Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 30, 2009

Diversions, Distractions and Diabolical Deeds: Entertainments for a Darkened Room

What a weekend!  The weather Saturday was amazing and facilitated long-distance trips to some Toronto booksellers I don’t usually have the pleasure of visiting.  They were very nice about letting me photograph some books and even nicer about letting me buy some, and a very good time was had by all involved.  My eight-month-old was awarded the “best behaved baby” award in two bookstores before having a total meltdown at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library, requiring my husband to have me paged from where I was hiding on the fourth floor- oops.  Still, the project was entirely successful!

I present to you the Inklings Community Book Collection for March – Diversions, Distractions and Diabolical Deeds: Entertainments for a Darkened Room, in honour of Earth Hour.

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March 27, 2009

Contest: We Bring the Ages Online

Welcome to Friday!  This week Inklings presents to you an activity which I hope to repeat.  Part scavenger hunt, part bibliophile convention, and part Web experiment;  it’s The 1st Periodical Online Book Collection!

Um, what? Well here’s the deal.  Periodically, on a Friday,  I am going to propose that we build a virtual book collection.  I will announce the theme of the collection and offer up a couple examples of books that might be included, and then leave the rest to you.

How will this collection be built? In images, descriptions and good faith.   Find a book that you think would fit in our collection.  Then take a picture of it and email me that picture along with a note on where the book was found, and why you think it belongs in the collection.  Any bibliographical information would also be nice.  On Monday I will post all the entries in one “catalogue” of our collection and tah dah, we’ll have an instant digital exhibit of a book collection!

That’s it??? Well, I have one rule.  You do not need to own the book you submit, but you must encounter it IN REAL LIFE.  No images gathered off the web!  The book can be used or new,  common place or rare.  Go to local bookstores, libraries, universities, museums, friend’s houses – I don’t care, but you must be able to take a picture of the book you submit in the REAL WORLD.  And be creative!  I like quirky and unexpected interpretations of a topic.  Feel free to be ironic, meta, traditional or fundamental.  I will propose themes which are, I hope, broad enough for multiple interpretations.

But why? Here’s two reasons off the top of my head: 1) I am a big supporter of books-as-objects and local book “scenes” and would like to celebrate both by encouraging a collective tour every so often.  Who knows what we might discover by getting out of our houses and into the book world?  and 2) I will be offering A PRIZE to the “best” entry!  I don’t know what yet, but it will be booky.  The person who submits the entry that I deem to be the gem of the collection will win.

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Now, because this is my inaugural collection and I don’t know yet how many people are interested in my game, I will be contributing heavily to this first collection.  But please, join me in my search and lets see what we can build this weekend.

Alright, with only a little more ado, I present to you this Friday’s topic and theme.  In honour of Earth Hour this Saturday at 8:30pm, I propose we collect a virtual library on:

Diversions, Distractions and Diabolical Deeds: Entertainments for a Darkened Room

And to kick us off I give you two examples:

What? The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights Deluxe Edition tr. Malcolm C. Lyons, Penguin Classics, 2008

Found: In my dining room.

Why? I give you the original crepuscular pastime, good for about three and a half years:

Or here’s another idea:

What? How to Commit a Murder by Danny Ahearn, Washburn, New York, 1930.

Found: In my bedroom. (Hm….)

Why? Ahearn says “Naturally, to convict a man it takes four eyes and not two” and while he includes useful advice on how to knock off witnesses, you could also just commit your murder IN THE DARK.

Got the idea?  great!  Of course feel free to ask any further questions.  Entries should be emailed to charlotte@once-and-future.com by 6am Monday, March 30th.  Good hunting!

March 25, 2009

Parable of the Decrepit Book

Monday I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum called “Canadiana Treasures from the Rare Book Collections of the ROM”, given by the head of the library and archives, Arthur Smith.  Not surprisingly, the ROM has some really priceless holdings, including the 1613 Les Voyages of Champlain, Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune, 1st editions of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In the Bush and more.  In many cases they have books in conditions unmatched anywhere in the world (not always hard to do, considering many of these books number less than twenty in the world).

One work, though, really stuck in my mind because of the story associated with it, and that was the ROM’s copy of the 1866 Buch das Gut, enthaltened den Katechismus, Betrachtung or, as it was introduced to us, the Mi’kmaq prayer book.  This is a fat little book of prayers written in Mi’kmaq hieroglyphics, this edition printed in Vienna.  Unlike the other books we saw, the prayer book was not at all in good condition.  The leather covers were falling apart, the book had been written on and the pages appeared largely unbound.  Indeed, Smith noted that the book had been found “languishing in a Toronto auction house” because it was deemed to be in too poor a condition to be of any value.

A page from the Mi'kmaq prayer book.

A page from the Mi'kmaq prayer book - but not the ROM's copy.

But the ROM bought it anyway.  As the story goes, the shipment of these prayer books from Europe was largely lost at sea, and so very few copies remain.  A dilapidated copy is still a copy, valuable even in this condition. The librarian went about contacting the owners of the other known copies (exclusively, as far as he knows, institutionalized) to compare his, and found that the ROM’s copy was the only one in the “damaged” condition.  Pity, right?

As it happens, not such a pity after all.  The origin and use of Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs, as it turns out, is a source of some contention.  This story goes that a 17th century Catholic missionary witnessed the Mi’kmaq using porcupine quills to press shapes into bark, then adapted and expanded this system of shapes into a written language that could accommodate Catholic prayers.  This story is thought by some to be apocryphal, and they argue that the “language” was invented entirely by the Catholic church, and no actual Mi’kmaq read it.

Except that some, very evidently, did.  The evidence is all over the ROM’s prayer book.  The geneology of the owning family is carefully inscribed on the first page, and the book shows evidence of repeated readings throughout.  The value of this book is in it’s poor condition, in the use and character of this individual copy.

Not every book can be hoarded and not every copy should be archived, digitized, conserved.  But sometimes it’s worth remembering that there’s more to the value of a book than the printed contents in their idealized form (sorry, bibliographers).  There’s as much story to be gleaned from the marks, wear and scars.  From the ghost, as they say, of the “hand that touched the hand”.

The ROM library and archives are, incidentally, open to the public for research.  You can’t withdraw books as in other libraries, but you can use the University of Toronto library system to search the museum’s holdings and can request and inspect the books in the museum’s reading room.

March 23, 2009

The Incredible Instant Book Collection!

Last week, Abebooks.com’s newsletter, The Avid Collector, arrived in my mailbox with a headline that went something like this:

“Own A Full Collection of All Hugo And Nebula Award Winners For $110,000″

The headline seemed almost absurd to me.  Who has that kind of money, especially nowadays?  Aren’t the ultra-rich getting out of these sorts of frivolous things?  And if some rich person were willing to suddenly want an instant book collection, why would they want a genre collection, rather than something more prestigious, like Booker winners, or Nobel winners?  Who on earth is this being marketed at?

I’d almost dismissed it as a curiosity when I happened to notice that one of my favourite local booksellers, Contact Editions, is also, as of this month, getting into the sale of complete collections.  Something is going on here.  This is some kind of new thing.

Or rather, this seems to be a resurgence of an old thing.  Rich and influential people have long looked to own personal libraries as a mark of wealth and social stature.  Any specific interest in books was less of a factor in the accumulation of these collections than the prestige of owning them, and so secretaries and dealers were often employed to put together “instant” collections for people who were more concerned with the look and value of the books in their library than their contents.

But we’re a long way from the Gilded Age, and a good library doesn’t impress these days quite the way, say, a 120 foot catamaran will.  Beyonce and Jay-Z drink champagne on the deck of their boat, not the fat armchairs of their libraries.  And we’re hardly in an economic climate that suggests hoards of new millionaires looking to buy into the hobbies of the rich and powerful.  So?

I think the answer is in the motives of the bookseller rather than in the emergence of a new market, and this alarms me.  We’ve all heard that we’re in the middle of a mass bookstore culling, with independent booksellers dying off in waves first to the emergence of bookselling superstores like Borders & Chapters/Indigo, and then to online sellers like Amazon, but nowhere is this more true than with used and rare booksellers.  Theirs is a more specialized product, and in a book world growing more and more towards reading as a temporal activity rather than books as an expression of permanence, they’ve been closing shop in droves.  Not that used and rare booksellers are vanishing – they are simply closing their doors and moving online, to catalogue sales and “by appointment only” availability.  They’re focusing once again on their specialized audience, the privileged buyer.

The privileged buyer collects books in a particular way.  To a large degree, they want the end product, the collection, more than they want to engage in collecting.  The collection is an investment or a trophy, something to relish having but not necessarily getting.  Many of these buyers represent institutions – universities or libraries – and use booksellers as a sort of outsourced scout or broker.  They don’t need, necessarily, to see the book.  They can form a list of what they’d like to own at home, then have someone else hunt them down.  They pay the asked price and have a library to show for it.  And so, yes, selling collections ready-made through catalogues or websites works, because it wasn’t as if these buyers were every going to go spelunking through the dusty old boxes in a bookseller’s overstock room anyway.

This is “book collecting” to the extent that paying a mortgage is “house collecting” and it makes me really sad.  Yes, many of these wealthy book collectors are true book enthusiasts who take real pleasure in receiving that phone call from their dealer telling them they’ve located a rare book that the collector has long lusted after.  But almost every one of those collectors started as a younger, less affluent person who honed their taste for books by encountering the real thing in public, open bookshops. Nobody learns to love books on the internet.  And there will be no market for “full collections” if bibliophiles aren’t able to first whet their appetites by discovering individual volumes.

We’re not likely to revert to being a society with a rich, Oxbridge-educated elite who monopolize and sustain the rare book trade and so any trend towards selling “collections” seems to me to signal one of two things: either booksellers are going to find themselves with fewer and fewer customers as their old customers die off, or else the rare book trade is going to become the private scouting arm of institutional libraries.  Is this a desirable future?  I don’t desire it, being a not-wealthy, young, non-institutional collector.  Am I alone in that, I wonder?

This Friday I want to start an experiment in amateur book collecting, right here on this blog.   If you’ve made it this far (I have overstepped my 96 seconds, I’m afraid) and are interested in book collecting, Web 2.0 experiments, or just scavenger hunts, I ask that you tune in then – and invite your friends!  The more people who participate, the better.  I’d like to demonstrate that we can build something great the (mostly) old-fashioned way…

March 20, 2009

In case you missed it…

I have a cunning plan for future Friday posts, but this Friday is, apparently, Teething Day at our house.  The cunning plan can wait until next week.  This week, I offer you this possible violation of copyright & internet etiquette:

March 19, 2009

One last thought:

I didn’t intend to post today, but before I shelve History of Reading for good, I wanted to revisit one fun point made:

“A cousin of mine…was deeply aware that books could function as a badge, a sign of alliance, and always chose a book to take with her on her travels with the same care with which she chose her handbag.”

Ain’t that the truth! Of course, the last time I hesitated to bring a book with me on vacation was last month, and it was History of Reading that made me pause. We had a 5h train ride to and from Ottawa so something a little weighty was called for, but I was afraid History of Reading might mark me as a student. In the end, I decided that any impression of being a student would be offset by the presence of my 7-month-old daughter, so Manguel narrowly made the cut!

March 18, 2009

Conversing with Digital Texts?

There’s a lot of fuss and bluster in book circles about digital book technology like the Kindle which I am not going to weigh in on in any serious way because I have not actually ever handled an ebook reader and I am not entirely sure what capabilities they do and do not have. That said, I was sorting my books yesterday (something which happens on a semi-regular basis, as it brings me great pleasure) and wondered how I would replace my written “tags” if I were to convert for whatever reason to an entirely digital library.  The Kindle has a little keyboard on the bottom, I see; while my mother confesses to printing out pdfs of texts in order to annotate them.  Neither of these solutions entirely appeals to me.

Most diligent readers keep track of their thoughts on a text as they read. The most common habit these days is to keep notes in the margins of a book, creating a gloss to the text that is referred to as “marginalia”. I find attitudes towards marginalia vary significantly between readers.My own opinion is that unless you are or are intending to become Samuel Coleridge that you should keep your notes in a book to a minimum, but my squeamishness towards defacing books doesn’t seem to be shared by the legions of bold, ballpoint-pen-bearing readers that populate, especially, academic libraries. Yes, the marginalia of great readers and writers can be fascinating, and a source of some really excellent criticisms on a text. But I can’t stand the unintelligible scribblings of former readers scaring my book’s pages, and I do future readers the favour of keeping my opinions out of their text as well. But that’s just me.

That isn’t to say that I don’t keep conversation with my books. I waver between two techniques, though one is more of a bad habit than the other. The first, the bad habit, is to note my commentary on little scraps of paper that I leave marking the pertinent page. Many of my books are marked with enough of these little scraps that they look like they’ve got little paper pigtails. This leaves my books clean, and certainly helps me find important pages quickly. But unfortunately my notes also tend to slip out of their books, leaving important passages forever lost. I spent too many hours out of last month trying to find a quote from Robertson Davies on the importance of reading Dumas to young boys that I *swore* I’d marked. This is, however, something which margin-scribblers must struggle with as well. Knowing you’ve seen something somewhere isn’t enough of a roadmap to finding a note in a library of books.

The blogger's A sample tag from same.

My other habit is to keep a notebook at the ready while I am reading, my loci communes. This is an old practice with pedigree and some wonderful perks. Not only can you look back to what you were thinking when you read a book, but you can organize your notes however you like – perhaps keeping a section for favourite quotes, another for future writing ideas, or collections of information pertaining to specific subjects. Writing an essay on Emerson? Maybe you’ve been keeping a notebook of thoughts and quotes pertaining to Emerson, that roadmap to your library. But open-ended organization of your thoughts isn’t the only benefit, nor is the fact that your books will stay fresh and clean. These notebooks become wonderful additions to your library.

The blogger's loci communes.Interior (blurrily) of same.

Me, I am a sucker for snazzy little notebooks. I’ve been drawn to blank notebooks ever since I was a kid. They were pre-bound novels in potentia. A story handwritten in a notebook was automatically a published book, thought eight-year-old me. And weren’t spell books in all the stories just handwritten books of arcane recipes? These days I buy notebooks with almost as little restraint as I buy books because Toronto seems to be overflowing with talented paper artists. I’m especially partial to these little numbers: notebooks made from recycled old novels. Even a dedicated book hoarder like me has to admit that there comes a time in a book’s life when it has no future except in the recycling bin – but wait! I’ve seen these journals called “upcycled journals” – you can even get ones with old board games (Scrabble, anyone?) or VHS slips for covers. How cool is that?

Maybe the biggest perk of my loci communes is that, in any future ebook apocalypse, they remain useful and relevant. The electronic versions of marginalia and tagging still have their shortfalls over the real thing. Scanning a book for the visual cues notes and tags offer becomes difficult. Search functions rely on memory, rather than aid it. And does an electronic scroll have the margin space available for good notes? Perhaps they could (or do?) offer a function to watermark notes over the text – hell, they could allow you to save the annotation as a separate file to overlay any copy of your book. Torrents of professional annotation, anyone? Forgeries of celebrity marginalia? There’s leeway for some interesting speculation here.

But none of it makes me feel quite as secure as knowing that, in the event that I were trapped in a world with only an ebook reader and a good craft fair circuit, I could still furnish a library of worn cloth covers, good paper and sewn bindings, filled with the memories and impressions of a lifetime of reading.  It certainly beats sheafs of unbounded printed pdfs!

March 17, 2009

Tangential to A History of Reading

This year for a myriad of reasons, I have chosen to read books by Canadian authors exclusively.  I had considered opening this blog with a post explaining my decision, but I found the post dull and reasoned that you readers might also.  So I will skip onwards and upwards to a tangential point.

I do not intend to review the books I will read.  I am not a literary critic or even a student of literature; I certainly approach books critically in my own way but feel I don’t have the critical background to do justice to the pursuit.  I am, on the other hand, a prolific reader with a lot of background in a number of other disciplines.  So what I propose to do in lieu of a review is to offer a thought (or two, or three…) relating to what I’ve just read.  The thought might be critical, might be beside the point, or might simply be something else that the book made me think of.  What it won’t be is an evaluation of the book on the whole – that has been done and will be done at length by other people who have a better idea of what they are doing.

The point I want to pursue from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading will probably speak volumes about why I am not a student of literary theory, since I know what I am about to suggest usually makes actual students of literature turn a bit red and wonder if maybe I’m a philistine.  If you’ve read the book (and if you’re a once or future student of literature, I bet you have – it is a favourite on undergraduate syllabi), you’ll find the bit that got stuck in my craw on page 92 & 93.  “The limits of interpretation coincide with the rights of the text,” Uberto Eco tells us, and in this case we’re told that Kafka’s “multilayered text” has inspired some 15,000 works of criticism, while the lighter works of, say, Judith Krantz only allow “one…airtight reading”.

What this brought to mind was one of the aspects of David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children that really drove me nuts.  In Mercy we meet Sydney, the pacifistic father of three who is venerated in the eyes of his eldest son as some kind of saint, in equal parts because of his honesty and because of his literacy.  Sydney, you see, if a self-taught prolific reader who, with no outside input whatsoever, has happened into literary tastes comprised of Western Canon favourites like Tolstoy, Milton and Camus.  Despite being entirely alienated from the literary and academic world he has read and understood all that world would have had to offer him.

The idea that any literary work is can be self-evidently superior to another is a bit boggling to me.  Yes, of course some works have more depth and withstand the critical readings of an experienced and educated person, but is the presence of those depths an a priori truth that anyone of sufficient intelligence will notice?  If you give Swift to an uneducated man living on a desert island, will he necessarily see it as a work of social commentary, or might he be forgiven for thinking it was just an entertaining bit of fantastic adventure?

We’re told in Mercy that Sydney has received the bulk of his books from Jay Beard, another uneducated man who has simply forked over books he has come across in bulk.  That Jay Beard has encountered nothing but Keats and Faulkner in his travels as a fisherman defies credibility, so we can presume Sydney must have bought or been given at least a few battered old copies of Shogun or an Ian Flemming novel.  Did he just read them once, find the reading “airtight” and use them as firestarter the following winter?  Well done Sydney, for tapping into the collective bias of the Ivory Towers without ever having stepped foot in one!

As an alternative to Sydney Henderson’s intuitive grasp of the Western Canon, I’d like to offer the example of John Gardner’s October Light.  In this novel, an old man locks his sister in a bedroom where she has no company except for a cheap dime novel she finds discarded in a corner.  She reads it to pass the time, knowing it is “trash” because her educated ex-husband had a keen sense of what a “good book” was.  Nevertheless, she finds herself finding meaning in every corner of the book, and we as readers are given the same opportunity by the chapters-long excerpts Gardner shows us.  The layers of the book are not so much peeled back as they are lain down by a reader who doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they aren’t supposed to bother.

What Gardner is pointing out is that the depth of a novel has almost as much to do with the reader as with the writer – something Manguel knows and repeats in his book.  So why, then, does Richards depict Sydney Henderson’s literacy in such bourgeois terms?

Manguel’s aside and Richards’ pretensions with Sydney both make me want to engage in a social experiment.  Readers tend to read within a context assigned to themselves from without.  Students read books critically because they know they are supposed to.  Then they read their beach-books without a thought in their heads because, again, that’s what they are “for”.  Even pedestrian readers will get out their pens if Oprah tells them this is a “book club” book and not just ANY old book.  What happens, then, if we package Kafka’s The Castle in a glossy mass market edition with a Steven King-esque spooky cover?  Or if the course work for your graduate class involved a lot of Clive Cussler in sober, Vintage trade paperback editions?  Manguel asks this question early on in his book, when he admits to reading a text according to what he “…thought a book was supposed to be.”  Kafka might be a deeper text, but is it self-evidently so, or are many of those 15,000 works of criticism prompted by the reader’s pretensions?

I’m going to read some “trashy” books this year in Canadian Literature, partly, I think, to spite Sydney Henderson.  Also to give my powers of interpretation as a reader a trial run – after all, Edible Woman really has been done, hasn’t it?  I don’t want to allow a community, however educated, to dictate to me what is going to be deep and what isn’t; what will make me a better human and what won’t.  Especially – and this is a rant for another day – with a certain attitude in literary circles that a book isn’t good if it doesn’t make you want to move to Alaska and hang yourself.  Despite it being Manguel who has got my pique up, he has also given me permission to assert myself more power over the text as its reader.  I’ll take that, thanks, and meander down whatever paths my literary explorations offer me.

I hope it will be an interesting year!

March 15, 2009

Reading Canada, 2009

My goal this year is to exclusively read books by Canadian authors.  Sound edifying? You might be interested in participating in John Mutford’s The Canadian Book Challenge 3 over at The Book Mine Set. For my part, I have read so far:

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Outlander by Gil Adamson
Fruit by Brian Francis
The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay
Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic by Val Ross
Widdershins by Charles de Lint
Roughing it In the Bush by Susanna Moodie
Nil: A World Beyond Belief by James Turner
Drawing on Type by Frank Newfeld
Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Hello I’m Special by Hal Niedzviecki
Hanging of Angélique by Afua Cooper
Hunter’s Oath by Michelle West
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner