Once & Future

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

November 30, 2009

Book Prizes and Book Recommendations

I can’t overstate how excited I am about tomorrow’s Canada Reads 2010 announcement.  I have it on my calendar and plan to stay home from Miss Margaret’s drop-in centre in order to hear it, pen and paper ready to scribble down my order list.  While the competition aspect of Canada Reads is definitely good fun, what I love best about it is simply receiving the recommendations.  Does that sound strange?  I find it very difficult to get reliable literary recommendations.  It isn’t that there aren’t enough recommendations flying around out there, it’s that there are generally too many.

The seasons’ Best of 2009 Picks are a case in point as far as I am concerned.  Every publication with a book reviewer publishes a “Top X Books of the Year” right around Christmas, and I find these lists utterly useless.  100 best books of the year?  How are there even enough books published in a year for 100 of them to carry the title of best?  I am not a prolific reader as far as bookish folks go – at best I might read 40 books in a year, more often I read 20-25.  I can’t absorb 100 books in a year, or even decide which of them to dip in to.  I need a short list.  Best book of the year.  If you read one book this year, make it this one.

That, of course, is something literary prizes can be good for.   The Booker Prize winners for the last few years have been decent reads, but I’ll admit it’s pretty clear to me that the Giller juries and I have very different opinions on what makes a good book.  Canada Reads is different.  Although they’re limited to Canadian books, the wider sweep of time reaches more nooks and crannies than a conventional annual book prize.  Because of the populist focus of the competition, they seem to go out of their way to represent a bit of everything: something small press, something funny, something a little strange, something that was overlooked the first time around, something classic but forgotten.   And probably most importantly, they aren’t trying to find the best book under any technical criteria, they just want to pick a book they’d feel safe recommending to just about anyone.  Be still my heart, recommendations actually intended for reading pleasure.

I even have this thought that I might bundle up Miss Margaret tomorrow and head down to the CBC building for the little meet-and-greet at noon.  I’m sure I’ll have at least one of the chosen books on my shelf already, and it’s always fun to have signatures inscribed.  Does anyone else have a similar thought?  I started this blog last year after having a great time discussing Canada Reads 2009 all over the bloggosphere – I’d love to do the same this year, and maybe meet some (more) of you.

Glee!

November 9, 2009

Not Specifically About Books

Last weekend, early in the morning on Saturday, October 31st, the Children’s Storefront burnt down.

The Storefront was a community drop-in centre for children – mostly pre-schoolers – and their caregivers; a comfortable, welcoming and unparalleled space to play, read and create surrounded by friendly, like people.  To put it like that makes it sound like an Ontario Early Year’s Centre, some government-funded space in a basement or a school gym for people who can’t afford daycare or a more elaborate for-profit indoor playground.  What it was is impossible to describe.  It was warm, tight-knit but welcoming to newcomers, flexible, accommodating, beautiful, comfortable, safe and peaceful.  The kids were welcome to play with a huge range of high-quality, un-branded, well-selected toys in mini-environments that were built by volunteers and staff while parents and caregivers found comfy places to sit and hang out with free coffee, tea or leftovers from the previous day’s community dinner or brunch.  The staff were omnipresent, ready to help you with your child or offer advice or just company.

Miss. Margaret in the playhouse at the Children's Storefront.

For us, the Children’s Storefront was a complete, unqualified life-saver.  My husband and I are fairly reclusive people, anxious in social situations and more than a little awkward.  Yet we have been gifted with a daughter who is friendly, generous and precociously social.  Once we worked up the nerve to walk into the Storefront and introduce ourselves we never looked back – Maggie immediately bonded with the staff and the other parents, and tried at every opportunity to interact with and play with the other children (with great success, considering she is a mere 16 months old).  The quiet and comfortable environment put me at ease; this was somewhere that I could set a good example for my daughter and let her learn the social skills that maybe I never quite picked up.  It was a community I felt our family was welcomed into, something so essential to people like us who otherwise tend towards isolation.

Saturday, October 31st it burned.  Over the course of the following week demolition crews moved in and tore it down.  As of this Saturday morning nothing remains but an empty lot and a high fence.  My husband and I have been struggling with a sense of loss that neither of us expected; not so much for the space as for the community we’d felt we’d lost.  Our week was spent feeling trapped within the walls of our small apartment with a child who was clearly growing bored and impatient with us.  We took tentative, shy trips to the park and another community drop-in to break up the tedium.  But the spaces, complete as they may have been with toys, climbers and crayons were no substitute for the community.  Even Maggie could tell this.  She had no interest in swinging alone in a swing or sliding alone down the slide.

We are not the only ones to whom the Storefront meant a great deal – a Facebook group called The Children’s Storefront Needs a New Home has been set up and boasts already over 440 members.  As you can see, the support of those community members is being mobilized already to get the Storefront up and running again, a huge task that will take a great deal of volunteer time and, most importantly, money.  We are optimistic that the result will be a positive one, and someday we will take Maggie to the new Storefront which, for her, will be the only Storefront she will be able to remember.  Twenty years from now that new, yet-unrealized space will be the institution in her fond memories.

If you should feel so inclined, please do visit the Children’s Storefront website and see if you can help us find a new home.  You could attend a fundraising event, donate to the toy & book drive or just send money.  Or simply join the Facebook group and let your presence lend strength to our efforts.  It might not be a glamorous or life-saving charity but it is one which is very dear to our hearts.  Strong urban communities are sometimes elusive; and I want desperately to keep this one running for generations to come.

November 6, 2009

Puzzles in Paper

I have been working these last couple of months with a privately-owned book collection of mostly German books, most of which were published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but some of which are a good deal older.  The book’s current owner doesn’t read German and has no relationship with the books, so identifying and describing the books has been quite a lot of CSI with just a little of Indiana Jones thrown in.  At this stage I think I have a good handle on most of the collection, excepting one particular item.

The book is a small black leather bound manuscript stamped “M.G” on the cover, and appears to contain Catholic devotions professionally inscribed in German kurrentschrift (German cursive hand, just close enough to our own handwriting to look familiar but dissimilar enough to defy easy translation) with calligraphic headlines. I don’t know who wrote it, for whom, why, when or where.

The best evidence we have of the book’s origin and provenance is an inscription on the half-title page:

This inscription is more problematic than it might first appear. The first two lines read (in German) “This book belongs to Josephine Krofft” followed by two lines of gobbledygook and a date which appears to be 1729. One might hope that this indicates the person the book was written for, her location and perhaps the date she recieved the book.  Would that it were so easy.

The date is our first and formost problem. Many of the books in this collection are from the 18th century, and so we did take this, at first, to be the date of this book’s creation as well.  The trouble began when I started to investigate the book more closely and found that the majority of the book is written on a nice weave paper with a clean, clear watermark depicting the monogram “OHL” with a crown or flame atop the “O”.

The watermark is so clean and clear that there can be no question of the paper type.  If the paper were lain – the standard paper technology in the early 18th century – you would be able to see, however faintly, chain lines in the paper when held up to a light.    Weave paper without chain lines was a technology invented in England around 1757, reaching the Continent even later.  If my book reads 1729, it must be back-dated for some reason, as the very paper it is written upon was not invented until 30 years later.

Why back-date a book?  The answer probably lies in the rest of the text on that line, which I can’t yet decipher.  I have one great fear, and that is that the date is a guess made by a previous – but not original – owner.  The second puzzle of that inscription involves a lost page.  The hasty inscription has been corrected in two places – once where a word was scratched out and written again, below, and once at the end of the third line where one word has been written over another, previously-written word (unfortunately not very visible in this picture).  The corrections were so hasty, in fact, that they have left an ink-smudge on the verso of the flyleaf facing it.  In between our inscribed half-title page and this ink-smudged flyleaf is a hanging scrap of paper where once there was another page.  So, the inscription was made after another page was removed.  What was on this missing page?  And if Josephine Krofft was the book’s first owner, why would she inscribe it after it has been altered?  I suspect now that she isn’t the first owner at all, and the missing page probably had better, more accurate evidence of provenance.  Evidence I will never actually witness.

Nevertheless the book is an intriguing find.  I’m telling you this story now because I hope that somewhere out there someone may be able to help me source this book in some way.  If you or anyone you know can read the text of that inscription,  can help me identify the paper type or has any other information on 18th (?)-century German Catholic prayer-books, please drop me a line!  Comment here or email me at charlotte@once-and-future.com.  I can provide more photos and information as required.