Archives for category: Reading

Now this is important, and has obvious bearing on the world of literature. JSTOR Daily informs us that there’s a company in Britain, Carlings, which will sell you a dress for £30 which comes with the caveat “This is a digital product that will be applied to your photo, you will not receive a physical version of this item”. They also inform us, rather inspiringly if redundantly, that their digital collection has zero impact on the environment.

So you can now buy an item of clothing just so as to look good in your Instagram feed. Carlings will “tailor” your garment to fit your photo. It’s clearly a trend waiting to explode, and I’m mulling over whether to offer to sell readers of this blog analogous “books” . . . let’s say Nicholas Nickleby for starters. You’ll never have to go to the bother of reading it (it is quite long) because the text won’t be there — it’ll just be a photo of the book which you can upload to Instagram and thus gobsmack all your friends with your superior reading chops.

Oh, all right — I’ll do it. Here’s your book:

All you have to do is download the photo: just drag it to your desktop. The hand’s a nice touch don’t you think? Makes it look like you didn’t just download a cover pic from Amazon. Hey, for an additional 50¢ we can even offer you a feminine thumb.

This is a free introductory offer. The next book you want to “read” will cost you £5, not bad compared to the price of a dress, eh?

Oh, oh: just had a horrible thought: will I have to share the proceeds with the publisher? Perhaps I’ll just call the whole thing off.

Five Books provides a valuable service bringing weekly recommendations by a different experts to books on a variety of subjects. A new subject every week — if there’s a topic you know nothing about, Five Books is there to suggest the best way to approach it.

They now tell us here that they’ve been at it for ten years, so there’s quite an archive which you can visit via the link in the first line.

The dark blue words in the picture are rather hard to see. Click on the image to enlarge it. They don’t of course work as links though.

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

Books of poetry have power. Ezra Pound asserts in the opening stanza of “Envoi” from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley that his poetry transcends the eroded traditions of English poetry (the “her” of line two is Britain; and the “Lawes” is Henry Lawes 17th century court composer). Henceforth poetry will be serious — and new. Books of poetry will change the world.

Interesting Literature brings us 10 of the best poems about books and reading. (Only someone who’d been to school in Britain half a century ago would instantly think of “six of the best” on reading this title.*) Seems Interesting Literature aren’t the first to bring us a group of booky poems, but that’s fairly unsurprising isn’t it? Interest in poetry and interest in books tend to ride together.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul —


Emily Dickinson may perhaps be overlooking the fact that prancing poetry (or any kind of book for that matter) often asks a fairly oppressive toll. Books have never been cheaper than in our lifetimes, but many still moan about how expensive they are. Maybe she has library borrowing in mind, otherwise it’s not such a frugal chariot. But she’s spot on on the frigate image. I was recently complaining about how films short-circuit our imagination by forcing our imagined worlds into one specific cast. Text in a book leaves us free to see the world we are reading about just as we want it to be.

26 inspiring poems about joys and importance of books and reading from bookkidsblog also include Ms Dickinson, but sacrilegiously not her em-dashes.


*The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “a beating, usually of six hits with a stick”.

For a British schoolboy back then this was an almost weekly hazard. I was not a particularly well-behaved boy, and have over my schooldays been beaten with a hand, a book, a rolled-up newspaper, a wooden-backed blackboard duster, the back of a hairbrush, a ruler (the edge applied sharply to the knuckles), a stick, a cane, and a leather strap, both plain, and with the end cut into a nice fringe (what sailors would call the cat-o-nine-tails). Oh the glory! Oddly perhaps it was at the earliest age, five or six, that the strap, applied to the palm of your hand, was the instrument of choice for disciplining pupils. None of this seemed especially awful to me at the time: it was just what happened.

I know that 21st century Americans regard the whole idea of corporal punishment for children with horror, but I have to say I never felt particularly violated by this ritual. Sure it was painful, but only for a few minutes. The sensation of having been a hard case (blubbing was of course not an option) and of having as it were “stuck it to the man” was positive rather than hurtful. Schoolboys who were unhappy were I think unhappy because they were being bullied, not because they were given six of the best by a figure of authority. (Fascinatingly The Economist of November 9th tells me that a child’s likelihood of being bullied at school is, according to recent research, 70% genetic. Really, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.) Just to get an American audience really going, I might point out that “figures of authority” included not just teachers, but senior schoolboys too. Yes, dear reader, I have administered condign punishment myself. I never heard (or thought) those clichéd words “This is going to hurt me more than you” and I believe I survived these rituals relatively healthy (so I claim at any rate).

And I’ve never forgotten that seven eights are fifty-six, and the inspiring rallying cry “of nemo let me never see neminis or nemine” — though it is true that most of the times I had to bend over were for disciplinary infractions rather than failure to remember.

The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation has an interesting account by Kathryn Vomero Santos of her detective work on an annotated copy of John Minsheu: A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, A Spanish Grammar, and Pleasant and Delightfvll Dialogues in Spanish and English (London, 1599).

In 2010/11 Professor Santos was examining all nine of the Folger Library’s copies of this work when she found copious annotations in one of them. She observed that “something fascinating happened: the Spanish-to-English dictionary section was removed from its original binding, interleaved with new sheets of paper, trimmed, and rebound. These new sheets of paper were ruled to mirror the three columns of the dictionary entries now on the opposite page. In various places throughout these ruled columns, a reader then inscribed a series of two or three numbers that correspond to words in the dictionary. Where the dictionary lacks a particular word, this user has added entries and numbers on the opposite page.”

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Professor Santos’ solution to the mystery of why anyone would have gone to the trouble of interleaving the book and adding apparently cryptic numbers turns out to be that the reader in question was creating a dictionary or a concordance of Don Quixote. The numbers correspond to Part number and page number in some edition of Don Quixote of the word thus indicated on the facing page. Who exactly it was who was doing this work is uncertain. The book was part of the library of John Hunter (1728-93), Scottish surgeon. His older brother William it is for whom The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow is named. John however is commemorated in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and is also name checked in The Hunterian Society in London.

The handwriting of the annotations doesn’t however match that of John Hunter or his wife Anne. One might speculate that the book was marked up by someone who was planning to publish a concordance to Don Quixote, or a dictionary containing all the words used in that book, and that the Hunters acquired it when the job was done. Was there such a concordance or dictionary published?

My 1959 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, still to my mind the best one-volume dictionary because of its policy of nesting*, charmingly tells us that it aims to include “all words used in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, in the poems (and many those in the prose writings) of Spencer and Milton, and in the novels of Walter Scott.” I choose to think that these handwritten annotations in the Minsheu volume were done for an eighteenth-century Chambers’s Spanish Dictionary with analogous aims.


* Nesting refers to the arrangement of entries all together under a single root heading. It can be thought of as a typographical matryoshka doll set. Saves space, but also occasionally provides quaint and interesting juxtapositions. They don’t do it any more I regret.


Lots of academic books (and others) are divided into Parts.* An author can subdivide their magnum opus however they feel inclined. Logic is always a desirable organizing principle however, and the hand of an editor may often come into play here. A book can consist of Volumes, Books, Parts, Chapters, Sections. Chapters and sections thereof can be subdivided into multiple subheading levels. The more levels of subheading you use, the more your book begins to look like a textbook. If it is one, it’s often useful to number the subheads so the reader can recognize what level they are at: e.g. 2. 4a. 5. But in the end all this subdividing is all done just to assist readers.

For my own assistance I recently subdivided Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad into its three constituent Parts. This was because the damn thing is just too heavy to lug around, clocking in at 2½ lbs. Grossman has kindly divided his story into three parts, and as I happened to have a galley proof, useless now that the final book has come out, I chopped it into three “volumes” rather than chuck it out. In this it now matches my favorite edition of War and Peace which I like to read in the three-volume Everyman edition. Apt, in that people keep on referring to Grossman’s two-volume saga of the Battle of Stalingrad as the twentieth century War and Peace. No doubt flattering to Grossman, but who knows if he were around today he might not prefer the comparison to go the other way round — War and Peace as the nineteenth-century Stalingrad/Life and Fate.

We were recently talking to a Russian doctor who writes short stories. To his wry amusement he occasionally finds himself referred to as the modern-day Chekhov. Still flattery is flattering, and I’m sure he’d rather people were aware enough of his books to be comparing his writing with anyone’s. Such a prestigious predecessor is an extra bonus.


* At the other end of the telescope, a book itself can be published in parts.


When people read obscure novels, when they listen to over-complex music or look at a frighteningly unintelligible painting, they feel anxious and unhappy. The thoughts and feelings of the novel’s characters, the sounds of the symphony, the colours of the painting—everything seems peculiar and difficult, as if from some other world. Almost ashamed of being natural and straightforward, people read, look and listen without joy, without any real emotion. Contrived art is a barrier placed between man and the world—impenetrable and oppressive, like a cast-iron grille.

But there are also books that make the reader exclaim joyfully, ‘Yes, that’s just what I feel. I’ve gone through that too and that’s what I thought myself.’

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see to the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labour and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.

And the strategy of a people’s war, a war for life and freedom, is no different.

This is the entire text of Chapter 2 of Part Two of Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books, 2019. ISBN 9781681373270, 1088 pages, $27.95

grossman.1_1024x1024Just like War and Peace, with which Grossman’s two-part account of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 is constantly compared, the author takes time every now and then to step back and in asides addressed directly at the reader, reflect on life, history and politics.

That reference to politics in the second last line of the chapter may strike us as odd given today’s disenchantment with politics and politicians. But bear in mind Grossman was writing at a time when it was still possible to feel idealistic, and on the other hand at a time when criticizing the regime was a maladaptive strategy. However, compare and contrast this passage from a little later in the book (Chapter 30): “The twentieth century is a critical and dangerous time for humanity. It is time for intelligent people to renounce, once and for all, the thoughtless and sentimental habit of admiring a criminal if the scope of his criminality is vast enough, of admiring an arsonist if he sets fire not to a village hut but to capital cities, of tolerating a demagogue if he deceives not just an uneducated lad from a village but entire nations, of pardoning a murderer because he has killed not one individual but millions.”

As I wrote in my recent post, Gormenghast, “Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate. Unlike that second installment, it was in fact published in Russia in Grossman’s lifetime, in 1952, though it was heavily censored and appeared under a different title (For a Just Cause). The wonderfully readable translation of this volume is also by Robert Chandler, joined on this occasion by his wife, Elizabeth Chandler. He can be heard discussing Life and Fate and other parts of Grossman’s work at my earlier post on Grossman.”

This new publication, the first translation into English, restores parts of Grossman’s manuscript which were censored or omitted from previous editions.

A year ago New York Public Library launched its Insta novels series. Sounds like it’s been a success. Fast Company has a report (linked to by BookRiot) telling us about it all. The NYPL video below says that 300,000 readings have taken place. Insta Novels has 140,000 followers on Instagram.

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

To access a book go to NYPL’s Instagram account, @nypl, and tap the title in the highlights section under the intro text. Once it opens keep your thumb on lower right part of the screen to hold the page. When you’re ready to turn the page, take your thumb off the marker.

Gwyneth Paltrow has hired a personal book curator to set up a home library for her. All she needs now is someone to read the volumes for her, or maybe, more charitably, to her. Celebrity bibliophile Thatcher Wine (who knew there was such a job title) sort of covers the event in an interview at Town & Country. The photos make you shudder: you’d never dare take a book off some of these shelves! (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers of 27 August.) Mr Wine with Elizabeth Lane has written a book about designing and creating a home library; and we always thought you just had to go to a bookshop and buy some books you might like to read. Both authors work at Juniper Books, which appears to be — well — a personal book curation service.

Here’s their picture of the Paltrow library. The adjective which insinuates itself into my mind is almost contained in the actress’ surname.

This urge to get your books in order puts me in mind of Abdul Kassem Ismael (938-995). His personal library, allegedly 117,000 books, was said to have been carried around with him on 400 camels, making up a caravan a mile long. For ease of reference the camels carried the volumes in alphabetical sequence, thus comprising a living index. Not sure if my stash of the readies will stretch to hiring 26 likely lads to carry my library about for me. Just have to stay at home I guess. The story was recently sent to me in a link from LightSource, a Christian ministry site. (How does Jeremy find this sort of thing?) The tale was retailed by Alberto Manguel in his (to me anyway, rather disappointing) A History of Reading. (I’m amazed to discover from my BoB that it was exactly twenty years ago that I read it.) Somewhat surprisingly it is The National Security Agency which provides a reality check on this legend. According to them, and who’d dare doubt them, “However charming this tale may be, the actual event upon which it is based is subtly different. According to the original manuscript, now in the British Museum, the great scholar and literary patron Sahib Isma’il b. ‘Abbad [which apparently is another fancier way of saying Abdul Kassem Ismael] so loved his books that he excused himself from an invitation by King Nuh II to become his prime minister at least in part on the grounds that four hundred camels would be required for the transport of his library alone.” The piece may be found at Wikisource.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how it is that perfectly unassuming facts can take on a vivid fantasy life of their own. Is this natural selection at work? “Striking” dominant; “boring” recessive? The Selfish Meme?

Juniper Books is the brain-child of Mr Wine. As their website tells us “Juniper books was founded in 2001 by Thatcher Wine. Thatcher had always loved reading and collecting books, he began his journey sourcing one-of-a-kind and rare book collections for clients around the world. A few years later, Thatcher invented custom book jackets and Juniper Books’ customers fully embraced this new concept. The creativity and our line of “Off-The-Shelf” book sets have proliferated since then. Today we work with thousands of customers in 50+ countries, helping them rediscover the power of print.” So there you go. Sign up for the Books Everyone Should Own (BESO) subscription, at $550 p.a., and you’ll get a pretty novel each month to keep you in touch with the power of print. Those who want to sound like the head of Amazon could sign up for two subscriptions.

A few years ago I did a piece on curation. But this was about content curation. Juniper Books’ service might be said to be trying to duplicate the experience of going to a good independent bookstore, which could itself be described as a sort of diffuse curated collection of books. If you don’t have access to a good bookshop, maybe this service is enough to be going on with? Of course it’s true that many bookshops willl accommodate you with various subscription services. Heywood Hill in Mayfair have particularly elegant offerings. I wrote previously about the subscription model for books.

The antidote for the Juniper service might be Marie Kondo. It’s almost perfect: pay Mr Wine to put in your library: pay Ms Kondo to weed it out: pay Mr Wine to build you another library: call Kondo: Wine: Kondo and so on ad infinitum. For people with too much money (a group whose problems continue to be shamefully under-appreciated by the rest of us) this represents a small step on the way to alleviating the worry of what to do with all that cash flowing in the front door.


Too much hilarity can easily become too much, though there are said to be big medical benefits in a good laugh. So if you need a pick-me-up here from NPR is Petra Mayer’s list of 100 rib-tickler books, based on votes from the public and a panel of experts one has to imagine sitting around giggling. I’m feeling exhausted already.

For determined participators their story carries links to a couple of other past polls.

Via LitHub comes a meditation by Alexander Stern at Aeon on the meaning of words qua words. To my mind he’s treading soggy ground: figuring that the sound of words reflects their meaning seems a dicey proposition. One can perhaps imagine that words were first born in some sort of auditory relationship to the essence of the object or action described, but that’s surely all submerged in the mists of prehistory. Trying to mine this bit of the linguistic world sounds like a project along the lines of The Key to All Mythologies by Rev. Edward Casaubon. Maybe we can accept that words beginning in gl- — glisten, glint, glimmer, glow — sound like they might have something to do with light, but we are writing and thinking in English. What about, say, the Tagalog speaker?

Mr Stern claims “‘livre’ might mean book but it doesn’t mean it the way ‘book’ does.” He quotes Plato’s Cratylus as saying “Anyone who knows a thing’s name also knows the thing.” But Plato’s excuse would be that he was fixated on forms — would he have had one form for French book and another for English book? Naturally “the thing” as book inevitably carries a different load of meaning to an English speaker than it does to a French speaker. The resonance is probably even narrower: Scottish vs. English; or even a Scot who learned to read in Gullane vs. an otherwise located Scottish learner. As I wrote at Reading is good for you, to me the word “book” never fails to conjure up the image of David Livingstone, autodidacting away by candle light, accompanied by a special smell (no doubt the smell of the classroom in Gullane) dusty and comforting. When I think of livre, or even just “French book”, I tend to see the yellow jacketed Editions Garnier paperback of Madame Bovary which I bought in 1961 as a student in Grenoble. It came wrapped in an elegant if cheap second jacket advertising the bookstore. This has subsequently fragmented into acid-rich flakes annoyingly dusting my bookshelf — just this year actually. Of course I’d had French books before, but those I had at school were more English books in French than they were French books. No smell accompanies my Bovary memory. Maybe I should claim a madeleine/tisane combo. If I was a German would the word take me out into the beech woods?

It’s almost too obvious to mention that onomatopoeic words sound like their meaning; “Pop” = pop etc. They are after all meant to. But Mr Stern wants to go further: he wants to show us that meaning is prefigured in sound. Yet for all his Wittgensteinian quotation he doesn’t seem able to get this theory off the ground. Probably because there’s no real there there. When Adam named the horse, did he call it horse, cheval, Pferd, equus, άλογο, סוּס, or even 马? They can’t all be essentially redolent of horsiness, can they? Does the fact that the animal was no doubt named before it evolved into what we’d recognise as a horse nowadays, suggest a surfeit here of sound and fury? The smell of the stable or more narrowly of a horse’s mane, will flood the mind of a German at the mention of Pferd, while the self-same effect will be generated across the border by the sound cheval. The association is learned, not inherent in the word.