Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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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Talk like a Flapper (and support local booksellers)!

Monday, April 11th, 2011

This is why patronizing your local used bookstore is so vitally important, because nobody’s digging through piles of weird old mildewy tomes in the Amazon warehouse and squealing with delight when they come across a stack of Flapper magazines (not for old fogies) from the 1920s. Okay, I may be projecting a little there. I don’t know if Jim Lewin of the Bookflaps blog and The York Emporium used bookstore actually squealed when he found the near-mint lifestyle magazines of the fast-car, bathtub-gin, Charleston-dancing party girls of the Jazz Age, but he probably did on the inside at least.

The magazine’s mission is downright feminist:

“What the FLAPPER stands for: short skirts, rolled sox, bobbed hair, powder and rouge, no corsets, one-piece bathing suits, deportation of reformers, non-enforcement of Blue Laws, no censorship of movies, stage or the press, vacations with full pay, no chaperons, attractive clothes, the inalienable right to make dates, good times, [and] honor between both sexes.”

Rock on, sisters! (Please to observe the Flapper cover girl above right making the appropriate “rock on” gesture long before Ronnie James Dio was a twinkle in his father’s eye.)

One of the issues contained a glossary of Flapper slang that is so truly exquisite, I intend to make every effort to memorize it all and speak only in Flapperese from now on.

The July 1922 edition of Flapper contained “A Flapper’s Dictionary.” According to the uncredited author, “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind. The Shifter is a new species who flaunts as his banner, “Something for nothing and then very little.”

“The flapper movement is not a craze, but something that will stay,” the author maintained. “Many of the phrases now employed by members of this order will eventually find a way into common usage and be accepted as good English.”

That turned out to be an unfulfilled prophecy, I’m sad to say, although a few of the phrases have indeed become part of our lexicon. Bee’s knees, cat’s pajamas, blaah, dogs (meaning feet), and ducky (describing something good) are all still in common parlance. “A jitney body and a limousine mind” do not appear in the dictionary, but if we take the vehicular metaphors at face value, it’s actually quite racy. A jitney was a small bus that charged only a nickel for passage, while of course a limousine is a big fancy expensive car. I guess that makes a flapper a cheap ride with an expensive wit.

Here are a few choice entries from the dictionary that are in desperate need of revival:

Brush Ape—Anyone from the sticks; a country Jake.
Dingle Dangler—One who insists on telephoning.
Noodle Juice—Tea.
Nosebaggery—Restaurant.
Strike Breaker—A young woman who goes with her friend’s “Steady” while there is a coolness.
Trotzky (sic)—Old lady with a moustache and chin whiskers.
Wurp—Killjoy or drawback.

I found a few scans of articles from Flapper magazine on Old Magazine Articles’s excellent website, but the dictionary is not among them. A highly amusing pro-knee manifesto (pdf) is, however, and yet again, it concludes with what looks to me like quite a raunchy bit of innuendo.

See what I mean? The knees get calloused after the first hundred what, exactly? Also lol @ something new under the sunburn.

If you wish to immerse yourself further in the world of biscuits and sheiks, you simply must check out Carrie, a ’20s comic strip by Wood Cowan that follows the adventures of stylin’ flapper girls and the men they use for their entertainment.

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The Art of Kissing Little Blue Books

Monday, February 14th, 2011

The Art of KissingWhile leafing through an old Nancy Drew book of mine last week, I found a little pamphlet called “The Art of Kissing” by Clement Wood. It was published in 1926 by the Haldeman-Julius Company as part of their Little Blue Blook series. It seems appropriate that I pay this compendium of kissing history and practice my blogging respects on Valentine’s Day.

Table of contents, "The Art of Kissing" by Clement WoodSadly, its original blue cover is long gone, but the content has remained unscathed. The 3½ x 5 inch volume is 55 pages long and includes such awesome chapter headings as The Two Kinds of Kisses (lip and nose, or osculus Europeanus and osculus Asiaticus), Size of Mouth and Kissing Devices. From the Size of Mouth section:

The excessively small mouth is easily kissed, and at times is far less satisfying than a good mouth-filling pair of lips. The medium-sized mouth, in normal cases, gives the greatest pleasure. When the man is confronted with a mouth whose general stretch, if laid on the ground, would apparently reach from Ft. Desbrosses, Alaska, to the corner of Main Street and Zenith Avenue, Skaneateles, New York, the matter is purely one of measuration in applied physics. The safest way is to start at one corner and gradually progress toward the center, covering ground as effectively as possibly in the process. The foolhardy at times make a dive for the very center at the beginning, and may encounter the emotion of having stepped off of a neck-high stretch in the river into a pool of immeasurable depth. If this is definitely the case, the only thing to do is to paddle toward one side or the other, in the hope of reaching firm ground once more.

You can see why it sold 257,500 copies in its day. Clement Wood’s entertaining style and penchant for risque subjects like “Byron and the Women He Loved” and “Modern Sexual Morality” made many of his 57 Little Blue Books among the highest sellers of the series.

Clement WoodHe was famously prolific, cranking out not just these pamphlets but also books of poetry under his own name and ghostwritten novels at a breakneck pace of 80,000 words a month. He also wrote history books, reference works, literary criticism, joke books (including ones dedicated to ethnic stereotype humor that probably make for cringingly bad reading today), biographies and much more. One of the Little Blue Book manuscripts he wrote, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, remains a big seller still in print today and in fact saved my no-talent ass in more than one poetry class.

Wood lived as varied a life as his bibliography would suggest. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1888. At first he followed in his father’s footsteps and went to law school. He seems to have been good at it, as he made assistant editor of the Yale Law Journal and would be made a judge in Birmingham’s Central Recorder’s Court in 1913, just 2 years after getting his law degree. His Socialist leanings didn’t exactly endear him to the Alabama political establishment, however, and he was removed from the bench almost as soon as he got there.

After that, he moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where he got work waiting tables, as a vice commission staffer, and, briefly, as secretary to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair. He was writing a humor column for the Socialist daily The New York Call in 1915 when he met Emanuel Julius. When some years later Emanuel, now married to Marcet Haldeman and in a remarkably progressive move legally renamed to a combination of both their names, Haldeman-Julius, started a publishing company dedicated to producing cheap, educational and entertaining books for the working man’s pocket, he commissioned Wood to do some of the writing.

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius at his typewriter, 1925The endeavor was enormously successful, and Haldeman-Julius became famous. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed him “the Henry Ford of Literature” (only without the strike-breaking).

Though occasionally skeptical of his methods, the mainstream media eventually took note of Haldeman-Julius’s successes. The New Republic wrote that “the volume of his sales [is] so fantastic as to make his business almost a barometer of plebian taste”; a New Yorker profile observed that Haldeman-Julius must feel “the crusader’s pride” when, riding the subway on a visit to New York, “he sees a workman settle back on his strap and reach automatically to the pocket where he keeps his Little Blue Book.” Perhaps the most effusive praise came in a 1924 McClure’s article, which claimed that Little Blue Books were “spreading like beneficent locusts over the country,” and suggested that they would “help break down America’s cultural isolation.” “The best peace propaganda in the world is to make the culture of the whole world known to the whole world,” the article enthused, calling Haldeman-Julius “a creative genius who was blazing a more glorious path of service on principles akin to those of Ford.”

By the time Emanuel Haldeman-Julius died in 1951 — less than a year after Clement Wood died of a stroke — there were 2,300 Little Blue Book titles, 1,800 still in print. Haldeman’s son Henry continued his father’s work until 1978 when the Little Blue Book publishing plant in Girard, Kansas tragically burned down.

Now the books are collector’s items, and although my coverless, yellowed pamphlet is probably barely worth more than the 5 cents it originally cost, it’s a pearl of great price to me because it’s a) awesome, and b) the book my mom read with a flashlight under the covers when she was just a little girl dreaming about her first kiss.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m a history nerd. Happy Valentine’s Day, lovahs. :love:

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