[Home] [Weblog] [The Bibliothecary] [Driving the Quill] [Library][Bookmarks]

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book Seven

We don't particularly like cats (unless they are well-done). Even the favorite pet of another leaves us as cold and uninterested as, well, a cat. But never before had we read a cat's diary.

Our seventh book is Mrs Chippy's Last Expedition, 1914-1915: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-bound Cat, by Caroline Alexander. The subtitle is a bit misleading, because the expedition was Ernest Shackleton's, but the cat was the carpenter Harry McNish's. When it was time to go, the cat loaded himself into his mate's toolbox, and McNish agreed to bring him along. Shackleton approved, knowing the cat would help control the mice that might otherwise damage their stores. The feminine name was given the cat by the crew once on board, because he would follow McNish everywhere like a harping housewife. When Perce Blackborow stowed away, Mrs Chippy took to him immediately. The only known photograph of Mrs Chippy is upon the shoulder of Blackborow. He adopted much of the care and feeding of the cat, freeing McNish to focus on his duties.

Other accounts of this expedition that we have read make scant mention of Mrs Chippy. Most often he is noted for teasing the sled dogs by scampering across the top of their shelters, tantalizingly just beyond their reach. This journal makes Mrs Chippy come alive. Though he lies around and sleeps like most cats, he also assumes a great deal of duties on board the Endurance, and takes them seriously. While his main duties are stern watch, seal watch, and watch below decks, his greatest function is in providing a distraction to the crew and a boost to their morale. Mrs Chippy is a stickler for Ship Routine. The major tribulations suffered by the crew are often overlooked by Mrs Chippy for the smaller details, such as examining the nets as they are brought out of the water, chasing down errant nails from his mate's carpentry work, and even keeping oneself clean. Mrs Chippy's calm and nonchalance are directly attributable to his experience and dedication as a sailor.

The journal leaves off with a delicious meal and the warmest affections from every member of the crew. Mrs Chippy doesn't know the end has come, but we do. When Endurance is lost to the ice, Shackleton plans a 200-mile march to Robertson Island, commanding that the value of every item the men considered carrying with them had to be weighed against their own survival. Even when he hears the Boss say, "Anything that cannot pull its weight or is not useful to the Expedition must be put down," Mrs Chippy remains unconcerned, secure in the knowledge his only things are a bowl and a blanket. The journal ends before Mrs Chippy, and several puppies, are carried away from camp and shot by Second Officer Thomas Crean. Though the fate of these animals stirred little compassion when read in the accounts of Shackleton and others, now, after experiencing the expedition from Mrs Chippy's first-cat point-of-view, we are moved to sadness. Early on, Shackleton called the cat "one of the more industrious members of our crew," which made the tips of Mrs Chippy's wiskers glow with pride. He truly was a fine sailor.

This book makes a wonderful addition to our Shackleton collection. Ms Alexander is curator of a Shackleton exhibition, as well as author of The Endurance. Her extensive knowledge of the expedition perfectly serves the recording of this journal. Inspired by her idea, a life-sized bronze statue of Mrs Chippy was recently commissioned and placed on the grave of his mate, Harry McNish.

From early on Shackleton had reservations about McNish. Though the carpenter served well, and his work was instrumental to the survival of the crew, he became ornery and disobedient to Shackleton following the loss of his cat. Even to his death, McNish resented Shackleton for ordering Mrs Chippy shot, despite the fact that by Shackleton's leadership the entire crew of Endurance was returned home alive.

We give this book two paws up.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Book Six

Our sixth book this year is The Bookman's Wake, by John Dunning. This is the follow-up to his first mystery. Once again we are treated to the adventures of former cop Cliff Janeway in the world of books.

Where the first mystery had its focus on scouting books, this one delves into the finer aspects of making books: designing, printing, and binding as an art. Two legendary printers set out to produce a perfect edition of Poe's The Raven, but desire and jealousy interfere, starting a chain of events over many years that will end when Janeway solves the mystery. Through much of the novel he is searching for either a woman or a book, and the crime is always in the background. Book lovers do it between the covers, and once again Janeway lives up to this maxim. Inevitably there are murders, and Janeway finds ample opportunity to go beyond the boundaries of law once again, certain he must do so else the woman, the book, and the killer all elude the proper authorities. He absolves himself by making friends with the tough cop who is on his tail, and giving him some pointers on dealing in fine books.

To us, the mystery is again second rate, and hardly straightforward. What delights is the passages dealing with books, and the descriptions of how it feels to discover a fine book in a pile of junk, and what makes certain books works of art, desirable more as objects than for their content. Through it all he acquires more fine volumes, and earns himself a handsome finder's fee for putting the owner of a most desirable collection in contact with a buyer of inexhaustible financial resources. One would have to work extremely hard to be unable to earn a living selling books with the amount of ready capital Janeway ends up with. What this book needs is a disclaimer at the beginning: "The success of this book dealer is exceptional; your results may vary." Ours very vary.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Book Five

The Book-Hunter, by John Hill Burton

This book was long on our list of desirables. Though it is fairly easily found, it usually comes with a price more than we were willing to pay. We used the "Wants" feature at American Book Exchange, and waited. Eventually one came on offer for a price we could live with, and we purchased it.

When the book arrived we discovered that it was not the book we wanted. It had been improperly identified. The book's title page had been removed, and an advertisement for The Book-Hunter had been tipped in. What was inside, though, was The Queer, the Quaint, the Quizzical, by Frank Stauffer. We kept the book, as it appeared interesting, and read it. Our search for the Burton, though, was not satisfied.

Finally another copy within our grasp became available, and we ordered it. It was not perfect, with the backstrip detached from the rest of the binding, as noted, but we wanted to read the book, and if we so desired at a later date the book could always be repair or rebound. So it arrived and has found its place as our fifth book this year.

Our copy is a second edition from 1863. The edges are deckled and the margins are wide. The text is the expected discussion of books and anecdotes from the biblioworld, ranging wide as these books about books usually do. More than its content, though, this book has a good feeling about it, the small size that fits appropriately in one's hand, just as it is meant to be--it feels right simply to hold and carry it, as if it is a sacred volume. Which in some ways it is.

One subject Mr. Burton covers is the resilience of books against censorship, and more specifically their resistance to flame. He makes a truthful and troubling observation:
In the days when heretical books were burned, it was necessary to place them on large wooden stages, and after all the pains taken to demolish them, considerable masses were sometimes found in the embers; whence it was supposed that the devil, conversant in fire and its effects, gave them his special protection. In the end it was found easier and cheaper to burn the heretics themselves than their books.
Lovers of books and freedom do well to remember that it is not so long ago when the United States government was still labeling books as obscene and forbidding their importation. And the practise continues today in other countries. Just visit the USPS website and check out the list of restrictions on international mail.

Another interesting fact Mr. Burton reveals concerns the thorn, or theta. He exposes the common delusion that our English ancestors not only wrote, but pronounced the definite article "the" as "ye." Its use is what he calls the trick of "every blunderer ambitious of success in fabricating old writings...." He explains that the Gothic alphabet had a theta for expressing in one letter our present t and h conjoined. When it was abandoned, some printers substituted for it the letter y, as most nearly resembling it in shape. Hence our "ye" which is sometimes found in old books, but much more frequently in modern imitations of them. The following images, from The Smoot Family Association, illustrate the error. The only time "ye" is not "the" is when it is "you." Who knew?

The surprise of this book came last night, after we had finished reading. Having previously only glanced at the bookplate on the front endpaper, we now examined it closely. The former owner of this book was one Thomas Hovey Gage, Jr., who also inscribed his name and date, in that typically exquisite lettering of bygone days (due, we suspect, to the slower and more deliberate process of writing with a quill or fountain pen), on the half-title. Mr. Gage was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote a couple books about the town and its inhabitants, as well as produced extensive work on the genealogy of the prominent Gage family. He also wrote and edited works on American engraving. He was a lawyer, served as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and Worcester Art Museum, and served in President Hoover's administration. The American Antiquarian Society has a huge collection of Gage correspondence. And we have a Gage association copy of The Book-Hunter.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Caution: Falling Books

In case someone hasn't seen, follow the link (at your own risk) to The World's Most Dangerous Bookstore. One will be lucky to come out alive.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Okay. We've been itching to write about Love, the recent release from this hot new band called the Beatles. For such young lads, these guys write some pretty good songs which have a timeless quality. They also perform rather well, with a lovely mix of garage band-style and (for lack of a better contrasting word) big band-style. They can go from grunge to grand without missing a beat.

This album reportedly took over two years to produce, which makes me wonder what Mr. Martin was up to. Some of the tracks are fantastic, while others are simply underwhelming. Mr. McCartney, the bass player for the band, said it best in a comment to his producer: You can go even further.

This aside, what really made us come to mention this music is a film we just recently watched: Yellow Submarine. This film was born from a Beatles song. There were also films of much broader adaptations of songs, such as A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

There have been film adaptations of books for as long as there have been films. After visiting another blog, The End of the Affair comes immediately to mind as a brilliant adaptation of the Graham Greene novel.

Once again, we arrive at the intersection of two matrices and wonder: has there ever been a song adaptation of a book, or a book adaptation of a song? Any examples come to mind? Any adaptations you would like to see?

Monday, January 15, 2007


I was working in the lab late one night, posting a comment on a favorite blog, when I called upon a word that I wasn't sure how to spell: rebut. One t or two?

Blogger offers a spell check function for their posting creator. Can comments be spell checked? I compose many posts with a word processing program that also has a spell check function. Too often these catch all the wrong words. What is worse is that my spelling is checked and corrected in a vacuum (double u or double c? Or both??). The correct spelling does not become imprinted or implanted in my brain the way it would by careful study, by the deliberate search for the correct word. And at times I will find the word, and check the definition at the same time, and decide I want a different word. This certainly can't happen with a spell checker. They are simply utilities.

The other word I wasn't sure of: unconscionable. I know the root word has a u lurking in it somewhere, so does this derivative--

Stop! Here is the process as it happens: I am typing this and suddenly wonder if derivative is the word that correctly describes a word that has been prefixed and suffixed. And even as I write this digression, I have to check whether prefix and suffix have one or two fs: why does one word have one and the other word have two? Ah, English!

So in all of these cases I turn to the dictionary. Mine resides on a shelf directly behind my chair, and I spin around and grab it: a well-worn Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in the Thin Paper Edition De Luxe, which is the largest abridgement (e or no e?) of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1936. Why something seventy years old? If one would come here more often to read my ramblings, one would know: it suits me well. It has older definitions. It also tells me that derivative is the word I wanted: 2. Gram. A word derived from another by any process of word development; any simple word not a primitive or root.

So I end these musings with a question: what was the last word you had to check for spelling or definition, and did you check it manually or electronically?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

More on Yankee Bookseller

We had several individual notes from our reading of this book, and they became separated, so now this book gets a bonus post.

One of the more interesting things in this book is that Mr. Goodspeed posits handwriting has nationalities. Experts believe this to be true, as well as an historical style that can date handwriting.

There is also an intriguing exploration of the rights of ownership concerning letters and their content. Legally, how do letters compare to books? We were surprised to learn that ownership of the physical letter--stationery, envelope, (and presumably any inserts)--rests with the recipient; or if returned or unsent, with the sender. Rights to the content of the letter, in terms of the specific words and phrases used, are retained by the writer, much as the specific words of a novelist belong to the writer. Basically, book and letter are both copyrighted. Thus, a letter we have written to Tiresias may be sold by him to another, but it may not be published without our permission.

Mr. Goodspeed makes the following observation concerning written correspondence:
It is a pity that the fine art of letter-writing is almost lost . . . now with the employment of the shorthand writer, and the general use of typewriter, dictaphone, and other mechanical aids. . . .
This written more than sixty years before the prominence of email and instant messages, and the similar cries of lament. So what can You, our two Dear Readers, do? We propose to engage a correspondence by letter with any of you who would like to participate. Simply send an email with your name and address to letters -at- madaboutbooksonline -dot- com. Mr. Goodspeed would be pleased.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book Four

Yankee Bookseller, Being the Reminiscences of Charles E. Goodspeed, with many illustrations.

When this book was published in 1937, Mr. Goodspeed had been selling books for thirty-nine years. This is an autobiography of sorts, but also filled with literary anecdotes and information about auctions, first editions, appraisals, and Tamerlane. We are returned to a bygone era, but also note how little has changed in the world of the book dealer.

There are many photographs, one of which shows the interior of one of Mr. Goodspeed's shops. It looks cozy, almost like a personal library, and recalled to me the appearance and ambiance of Bookman's Alley. A large fireplace filled much of one wall, which recalled to me the warmth and ambiance of Cracker Barrel. And then we arrived at the intersection of three matrices: the library at home, comfortable reading beside your fire; the place of business warmed by the fire; and the modern bookstore with places to sit, sip a decaf cappacino, and read. What Barnes & Noble and Borders needs is a large fireplace to complete the book-buying experience they offer.

Recently we suggested there was something not quite right about a bookstore that also sells trinkets and unbookish merchandise. Mr. Goodspeed explains our discomfort:
Sculptor's work is not, of course, sold in bookstores. Book-dealers are conservative folk; to gain recognition of their occupation as a profession rather than a trade, they should resist the temptation to go far afield, or to add to their stock more profitable articles of general utility not related to their regular merchandise.
Ours is a profession, not a trade.

We give it three (out of four) pipefuls.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Illinois Valley Reads

Amerika, by Franz Kafka

You are invited to join in and read one of Kafka's most memorable works. A discussion will be held 2:00pm and 6:00pm on Monday 26 March 2007 at Illinois Valley Community College, Room C316, to be moderated by Malynne Sternstein, Professor of Literature and Slavic Studies at the University of Chicago. Even if you cannot attend, this may be the right time to further explore the works of an influential writer.

More information can be obtained by calling 815.224.0203.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Book Three

After several people suggested reading the John Dunning mysteries featuring a book-selling cop, we began to search. We found the third book first, and refused to begin reading until we had found the other two. Well, Readers, we can tell you with assurance that Santa is a bookman. A couple weeks ago he dropped off the last one I needed--the first in the series--and that is now the third book we've read this year.

Booked To Die covers the typical landscape of the murder mystery. Cliff Janeway is a Denver police officer with a passion for books. What makes this novel different is the insight into the book world, specifically the workings of a bookscout. Janeway gets himself into trouble, quits the law-and-order business, and indulges his passion in the book-selling business.

Of course, this doesn't stop him from continuing his murder investigation. For us, this is the point of disbelief that must be accepted on faith: that such a great former cop would, and could, go on doing things--some illegal--in the name of finding a murderer. This was an easy read that was laid out almost perfectly, so far as the introduction of characters, the black moment, and the denoument. One of the highlights is the banter between the bookdealers Seals and Neff. And we were ready to extend a job offer to Janeway's first employee, Miss Pride, whose natural abilities, eagerness to learn, and red hair made her eminently qualified.

What a wonderful booktown Denver must be. Unfortunately, here in the middle of a cornfield, there aren't enough book custodians, and too many book consumers. The good days are when one of the outnumbered true book lovers--the ones who populate Dunning's novel, who want something of quality and durability, and are not afraid to pay for it--comes in, and we have something new they haven't seen before. Those who agonize over how much they can spend on a book they truly want, because it means they will have that much less to spend on food for the week, are preferrable to those who purchase a handful of paperbacks as their form of popcorn and a movie. But we have to make a living, and so we work with the opportunities we have. The trade-off is the murder rate among booklovers is much lower here.

We don't often read mysteries, so are not familiar with the most desirable ingredients that go to make a good one. Dunning's book has received high praise. What kept us reading was the setting and background of books. It's purely business, but if one enjoys such things, one would probably find this book of interest.

We give it three (out of four) pipefuls.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Sacred trusts

...from The Enemies of Books, by William Blades
"It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end. Looked at rightly, the possession of any old book is a sacred trust, which a conscientious owner or guardian would as soon think of ignoring as a parent would of neglecting his child."

The newest paperback edition of Iris Johansen is a book to own. One buys it, one consumes it, and one earns points with the book gods by lending it or giving it away. A single copy, out of 925, of the 1901 Mosher edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets is not a book to own. As Blades suggests, we may possess it, but we are only guardians, custodians, until it is sold or passed on to another with the same stipulations attached.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Book Two

The second book we have read this year is Bibiliotopia or, Mr. Gilbar's Book of Books and Catch-All of Literary Facts and Curiosities, by Steven Gilbar, and illustrated by Elliot Banfield.

From the title, cover, and blurb, this promised to be a wonderfully interesting book. Unfortunately, there was little of substance inside. A handful of word origins, and some terms defined highlighted the good content; the rest just seemed like filler. Page after page of lists, like what writers have graduated from Universitat Angstadt (as well as every other university one could name off the top of one's head) or what books have won the annual Al-Qaeda Most Terrifying Novel award (and lots of other awards no one has ever heard of). This is little more than a trivia book that could have been made much better by relating anecdotes appropriate to each list. If it's interesting information about books and the biblioworld you want, better to read from the great bookdealers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, like the 1863 edition of The Book-Hunter, by John Hill Burton, which we will report on soon.

We give it one (out of four) pipefuls.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Book Hunts

On Wednesday we took a ninety minute drive to a shop in a small town that is closing its doors, and offering all their books at 50% off. The shop had been closed a few days before while the shopkeepers pulled their most valuable books off the shelves, as they continue to sell them on the internet, and hope to some day reopen in a new town.

Everything is for sale: books, shelves, and all the little knicky-knacky, crafty, candley things they also have on offer. (We can only presume it's a way to make money, but the mixture of such handicrafts with books just grates.) Nothing of superb value was found, and we came away with three small bags of books which we hope will be of interest to our bibliomaniacs.

The significance of the trip is that it was the first book-hunt of the year, and the first for us since September, and it thereby signals the desires and joys of a new season in which we hope to acquire many more fine books, for our bibliomaniacs as well as our selves.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Reader's Bill of Rights

The Reader's Bill of Rights, by Daniel Pennac

The right to not read
The right to skip pages
The right to not finish
The right to reread
The right to read anything
The right to escapism
The right to read anywhere
The right to browse
The right to read out loud
The right to not defend your tastes

Monday, January 1, 2007

Booklist 2007

So many of the litblogs I visit present a list of books the blogger has read during the year, so I've decided to follow along this year. I'll mention them here, and tally them in the sidebar. I don't set myself any specific goal, but keeping a list of the books I read was something that I used to do, and for some reason I stopped doing it a few years back. I think my best year for reading I managed over one book per week. I don't expect the same results now. One of the necessary acts of devotion for a reader ought to be keeping such a list, and so this blog offers me a good reason to do it and keep up with it.

The first book of the new year is The Jesus Papers, by Michael Baigent. Way back when he was one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail which presented in full the theory that The Da Vinci Code suggests: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and with her he fathered a child.

The Jesus Papers puts us on the trail of evidence which suggests Jesus was still alive in A.D. 45, and ends with possible proof of the fatherhood theory. The presentation is wide-ranging, and there is a lot of background that sets up the premise, as well as anecdotal evidence of the suppression of information over thousands of years. Even if one believes Baigent's theories are hogwash, one would do well to acknowledge and accept the possibility that there are truths that never made it into the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.

I give it three (out of four) pipefuls.