

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

Quartz has a braw article about the Scots language and how it’s being helped by Twitter. (Link via Lit Hub.)

Like every language, I guess, Scots is basically a spoken language, and the way it gets written down can occasionally be confusing even to other Scots. A simple example is “canna”/”cannae” (cannot). The first results from the pronunciation in the North East while I in the south grew up saying the second (when my mother didn’t tell me off to speak properly). This one’s fairly straightforward: other, rarer, words can get lost behind their variant spellings/pronunciations, and become hard to figure out in written form while you’d probably have no problem if they were spoken at you. See the Tom Leonard poem below for an example of this.

Any account of Scots cannot fail to mention Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978). Born Christopher Murray Greive in Langholm in the Borders, he first wrote poetry in English. Early on he conceived a mission to rescue Scots words for use in his verse, and he’d scour dictionaries to find vocabulary which he’d reintroduce into the language. One of the first poems to emerge (1925) from this effort was “The Watergaw” (The pale rainbow). His book-long poem in Scots, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), was considered by Oliver St. John Gogarty “the most virile and vivid poetry written in English or any dialect thereof for many a long day”. MacDiarmid here comments on the superficiality of many a Scot’s Scottishness at their annual celebration of Burns’ Night:


No’ wan in fifty ken a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a’body’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’d be the last a kenning’ haund to gie —
Croose London Scotties wi’ their braw shirt fronts
And a’ their fancy freens, rejoicin’
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad — and Hell, nae doot — are voicin’
Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toasting’ ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin’ Genius wi’ their thochts.

His poetry was always overflowing with ideas, and some of his later poems almost fall into a catalog of obscure scientific, political and sociological ideas and quotations. But his almost single-handed rescue of the Scots tongue ensures his immortality. I did once see him at a reading in Cambridge.

This poem by Tom Leonard (1944-2018) needs to be heard in the head before it yields up its meaning. It’s a conversation on the way to a football game, no doubt a Celtic game, and no doubt in the boozer. (The intrusive interlinear dots in these poems are there to force my software into the layout required.)

“The Good Thief”
hey jimmy
yawright ih
still wayiz urryi
hey jimmy
ma right insane yirra pape
ma right insane yirwanny us jimmy
see it nyir eyes
wanny uz
heh jimmy
lookslik wirgonny miss the gemm
gonny miss thi GEMM jimmy
nearly three a cloke thinoo
dork init
good jobe theyve gote the lights

This Leonard reflection on the language starts off “Right enough”. After that you’re on your own:

right inuff
ma language is disgraceful
ma maw tellt mi
ma teacher tellt mi
thi doactir tellt mi
thi priest tellt mi
ma boss tellt mi
ma landlady in carrington street tellt mi
thi lassie ah tried tay get off way in 1969 tellt mi
some wee smout thit thoat ah hudny read chomsky tellt mi
A calvinist communist thit thoat ah wuz revisionist tellt mi
literati grimly kerryin thi burden a thi past tellt mi
literati grimly kerryin thi burden a thi future tellt mi
ma wife tellt mi jist-tay-get-intay-this-poem tellt mi
ma wainz came hame fray school an tellt mi
jist aboot ivry book ah oapnd tellt mi
even thi introduction tay thi Scottish National Dictionary tellt mi
ach well
all livin language is sacred
fuck thi lohta thim.

At Deviant Art Martin Silvertant tells you how to get started designing a typeface — something I know you have all been dying to do. For ultimate success you’ll need some sort of vector program. He recommends Fontlab Studio, though he doesn’t use it himself. He tells us that many designers do the job in Illustrator, a program lots of production people have access to, if only in the office. (Link via Erik Kwakkel.)

Here’s his typeface map:

There is also a second part to Mr Silvertant’s course which moves on to italic and bold. This can be found here.

Will the new tariffs on Chinese goods be implemented or not? Despite our President’s repeated assertion that Americans are not paying the cost of the tariffs he’s imposed thus far, it turns out that he thinks it right to delay the implementation of much of his new round till after the Christmas season, because he doesn’t want to increase the cost of the holiday for the very people he’s always telling us don’t pay this cost. “We’re doing this for Christmas season, just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers”.

Bibles and other religious books are omitted from the tariff list altogether. No doubt we can thank the “base” for this exemption. Along with iPhones certain categories of book — children’s picture, drawing and coloring books — as Publishers Weekly tells us, will not be subject to tariffs till 15 December. However all other books printed in China, including trade, education, and professional titles, are still subject to the 10% tariffs which are scheduled to take effect on 1 September. Of course, as in so many instances, the President may change his mind yet again! Stock markets around the world have become accustomed to bouncing up and down again in response to yet another volatile White House tweet. In the meantime should we look for publishers to emphasize the religious aspect of their novels and argue that they are really religious books? Much more likely, because of the rather short lead-time in book printing, orders will just be placed elsewhere. Chinese book manufacturers may be able to reduce their prices to counter this move, but when all’s said and done, where you print your book is a straightforward economic decision. This will of course only worsen the capacity crunch in the US book manufacturing industry. Look for delays.

See also Tariffs.

I bought this book shortly after arriving in America, probably in the summer or fall of 1974. (You can click on the images to enlarge them to read the back cover copy.) They don’t make books like this any more, and I don’t just mean the price. It’s printed on a nice bit of paper — looks like S. D. Warren’s 1854 MF to me; that’s a sheet I loved and used all the time back then. But it’s bound to fail: back then our adhesives were really pretty lousy, and a perfect bound book was a book almost destined to fall into loose-leaf format after a while. I’ve read this copy three or four times. You may be able to see the packaging tape repair holding the front and back cover to the spine. I’ve had to read it very carefully, resisting as far as possible bending the spine, and have managed to keep it all in one piece — till last week when a gust of wind whipped it open and blew the first page of Malcolm Cowley’s Introduction into the bushes. Of course I got it back, but there it is, a loose page ready to get lost. Ah well, it should have died hereafter.

The book is, of course, still in print, but now the paper is worse, while the binding is better, although still of course perfect.

The Portable Faulkner is renowned among all the Portables, which were published by The Viking Press who were located on Madison Avenue just above 57th Street; 57th and Madison is where Cambridge’s US offices were in those days too. They are now, inevitably, part of Penguin Random House. Malcolm Cowley compiled and edited it in 1945 when as he puts it “Faulkner’s books were little read and often disparaged.” It isn’t altogether inaccurate to say that the volume was the making of Faulkner. It was 1950 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The author took an active part in the compilation of this volume, which includes short stories and extracts from the novels, and wrote a history of the Compson family for inclusion in the book. His continuing output necessitated a revised and expanded edition in 1967: he had died in 1962. The renown of the book is based upon Mr Cowley’s ability to sort out the jumbled account of the growth of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County which comes in here, there and everywhere in Faulkner’s oeuvre in no coherent chronological sequence. If the experience of reading Faulkner wasn’t so wonderful in whichever book or order you attempt, this would be the best way to understand his world. It remains the best way for the initiate to enter the world of Yoknapatawpha.

I assume that I bought this book in White Plains in that big bookstore on Mamaroneck Avenue which soon went out of business, selling off its inventory by reducing every price by 50% each week. I got several rather dull books — but they were cheap. I can tell this was when I had it because of the marks down the fore-edge. I had been given a huge car by my boss, the admirable Jack Schulman — maybe I had to give him something for it, just to keep things straight. It was one of these large, long cars, with fins, in a slightly stained pale blue. Plymouth is the word that floats into my mind. It eventually got stolen just across from St John the Divine: my reaction (I swear) was “Damn. Someone’s taken my parking place”. Anyway, the car wouldn’t start one day — flat battery. Simple solution: I took it out, put it in the basket of my bike and took it into the garage on my way to work, picking it up, fully charged, in the evening. For those who doubt there’s acid involved in car batteries, please observe the dark marks where the book which I was reading on the train rested against the battery terminals. It has eaten out interesting semicircles in the back cover.

Amazingly I once went to dinner with Mr Cowley and his wife in their Connecticut home. (He was a friend of my then wife’s then boss.) I didn’t take the book for signing. I was still a self-absorbed jerk in those days and hadn’t yet managed to work out that many authors are pleased and flattered by being asked to sign their books. I strive to imagine that Red Warren dropped by after dinner, but though he was a neighbor he did not. Malcolm Cowley was a member of that now extinct (?) species, the man of letters. He seemed to know everyone; to have read everything; and to have sensible balanced judgements about everything, which he was able to present in clear elegant prose. He did also write good poetry. Quiet, gracious and generous — would there were more like that.

The penultimate piece in the book, “The Jail” is the prologue to Act III of Requiem for a Nun (1951). Earlier in that work Gavin Stevens, no doubt speaking for the author, says “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner’s reaction to this perpetual potentially explanatory presence of the past was a wish to include everything in a single sentence. “My ambition is to put everything into one sentence — not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second.” This piece, at bottom a riff on the name engraved into the glass of the window of the Jefferson jailhouse, Cecilia Farmer April 16th 1861 — though of course also a history of everything — is 39 pages long in this edition and consists of two sentences. The first is 32 words long. When one reaches the end the effect of the final words “Listen, stranger; this was myself; this was I” is heart wrenching. You look over your shoulder to see Walt Whitman watching you on the Brooklyn ferry.


Faber & Faber is* celebrating its ninetieth anniversary with the publication of a book by Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, entitled Faber & Faber: The Untold Story. The book is reviewed in The New Yorker by Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (who owned Faber’s US operations from 1998 to 2015).

It all started with a magazine, The Nursing Mirror which was originally published by The Scientific Press owned by the Gwyer family. In 1925 the company recruited Geoffrey Faber who had been working at Oxford University Press, and had like Maurice Gwyer become a Fellow of All Souls. The company was renamed Faber & Gwyer but in 1929 the The Nursing Mirror was sold and the Gwyers moved on, leaving Geoffrey Faber on his own. He chose to call the company Faber & Faber although he was the only Faber involved — maybe he was hoping his 2-year-old son Tom would come in too — but he became a don at Cambridge University. Tom’s major gift to the company’s success may have been as the intended first audience for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats whose author was his godfather and had been a director of the company since its 1925 inception. A share of the sub-rights and royalty income generated by Cats was to say the least helpful to the company in staying independent while no longer small.

See the Faber blog for links to a decade by decade history of the company. These eight pieces are all extracts from the essay “A History of Faber” by John Mullan.

Robert McCrum remembers his time at Faber in this piece at The Guardian. His article is stimulated by publication of some of the correspondence conducted at the company. Samples may be found here. (Link via Book Business Magazine.) Pete Townshend, another Faber celeb editor, recalls his time there.

That Faber & Faber has published many iconic books is beyond doubt. Their poetry list is especially strong, not perhaps too surprising in a company whose editorial director was for so long T. S. Eliot. On their blog they offer a selection of influential books selected by staff.


* Or should one write “Faber & Faber are celebrating their . . .”? I believe this is another of these British English/American English differences. I’m a bit confused about which way is which, though I think the UK goes for plural, US for singular. This UK tendency may be reinforced by the tendency to add an “s” to the end of a company name. Thus “Headspeaths are selling mince at £1 a lb this week”. To keep my confusion going though, you can find answers to a Google search on this singular/plural question which assert exactly the opposite. I think the long and the short of it all is that whether you are British or American you can write whichever you prefer, or better suits the rhythm of your sentence. Or even what is in your head: if you visualize Headspeaths as a bunch of members of the Headspeath family retailing meat in Galashiels then you’ll think of their business as plural. If you think of Faber & Faber as a place good books come from, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to refer to it in the singular.

At Shelf Awareness Robert Gray brings us an article about a recent survey of independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Some of the highlighted findings are:

  • Independent retailers overwhelmingly ranked Amazon’s market power as the top threat to their businesses, and only 11% of those selling on Amazon’s Marketplace described their experience as successful.
  • 70% of small businesses said Amazon’s market power should be investigated by antitrust regulators.
  • 40% of retailers and 30% of manufacturers said there has been a significant merger in their industry in the last five years.
  • Independent businesses said they are paying higher prices and receiving less favorable terms as a result of growing concentration among suppliers.
  • 52% of independent retailers in cities reported that commercial rents have been rising faster than their sales. Only 6% said rents have been growing slower than sales.
  • In a market dominated by Visa and Mastercard, independent retailers are spending an average of 3% of their total revenue on swipe fees.
  • 41% of those that sought a loan in the past two years did not receive the funding they needed. This figure was higher for businesses that are new, smaller, minority-owned, or women-owned.

When asked which public policy issues are most important to their businesses, the independent retailers surveyed cited credit card swipe fees, Internet sales taxes, corporate subsidies and tax incentives, and antitrust policy in the top six issues for retailers, alongside healthcare policy and labor requirements.

Mr Gray’s article will eventually turn up at Fresh Eyes Now, his blog archive.

Well, Amazon is an obvious target, but the problem in an aggressively free market economy is figuring out what might be done about it. In a way complaining that company X does things better than you do is not really an argument likely to bring you support from the government, or anyone else for that matter. But there is obviously a problem here. For many book buyers the ability to get a book at a cheaper price is “a good thing” — but it’s surely not the only thing. Everyone (almost everyone who is in the book market) can go online and find any book at Amazon. That the book will be in stock and the price is liable to be lower than in the “real world” just makes the deal easier to accept. The positives there are obvious. Much more amorphous are the disadvantages. How much is it worth to provide employment for local bookstore workers; to support local business; to be able to browse and handle the books before plumping for a purchase; to benefit from the advice and curation of an experienced bookseller? I do suspect that many book buyers might opt for the second scenario, and be willing to give the go-by to the discounted price, but how would we know that? You can hardly run a survey of everyone who’s likely to buy a book in the next year or two, even if the results would be anything other than interesting, rather than a justification for some policy changes.

It is altogether possible that we are reaching the end of this particular road. If we want to allow people to do what the majority wants how can we justify preventing that? Buying books online is hardly equivalent to refusing to have your children vaccinated, or smoking in public. Maybe we’ll come to regret the loss of the independent stores (not just bookstores) after we have lost them, and ultimately demand that we get them back again. Just as in the early 20th century cities were engineered to accommodate the motor car, and in the early 21st century are beginning to be reengineered for pedestrians and bicyclists, so maybe we’ll get back the corner store after we notice its absence. But who wants to wait a hundred years?

I wonder what’s happening these days with Book Culture, a case in point. All the news seems to be old.

Also relevant in this context is the French experience.