Monday, April 30, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 12

I believe this to be the smallest rectangular card stock bookmarker I have. There is a history of the bookshop written by the owner, Margaret Hard: A Memory of Vermont: Our Life in the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop, 1930-1965, originally published by Harcourt but it was reissued in 1995.

During the summer of 1942, Vladimir Nabokov was staying at the summer home of a Harvard Professor near West Wardsboro, Vermont, not far away at all from Manchester Village. I wonder if he ever dropped by looking for books on entomology.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Signed copy

Having recently looked into the in-print status of a certain author long deceased, I came across a publishing site whose basic set-up for each book provides for author contact information. If I would like to contact so-and-so and see about getting a book signed etc. Since the author was quite dead it provided food for thought. Could it be a job for Margaret Atwood's innovative and exciting Longpen technology I wondered? It would make a good New Yorker type of cartoon. Deceased authors lining up on the other side to sign books for the living. Jane Austen stepping back on Herman Melville's shoes as she backs away from Cervantes gesticulating in earnest as he explains a basic narrative premise to Goethe, and Henry James and Joseph Conrad at the end of the line looking the other way, confirmed in their belief that this was a bad idea altogether.

I do think the Longpen is quite marvelous. And Atwood, well, our resident genius.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Browsing? Our Robots can do that for us.

Over at Librarian's Place I came across a link to an article about a Chicago University Library using a robot to retrieve books from a warehouse-like set-up called a library, thereby creating efficient retrieval. One can see certain benefits. Books would not be lost, mishelved, damaged or hidden, at least one would hope. Any university student or librarian knows of the chaos that can occur in a library at paper writing time. Books everywhere. The shelves in disarray. Reshelving carts overflowing. Books with chapters sliced out. Bound periodicals in stacks and piles on the floor beside photocopy machines. At least those were my memories, dated though they may be.

To lose the on-site browsing ability, however, certainly guts the very life out of a library.

Perhaps the librarians can give the robots names, like Helena or Marius from Karel Capek's R.U.R., or Hadaly from Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, the guy who coined the word 'android'.

It would be nice if the robots were androids. One could listen to their complaints over a cup of coffee. They could sport reading glasses. And a cardigan. Those warehouses must be cold after all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


For every action there is a reaction. The recent article in the Times about the supposed negative effects of internet bookselling on the art of the browse can be seen as one journalist's attempt to get a reaction. At least it makes us think about the issue. Margaret Atwood's and Kazuo Ishiguro's remarks may have been used by the journalist to point the brick wall he was building, but I think the wall is only knee high and we can safely sit on it and see both ways. Margaret Atwood and Ishiguro are of a certain age, and like many of their age, myself included, they spent their formative years in open stack libraries and a selection of bookshops both retail and second-hand. I use the internet and it is a very useful tool like Ishiguro mentions, but I too, like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, have been conditioned over the many years by the browsing in bookshops and libraries. The utter reality of it: the sunlight coming through the window; the smell of the books; the excitement and pleasure upon finding what one was looking for and for the chance discovery of something utterly new; the bookseller's friendly banter; the cat sleeping in the sunny window; the sound of the door closing and opening; the feel of that little step down into the shop; the chance meeting with a friend; the old chair next to the heating stove; the sense of comfort and well-being as rain taps against the window and one has no umbrella; the light upon the gilt titles and colourful softcovers; the feel of the binding and the sound of the paper as each page is turned. . . Endless memories come back to me of experiences in bookshops over the past close to 40 years. This is what cannot be replicated on-line. There is something unique about reality.

Although the internet has indeed brought about all sorts changes and adjustments in the bookselling world, I agree with Michael Gove's response in the Times that it is "the spread of bookselling by the major grocers that has caused real problems for the margins of smaller bookshops." His article is quite humourous and he is obviously an ardent bibliophile.

I came across an article only yesterday quite inadvertently on a library database (yes the internet does have its serendipity but of a different kind) written for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton titled Stacks Appeal. It is his lovely paean to open stack libraries and the art of the browse. Very well said and humourous. Yes, browsing in reality is different. And may we always have it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Memoirs Extraordinary

In London, on April 23, 1841, the poet, author, journalist and editor, Charles Mackay (1814-1889), penned the preface to a book which, unbeknownst to him, would become the one publication of his fairly prolific output which would keep his name alive into the present age. Had he not written this book, he would have been but another forgotten author (though perhaps remembered as the father of Marie Corelli) who would be known only to book collectors and scholars, his titles listed in antiquarian booksellers' catalogues, and his volumes gathering dust in closed stacks of older library collections.

The book in question was first issued by Richard Bentley in 1841, with the title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (3 volumes). A new edition was issued in 1852 in 2 volumes by the National Illustrated Library with the ammended title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (though the spine titles could read Mackay's Popular Delusions which seems rather humourous today.) The American edition was issued in 1856 by G. Routledge in 2 volumes, and later issued in one volume in 1869 in their Routledge's Standard Library series and reprinted subsequently.

The book gained new life when in 1932, during the lowest period of the economic crash, L. C. Page issued a new edition through the influence of Bernard M. Baruch. It was just what people needed. To read of follies and delusions in past ages, and to see that recovery was possible. It is to Bernard M. Baruch that we owe its continuing success. In the foreword to the 1932 edition, Baruch concludes: "It is bound to produce a confirmed and vital conviction of the value and the invariability of the simpler axioms of human conduct and that, I take it, is, just now, a consummation devoutly to be wished." It was reprinted many times throughout the twentieth century and most recently by Harriman House.

It seems we are in constant need of being reminded of our human folly.

Mackay chose as the epigraph to the first edition the following words:
Il est bon de connaitre le delires de l'esprit humain. Chaque peuple a ses folies plus ou moins grossieres.

For the 1852 edition, Charles Mackay chose for the epigraph four lines from Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux (a favourite of Dryden) . The last two lines read:
Tous les hommes sont fous, et malgre tous leurs soins
Ne different entre eux que du plus ou du moins.

Portrait of William Shakespeare

In honour of the accepted date of William Shakespeare's birth date, I have chosen the Grafton Portrait which has generally been discredited as a possible painting of Shakespeare, and yet it appeals to me in that it captures the tension of youthful uncertainty combined with the all perceiving eye. J. Dover Wilson used this for the frontispiece to his book The Essential Shakespeare: a Biographical Adventure (Cambridge 1932), but it is now seen to be more likely a picture of the young Marlowe if anyone.

The scholar Peter Beal (author of Index of Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700, and In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England) has recently reviewed a new book concerned with the authenticity of certain portraits of the bard: The True Face of William Shakespeare by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel (Chaucer Press), and he ends his review with the following words: "By all means, let readers engage with this book and make up their own minds. Absolute truth, however, remains as elusive as ever."

Bookmark of the Week: No. 11

In honour of Shakespeare's birthday, I thought this bookmarker would fit the Bill! I've never been to their shops, though I believe they still exist. On the back of the bookmarker in very small print they explain the reasons for having chosen the name. In honour of Sylvia Beach's example in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, they chose to use another reference to Shakespeare and attach "and Company". Robert Greene's reference to Shakespeare as an "Upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers" fit their bill.

The artwork seems to be by Leonard Baskin. Ted Hughes was prompted by the artist to write a text for his artwork and their collaboration produced Crow among other works. There may be a connection between Baskin and the bookstore but I don't know the story there.

I cannot find my copy of Hughes' Crow. I usually keep all my Faber paperbacks together but It seems to have migrated. Or walked.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lightly Versified 1

Perusing The New Oxford Book of Light Verse edited by Kingsley Amis has, as usual with these things, influenced me. For some reason the following Limerick came to me as I tried to fall asleep last night.

There was a young man of Chambly,
Who incapably sang in a tree.
When asked why it was,
He said, "It's because,
I'm a descendent of Madame Albani."

A friend I used to know grew up in Chambly and told me of the young man there who was known to be a descendent of the renowned and extremely talented international opera diva Madame Albani, and how he lived off the name. My friend was a great opera fan, and he could see why this young man should be proud, but I think he grew tired of being reminded of this young man's relation to fame.

In the 1850s when Madame Albani was still the young Emma Lajeunesse from Chambly, she performed a number of times at the Montreal Mechanics' Institute Hall where she played the piano and later sang. The Montreal Mechanics' Hall on the corner of Great St. James and St. Peter streets (now St. Jacques and St. Pierre) was opened in the spring of 1855 and was later demolished in the 1920s for the Head Office of the Royal Bank of Canada. That building still exists in its massivity. An astonishing pile indeed. When it was built in 1928 it was the tallest building in Canada. Here is a view of the interior of the main banking level. You would feel confident with your money in this bank. Hmm, I think I have digressed rather far from Kingsley Amis and light verse, but, if you look very closely, you'll see that the man in the photograph bears a striking resemblance to the English author.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 10

Kingsley Amis was born on this day in 1922, and died at the relatively early age of 73 in 1995. Robert Conquest (pseudonym of George Robert Acworth) was working for the Foreign Office when Kingsley met him and they became friends due to their mutual interest in, among other things, science fiction. In his Memoirs (Hutchinson, 1991) Kingsley Amis devotes a chapter to Robert Conquest and the following passage is drawn from it:

He was one of the first members of the British Interplanetary Society, and published a novel in the genre, A World of Difference, in 1955. It featured a verse-writing computer, with profuse specimens given, and of course a 'Poet' class of space cruisers that included the Jennings, Larkin, Enright, Amis, Gunn and Holloway. From 1961 to 1966 Bob and I collaborated on the editing of five science-fiction anthologies, Spectrum - Spectrum V, and in 1965 on a straight novel, The Egyptologists, which greatly annoyed some women with its battle-of-the-sexes plot (in fact the women came out of it one up on the men) and amused others, recently the great Ruth Rendell. [p.147]

In the anthology The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978) edited by Amis, there are a number of entries written by Robert Conquest but given under the pseudonyms of Victor Gray, Stuart Howard-Jones, and I believe also Ted Pauker. Quite the wit. Amis includes additional limericks in his memoirs, ones perhaps too profane for the anthology, and perhaps too informal, or is it thersitical, for this bookmark number. I leave them to you.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Song of Truth

I just happened upon a piece by Alberto Manguel which made me feel like I've been slouching in my seat and not paying attention.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 9

I pulled this bookmarker out of the box at random. This bookmark has probably travelled further than I have. No doubt a common one in Australia, but a tad unusual this way. Dymocks has some history behind it, and seems to be making it still. Can't you just hear the great Aussie accent saying "Darling Harbour."

Saturday, April 07, 2007

"It deepens like a coastal shelf": On Chesil Beach

Reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is rather like listening to chamber music on a Sunday afternoon, it seems at first that nothing too dramatic is to occur. The five chapters, or movements, whose muted themes are gradually and ineluctably unfolded, are meticulously and evenly constructed in spare clean prose. We, the readers, begin to piece together the clues and narrow down the period to a particular year and feel buoyed by having chosen(I was thinking 1960) a year close to the actual year of 1962, as the two newly-weds, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting celebrate their first night at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At this moment, sombre notes from the cello and viola bring up the ghost of Philip Larkin. And yet, though lines from Annus Mirabilis arise briefly like the flotsam of our memory, they subside and settle once more like the stones on Chesil beach to the broader order that the author wishes us to attend.

Ian McEwan explores Edward and Florence's background with equanimity and we begin to see how the trajectories of these two restless lives have come to interact. I have always found it fascinating how people's lives come together and this short novel does not disappoint. Edward thinks the turning point of his life was in 1954, when, aged 14, his father took him to the bottom of the garden and told him that Edward's mum was in fact brain-damaged:

all the tiny shifts and realignments in his life seemed crystallised in this new knowledge.(p.74)

A figure out of the past, a "distinguished-looking city gent in his sixties with bowler, rolled umbrella and newspaper" had negligently handled the door of a train carriage and upon a hard braking it had swung loose and struck Edward's mother in the head. And this gent "scuttled away from the scene" like some great man of history leaving victims in his wake. One could possibly see the beginnings of Edward's life trajectory taking shape from this very moment.

And Florence's life is seemingly altered irrevocably by her father while her mother, a rather distant and cool intellectual professor, has provided little solace and Florence seeks out an intellectualized warmth of spirit in her violin playing.

It is a novel that the reader can turn over again and again in their thoughts like the waves washing and sorting the stones on Chesil beach. The muted themes take on greater context. The respective influences of their parents in their own family triangles, and the randomness of their quite different lives intersecting on a day they were both restless and wanting to break away, leads to their own decisions and indecisions taking on greater weight as they begin their slow courtship.

There is that decisive scene on the beach near the end of the book, where Edward castigates Florence by saying that she was acting as if it was 1862 and not 1962. For us the readers, we can possibly invest this with irony. As A. N. Wilson in his interesting book, God's Funeral, has suggested, the 1860s were equally revolutionary in how the young began to slough off the strictures of the past. At this moment I thought of The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. It was set in 1867 and written during the 1960s and published in 1969, and the setting is that other Dorset coastal site, the city of Lyme Regis. I have just started to reread this novel and it feels like a good shift in perspective.

Although On Chesil Beach does show us a picture of a certain period on the brink of change, we can also see the perennial and universal themes of relationships in all their variations and see how fragile and difficult they can be. We can only hope that in 2060 there will be such perennial themes to explore. We can only hope that the stones on Chesil Beach will still exist to be sorted and washed by a tidal flow.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Stray Impressionist Finds his Home

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) had travelled and wandered far in his life, and though he thought the tropics would keep him, it was in the far east that he discovered home. In the fall of 1889, he was unhappy and staying in New York when an art editor at Harper's suggested he write a book on Japan. While Hearn worked on his book proposal for Harper's, the art editor travelled to Montreal to talk with Sir William Van Horne to see if he could provide passage across Canada for Hearn and an artist. Sir William agreed and offered $250 upon Hearn's arrival in Montreal. The requirement was for Lafcadio Hearn to write an article about the trip across Canada on one of Sir William's Canadian Pacific Railway trains.

On March 8th, 1890, Hearn and C. D. Weldon, the artist, left New York by train and arrived in Montreal greeted by the cold and ice:

Ice, many inches thick, sheets the pavements; and lines of sleighs, instead of lines of hacks, wait before the station for passengers. No wheeled vehicles are visible,--except one hotel omnibus: only sleighs are passing. They have for me quite an unfamiliar picturesqueness.

Hearn's glimpse of Montreal was unfortunately short. It would have been interesting to read of his impressions from a longer stay in Montreal, but he did leave a short description:

The city is very solid and very gray--a limestone city largely: comfortable, conservative looking. Nothing that strikes the eyes has a foreign aspect, --except a few old French houses recalling memories of New Orleans: the newer and larger buildings awake remembrances of New York and Philadelphia in their less modern quarters.

These excerpts are from the "required" article published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1890; in the article Hearn also reflects on the nature of modern travel. He sees that a circuit of the world was possible, according to his calculations, in 35 days and six hours. He outlines the various stages and durations. It was on his mind. He was fondly attracted to Elizabeth Bisland, a fellow journalist, who had left New York on a race to be the first to circumnavigate the world in the shortest time. Bisland was playing catch-up with Nellie Bly who had already left on her trip around the world. It was the attempt of the owner of the Cosmopolitan Magazine's to compete with Bly and The World. Nellie Bly won.

Hearn's article continues with wonderful descriptions of Canadian scenery for many pages; just what Sir William Van Horne was looking for I am sure. They arrived at Vancouver where they boarded the Abysinnia which departed on March 17th.

It was on this day, the 4th of April, 1890, when Lafcadio Hearn first glimpsed Japan, the country that this "civilized nomad" could at last call home:

Then with a delicious shock of surprise I see something for which I had been looking, --far exceeding all anticipation --but so ghostly, so dream white against the morning blue, that I did not observe it at the first glance: an exquisite snowy cone towering above all other visible things--Fujiyama! Its base, the same tint as the distances, I cannot see--only the perfect crown, seeming to hang in the sky like a delicate film,--a phantom.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dark Knowledge: Banville's Black Cloak

Christine Falls / Benjamin Black
There is little pretense, or is it little faith, or perhaps both, in the fact that the rear dustwrapper flap of the American edition of Christine Falls reveals quite plainly that Benjamin Black is John Banville. (I assume it is the same with the British edition pictured here, a cover which captures, unlike the American cover art, the atmosphere of the setting.) Was this the forthrightness of Banville himself not wanting to pull the wool over our eyes? Unlikely. The publishers? Most likely. They must have weighed the readership of a new crime series with the known factor of Banville followers, Ban's Fans so to speak, and after a little mathematical work realised there would be good sales all round with the combination.
Banville's choice of pseudonym is of interest for anything Banville creates is so. The surname "Black" is self-evidently appropriate for the "noir" crime novel. The given name, "Benjamin", translates as "son of the right hand." If Banville is left-handed then it would be seen as the work of the other. But if John Banville is right-handed then it is even more interesting for it would be the mirrored reflection of the author, a sinistral performance is delivered by his reflected self. His dark double. A rather Nabokovian conceit.

There have been some authors who, perhaps eyeing retirement in the south of France, have tried to forge a new identity and leave their long list of under appreciated, though critically acclaimed, literary novels behind like a wardrobe that is no longer working for them. I think of the Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, whose alter-ego, John Farrow, has provided some interest in the battle against crime. But Banville is at the top of the heap and has done well financially, so unless he likes the horses too much, we can assume he has always found this genre appealing and is looking for a challenge. But though to write pseudonymously is possible, to write anonymously is difficult. We live in times of book signings, author tours, trade shows and book expos, and interviews across the gamut. What is an author to do? Perhaps he could sport a mustache, or don Simenon-like spectacles and smoke a pipe, and say, "Yes, people often say I look like John Banville the literary author." No, it won't do. One cannot lie. One must leave those to ones characters.

And lie they do. Falsehoods are the very supports holding their lives in place. Indeed, It seems that place and period are the very inspirations for the novel, a time when lies and religious sins were abundant. Dublin in the 1950s is a darkly etched cityscape. The ghosts of LeFanu and Wilde would find their old Merrion Street haunts to have frightfully changed. His main protagonist, Quirke, the pathologist who prefers his drapes drawn, and the dead to the living, wanders within a rather small circumference of south east central Dublin, but one gets a feel for the wet streets and rank odors, and one can almost smell the omniscient cigarette smoke. He paints his characters with quick flourishes of the brush, like an Augustus John with a two foot brush at arms length, and we wonder at the skilled use of colour. Minor characters come alive with a few deft strokes. I rather like Poole in chapter one, Quirke's neighbour who Black/Banville describes thus:

Poole stood sideways in the barely open doorway of his flat, neither in nor out, his accustomed stance, with an expression at once truculent and timid. He was an early riser, if indeed he ever slept. He wore a sleeveless pullover and a dicky-bow, twill trousers sharply creased, gray carpet slippers. He looked, Quirke always thought, like the father of a fighter pilot in one of those Battle of Britain films, or better still, the father of the fighter pilot's girlfriend.

Another character who seems to pass through doorways sideways is the young protestant admirer of Phoebe with an Irish given name, Conor Carrington:

Conor Carrington was, Quirke noted, the kind of person who enters sideways through a doorway, slipping rather than stepping in. He was tall and sinuous with a long, pale face and the hands, slender and pliant and white. . . . he had the look, Quirke thought, of a man arriving unwillingly at the wake of someone with whom he had been barely acquainted.

These descriptions carry much other information and colour the backcloth of the period; the protestant and catholic issues loom over the stage like blasted trees bereft of leaf pointing sharp fingered branches at each other.
I won't detail the plot. Only say that by the last quarter of the novel I felt I was reading a book by Benjamin Black. But that may have been the shift of place, a shift to Boston, and the fact that the finish line was in view, the dust having settled from the revelations so to speak.

Will life prevail? If, in the equation a lie takes the "f" out of life, then the "f" must represent truth, and the "f" will try to prevail. But there is always a cost. The book ends in the spring with the hope of renewal and change, warm soft breezes and the hint of justice. But one can only imagine the foggy autumn rounds, the slippery way along the tow path, the smokey pubs and clouds lowering over Merrion Street. A place where justice is thwarted by the powers in high places using sinister information and brute force. I already anticipate the next Benjamin Black crime novel, but I do hope Banville will return as well. Even if he is sporting a mustache.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bookmark of the Week: No. 8

With all the information gleaned from a recent blog of the TLS editor, I decided to bring out this bookmarker. It was a time when Halley's Comet was perhaps, for the average citizen, the only well-known periodic event in the sky besides the Pleiades. Twenty years later and the changes have been immense. It does seem a golden age of information exchange. Technology and the internet have given us access to so much information it is truly astonishing. I receive regular updates from the Cassini-Huygens mission and I really only have a passing curiosity in it all, but it is always fascinating to learn of the latest developments such as the lakes found on Saturn's Titan, just as it is likewise fascinating to learn of the latest developments in Tony Blair's political orbit. Well, almost.

As to the 1985-86 comet pass, living in downtown Montreal at the time rather precluded any viewing, but I am quite sure I saw it in a magazine. At least I think I did.

This bookmark was issued by Sky & Telescope magazine.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Swans in Spring

Spring truly arrives here only when the swans appear. After wintering over in their special swan house, they make their way down to the river with great pomp and circumstance in the wake of the Perth County Pipe Band. The swans are accompanied by two Canada Geese, two Chinese Geese and other assorted geese and they are followed by their keepers and the dignitaries. This year was special since Robert J. Miller, the swan keeper of many years has passed away and his family was representing his memory. The crowds of loyal swanophiles -us included- gathered to be a part of this traditional parade. You can watch a video of a past swan parade at this link. It is just one of many events that makes this city very special. Now the nesting season begins, and soon enough we shall be counting cygnets and ducklings.

The photograph above is from a previous year and you can just make out Mr. Miller in the white hat behind the swans.