Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Book Shop Loss and a Book Shop Benefit

Great Northwest Books in Portland, Oregon

The used and rare book world suffered a sad loss earlier this month when Great Northwest Books, a longtime favorite in Portland, Oregon, burned down. More than 100,000 volumes--and owner Phil Wikelund's life's work--were destroyed.

To compound the tragedy, the economic downturn had caused the owner to let the insurance on the building and contents lapse.

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday June 4-6, there will be a benefit book sale held at 3025 S.W. 1st Ave in Portland to raise funds for the demolition of the building remains. Other booksellers in the Northwest are donating merchandise, and Oregon authors Bill Cameron, Carola Dunn, Richard H. Engeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Doc Macomber, Daniel Matthews, Michael Munk, and Sheila Simonson have donated new, signed copies of their work.

Salavageable books from Great Northwest, which specialized in Western Americana, will also be sold. Most books are priced at $0.75 to $3.00, with the new, signed books priced at $25. Books remaining on Sunday will go for $5.00 per bag. The sale will be open Friday June 4 & Saturday June 5, 10 am - 6 pm, and Sunday June 6, 11 am - 2 pm. For more details, directions, and instruction on how to donate books or cash to the cause, please visit

Friday, May 28, 2010

1st Annual Donkey Award Nominees For Most Asinine Book Review of 2010

 Read any bad book reviews lately?

Rotten book reviews that offend by sucking-up valuable time and wasting reduced and valuable review space have led to a counter-offensive against book reviewers who spend more time reviewing pop culture and celebrity pap rather than significant fiction and non-fiction books and the ideas within.

The people at small press publisher Permanent Press believe it’s time that critics be compelled to sit in the hot seat.

Enter The Donkey Award (Equus Asinus).

An engraved plaque will be awarded for the Best Abuse Of Space For The Least Deserving Book; in short for the most asinine review of the year.

Hundreds of reviews could be cited, and one might argue about the worst of them. But the list of nominees has been narrowed to five finalists, which all appeared in the New York Times.

And the nominees are (with links to their reviews):

Caught and Never Look Away, reviewed by Janet Maslin.
John Lennon, reviewed by Nellie McKay.
Star (Warren Beatty), reviewed by Janet Maslin. (Read Booktryst's review).
Going Rogue, reviewed by Stanley Fish.
Solar, reviewed by Walter Kirn.

The Donkey Award jurists are:

• Joan Baum, author, print and National Public Radio book critic (Baum on Books on WSHU-FM).
• Bill Henderson, editor, author and publisher of The Pushcart Press.
• Daniel Klein, novelist, playwright, and best selling non-fiction co-author of Plato And A Platypus 
  Walked Into A Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
• Dan Rattiner, author, satirist, and founder of Dan's Papers.
• Marc Schuster, novelist and critic (Small Press Reviews).
Martin Shepard, co-publisher of The Permanent Press and author of eleven books.

The award ceremony will feature various asinine reviews, which will be distributed to the press to illustrate their point, along with statements from the judges, most of whom will be in attendance.

A donkey will also be present, if he is not too embarrassed to attend. If he does, let's hope he doesn't make an ass of himself.

Saturday, June 5, 3 pm
Dan’s Papers Front Lawn
2221 Montauk Highway
Bridgehampton, NY 11932

For further information contact:

The Permanent Press
4170 Noyac Road
Sag Harbor, NY 11963
phone: 631-725-1101/fax: 631-725-8215

Ransom Center Exhibit Proves Costume Creates Character

Percy Anderson (1851-1928)
Costume design for A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1911.
Margery Maude as Titania.
(All Images Courtesy Of The Harry Ransom Center.)

Though most actors would be loathe to admit it, an essential ingredient for creating a believable character on stage or screen is a costume. Could Charlie Chaplin convince us he was The Little Tramp without his derby hat, baggy pants, and big shoes? Or to use a more recent example, would anyone buy Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw if she didn't sport her "J'adore Dior" t-shirt, Jimmy Choo stilettos, and Hermes Birkin bag? A new online exhibition from The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin shows virtual visitors that the costume designer was already the actor's best friend as far back as the Victorian era, and that one firm in particular helped hundreds of British thespians get into character whether they trod the boards or made magic on the silver screen.

Costumier's copy, after Aubrey Hammond (1893-1940)
Costume design for The Circle of Chalk, 1929.
Anna May Wong as Chang-Hi-Tang.

The exhibition, entitled A Tonic To The Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B.J. Simmons & Co., spotlights the work of the British company which remained London's premier preparer of costumes for operas, operettas, plays, pageants, pantomimes, musicals, movies, and revues for over 100 years, from 1857 to 1964. This sartorial showcase is divided into 10 distinct types of costume design, illustrated by 228 images taken from 60 historic theatre and film productions.

Percy Macquoid (1852-1925)
Costume design for The Merchant of Venice, 1908.

Alfred Brydone as the Prince of Morocco.

The Ransom Center acquired the B.J. Simmons archive, one of the largest of its kind in the world, in two installments in 1983 and 1987. This vast collection is comprised of 34,000 original costume designs and costumier's copies of the originals, as well as almost 30,000 related items such as production timetables, research materials, selected articles and reviews, touring dates, rental arrangements, and photographs of individual costumed actors as well as ensembles. Altogether the Simmons materials fills more than 500 standard-sized archive boxes.

Costumier's copy, after Doris Zinkeisen (1898-1990)
Costume design for The Way of the World, 1924.

Edith Evans as Mrs. Millamant

Artists employed by B.J. Simmons often copied a set of designs for use in the studio, these "costumier's copies" allowed the designer of record to retain the originals. Some costumier's copies are simple tracings, but most are freehand drawings, and those from the late 19th century are often incredibly exact watercolor renderings. The skilled artists hired by Simmons could not only recreate every minute detail of a designer's work, but also add construction notes, fabric swatches, and even incorporate the actor's face and body type to more accurately portray the finished product. Because stage plays from this era were rarely photographed, costume designs are often the only surviving visual record of these early productions.

Gordon Conway (1894-1956)
Costume design for Aunt Sally, 1933.
Directed by Tim Whelan for Gainsborough Pictures / Gaumont British Picture Corporation, Ltd.

In 2002, the Ransom Center was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the preservation, arrangement, description, cataloging, and selected digitization of the B.J. Simmons costume design collection. The Simmons collection was in dire need of conservation work. While stored in London, all paper materials in the collection, regardless of size, were folded into letter-size packets, placed between acidic pieces of cardboard, and then bound with cloth ribbons. Papers on the exterior of these packets were often coated with soot from the coal-burning fires of the British metropolis. Many items showed a great deal of wear and tear, and all were full of folds and creases from decades of disuse.

Percy Anderson (1851-1928)
Costume design for Trial by Jury, 1920.

A Lady in the Box.

All papers in the Simmons collection were surface-cleaned to reduce the soot, humidified in a water chamber to soften folds, and then gently blotted and pressed until flat. Any attached fabric swatches were removed during the process, and then replaced using non-rusting stainless steel pins. Materials were then placed in acid-free folders large enough for them to be stored flat within archive boxes. Drawings in need of more extensive conservation were noted for further work. The Ransom Center's paper conservation department completed work on approximately 12,500 drawings and other documents over a two year period. Associate Curator for Performing Arts at the Ransom Center, Helen Adair, stressed the importance of the government grant: "The Ransom Center is fortunate to have had the support of the NEH for this cataloging and preservation project. The NEH recognized that the collection as a whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts, and we never would have been able to tackle a project of this size without its generous support."

Percy Anderson (1851-1928).
Costume design for Chu Chin Chow, 1916.
Courtice Pounds as Ali Baba

The results of this painstaking work are now available to anyone who visits the Harry Ransom Center's website. The images selected for A Tonic To The Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B.J. Simmons & Co. represent the major strengths of the collection. Preliminary sketches and final renderings of costumes for the grand opera, patriotic pageants, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, classic plays by Shakespeare and Shaw, and British cinema are all part of the online exhibition. Two complete costume portfolios for the play Trelawny of the "Wells", one for the 1898 premiere and one for the 1926 revival, are also included. This allows viewers to compare each designer's unique conception of the same material, and to see the progression of stagecraft through the years.

Unknown Designer
Costume design for The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1928.
Julia Neilson as Lady Blakeney.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, costume designers were rarely credited in theatre programs by name. Many did not sign their sketches and renderings, so the creators of these pieces, which were so essential to the effectiveness of stage and screen productions, remain anonymous. But after gazing at the intricate and thoughtful creations on view in this exhibition, there can be little doubt that without the costume designer, even the actor with top billing might wind up being an unknown.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Leaning Bookshelves of Deger Gengiz

Trained as an architect, Deger Gengiz has professionally worked in architecture, archeology, and industrial design for the past twenty years.

While he creates functional, versatile, and affordable pieces, he continues to explore the boundaries between conceptual art and experimental design.

His work has been published in several international architecture books and included in the permanent collection of the Red Dot Design Museum.

 His most recent creation, the Cactus Chair, is an experiment investigating the effect of visual data to the user's experience. The existence of the Barrel Cactus is temporarily discomfiting, even though the user knows that the cactus underneath them is not likely to leave evidence of its existence on their butt.

Glass shards are another matter.

Images courtesy of Voos Design.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The ‘Best Scandalous Chronical [sic] Of The Day’

Sir Walter Scott thought the author "a prose Juvenal." The book went through at least nineteen editions, of which three were U.S.; two, French; and three Irish; the remaining issued in London. It was a satiric roman á clef, its characters drawn from the contemporary social and political spheres. It is considered to be one of the most famous novels of the 18th century. Yet few are aware of it.

The books is Chrysal: or The Adventures of a Guinea, originally published in London, 1760 by T. Becket. It's a book whose conceit - following an object through the many hands it passes through - would spawn imitators, particularly in movies, i.e. The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), written by British playright Terrance Rattigan, who undoubtedly was influenced by this extremely popular, if now forgotten, book.

Its author, Charles Johnstone (1719?-1800?), “was educated in Dublin and became a lawyer. He travelled in 1782 to Calcutta, where he remained as a journalist and later as a prosperous newspaper proprietor. His best-known work is Chrysal, or The Adventures of a Guinea (1760-5). ‘Chrysal’ is the articulate spirit of gold in the guinea, whose progress from hand to hand, through some six different countries, serves to link various inventive and satirical episodes, including a section on the Hell-Fire Club at Medmenham Abbey [the most infamous, led by Sir Francis Dashwood]. Various characters, good and bad, from high life and low (many of whom were libellously identified with characters of the day), covet and become corrupted by the golden coin” (The Oxford Companion to English Literature).

“The ‘best scandalous chronical of the day,’ the supposedly ficticious characters being taken from prominent men of the time. A key to their identity is to be found in Davis’s Olio [An Olio of Biographical and Literary Anecdotes and Memoranda Original and Selected, 1817], one of the criticised being General Wolfe. ‘We may safely rank Johnstone as a prose Juvenal’ - Sir Walter Scott. Halkett and Laing ascribe the book to C. Johnston, Prideaux to Johnstone, and B.P.C. and B.A.R. to Johnson. An inferior edition was published in duodecimo the following year. This had only 12 plates” (Tooley).

Given today's social and political scene, were the book written today the object passing through many hands would be a prostitute.

 For the record, a guinea is 1£ 1s (21 shillings).

[JOHNSTONE, Charles]. Chrysal; or The Adventures of a Guinea: By an Adept. A New Edition, to Which is Now Prefixed a Sketch of the Author’s Life. Embellished with Plates. In Three Volumes. London: Printed for Hector M’Lean, by Howlett and Brimmer, 1821.

First illustrated edition, and "best edition" (Tooley). Three octavo volumes. [4], v-viii, 319, [1, blank]; [4], 321, [1, blank]; [4], 326 pp. Fifteen hand-colored engraved plates (including frontispieces) by W. Read after E.F. Burney, T. Mawson, R. Courbould, and J. Burney.

Tooley 283.

Images courtesy of David Brass.

Stanford Library Exhibit Celebrates "A Neglected Genius."

Novelist And Poet Mary Webb, Neglected Genius.
(Image Courtesy Of
Has No One Heard Of Mary Webb? Facebook Page.)

Welsh writer Caradoc Evans summed up the brief life of his friend, English novelist and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927), with these bitter words: "All her life she had wished for riches, fame, applause, admiration, babies . . . and she got nothing." In 2010, thanks to one dedicated collector, The Grolier Club, and Stanford University's Cecil H. Green Library, Mary Webb has another chance to gain at least that fame, applause, and admiration. (The riches and babies are still a lost cause...) The first-ever exhibition celebrating her life and work is now on display.

Mary Webb As A Girl In Her Beloved Shropshire.
(Image Courtesy Of Mary E. Crawford.)

The exhibition, Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, consists of items from the personal collection of "Webbiana" amassed by amateur literary historian Mary E. Crawford over a 25 year period. Ms. Crawford estimates that over the years she and her husband, Bruce, have spent $250,000 on the nearly 600 piece collection. Through sheer determination they have acquired first editions and important association copies of Webb's published works, along with manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera from the Shropshire writer's career. Luckily, unlike many collectors, Ms. Crawford is eager to share the fruits of her labor of love with the public. She curated Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, published a two volume exhibit catalog of the same name, and created a companion "Webb-site,"

Lordshill Chapel And Minister's House In Shropshire, One Of The Settings For Mary Webb's Novel, Gone To Earth.

"The chapel and minister's house at God's Little Mountain were all in one – surrounded by the graveyard, where stones, flat, erect, and askew, took the place of a flower garden. Away to the left, just over a rise, the hill was gashed by the grey steeps of the quarries. In front rose another curve covered with thick woods…Behind the house God's Little Mountain sloped softly up and away apparently to its possessor."
- Gone to Earth

Mary Webb published six novels and one volume of poetry during her brief career. She also had numerous poems and short stories published in magazines like The Spectator and The Atlantic Monthly. Her work was well-reviewed, but never popular. And though she was paid reasonably well for her writing, she was hopeless with money, and plagued by debt and poverty. Her charitable donations were generous to a fault, leading a friend to say: "She might have twenty pounds in the morning and hardly ten shillings at night." One of the items in the current exhibition is the slightly charred manuscript of Webb's last, posthumously published novel, Armour Wherein He Trusted. It was rescued from the fireplace by Mary's husband, and is the only one of her original drafts not to have been burned for wintertime warmth.

The Devil's Chair At Stiperstones, A Setting For Mary Webb's Novel, The Golden Arrow. (Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

"For miles around, in the plains, the valleys, the mountain dwellings it was feared. It drew the thunder, people said. Storms broke round it suddenly out of a clear sky; it seemed almost as if it created storm…. It had the look of a chair from which the occupant has just risen, to which he will shortly return."
- The Golden Arrow

Webb's work was respected and admired by many major writers of her day, including Dame Rebecca West, J.M. Barrie, and G.K. Chesterton. In a 1917 review of Webb's second novel, Rebecca West wrote: "This year’s discovery has been Mary Webb, author of Gone to Earth. She is a genius, and I shouldn't mind wagering that she is going to be the most distinguished writer of our generation." Had she made that bet, West would have lost. Webb's work was so praised for its poetic descriptions of the Shropshire countryside; its frank addressing of controversial topics such as premarital sex, abortion, and patricide; and its psychologically complex characters that she was favorably compared to Thomas Hardy. But she never came close to Hardy's fame or fortune during her lifetime.

Buildwas Abbey In Shropshire, A Setting Which Inspired Mary's Last Book, Armour Wherein He Trusted.
(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

A shy and sensitive woman, Mary Webb suffered with ill health for most of her life. At twenty she was diagnosed with a case of the then-incurable thyroid condition, Graves' Disease. This illness cursed Webb with exhaustion, fevers, nervousness, severe headaches, and depression for the rest of her life, and also progressively disfigured her face and neck. She married late for a woman of her generation, at age 31 in 1912. Her husband, a school teacher and part-time writer, was at first supportive of her career, but later abandoned her for one of his much younger students. Poverty, loneliness, and disappointment caused her to assess herself as a failure who was "wholly-ungifted," and "whelmed in remorse and terror," by her literary shortcomings. She died alone in her Shropshire cottage from complications of Graves' Disease at age 46.

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Who Turned Mary Webb's Books Into Best Sellers.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

Mary Webb's reputation was made six months after her death by a fervent admirer of her work, then Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, Stanley Baldwin. He praised her writing in a speech at a Royal Literary Fund dinner in 1928, and announced his displeasure at the press for scarcely acknowledging her passing. Upon seeing a headline story featuring Baldwin's praise of Webb as a "neglected genius," publisher Jonathan Cape quickly produced a seven-volume set of Webb's complete novels and poetry. Each individual volume became a stand-alone best seller, and Cape and Mary's widower (from whom she had never been divorced) reaped a tidy profit. But Mary Webb's literary flame dimmed as quickly as it flared, and by the 1950's she was once again forgotten by all but a tiny circle of devoted readers and scholars.

Mary Webb In Later Years.
(Image Courtesy Of Mary E. Crawford.)

Now once more, a small group of Mary Webb's devotees want to have a big impact on her literary stature. Collector and curator Mary E. Crawford hopes Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, shown earlier this year at New York City's prestigious Grolier Club, and now on display at Stanford through August of 2010, will cause the writer's work "to be re-evaluated by the academic community." And already, important collections of Webb's papers are held in archives at the University of North Texas and at Smith College. And in Webb's native Shropshire, the setting for all of her novels, a series of four walking tours in her honor has been created on the "Mary Webb Trails," which pass by locations central to her novels. If things continue like this, perhaps the next exhibition of her work can be entitled: Mary Webb: Recognized Genius.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hey, Rare Book Guy! What’s The Perfect Way To Store Books?

The Rare Books Guy’s mailbox held an emergency supply of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and not much else this week; nothing to satisfy the Rare Book Guy’s insatiable hunger for challenging questions.

But the Rare Book Guy is always on the lookout for red book-meat to chew on and then present to readers in predigested form. He works the salt-mines to dig up info of interest to you, the fellowship of the rarebookeratti. Today’s question is a common one but in yesterday’s news brought to you today, a unique, optimal - if somewhat radical - method to store and protect books has caught the Rare Book Guy’s attention.

The Rare Book Guy working a salt mine.

I’d been in the salt mines so long I didn’t recognize that the answer to today’s question had been right in front of me - and above, below, and on all sides.
Manchester Central Library.
While undergoing renovations, the Manchester Central Library is storing its books - 1.5 million of them, the equivalent of twenty-two miles of shelves - in an underground storage facility named DeepStore, maintained by the town of Winsford. It’s a rock salt mine, the U.K.'s largest.

 Miner in one of DeepStore's tunnels.

Approximately 44,000 volumes published before 1850 and more than 30 works dating back to the 15th Century will be among the books deep-salined 493 feet underground for an estimated three years while the library is being worked on.

DeepStore possesses optimal conditions for storing books: Consistent temperature (57ºF), humidity (65%), protection from ultra-violet light, vermin and floods. Book worms are helpless. And bookworms may find accessing their collection a bit inconvenient.

Inside DeepStore's salt mine storage facility.

Neil MacInnes, head of library services, said "With so many rare and precious books of significant historical importance being temporarily removed from Central Library, it is vital that they are stored securely and in the best conditions....The salt mines are an absolutely invaluable resource for this. The team at DeepStore are extremely experienced and we have the peace of mind that the collection will be kept safely until they can be returned to the library."

"I like my books well-seasoned."

There are other advantages left unspoken: According to celebrity chef and cookbook author Emeril Lagasse, a little salt brings out the zest in prose, BAM! And after three years of preservation in salt the volumes should make for tasty book-jerky, an excellent way to carry otherwise weighty tomes while on a long trek and handy when quick intellectual sustenance is required to get you over the next hill.

After the Library’s renovations are complete patrons on a low-sodium diet may wish to consult their physicians before checking books out.

Should anyone doubt the Rare Book Guy's veracity, the story is such a big chunk of rock crystal that Self-Storage News has covered it as The Ultimate Climate-Controlled Storage: Salt Mines. If you can't trust Self-Storage News, who can you trust?

Original, full story at Yorkshire Evening Post.

Have a question for the Rare Book Guy? He's here to help but first you must read the details.

Genealogy: It's a Rare Book Thing

"Who are their people?"

That was my ancestry-obsessed Southern grandmother's first question about any new acquaintance. Breeding and background are a Southern thing; an obsession with bloodlines -- whether those of our neighbors, our horses, or our hunting dogs -- a value deeply woven into its culture. Perhaps that is why provenance, the rare book equivalent of genealogy, is such a fascination of mine; I am keen to know just who the people were who once owned and handled the books I come across in my work.

A formal yet touching presentation from husband to wife

One of my treasured possessions is a 19th century Steer's Universalist hymn book (above) inscribed by my however-many-greats-grandfather, Gen. John Baylis Earle, to his wife Ann. Another beloved book is a Moravian prayer book owned by great-grandmother's Aunt Rosa--a sort of fin-de-siècle Auntie Mame when she was a student at Salem Female Academy (or as she refers to it irreverently in one of her many margin notes, "Satan's Favorite Abode").

Rosa preserves flowers she received at a dance in April 1892 in her much-abused prayer book

Rosa used her prayer book for just about everything but it's intended purpose--it is filled with pressed flowers and billets-doux from her beaux and notes about her friends, foes, and social calendar. The page shown above preserves flowers she received at a dance in April 1892. A signature or inscription can bring the past vividly to life, as we consider where this book we hold in our hands has been and what is has meant to past owners.

One of my favorite tasks as a researcher for a rare book dealer is channeling my inner Nancy Drew to unearth tidbits of information about the people whose bookplates or signatures appear in the books I catalogue.

Sometimes, a book's provenance is an important selling point: A binding from the library of the collector Robert Hoe, founder of the Grolier Club and a very discriminating collector, is justly assumed to be of first-class workmanship and in fine condition. Hoe's rather demure morocco bookplate (above) is a seal of approval.

 The impressive armorial bookplate of the Earls of Macclesfield (above) testifies that a volume comes from one of the greatest private libraries ever assembled. Sometimes provenance research gleans an interesting bit of trivia that appeals to the imagination of some collectors. Research on Russian bookplate of Count Alexei Uvarov in an volume of English "conduct literature" (i.e., a book of deportment for young ladies) turned up the unexpected information that the owner had been a noted archaeologist whose educated and accomplished wife was the model used by Tolstoy for the character of "Kitty" in War and Peace.

A recent acquisition's provenance hit the trifecta: it combined a romantic story, a magnificent binding, and thrilling (to me, at least) associations.

A binding by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson.

The binding pictured above was executed by the greatest figure in modern English bookbinding, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922). When C-S was casting about for some way to participate in the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in England at the end of the 19th century, Jame Morris, wife of movement leader William Morris and muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, suggested he try his hand at bookbinding.

It turned out that C-S had an amazing sense of design and a real talent for the craft. The techniques he developed revolutionized bookbinding, and set the standards for a new generation. C-S completed his first binding in 1884, and two years later received a special request from a friend. Lady Clementine Mitford was in search of a unique gift for her husband's 49th birthday, and decided that a volume of poetry in a special binding would be just the thing for her book-loving husband, the diplomat Bertram Freeman-Mitford.

C-S notes in his journal that Mitford delivered the book, a large paper copy of Tennyson's The Princess, to him on 19 January 1885, with instructions that it must be completed on by her husband's birthday on 24 February 1886, but leaving the design, "mode and finish" entirely to C-S -- a wise decision.

The result is a binding covered with one of the earliest incarnations of Cobden-Sanderson's Tudor rose tool, the upper cover with the name "MITFORD" tooled in gilt, a "B" above it and a "C" below it, and with a score of Ms in the ogival compartment formed by the roses, and the lower cover cover with the baron's birthday "24 FEBRUARY 1886" and an interesting variation on the M decoration.

Detail of back cover.

The binder's notes about this work observe that "the design of back-side varies from front. The 'M' is inverted in the lower half [of the back]. This, an accident, [is] a great improvement. Time 54 3/4 hours. Undercharged."

Charming, no? But wait—there's more. Laid in at the back is a letter from C-S to Lady Clementine dated 23 February 1886, hoping that the binding, which he is sending "by a sure hand" arrives in time for the birthday celebration the following day.

Cobden-Sanderson's Signature on the letter to Lady Clementine

Artists. No sense of time whatsoever. No doubt poor Lady C was in a state worrying about her gift for the great occasion. Tipped onto the rear pastedown is the bill for the "undercharged" amount of £ 6.6.0 (the equivalent of approximately £3,350 today).

As readers who are fellow sufferers of Mitford mania know, the giver and receiver of this exquisite object are best known today for being the grandparents of the brilliant and scandalous Mitford sisters, including the Communist, activist, and journalist Jessica; Nazi sympathizers Lady Diana Moseley, wife of the leader of the British fascists, and the tragic Unity, who shot herself when war broke out between England and her beloved Fuhrer; Deborah Cavendish, the dowager duchess of Devonshire; and one of my favorite writers of all time, the inimitable Nancy Mitford.

Photo courtesy of

It is a thrill to know that this volume one resided in the library at Asthall Manor, the childhood home whose library Nancy lovingly recreated in her great novel Pursuit of Love, although its sterling condition makes it very clear that is was safely shut away from childish hands. Holding this book in my hand, I feel connected to the Mitfords.

Every book has a story, and a book can be a thrilling read, a rare treasure, an exquisite object, or all of the above. But a book can really come alive when you discover who its people are and what their story is. Breeding and background -- it's a rare book thing.

Binding images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The First James Bond And The Invisible Spy

Two novels. Two spies. One spy’s visible, the other’s not. One is in service to George Washington, the other in service to snooping on the social set during the reign of George II. One is the first novel to wholly concern itself with espionage, the other is one of the last novels by 18th century England’s most popular authoress.

The Name Is Birch. Harvey Birch.

He didn’t just write the Natty Bumppo Leatherstocking tales. The Last of the Mohicans was preceded by the first of the spy novels.

"James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, The Spy (1821), is based on Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley series, and tells an adventure tale about the American Revolution. The protagonist is Harvey Birch, a supposed loyalist who actually is a spy for George Washington, disguised as ‘Mr Harper.’ The book brought Cooper fame and wealth, and is regarded as the first great success in American fiction" (MacKenzie, LibriVox).

"James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was America's first successful novelist…his principal contribution to espionage fiction rests with The Spy which, to Cooper, seemed a particularly promising theme. While the stories of Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold and John Andre, held sway in histories of the revolution, the premise of espionage had not yet been examined in fiction. Cooper sought to exploit this situation by, for the first time, casting a spy as the protagonist of a novel.

James Fenimore Cooper

"The Spy was a major literary gamble. Prior to Cooper, writers, philosophers, the military, and people in general, although they certainly knew otherwise, simply chose not to admit that spies existed or that they were in any way beneficial to the aims of 'great nations.' In their minds, the spy and his activities were dangerous, morally tarnished, and prone to scandal, illegality, or both. As a result, until publication of The Spy, espionage remained a political nether region and an unsavory arena in which to develop heroes, fictional or otherwise. Thieves, yes; murderers, certainly; but spies, be they heroes or villains, were considered well outside the political constraints of civilized society and its literature.

"As the first novelist to explore the theme of espionage, Cooper had no examples and instead relied on the conventions of other genres - primarily the romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott - to convey the dishonesty, deception and covert manipulation central to espionage activities...

"...To salvage the notion of the spy's nobility, near the end of the novel Cooper employs none other than George Washington - the symbolic "Father of the American Revolution" - to sum up the fate of the spy when he personally tells Birch: 'There are many motives which might govern me, that to you are unknown. Our situations are different; I am known as the leader of armies - but you must descend into the grave with the reputation of a foe to your native land. Remember that the veil which conceals your true character cannot be raised in years - perhaps never'" (p. 398).

The Spy. in contemporary binding, in modern box.

"Herein lies perhaps the most singular of Cooper's accomplishments in The Spy. With Washington's words, Cooper defined the fundamental premise that even today continues to run though espionage novels: the ambiguity of a neutral ground wherein secret men do secret things. Secondly, and notwithstanding the well entrenched social diagram of his time - one that considered spies to be liars, traitors, thieves or even worse - Cooper's fictional context shifted public opinion toward viewing espionage as a patriotic duty, and seeing the spy in an entirely new light: the unsung hero." (Woods, Revolution and Literature: Cooper's The Spy Revisited).

"On its publication …The Spy was most cordially received in America; its sales quickly outstripped all former records, and its popularity was later enhanced by its successful dramatization. Its reception in England was equally enthusiastic. There they linked his name with [Washington] Irving's, and the two writers came to be thought of as promising pioneers in American authorship" (From the Introduction to the 1911 edition).

The Invisible Spy (1755). Volume two of four.

Now You See Her, Now You Don’t

If you have a burning curiosity about what goes on behind the closed doors of society, it helps to have a old friend descended from the Magi of the Chaldeans who is on death’s door and anxious to bequeath to you something from his Cabinet of Curiosities.

The Invisible Spy (1755), written under the pseudonym “Explorabilus,” was one of Eliza Haywood's (1693-1756) last novels, appearing one year before her death, after earlier in the decade turning away from writing the sort of scandalous novels that had made her reputation, i.e. The Secret History of the Present Intrigues of the Court of Caramania (1727), a transgressive roman á clef that tore the royal bedsheets off of of George II's bedstead, and earned a line of scorn from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad.  
The Invisible Spy (1755), four volumes in contemporary binding.

"By this period of her career, Haywood was claiming to be a reformed character and, in the guise of her authorial persona, admitted in the opening installment of The Female Spectator, that 'My Life, for some Years, was a continued Round of what I then called Pleasure, and my whole Time engross'd by a Hurry of promiscuous Diversions'" (Ruth Facer, Eliza Haywood, Chawton House Library). 

Yet Haywood did not become a prig. In The Invisible Spy, her moral stance is, at best, ambiguous: A woman acquires an Invisibility Belt “Which, fastened around the body, next to the skin, no sooner becomes warm than it renders the party invisible to all human eyes.” She uses it to spy upon the social and political scene, and expose secrets. This is spying in an era when espionage of any nature was considered "morally tarnished." To do so upon the private affairs of persons, rather than nations, was just as ignoble and disgraceful, discretion and privacy a virtue, secrets, as always, dear.

Eliza Haywood enjoyed her role as spy and teller of secrets. Though she may have mellowed in later life, she didn't abandon her pleasure. The Secret History...Court of Caramania and The Invisible Spy are big and little sister.

The Invisible Spy, as all of Haywood’s novels, was very popular; in its first year of publication editions out of Dublin and Edinburgh were issued, and four subsequent editions were published, the last in 1788.

Eliza Fowler Haywood

Eliza Haywood dominated the contemporary British market for amorous fiction. Haywood (née Elizabeth Fowler) was an English writer, actress and publisher. Since the 1980s, Eliza Haywood’s literary works have been gaining in recognition and interest. Described as “prolific even by the standards of a prolific age” (Blouch, Christine. Introduction to Eliza Haywood and the Romance of Obscurity. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 no. 31 (1991): 535-551.), Haywood wrote and published over seventy works during her lifetime including fiction, drama, translations, poetry, conduct literature and periodicals. Haywood is a significant figure in the 18th century as one of the important founders of the novel in English.


Two spies. One of serious intent in war., and noble. The other lightly serious and disreputable at war with social and political hypocrisies. Both inhabit an ambiguous moral landscape, a literary no man’s land that would become a standard in 20th century fiction as moral certainties broke down under the weight of Verdun and the Somme, Holocaust, Hiroshima, the democratization of information distributed on a mass scale, and the disillusionment with politics and politicians. Black and white turned shades of gray and, despite continuing efforts to turn the color wheel backward, they remain so. As such, these novels, each in their fashion, point toward the modern existential dilemma in the age of Facebook  and the digital world at large: What is the morality of  privacy and secrecy? What can we reveal? What can we conceal? How much can we give away without losing ourselves? How much can we hold back without getting lost in our selves? It's spy vs. spy in the Cloud and we're all guilty.

[COOPER, James Fenimore].
The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground by the Author of "Precaution." New York: Wiley & Halsted, 1821. First edition. Two twelvemo volumes (7 4 1/4 in; 178 x 108 mm). xii, 251. [1, blank]; 286, [2. blank] pp. BAL 3826. Spiller & Blackburn 2.

[HAYWOOD, Eliza]. The Invisible Spy by Exploralibus. London: Printed for T. Gardener at Cowley's Head..., 1755. First edition. Four twelvemo volumes. (6 5/8 x 3 3/4 in; 168 x 95 mm). iv, 287, [1, adv.]; iv, 312; iv, 312 pp ((p. 158, v.1, and p. 223, v.2 incorrectly numbered 358 and 123 respectively). Woodcut vignette to title pages, woodcut head- tailpieces, initials. Spedding Ab.69.1. Whicher 32. ESTC T142450.

Spy vs Spy image by Antonio Prohías, for MAD magazine, and is courtesy of Alfred E. Neuman, with our thanks.

Emory Library Digitizes The Mother of Pulp Fiction

SAVAGE, Richard Henry. The Little Lady Of Lagunitas: A Franco-Chilean Romance. London: Routledge, 1892.

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

A cutting-edge imaging tool of today, a robotic digital book scanner from Kirtas Technologies, is allowing more readers than ever to enjoy the fruits of a previous publishing innovation: the yellowback. Yellowbacks, nicknamed "mustard plasters," were the Victorian era version of airport novels: railway reads that were cheaply bound in papered fiberboard, and usually sold for two shillings (about 50 cents). Their nickname comes from their most common cover: a three-colored illustration, often luridly sensational, printed on an eye-poppingly bright, yellow-glazed background. Emory University which holds the second largest collection of yellowbacks of any American university, has announced that more than 1,200 of these 19th century rarities have now been digitized and made available for free downloading.

GOULD, Nat, The Lady Trainer. London: Long, 1906.

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

"There are a good number of yellowbacks where we have the only known copy of the text, so we're able to make that available to people around the world," says David Faulds, librarian at Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). "They're very rare now because they weren't that sturdily built, they just disintegrated or were thrown away. It's an aspect of 19th century life that's disappeared today."

MARK TWAIN, A Yankee At The Court Of King Arthur. London: Chatto & Windus, [c.1893].

A pirated yellowback version of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court.

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

Though less well-known to scholars and collectors than the more exploitative "penny dreadfuls," yellowbacks hold an important place in publishing history. Antiquarian book expert Anthony Rota noted in his authoritative history of the printed book, Apart From the Text (1998), that if "one had to describe in one word the books that transformed not only series publishing but all publishing in the last half of the 19th century, it would be 'yellow-back'."

[BRADDON, Mary Elizabeth], Lady Audley's Secret. London: Simpkin, Marshall, [188?].

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

These cheap books essentially ended the era of the three volume novel, or three-decker. The boom in train travel, along with an increasingly literate, but not necessarily wealthy, population, dried up the demand for heavy, bulky books. Yellowbacks were the first lightweight, portable book, inexpensive enough to be printed in mass quantities, and priced to be affordable for the growing working class created by the Industrial Revolution. And the eye-candy covers of the yellowbacks, prominently displayed in train stations, were among the first examples of using savvy design and marketing to create a best seller.

HARDY, Thomas. The Hand Of Ethelberta. London: Sampson, Low, 1888.

The back cover advertisement was a standard feature of most Victorian yellowbacks.

(Image Courtesy Of The British Library.)

The yellowbacks were such a financial success upon introduction in 1847, that nearly every major publisher of the day began a series aimed at the railway reader. Yellowbacks were not mere sleaze or trash, they were often reprints of works from the finest authors of the day, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy. In America, British authors were favored by printers, as copyright laws allowed them to be "pirated," and sold without the payment of royalties. For the same reason, American and French authors were favored in England. Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Mark Twain, and Bret Harte were particularly popular. Yellowbacks that weren't reprints were sometimes genuine first editions of the work of a foreign author: the first British translation of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades was published as a yellowback.

FEVAL, Paul, Bel Demonio. London: Ward, Lock. And Co., 1863.

KETTLE, Rosa, Fabian's Tower. London: Ward, Lock. And Co., 1880.

(Image Courtesy of The British Library.)

There were also wildly successful writers whose work appeared only within the pages of these early versions of "paperback originals." The yellowbacks began what we now take for granted as "genre fiction." French writer Emile Gaboriau's (1835-1873) series of titles featuring thief turned police officer Monsieur Lecoq were the template for all future detective fiction, and directly inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes. Another French writer, Maria Louise Rame, who wrote under the pen name "Ouida," popularized the historical romance novel. Without her yellowbacks there would have been no Harlequin Romances, and even worse, no covers featuring Fabio. A "confessions" genre also began with yellowbacks. It included, in 1860 alone, The Confessions of a Thief, The Confessions of a Horse Dealer and The Revelations of a Catholic Priest. Would we have today's best-selling junkie "memoirs" from writers like James Frey without these?

PLUES, Margaret, Geology For The Millions. London: Routledge, 1863.

(Image Courtesy of The British Library.)

But the yellowback was not limited only to fictional works. First editions of important Victorian literary journalists, such as George Augustus Sala, Edmund Yates, and Douglas Jerrold were all published as yellowbacks. And the next time you're checking out Warren Buffett's stock tips, remember that an investment guide was the first yellowback proper: in April 1853 Ingram, Cooke & Co., published Money: How To Get, How To Keep, and How To Use It with an illustrated cover on a yellow background. [Horace Mayhew's Letters Left At The Pastrycook's (1853) was the first title published in the format, but with white wrappers.] This format is also the source of the endless stream of "how to" books that now flood our libraries, everything from proper etiquette, the correct way to mount butterfly specimens, the rules of parlor games, and the process of at-home taxidermy, all described between the yellow covers. Travel guides and war reporting were also staples of non-fiction yellowbacks.

SULLIVAN, John L., Reminiscenes Of A Nineteenth Century Gladiator. London: Routledge, 1892.

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

The heyday of yellowbacks, which Matthew Arnold dismissively called "tawdry novels... designed for people with a low standard of life," was between 1855 and 1870. During this period, printers gave cover artists free reign to design the illustrations and lettering on the covers and spines of titles which were published in runs as large as 100,000 copies. Volumes from this era have an integrity of style which was lost when, due to lower costs, printers standardized outer typography, thereby reducing artists to hired guns, producing only pasted in illustrations. By the 1890's yellowback covers were shoddy, monotonous, and undistinguished. What had begun as a publishing innovation became shorthand for a cheap product of inferior quality.

OUIDA, Pipistrello. London: Chatto & Windus, [1885].

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

Yellowbacks did not entirely disappear: they were replaced by higher quality formats, which often recycled the earlier books' most outstanding cover illustrations. The digitization of yellowbacks by universities will give this unique piece of publishing history a new lease on life. As Emory rare book librarian David Faulds points out: "Some of these books are so rare that they've been lost to history. Scholars and casual readers can now discover these works. There may be aspects of them that are of interest not only to literary researchers, but also social historians looking at Britain or America in the 19th century, or women's lives in this period, what they were reading, how they are portrayed or what they wrote."

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