Archives for the month of: November, 2020

St John of God is patron saint of booksellers and indeed of the entire book trade; also of hospitals and the sick.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82): St John of God. From Hospital de la Caridad, Seville.

João Duarte Cidade was born in Montemor-o-Novo, in southern Portugal in 1495, but was abducted or lost at the age of eight. He was taken in as an apparent orphan and put to shepherding. When he was about 22, seemingly to escape the attempts of his boss to make him marry his daughter, he ran away and became a military man, fighting as a mercenary for Spain against the French and Turks in Hungary. He spent the next 18 years as a mercenary, and when his troop was disbanded went to Andalusia and became a shepherd once more. When he was about forty he was converted by hearing a sermon preached by St John of Avila, and aimed at a martyrdom in North Africa helping Christian slaves. He was talked out of this plan and became a book pedlar in Gibraltar, with such success that he opened a bookstore in Granada in 1538. He soon appears to have suffered a breakdown, running through the streets rending his hair and giving away his book inventory. He got out of hospital in 1539 and filled his house with poor sick people. His final illness was incurred while rescuing a drowning man from a flood, and he died in 1550 at the age of fifty-five before the altar of his hospital’s chapel. His followers formed the Brothers Hospitallers, naming him as their founder.

I guess it’s obvious why he became the Parton saint of the bookselling. But who gets to appoint patron saints? One can see how in medieval guilds a patron saint might be adopted. It happens that Saint John the Evangelist is apparently patron saint of editors and authors. Saint Augustine of Hippo is patron saint of printers. Saints Genesius and John of God get a look in in the printing industry too, while St Brigid of Ireland is patron saint of printing presses. Pope Celestine V is patron saint of bookbinders. He’s referred to as Pope not Saint Celestine although he was pope for five months only (he resigned), and has been a saint for over 700 years. The ways of the lord are indeed mysterious. John of God gets the clean-up status, looking out for the book trade in general.

Apparently the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, is always printed as 1430 pages. This is very unusual for a book: if you typeset a text twice you are quite likely to come up with a different page count: maybe one or two pages different if you are using the same design specs, but if you change the type size and page format obviously potentially vast — just look at those Bibles lying around the house. The pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, called angs, include 5894 shabads, hymns and prayers, and can be divided into 60 rāgas. The book is the focal point in any gurdwara. The reader/chanter performs from a raised platform known as a Takht (throne).

Clearly having the book make fewer pages would make handling it a bit easier.

Official versions of the Guru Granth Sahib are only allowed be printed in the basement the Gurudwara Ramsar in Amritsar by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Obviously this makes it simpler to control the 1430pp page count. As the book is composed in verse lines, keeping the same number of lines per page might have been a fairly obvious idea to come up with back in 1704 when the text was finalized. That page count has nothing to do with even working — why would any religious directive be divisible by 16 any way? Actually 1430 isn’t even divisible by 4, but of course maybe there’s also some front matter to help the mathematics a bit more.

Early 19th-century manuscript ang (Schoyen Collection Norway)

The Guru Granth Sahib was largely composed by six Sikh gurus: Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan, Guru Teg Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh Ji. It also contains the poetic teachings of thirteen Hindu Bhakti sant poets and two Sufi Muslim poets. The script used for the text is Gurmukhi, an abugida developed from the Laṇḍā scripts, and is available in several languages including Lahnda, Braj Bhasha, Kauravi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, and Persian.

Dr Alex Bubb, who noted at the SHARP listserv the unusual fact that Guru Granth Sahib has a constant page layout and length, asked if there might be any example of such a phenomenon. Dr Paul Tankard has replied noting one — “G. B. Hill’s Clarendon edition (1887) of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, in six volumes, quickly became regarded as ‘standard’. When in 1923 L. F. Powell was invited to revise the edition, it was stipulated that (with regard to Boswell’s text) Hill’s pagination was to be preserved. This necessitated the creation of an extra level of annotation, and the addition of various appendices to each volume. So, 133 years later, Hill’s pagination is still being used for a text that remains in print.” But of course you can get editions of Boswell with different pagination.

Publishers Weekly has been compiling bestseller lists for over a century: they began in 1912. By then The Bookman had been at it for a few years already: they started in 1895.

Daniel Immerwahr has created a website showing the bestsellers, year by year for the entire 20th century. (Link via Book Riot.) For years I’ve had a book entitled 80 Years of Best Sellers: 1895-1975, published in 1977 by R. R. Bowker Company which does as its title suggests, providing many lists and adding a bit of commentary including often some information on sales numbers. They also have lists up front of books ranked by sales numbers. President Obama’s latest A Promised Land is reported by The Guardian to have sold almost 890,000 copies (in all formats) on its first day out last week — this would place it ahead of Better Homes and Gardens Cooking with Cheese and Zane Grey’s The Mysterious Rider on their all-time list of hardback bestsellers (though we might have to allow for the possibility that a couple of copies of those two might have sold since 1977: probably unlikely as the books were published in 1966 and 1921 respectively, and so were probably OP in 1977.) President Obama’s isn’t the top one-day seller though. That honor goes to Mary Trump’s book about her famous uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, which sold 950,000 on day one. Now publishers are agonizing over what they’ll do if/when Uncle Don writes his own book. Who can be in any doubt? Of course they’ll fight to pay millions for it.

But of course the really important question about bestsellers is whether we should write “best seller” or “bestseller” or even “best-seller”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first quotation an 1864 piece in The Manchester Guardian, as it then was, where it appears as two words. It’s not till 1903 that the term grows a hyphen, and then it takes another century for it to fuse into a single word, with Private Eye being credited as the innovator just in 2011. The OED itself confidently treats it as one word. They do however have an earlier reference to “bestselling” as one word, dating from 1945.

See also 100 years of bestsellers.

Lost in the lumber room of the past is the shooting stick someone gave me for my twenty-first birthday. (Why on earth?) I was never much of a hunting and shooting chap — the target tended to be long gone before I’d got the safety catch off, plus if you were successful you had a poor little dead or, worse, dying animal to deal with. As a schoolboy however I was something of a ·303 rifle marksman: not brilliant but steady and reliable. A shooting team has eight members and I would usually go last (as below) because I didn’t care about the pressure of knowing what score we needed to get to win.

Ashburton Shield team 1958 or 1959. Click on the photo and you can actually read the scores.

The worst thing about it all was that you needed to dress up in military garb: never my favorite look. But as it all took place in summer, it was a better option that playing cricket: and you got to go in a bus down to Bisley, south of London once a year for the Ashburton competition between all public (private boys’) schools.

I doubt if I ever used that shooting stick, though now that I’m a bit older I recognize it as a pretty good invention.

A shooting stick is a sort of cumbersome walking stick which when you get tired you can unfold to create a little seat so you can take a breather. It seems however that in today’s America the term refers principally to a sort of portable tripod or bipod on which you can rest your gun while drawing your bead. The shooting stick I’m referring to would not be any help in aiming your gun: unless getting your breath back while taking a rest qualifies. You’ve got to really want that rest though because carrying a shooting stick tends to be less than convenient. Unsurprisingly it’s heavier than an ordinary walking stick, as well as a bit hard to grip and swing back and forth. At the bottom there’s a little flip-up metal shield which is designed to prevent your burying yourself further and further into the mud when you relax your backside onto the sling seat. I bet they were first designed with the idea that your manservant would lug your shooting stick across the hills for you.

A printer’s shooting stick is however a horse of a different color.

These shooting sticks “were originally a piece of hardwood, such as hickory, with a notch at one end. This notch was engaged against the end of a quoin or sidestick, and the shooting stick was tapped with the hammer or mallet. This forced one wedge tighter against another to lock up type inside the chase. In later years shooting sticks were made of iron or steel, and remained in use until the development of mechanical, or screw-tightening quoins in the late nineteenth century.” This is from Letterpress commons.

Patent model. Shooting sticks, Blackwell, patent no. 107154. 1996.0062.03.

Here is the Patent Office’s model of a metal printer’s shooting stick, dating from around 1870. It looks like it was provided with some armament: almost tomahawk-like. See Patent Models Graphic Arts for more.

A comment by Gibson Square, the author of Cabbie Blog, on my recent post on quoins reminds me of an important fact. He reports that at his first job the printer was using an 1820 Albion press, and that Gibson Square’s responsibilities as an apprentice included hammering wooden quoins into place with a mallet.  We all, myself included, often forget that just because there may be a better way of doing something doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be doing things in that new way. Using a mallet to hammer a wooden quoin into position, with or without the aid of a shooting stick, may be slightly less efficient that having metal quoins — but so what? If you can do the job without spending any time and money buying the “new” version, why should you? Good enough is, surprise, surprise, good enough.

I do think this needs to be said. Richard Charkin’s open letter of thanks to Jeff Bezos is fair and balanced. It appears at Publishing Perspectives.

Humankind is built to resent a winner. We are all (in the book business) very ready to criticize Amazon. Of course they make our lives difficult by seeking to redistribute the surplus available on any book sale; to redistribute it away from publishers and towards their own coffers. What a surprise! They negotiate hard: and while it’s obviously difficult to fight and win against them, they tend to win because they are actually vital to the publishing industry. If the boot were on the other foot, we publishers would never ever contemplate reducing discounts to booksellers, or tightening royalty terms, or upping prices and reducing production standards to make the public pay more for less, would we? In all businesses I expect people love to complain about their largest customers, especially if they are large enough to demand special treatment. We used to grumble about Barnes & Noble: now we go on about Amazon.

But however much publishers love to inveigh against them, we have to acknowledge that Amazon does also sell most of our books. Say that again: Amazon sells most of our books. And they are extraordinarily good at what they do. Almost everyone who has done any online buying has benefitted from the efficiency with which Amazon can get stuff to you, and I mean all sorts of stuff, not just books. They seem always to have everything, so you’re not subject to the vagaries of your local retailer’s inventory control. Be careful what you wish for. Sure you can say it and be pretty sure it’ll never happen: but what if Amazon went out of business? Without Amazon all publishers would be in big trouble now. Some may be in trouble in any case, but most are doing fine, and many are looking forward to record sales for the year despite pandemic shutdowns.

A little gratitude might be not inappropriate. (Not that they really need it!)

Here are photographs of the logo and imprint on the title page and the back flap of the jacket of Martin Amis’ Inside Story: How to Write.

Title page

Back flap of jacket

Let’s set aside the logo problem right away. Knopf’s logo has always been the borzoi, shown nicely on the jacket flap. It was Blanche Knopf’s idea right at the outset. Who on earth thought that that silly stick dog on the title page was a good idea? It looks modern only to those traditionalists who think “modern = lousy”. Personally  I have nothing against the modern, but I do think lousy is just lousy.*

People out in the real world probably don’t realize that the designers of the inside of a book are almost always different from the designers of the jacket or cover. Many text designs are nowadays dealt with by a standard template design, which is just pulled off the shelf as a layout which’ll look OK for this or that book.

That sans serif type (which may be Computer Modern) is used throughout the book for the running heads which are set in nicely letterspaced caps. It’s also used for chapter titles and first level subheadings. Partly because it’s not the world’s most handsome sans serif typeface, I’m not entirely in love with the internal design. Of course the interior may well have been set in Britain where the book is published by Jonathan Cape, a division (like Knopf in America) of Penguin Random House.

On the title page, the company name and addresses are nicely letterspaced caps. For my money the rather clunky bold type used for the company name might have had even more letterspacing: both lines may actually have the same amount, with the heaviness of the bold type making it look a little less spaced. Not sure. But if so, you’d really want to add a little bit more spacing to make the lines look similar in color.

While the interior of books often gets rather short shrift, real money is usually spent on the jacket. It looks like Knopf’s jacket department hasn’t bought into stick dog — thank goodness. On the jacket we are told about the illustrations in the book in a line of nicely letterspaced Cap and small caps along with the (appropriate) old style numerals. (They are there on the title page too.) However, no sooner has that line been satisfactorily set, but Chip Kidd, or whoever was executing his directives, forgets to turn off the letterspacing. This results in the dumbness that the remaining copy, all in upper and lower case, comes out stupidly letterspaced too, which makes it harder to read. Also, notice however — a flaw in the design of the typeface used — how horribly heavy that Cap W looks in the first line shown. You might say that’s the way the font is, so what can the designer do about it? Answer: use a different, a better, typeface!

OK, nobody’s really going to be reading this stuff, and harder isn’t really all that much harder. So who cares? Well Knopf cares, or should: and they used to like to avoid solecisms like this.


* In 2011 Knopf ran a contest for a new version of the borzoi — the one used in Amis’ book was already in their stable, or should I say kennel. Their site shows a few of the versions they’ve used over the years.

Quoin is the same word as we find in the Shakespearian “coign of vantage”, just not using that spelling variant. It’s pronounced the same too, just like those pennies. It basically means an external corner of a building, a cornerstone. According to the Oxford English Dictionary those pieces of change clinking in your pocket got their name because the dies used to stamp metal coins were wedge-shaped.

By extension, quoin also means the double wedge shaped device used to lock up a forme ready for letterpress printing. Quoins are first noted in 1570, and Letterpress Commons tells us “For over 400 years quoins were short wooden wedges, used in multiples, that were driven with a ‘shooting stick’ and mallet against long tapered sticks called side and foot sticks.” Maybe these wooded wedges looked more cornerstone-like than the modern version.

Photo: Kyle van Horn

Here, from Letterpress Commons is an example, including the key used to twist the two sides apart. After the compositor had made up the forme, using wooden and metal “furniture” to fill the chase, you’d see him twisting his wrist rapidly around the edges. By turning the key he forced one ratcheted side of the quoin along against the other making the combination wider. Turn them both, top and side, and the type was locked in and unless you dropped it on the floor you could move it over to the pressroom.

Here from St Brigid Press is a little video making it all clear.

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

You should all breeze through this. Merriam Webster offers us a Thanksgiving word quiz. (link via Shelf Awareness for Readers November 20, 2020.)

Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina is making a frank appeal. Every bookstore needs to sell a certain number of books every month just to pay rent, wages, insurance etc. in order to survive. Shelf Awareness of 13 November reports Foggy Pine Books as saying “we came in just under the that number last month at 1,008 books sold.” Buy some expensive books from them. Or at least from your local bookstore: they may not have the blackboard, but their needs are just the same.

I keep getting emails from Simon & Schuster which seem to promote their books as the most boring things out there: guaranteed to put you to sleep if all else fails.

I guess they must be getting a response from people who don’t read that message as I do.

Myself I have no difficulty falling asleep. And have way too many books piling up.