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Via Tom Gauld’s tweet:

© The Guardian/Tom Gauld

In 2015 I speculated on the origin of the phrase “over the transom” used in the business to refer to the arrival of those unsolicited manuscripts which form the slush pile.

Here is a transom in a carefully preserved 19th century hotel: Mohonk Mountain House.

The transom, as well as the fireplace with basket of logs, is really incompatible with an air-conditioned room, but there you are. You open the transom by an elegantly simple mechanism — push up on that metal rod at the left and it opens; pull down to close. We didn’t have it open for long — so no envelopes-full of money (nor any hopeful manuscripts) were tossed over.

Printing Impressions brings us a story about Southampton Football Club, an English Premier League football team’s new shirt for next season.

Fans will be able to scan a player’s shirt using their smart phones and check out specialized content. “In the future, Southampton could update the AR technology to show things like match day calendars, goal replays, or even sneak previews of future shirt designs. It could also integrate some content from sponsors, which is a mainstay of European soccer. They could co-brand any of the exclusive content put out by the club, or even integrate their logo onto the AR platform.”

Tech Digest tells a little more about the project and includes a link to a rather heavy-handed “mockumentary” about the project.

Disappointingly you appear to need to have the shirt in your hands to do this — i.e. to have plonked down your £55 to buy the thing. Still eluding us is the ideal of being able to pick up this information during the game by pointing your phone at the player. Maybe actually that’s not really the ideal — after all, you pay to get into the stadium to watch the game not your phone. (In the recent Scotland vs. England game in a warm Wembley the television coverage kept returning to a small section of the crowd containing only young ladies: on every occasion one of them was fixated on her phone.) But the ability to access information while watching on television would surely be a desirable feature.

In an overtly more commercial mode comes this story from SoccerBible about Juventus’ development of AR Instagram filter which enables you to see yourself wearing a Juventus shirt while you make up your mind about buying it. The California-based designer Clay Weishaar speculates about other potential AR developments in the world of sports.

See also Augmented reality.

On June 7, 1899 Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire in 1874, wrote to American novelist Winston Churchill (born three years earlier in St Louis, MO, in 1871) as follows:

Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Wiston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.

Winston Churchill’s reply may be seen at Kottke.org. The proposed note doesn’t seem ever to have been included in books by either author.

The novel Winston S. Churchill references — Richard Carvel (1899) — was a phenomenal success, selling about two million copies. This made the author rich. The novels of Winston Churchill have all but vanished (as indeed have those of Winston Spencer Churchill). Poor Winston, he’s now almost impossible to find — every search turns up Winston S. the war-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, but In the 1890s when Churchill’s writings first came to be confused with those of the British writer of the same name, the American was the much better known of the two. Novels he wrote figured in the lists of the top-ten bestsellers for the years 1899, 1900, 1901, 1904, 1906, 1908, 1910, 1913, 1914, and 1915, and for most of these years he was author of the #1 bestseller. In 1919 he decided to stop writing and withdrew from public life. This seems to have helped him into literary obscurity, and today he is hard to find. Even in Project Gutenberg the two Churchill’s works are hopelessly entangled together with some by the son of Sir W. S. — but as an unbeatable offer you can get The Complete Novels of (the American) Winston Churchill for nothing. I’m not sure that even any predatory publishers have bothered to make any of his books available in physical form.

Winston Spencer Churchill is of course now known to all as the man who won the war, as well as a prolific historical narrativist, for which activity he won the Nobel Prize in 1953. He did also write some fiction: Man Overboard (1898), Savrola (1900), If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg (1931), and The Dream (1947). These works are not on everyone’s reading list. I was vaguely aware of Savrola, so vaguely that I was surprised to find that it wasn’t entitled Savonarola.

The New Publishing Standard suggests that the link in publishers’ minds between huge displays in bookstores and the success of new publications is maladaptive; that online marketing would work just as well.

It all starts with the issue of that increase in backlist sales during the pandemic which seems to have energized the commentariat to wonder why publishers had never thought about backlist before! This indisputable phenomenon may be explained by four lines of argument:

  • old books are relatively easier to find online than they are in a bookshop,
  • technological developments mean that there just are more old books available now than ever before,
  • many new books were delayed during the pandemic, so naturally front list sales would be depressed as there were fewer front list titles,
  • maybe books published in the period being examined were just not that good.

That people in times of uncertainty crave the familiar rather than the new might also be a factor. Comfort reading — a sort of literary mac and cheese?

TNPS insists “But let’s stick with the issue of backlist, by which we mean books first published at least a year previously. Books that therefore no longer receive any publisher love and promo-cash and are left to wither on the vine.” This is ludicrously contentious — backlist is not ever left “to wither on the vine” — some books sell and some books don’t. The reason a book doesn’t sell is because nobody wants to buy it — not because the publisher decides to hide it under a bushel of new pubs, or even less contentiously stops advertising it. Books that don’t sell used to go out of print fairly promptly. They can now be kept going despite minimal demand. People who call for trade publishers to put money and effort into promoting backlist are barking up the wrong tree. Unless you double, triple or more your staff numbers, a publisher just has no time to spend promoting backlist — all their efforts are directed at this season’s front list, and in a few months it’ll be the turn of next season’s new titles, and so on and on. Review media aim to review current titles.

The platonic ideal in publishers’ minds is

  • the book comes out on its eagerly anticipated publication date;
  • newspapers and magazines greet it with rave reviews;
  • long lines of people form at bookstores in the hope of buying a copy;
  • in order to facilitate this huge stocks need to be on hand in the shops.

There was a time aeons ago when this picture was not as cloud cuckoo land as it is today. Bookshops used to receive cartons of books which they wouldn’t open till publication date. Newspapers used to have more review space, and did at least try to make their reviews correspond with publication date. There were of course fewer books, and while this system probably never worked perfectly there was at least a possibility that it might. Publishers are not totally insane: first year sales of a book aimed at the general reading public will be by far and away largest in the year of publication. Thereafter sales taper off relatively rapidly. Trade back list sinks or swims by its own merits: and desperately trying to promote it after it has passed its sell-by-date just muddies the water and takes attention away from the new books coming along in a constant tsunami. How much promotion do these guys think Doubleday would need to throw at Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual, which appeared on the 1967 bestseller list, in order to gin up any kind of demand? OK, maybe a tough example, but even that year’s number one fiction bestseller, Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement would be pretty promotion-resistant.

In academic publishing things are different. Front list does get attention, but so does backlist, and academic reviews tend to come long after publication date. So you published the the best-ever round-up of Etruscan funeral practices last year? You’ll certainly be promoting it at the archeology and classics meetings you attend over the next several years, and you’ll probably take it to history meetings too. It’ll be featured in all the relevant subject-based mailings you send out to academics for ever. Even some bookstores with a strong archaeology section will want to keep it in stock. Sales of the best-ever book on Etruscan cemeteries aren’t affected at all by the publication of that important study of Beaker burials in Britain and Ireland, or the one about Scythian burial mounds — while obviously an appetite for current fiction will glom onto the latest offering and tend to regard a book published even a couple of years ago as irrelevantly non-current.

I wrote about front list and backlist recently.

Via Scottish Book Trust’s tweet, we receive this picture by Aleen Shinnie of her son and his pal deep in a book.

Brings to mind Marx’s bon mot, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (See Our best friend for doubts about the attribution.)

Reading this heading at Atlas Obscura I at first assumed this had something to do with the New York Yankees. Michael Kay starts his broadcast of every game by describing the Yankees uniform, specifically the interlocking NY on their chest and cap. For New Yorkers (well maybe I should say many New Yorkers) the Yankees are the archetypical team — which of course they are. The Yankees haven’t been as dominant over the past few years as they are used to — but they remain as arrogant as ever. They are the only team which never prints the names of their players on the back of their shirts — we assume that everyone, everywhere will recognize all our players.

But no, letterlocking refers to folded communications. Mass produced envelopes weren’t manufactured till the 1830s, and before that each correspondent would need to devise their own method of folding a letter so that it would arrive safely, without having been read, into the hands of the addressee. Atlas Obscura provides an account of letterlocking, as it appears to be being called.

It’s hard to research this subject, as letters, if they even survive, are generally opened, read and stored flat, so that over time any evidence of cunning folds is lost over the years. However the Dutch postal museum in The Hague has a correspondence goldmine in the shape of a 17th century trunk containing 2,600 folded letters which couldn’t be delivered, and were held by the dead letter office in the hope of eventually achieving delivery.

A 17th-century trunk of letters bequeathed to the Dutch postal museum in The Hague contains an extraordinary archive of 2,600 “locked” letters sent from all over Europe. COURTESY BRIENNE COLLECTION, SOUND AND VISION, THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS

Back in those days postage was paid by the recipient, so hanging onto undelivered mail in the hope of getting paid is easily understandable. They now are worth so much more as a research project — and they are being read without being opened by use of “an X-ray machine located in Queen Mary University of London’s dental school. Built by researchers David Mills and Graham Davis, it’s an extremely powerful imaging machine that can detect minute changes in the composition of a tooth or bone.” The machine can also pick up the metal in the inks used in those days. “Most ink from the early modern period contained metal, particularly iron, which shows up as bright patches on the scan. With careful scanning, it can be used to recreate the text of the letter. The scans have also revealed watermarks, wormholes, and even bits of crushed eggshells or sand, which were often sprinkled on a freshly-written page to dry the ink.”

Using the information thus gained researchers have been able to reconstruct letters without ever opening them.

The letter designated DB-1627 is still sealed and unopened, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from reading it. COURTESY BRIENNE COLLECTION, SOUND AND VISION, THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS

LATER: Atlas Obscura has done a piece on letterlocking which provides detailed instructions on how to lock your letters in three different ways. They have videos to show you it’s possible.

On 1 April 1977 The Guardian published a 7-page travel supplement on the Islands of San Seriffe which I am only finding out about now, because Alan Harvey tweeted a link. The entire supplement may be viewed here.

The islands, ruled over by General M. J. Pica, and whose shape is hauntingly reminiscent of the semicolon had by then been independent for ten years. Development had been rapid, and the island nation was alleged to be on the move, and scheduled to collide with Sri Lanka “at a velocity of 940 km an hour on January 3, 2011”. Luckily we must have been looking away on that particular day.

Regular readers doubtless require no elucidation, but a gloss of the offshore island of Ova Mata, intriguingly belonging still to Spain, as “over matter” (excess copy you can’t fit in) and the town of Nomp, presumably short for Nonpareil, 6 point type, might help. A few of the allusions I don’t get: e.g. Adze. We are told “English is the working language. Caslon is used on ceremonial occasions, and there is a language (Ki-flong) indigenous to the Flongs”. Appropriately the capital, Bodoni, is located in the Upper Caisse.

But ik am oold, me list not pley for age,
Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers 
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers, 
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree. 
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten kan we nat be rype;
We hoppen alwey whil the world wol pype.

Here, in the Prologue to The Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer rhymes open-ers (the medlar) with worse, Think of that name for the Irish or Scottish Gaelic language, Erse. Well, maybe you need to be from Scotland to get the full flavor of this fruit’s name, since that is indeed how we pronounce “ass”, anglice “arse”.

BBC Future has an extensive story about the medlar, formerly given that purgative moniker.

As Will Bonsall tells us at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, the medlar “is a typical pome, with an apple-like core containing five or more hard seeds, each about the size of a large corn kernel. With large and persistent sepals, it reminds me of a rosehip crossed with a crab apple.”

The fruit, which needs to rot before it can be enjoyed, has fallen out of favor: it’s a tough sell for a supermarket or a fruiterer to say “Don’t eat these till they are rotten”. The word used for this rotting process, to blet was imported in 1835 from the French where blet, slightly disappointingly, means simply over-ripe. General opinion, including the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to be that the name originates in the physical shape of the fruit. This looks rather unlikely to my common-sensical eye. I’d bet the fruit’s naming relates to the fact that if you eat it before it is properly rotted you’ll get violent diarrhoea. On the other hand, the OED does give as one seventeenth-century slang meaning for the medlar “The female genitals. Also: a prostitute; a disreputable woman.” Shakespeare is quoted twice. So there’s one in the common-sensical eye for me. I guess demand for euphemisms is well established.

The medlar has been used as a metaphor for the transience of beauty, in a sort of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” sort of way: Women are like medlars, no sooner ripe but rotten”, writes Thomas Dekker in The Honest Whore. Chaucer’s reeve has it the other way — old men are no use until they are rotten, by which time it’s no doubt too late.

I can’t think why medlar is a word I know. Maybe it’s because the Government encouraged us during World War II to go out and forage for medlars. The tree is grown in English gardens for its seasonally changing colors. I would like to try a medlar, despite the alleged opinion of some medieval writer that “the medlar is not . . . worth a turd until it’s ripe, and then it tastes like shit”.

Jennifer WIlliams aims to give away 1 million books to people in Danville, Virginia. Since she started in 2017 she’s managed to give away more than 63,000 books already. It’s not altogether clear how this initiative is funded, though Ms Williams does receive occasional book donations from neighbors. (What about a generous publisher with a hurts problem?) CNN‘s story comes via BookRiot.

Apparently this sort of philanthropy is catching. CNN links to another story this one about an 8-year-old in Atlanta who’s targeting 2 million book give-aways.