Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Odyssey in LEGO

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The LEGO construction geniuses of VirtuaLUG have outdone themselves this year, building a vast world that follows the journeys of Odysseus. The LEGO Odyssey was made for Brickworld Chicago 2014, a convention where LEGO artists come together to share knowledge and show their work. VirtuaLUG is known for its large, complex world-building, usually representations of famous literature like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

They outdid themselves this year with The Odyssey. It’s the largest model yet at nearly 300 square feet. The gorgeous Aegean ocean required 400,000-500,000 dots to make. There are just shy of a million in the entire piece. There are moving parts, flashing lights, even a fully functional water feature. The level of detail, the textures of ocean, island, animal and giant, the diverse color palettes and architecture all combine to lend each section its own distinct character. Then there are the whimsical touches, references to the LEGO movie, the inclusion of the VirtuaLUG builders as a ship’s crew and best of all, the trireme crewed entirely by Wookies.

The LEGO version of the Homeric saga starts with Troy and the devious horse that broke the decade-long siege. The sides of the horse are open so you can see the treacherous Greeks waiting within to deliver destruction unto Ilium. From there the model follows Odysseus’ ships as they travel to the Island of the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus’ Island where the sheep are large and adorable, Aeolus’ Island with the neatest mechanics, the Isle of the Laestrygonians, with amazingly dynamic articulated giant cannibals and Odysseus’ destroyed ships in the harbour, Circe’s Island complete with a finely laid out table and formerly human swine, the strikingly black, red and white Hades guarded by Cerebus, the Island of the Sirens, freaky Scylla and churning Charybdis, the Isle of Helios with the god’s adorably sacred cattle, the soaring white highrise temple of Olympus, the craggy white and blue Island of Calypso, and finally Ithaca, crammed with surly suitors and Odysseus’ son and wife fending them off.

There are great pictures on VirtuaLUG’s Flickr page, each with a brief description of the part of the story being represented. To get a real sense of the impressive size and scope of the piece, however, you must view the full tour of the installation guided by VirtualLUG’s Chris Phipson in the video below. It’s long at 22 minutes, but it’s essential viewing because you get to see extremely important details including the swirly multi-colored portal of Hades (8:50), the working fountain in Troy (11:35), the light-up lightning bolt Zeus sent to destroy Odysseus’ ship after his men ate Helios’ sacred cattle (14:08), the unbelievably complex underwater scene with swimming sharks or dolphins chasing a Nereid (15:02) and my personal favorite, the phenomenal moving wind features of the Isle of Aeolus (5:00).

Note: around 16:20 he refers to the Isle of Circe, when in fact it’s the Isle of Calypso. He just mispoke. Earlier in the tour at 5:50 he covers the real Circe bit where Odysseus’ men were turned into swine.

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Harvard confirms book bound in human skin

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Scientists have confirmed that one book in Harvard’s Houghton Library — Des destinées de l’ame (The Destinies of the Soul) by French poet and essayist Arsène Houssaye, first published in 1879 — is bound in human skin. The book belonged to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and book collector from Metz in the northeastern French province of Lorraine who combined his professional vocation with his interest in books and book binding in a rather macabre way. Arsène Houssaye was a personal friend of his. He gave the doctor a copy of his new book and Bouland had it rebound. A handwritten letter signed by Bouland found inside the book describes the new binding:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

There used to be a typed document with the book that elaborated on the source of the skin. The original is gone, but we know from notes that the skin came from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.” The second book Bouland refers to that uses the same skin is now in the Wellcome Library, and according to a 1910 article in a French magazine, Bouland got the piece of skin when he was a medical student at a hospital in Metz. He received his medical degree in 1865, which means he held on to that poor lady’s skin for decades before sectioning it for use in binding at least two books.

The note Bouland wrote on the flyleaf of De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a 1663 edition of the influential book by Doctor Séverin Pineau that described the hymen in great anatomical detail (little of it accurate compared to the modern understanding of that intriguing membrane) and provided valuable instruction on how to tell if a virgin had been “corrupted,” is a creepier version of the Des destinées de l’ame explanation:

“This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

As far as Bouland was concerned, a book on the immortal soul and one on hymens were equally well-suited to be bound in the skin of a destitute mentally ill woman who had the misfortune to die of a stroke in the hospital where he was studying.

Two other books at Harvard, one in the Law School Library, one in the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine, had inscriptions identifying them as examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the official term for book binding using human skin). The Law School book is Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, a treatise on Spanish law by Juan Gutiérrez published in Madrid in 1605. A dramatic inscription on the last page of the book claimed:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

The book’s binding was DNA tested in 1992 but the results were inconclusive, most likely because of the tanning process. A year after that, a new analytical technique called peptide mass fingerprinting was developed. Peptide mass fingerprinting breaks proteins up into component peptides whose masses can be measured by mass spectrometer and the results compared to a database of known proteins. Two months ago, peptide mass fingerprinting conclusively proved the binding to be sheepskin, not the product of Jonas Wright’s flaying.

The Countway Library book is a 1597 French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which has a faint inscription in pencil on the inside cover stating simply “Bound in human skin,” but experts doubted its accuracy because the binding doesn’t look like other confirmed human leather bindings. Peptide mass fingerprinting proved that it too had a sheepskin binding.

With two of the three claimed human skin bindings proved false, peptide mass fingerprinting was enlisted once again to test the binding of Des destinées de l’ame. This time the peptide mass fingerprint matched the human references, but while it eliminated the usual suspects like sheep and cow, it couldn’t conclusively exclude other primates because we don’t have the comparison data for them.

Although unlikely that the binding was made from a primate source, the samples were further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which can be different in each species.

“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” said [Director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Bill] Lane.

 

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British Library acquires Revenge of Jesus play

Monday, March 10th, 2014

The British Library has acquired an exquisite illuminated manuscript of Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist (Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ), a mystery play written by Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440) some time before 1414 that was enormously popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. It tells a highly fictionalized story of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. as Jesus’ revenge for his crucifixion. It is 14,972 verses long and was performed over the course of four days in elaborate productions that included special effects like flying angels and a leprous Vespasian miraculously healed on stage.

Only two copies of the play are known to have survived and this one is the only complete one. The other copy, now in the Municipal Library of Arras, is 1020 verses shorter, an abridged version that took only three days to stage. The Arras copy is also illustrated with pen and ink drawings, while the British Library’s edition is illustrated with 20 miniatures painted in rich color and vibrant detail by Flanders master Loyse Liédet.

Commissioned by Philip the Good (1396-1467), Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comté, around 1465, the book is thought to be a record of an actual performance of the Mystère de la Vengeance that was staged in Abbeville in 1483. Abbeville had recently become part of Philip the Good’s territory and it’s very likely that he was in the audience. Wanting a top quality copy of the play, the duke commissioned Liédet to do the art and scribe Yvonnet le Jeune to write out the text in beautiful calligraphy (get a load of the A in Amen). Liédet’s illuminations are thought to be accurate depictions of the play as performed, an important document of medieval theatrical productions from the 15th century.

Thanks to the ducal library’s extensive record-keeping, we know exactly who was paid how much for which work and how much the materials cost (see this excellent British Library blog entry for details). The total expenditure was an exorbitant 51 pounds and 19 shillings. For comparison, a panel triptych of the Last Supper commissioned in 1464 cost £33 6s. 8d. and Philip’s Master of the Cannon made six pounds a year. This was a luxury edition and then some.

After the death of Philip the Good, it remained in the Burgundian ducal collection until the 17th century when it was acquired by the Marquis de La Vieuville. In the 18th century it was split into two volumes and rebound, but despite the alteration the condition was and is pristine. The book made its way to England in the late 18th century, becoming part of the collection of John Ker, Duke of Roxburghe, whose library was considered the greatest of his age. In the famous 1812 sale of the Roxburghe estate, it was third most expensive lot, purchased by William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), the sixth Duke of Devonshire.

It remained in the library at Chatsworth, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, for two hundred years. On December 5th, 2012, the Mystère de la Vengeance was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, but the high bid of £3.9 million just failed to meet the reserve of £4 million ($6,442,400) so it didn’t sell.

Thankfully, they decided not to sell it at auction again. Instead it was acquired by the government under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. When the market value of the object surpasses the amount of the tax, the owner is paid the difference which is what happened here. The British Library raised the undisclosed amount with grants and donations.

Both volumes of the play have already been digitized and uploaded to the British Library’s outstanding digital manuscripts site: volume one, volume two. To leaf through the book, click on the bindings image and arrow through. It’s very much worth it to zoom in on the illuminations. They are gorgeous and in a very unique style.

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1850s prison memoir of African-American man found

Monday, December 16th, 2013

A manuscript at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has been authenticated as the prison memoir of 19th century African-American inmate Austin Reed. Finding a previously-unknown Black writer from the before the Civil War is extremely rare, and this work stands out as the earliest prison memoir ever written by an African-American (that we know of). A rare book dealer purchased the notebook and two sewn folios at an estate sale Rochester, western New York state, some years ago. The family selling it had no information about it other than it had been in their family for as long as anyone could remember. The Beinecke bought it from the dealer in 2009 and set about researching the 304-page memoir and its author.

The unpublished book is entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison by Rob Reed and it’s an autobiography of Reed’s experiences in the criminal justice system from the 1830s to the 1850s. Most of that time he served for theft at Auburn Prison, the second state prison in New York and the oldest prison in the country still in use today. The traditional horizontal black and white striped prison uniform was invented at Auburn, and the first electric chair execution took place there in 1890.

Built in 1816, Auburn Prison was relatively new when Reed was a guest. Its approach was novel because the focus was on rehabilitation, but the Auburn System, as it became known, was hardly touchy-feely. The aim was instill dedication to work and responsibility by breaking down prisoners’ sense of self and community with other inmates. Prisoners to work for at least 10 hours a day, to live in solitary confinement when not working, to march in lockstep exactly one arm’s width from each other while looking at the side and never looking at the guards or other inmates, and to observe complete silence at all times.

Punishments for violations of the rules including floggings with whips and cat-o-nine-tails, the “shower bath,” an elaborate form of waterboarding, and the “yoke,” a 40-pound bar of iron attached to the back of the prisoner’s neck and both hands.

Reed’s memoir was intended to introduce a curious public to life in the new institution – the solitary cells, the dining hall and the hospital, the work to be done in the various workshops, and regulations for inmate conduct. Reed’s account also aimed to expose the unusual and brutal punishments inflicted on dissenters, and he made a pointed comparison between New York prisons and the slaveholding South.

“The Reed prison narrative manuscript is a revelation. Nothing quite like it exists,” says Blight. “Reed is a crafty and manipulative storyteller, and perhaps above all he left an insider’s look at the American world of crime, prisons, and the brutal state of race relations in the middle of the 19th century.”

Yale English professor Caleb Smith worked with Beinecke archivists and Christine McKay, a genealogical researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to research Austin Reed and authenticate the manuscript. Using newspaper articles, court records and prison files, they were able to identify “Rob Reed” as Austin Reed, a free Black man born near Rochester. He was in trouble with the law from an early age and spent time in the House of Refuge in Manhattan, a reformatory school where he learned to read and write. It was a letter Reed wrote to the warden of the House of Refuge that linked Austin Reed to his nom de plume. In it, he gives some of his background and asks whether the House has kept any of his juvenile records. He was researching his youth, apparently, to include in the memoir.

“The Reed manuscript is an astonishing discovery and a unique resource documenting the lives of African-American prisoners in antebellum America,” says Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature. “Handwritten manuscripts of novels and memoirs by 19th-century African Americans remain extraordinarily rare. The Reed manuscript significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American Literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America.”

The memoir never made it into print, despite Reed’s clear intention that it be published, but that will soon change. Caleb Smith is preparing an annotated version of the manuscript for print. Meanwhile, the Beinecke Library has scanned and uploaded every page of the notebook and folios. You can view them here. The handwriting is impressively legible. There are grammatical and spelling errors, but nothing that makes it hard to read.

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First day of the Somme in a 24-foot cartoon

Monday, November 11th, 2013

The Battle of the Somme began at 7:30 AM on July 1, 1916. At the end of that first day, 20,000 British troops were dead and 40,000 injured, the worst day in British Army history. The French, their numbers weakened by Verdun, had 1,590 casualties, the Germans 10,000-12,000. These horrific figures didn’t stop the battle. It would continue for another 140 days, finally ending on November 18th, 1916, by which time more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded.

The opening day of what would become a months-long slaughter has been captured in a new way, as a single great panorama of chaotic action by cartoonist Joe Sacco.

In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going “over the top” and getting cut down in no-man’s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco’s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.

I think cartoon is an outstanding and sorely underestimated medium for history. Larry Gonick’s works have pride of place on my bookshelves and those of many friends and family who have received his cartoon histories as gifts from me. The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme takes a different approach because there are no dialogue or thought bubbles, no quips or goofy visuals. All 24 feet of this masterpiece are wordless views of people and actions depicted in the most historically accurate manner possible, in keeping with Sacco’s journalistic documentation of current conflicts in cartoon form.

Sacco studied uniforms, artillery, troop positions, even learned how to draw horses and lots of them to make the first day of the Somme come to life. He used a magnifying glass to get the most minute details of the background figures right. It took him eight months to finish this one drawing, double what he expected it take.

To get a small glimpse of the richness and breadth of what Sacco has accomplished here, see this annotated tour of a small section on Slate. Publishers WW Norton have also put together a brief documentary video about the book and author. I can’t embed it, sadly, but it’s very much worth viewing so please do click through.

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Is this the real Jane Austen?

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Austen biographer Dr. Paula Byrne believes she has found a lost portrait of the author. The graphite on vellum drawing depicts a Regency-era woman sitting at a desk, writing, with Westminster Abbey visible through the window behind her. “Miss Jane Austin” is written on the back. Byrne received the portrait from her husband who bought it at auction from a specialist who had just been told by an Austen expert that the portrait was not Jane Austen but rather an imaginary vision of her drawn by someone who never saw her.

Byrne found the figure compelling, mainly the nose which bears a striking resemblance to the noses of other members of Jane Austen’s family. Inspired by the nose and the name on the back, Byrne decided to research if it might actually be an authentic portrait after all.

“When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar,” Byrne told the Guardian. “The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”

Byrne pointed out that Austen did not become famous until 1870, 50 years after her death, and the portrait has been dated to the early 19th century, around 1815, on the basis of the subject’s clothes. “Why would someone have wanted to draw her from their imagination, when she was not popular at that time?” she asked.

Couldn’t they have imagined Regency clothes while they were at it? They need to find a better way to date the portrait than the clothing of the sitter, it seems to me. Also, Jane Austen never lived in London, so why is Westminster Abbey behind her? Doesn’t that suggest a symbolic view of a writer acknowledged to be great? In 1815 Austen was still alive; her books were published anonymously until after her death.

Byrne seems to think this representation of Austen as an important writer argues in favor of the portrait’s authenticity. Since Austen didn’t become wildly popular until a sentimental biography of her by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, was published in 1870, fan art from that era tends to be in keeping with that homey spinster Aunt Jane presentation.

“The previous portrait is a very sentimentalised Victorian view of ‘Aunt Jane’, someone who played spillikins, who just lurked in the shadows with her scribbling. But it seems to me that it’s very clear from her letters that Jane Austen took great pride in her writing, that she was desperate to be taken seriously,” said Byrne. “This new picture first roots her in a London setting – by Westminster Abbey. And second, it presents her as a professional woman writer; there are pens on the table, a sheaf of paper. She seems to be a woman very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view.”

The image of Jane Austen on the front page of the biography was a softened, filled-in version of an unfinished sketch thought to have been done by her sister Charlotte in 1810. That sketch of Charlotte’s is the only uncontested portrait of the author because it came from the family, but even so there are doubts about its authenticity because it’s not signed, dated nor is the subject named. Oh, and it looks nothing at all like Byrne’s drawing.

Byrne and the BBC, who will be airing a documentary about the portrait and Jane Austen on Boxing Day, took the drawing to three top Austen scholars. After close examination, two of them, Professor Kathryn Sutherland from Oxford University and Professor Claudia Johnson from Princeton, agreed that the drawing is an authentic portrait of Jane Austen. A third, Deirdre Le Faye, disagrees. She believes it is an imaginary portrait, that there are too many things wrong with it.

Here’s a brief interview with Byrne wherein she summarizes her argument. Here’s a BBC video where dissenter Le Faye makes an appearance and you get to catch a glimpse of a rather cool Austen nose lineup at the 1:16 mark.

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All of Tolkien’s Hobbit drawings published

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in September 1937. To mark next year’s 75th anniversary, HarperCollins is releasing The Art of the Hobbit, a collection of all the art work Tolkien made to illustrate his first novel.

Only a few of Tolkien’s drawings were published in the first edition of The Hobbit: 10 black and white illustrations, two maps and the dust jacket designs, front and back. Tolkien was already an accomplished artist before his first book was printed. He had drawn many illustrations and sketches to accompany the original manuscript, and although over the years some of them were published in various new editions of The Hobbit and other books, the entire collection wound up in relative obscurity in the Tolkien archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

When HarperCollins publisher David Brawn checked the archive in preparation for a 75th anniversary reprint of The Hobbit, he found much to his surprise that there were 110 illustrations — ink drawings, plans, maps, watercolors, sketches, preliminary and alternate versions of final pieces — made by the author. Two dozen of them have never been published before, others have never been published before in color.

“[The Art of the Hobbit] includes his conceptual sketches for the cover design, a couple of early versions of the maps and pages where he’s experimenting with the runic forms, as well as a couple of manuscript pages,” said Brawn. “It shows that Tolkien’s creativity went beyond the writing, that it was a fully thought out conception. When he writes about the hobbit hole ["In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort"], he’s designed it as well. And by doing that, it makes his description more vivid … Tolkien was an accomplished amateur artist. He was a great admirer of Arthur Rackham and you can see a little bit of that style coming through.”

The book will be available starting Thursday, October 27. Even though the anniversary of The Hobbit‘s publication is a year away, this month is the 75th anniversary of Tolkien’s handing the manuscript to his publishers.

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Conan Doyle’s lost first novel published

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, back before he was a sir, was a physician struggling to build a private practice. He supplemented his meager income, as he had while a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, by writing short stories that were published in magazines. His first short story to make it into print, The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley, was published in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1879.

There wasn’t much money to be made selling stories to magazines, however, and the common practice at the time was to publish content anonymously. He would later note in an 1893 article in The Idler magazine that over his years of writing short stories, he earned an average of less than 50 pounds a year from his work and he was still a complete unknown. Conan Doyle realized that if he wanted to make a name for himself as an author, he would have to write a novel. Sometime between 1883 and 1884, he did so and mailed the manuscript to a publisher. Then disaster struck.

Alack and alas for the dreadful thing that happened! The publishers never received it, the post office sent countless blue forms to say that they knew nothing about it, and from that day to this no word has ever been heard of it. Of course it was the best thing I ever wrote. Who ever lost a manuscript that wasn’t? But I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print. If one or two other of my earlier efforts had also been lost in the post my conscience would have been the lighter. This one was called “The Narrative of John Smith,” and it was of a personal-social-political complexion. Had it appeared I should have probably awakened to find myself infamous, for it steered, as I remember it, perilously near to the libellous. However, it was safely lost, and that was the end of another of my first books.

Psych, Conan Doyle! You only thought it was safely lost! Really, though, he pysched himself out because the original manuscript never did turn up; he just rewrote the whole thing from memory but only told his mother so nobody realized it. He made no reference to it in his 1924 autobiography and subsequent biographers assumed that the first novel was lost for good. It wasn’t until 1970 when Arthur’s youngest son Adrian Conan Doyle died and his wife had an expert examine the huge collection of Conan Doyle’s papers Adrian had left her that a group of four notebooks containing an unpublished, untitled novel were noticed.

The notebooks still weren’t identified as The Narrative of John Smith at that point. They remained in the Conan Doyle archive and no scholars paid them any mind. The title was only associated with the rewritten manuscript in 2004, when the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle, Adrian’s wife, decided to sell the collection of Conan Doyle papers at a Christie’s auction. The Christie’s experts identified the four notebooks in Lot 11 as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lost first novel, The Narrative of John Smith.

The narrator ranges widely over the fields of history, religion, philosophy, medicine, science, music and prophecy; he advances views on domestic interiors, art, the future of China, the United States and Great Britain and he draws on his experiences from sealing in the Arctic, to ballooning and to travel in South Africa. He also refers to literature citing the stories of Bret Harte and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

It is evident that Conan Doyle began to revise the text of the first volume (changing the name of the doctor from Julep to Turner, for instance, and making other alterations). Mrs Rundle was a precursor of Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper Martha Hudson.

The British Library bought the manuscript for £47,800 ($84,749) to add to their already extensive Conan Doyle collection. Sir Arthur’s daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, had left 900 documents to the library in her will. In addition to the notebooks, the British Library purchased 1,200 other Conan Doyle documents from the Anna Conan Doyle auction.

Until now, few people had had the opportunity to see the dawn of Conan Doyle as a novelist. The British Library has transcribed the manuscript and published The Narrative of John Smith.

An introduction to the new edition says: “The Narrative is not successful fiction, but offers remarkable insight into the thinking and views of a raw young writer who would shortly create one of literature’s most famous and durable characters, Sherlock Holmes.” The book gives a flavour of the preoccupations of the time, such as the British empire, science and the rise of secularism. It is also remarkably prescient, foreseeing the rise of America and China as superpowers, the advent of aeroplanes and submarines, and even space exploration. Stephen Fry, who has also seen the book, hailed Conan Doyle’s breadth of interests. “He was the first popular writer to tell the wider reading public about narcotics, the Ku Klux Klan, the mafia, the Mormons, American crime gangs, corrupt union bosses and much else besides. His boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention the perfect, muscular and memorable prose, are all on display here in a work whose publication is very, very welcome indeed.”

You can purchase a copy now from the British Library bookshop or pre-order it on Amazon US (the scheduled publication date is October 15). If you’re fortunate enough to be in London over the next few months, you can see the manuscript with your own eyes at the British Library’s exhibit dedicated to Conan Doyle’s early travails as a writer.

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At long last, a study of brain injuries in Asterix books

Friday, June 17th, 2011

I’m sure we can all agree that it’s high time brain surgeons stopped screwing around and finally dedicated their time to worthy pursuits, namely a thorough investigation of the causes, nature and ethnic breakdown of traumatic brain injuries in Asterix books. A team of researchers from the Department for Neurosurgery of Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf, Germany have published the results of their study in Acta Neurochirurgica: The European Journal of Neurosurgery. The full clinical article is available for subscribers (or regular people like me who happen to know one) here.

Out of the 34 total Asterix books, the research team identified 704 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The injuries were assessed according to their severity using the Glasgow coma scale to rate a variety of post-trauma symptoms like subgaleal swelling, aka large bruised bumps on the noggin, periorbital ecchymoses, aka “raccoon eyes,” and paresis of the hypoglossal nerve, aka an outstretched tongue sticking out the side of the mouth. I could find no cool neurological term for tweeting birds and circling stars, however, which was a disappointment.

Among the 704 identified cases of brain injury, the largest group was composed of Romans (n=450, 63.9%, Fig. 1a, Table 1). Thereof, most characters were members of the Roman imperial army (n=414), as troopers (n=365; 88.2%) or commissioned officers (n=49; 11.8%). Furthermore, 120 cases of head-injured Gaulish citizens were identified, as well as 21 head-injured pirates. The remaining head-injury victims had various sociocultural backgrounds, in that they were Belgians, Britons, Egyptians, Indians, native Americans, Normans, Swiss or Vikings (summarized in Fig. 1b). Also, four extraterrestrial characters suffered from TBI.

Not surprisingly, Gauls caused the vast majority of TBI (n=614, 87.1%). Alone, Asterix and Obelix were responsible for more than half of the detected TBIs (n=406, 57.6%). In contrast, 32 head injuries (4.5%) were caused by Romans and only one by a pirate.

Protective helmets were worn in most instances of traumatic brain injury (70.5%), understandable given the preponderance of armored Romans getting whupped, but were of dubious effectiveness since they often flew off the victims’ heads during a thumping. Out of 497 cases of brain injury sustained while wearing a helmet, the protective gear was lost in 436 of them. That’s an 87.7% helmet loss rate. Interestingly, the loss of the helmet did result in more cases of tongue-sticking-out, but not in more instances of giant goose eggs.

Then there’s the matter of the doping agent. A performance enhancing drug known as “magic potion” was a significant factor in the severity of the brain injuries. Doubtless its exclusive use by the Gauls, in particular Asterix and Obelix, the latter of whom fell into a cauldron of said doping agent when he was a baby, is a major contributor to the preponderance of Roman victims. The “magic potion” also has a secondary usage as a curative. When administered after a traumatic brain injury, the victim is instantly healed.

The good news is through all this devastation of the poor, underpowered Romans and other antis, none of the traumatic brain injuries in Asterix books have ever resulted in death or even long-term impairment. The researchers point out that this highly favorable outcome is remarkable given the limited therapeutic tools in 50 B.C.

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One of earliest printed books found in Sandy, Utah

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

The Sandy Museum in Sandy, Utah is a small local museum dedicated to displaying historical artifacts from Sandy’s settlement and founding in the late 19th century onwards. To raise funds, they invited people to bring their antiques to be appraised by professionals for a small donation, like a mini-Antiques Roadshow. Rare book dealer Ken Sanders was one of the volunteer appraisers and since he’s done this kind of thing before, he wasn’t expecting much.

Nuremberg Chronicles, cover in foreground, uncollated leaves in backgroundImagine his surprise when one of the locals (who at this point has chosen to remain anonymous) presented him with a 1493 edition of the Nuremberg Chronicles, an extremely rare book from the early era of European movable type known as “the cradle of printing.” An illustrated world history, the Nuremberg Chronicles was printed 38 years after the first Gutenberg Bibles and its view of history is structured in parallel to the history of man as described in the Bible.

It was published by Anton Koberger, godfather of woodcut master Albrecht Dürer. There are an astonishing 1,809 woodcut illustrations in the Chronicles, most of them created by the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s premier artist at that time. Young Albrecht Dürer had been an apprentice in the Wolgemut shop between 1486 and 1489, and since Koberger first commissioned the woodcuts in 1487-88, Dürer could very well have had a hand in some of the original drawings.

As was common for books at that time, some of the images are duplicated. They’d make an illustration of a town, then on one page label it Town X, while on another page label the same drawing as Town Y. There were also some reprints of illustrations made for earlier books and some reused stock engravings.

“Well it’s very important,” Sanders said. “It’s considered to be one of the world’s first illustrated books printed with movable type.”

The book was that era’s equivalent of a history and travel book. But for its day, it was exceptionally lavish in its illustrations. “It has some 1800 woodcut illustrations in it,” Sanders said. “Every page has an illustration, which is highly unusual for a book of that antiquity.”

The owner requested anonymity from Sanders and the museum. He told Sanders he inherited the book from an uncle in Pennsylvania.

“It passed the smell test. Just, ‘yeah, this is real!’” Sanders said. “Outside of a museum or a library, I’d never seen one before. And I’d never got to touch one.”

How a book that was printed the year after Columbus stumbled on the Bahamas found its way to Sandy, Utah is a tantalizing mystery. The owner’s uncle was an estate attorney from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of southeastern Pennsylvania that was settled beginning in the late 17th century by German immigrants (Dutch being an Americanization of Deutsch). It’s certainly plausible that one of those early immigrants might have carried the precious volume with him to the New World.

If it is authentic, its monetary value could reach the $100,000 mark. The binding has long since degraded, however, and the pages are out of order. It will have to be carefully collated and conserved before any sale price determinations are made.

Right now, there’s a tentative deal in place for Ken Sanders to sell the book if it proves authentic and the owner chooses to sell, but he hasn’t made up his mind about what he plans to do. The book needs professional care, that much is clear, and the owner has said that he isn’t interested in converting it into a financial windfall so much as ensuring it is properly tended to and available for public viewing. Let’s hope all the media attention doesn’t result in an offer he can’t refuse that’ll hide this beauty in a private collection.

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