Tag Archives: books

The Decline of Book Making

About 1860, it was noted that printing quality was suffering in the throes of the Industrial Revolution.

Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Henry Stevens, a Vermont-born rare-book seller in London and recognized proponent of fine printing wrote, “The disagreeable fact that our books are deteriorating in quality is assumed for the present and taken for granted. The fault exists and is daily becoming more and more manifest…”

“Our printing presses are teeming and steaming with books of all sorts (with some striking exeptions) not up to the mark of the high calling of book-making. It is no excuse to say that the rapidity of production has been largely increased. That amounts merely to confessing that we are now consuming two bad books in the place of one good one…”

“It is not the amiable public that is so hungry for cheap printing and cheap books, but the greedy provider of cheap and cheaper books with which the public is crammed like Strasburg geese, that are in fault. This downward tendency is not so much the fault of the consumers as the manufacturers. The manufacture of a beautiful and durable book costs little if anything more, it is believed, than it does to manufacture a coumsy and unsightly one.”

“Good taste, skill, and severe training are as requisitie and necessary in the proper production of books as in any other of the fine arts.”

Henry Stevens was engaged by the librarian of the British Museum, to collect historical books, documents and journals concerning North and South America; and he was purchasing agent for the Smithsonian Institution and for the Library of Congress, as well as for James Lenox, of New York, for whom he secured much of the valuable Americana in the Lenox library in that city, and for the John Carter Brown library, at Providence, Rhode Island. He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852, and in 1877 was a member of the committee which organized the Caxton Exhibition, for which he catalogued the collection of Bibles.

Image: Pennyroyal Caxton Bible


What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel’s brilliantly entertaining blog, What is Stephen Harper Reading, is a treasure trove for booklovers.

If you are a writer in a country run by a man who does not care about the arts – and certainly does not give them enough money – how do you change his mind? Lobbying would be ineffective. Whiny columns will be predictable. And megaphones and placards are dull to a novelist who can dream up an ocean-going Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker prize, has come up with his own form of direct action: every second Monday, he sends a book to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. If the PM will not follow the arts, the arts must come to him – by post.

These are not just any books, mind; Mr Harper is a busy man, so what he gets is short and accessible. As light reading, they can still be pretty heavy: Tolstoy, Hindu scriptures, Strindberg. Such texts, the writer says, “expand stillness” – just what a head of state needs after an infernal day’s politics.

When is he meant to read them? “Everyone can do a page at bedtime,” says Mr Martel. “Or his aide could get a book to him when he visits the toilet.” Each second-hand paperback has an introductory note from the sender (“Om Shanti” ends the letter accompanying the Bhagavad Gita).

An ice-hockey fan, the PM has not commented on his gifts. But to give is better than to receive, and the unrequited novelist will continue his campaign until Mr Harper leaves office. “If I knew he liked thrillers,” says Mr Martel, “I would send more of those – perhaps a Chinese thriller.”

Martel explains:

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness.

~~ From the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2007

Booking on Success

Mabel\'s FablesWhen Heidi Hallett purchased Frog Hollow Books in Halifax’s Park Lane Mall a little over two years ago, she did so out of a lifelong love for literature. After almost a decade as a co-owner of The Coast, Halifax’s only independent weekly newspaper, she decided that it was time to turn the page on her profession.

“I have been a big reader ever since I was a little girl,” she says. “Books were my way of both escaping the world and making some sense out of it. I have always been a big supporter of Atlantic Canadian literature and believe that we have some of the best authors in the country here on the East Coast. I wanted to play my part in our great tradition of storytelling.”

Ms. Hallett is not alone in her struggles, as independent booksellers from coast to coast feel the pressure from the onslaught of deep-pocketed big-box stores, online purchasing, the high dollar and the cost of prime real estate.

Ms. Hallett is doing what she can to keep her dreams alive by spreading the word about regional scribes through book launches and in-store author appearances. “Local literature is a vital part of our culture here, and I am concerned that if more independent bookstores like mine start going under, we risk losing that history and heritage forever.”

Dave Hill is the manager of Munro’s Books in Victoria, one of the country’s oldest and most successful independent booksellers. He says that stores like Frog Hollow have to find and work with their core strengths. “The key is to focus her efforts upon the things that the big chain outlets or online sellers cannot offer their customers,” he says. “First and foremost, that means excellent service and expert advice.”

To that end, Ms. Hallett and her staff should always make it a point to engage their clients in literary chit-chat. “Bookstores are tailor-made for browsing and discussing ideas,” he says. “What she ideally wants is for the bookstore to become a point of destination for readers of all ages. Along with that literary expertise and those added personal touches, things like author readings and signings, special events, weekly or monthly theme sales, on-site contests, book clubs, having an activities area for children and even serving coffee and muffins will all add up to a higher volume of in-store traffic.”

He adds that Frog Hollow must then use its in-house and front-of-store display space as effectively as possible. “A real emphasis should be placed upon specialty products, such as local and regional authors and books,” he says.

“Ultimately, however, Hallett is going to build her reputation in the community through word of mouth and referrals.”

Eleanor LeFave agrees. President of the Canadian Booksellers Association and owner of Mabel’s Fables Children’s Bookstore in Toronto says businesses like hers must make the most of their marketplace. “We will never be able to compete with the Chapters/Indigo outlets or the Amazon.coms of the world,” she admits, “but we can find a good niche for ourselves and make ourselves a vital and vibrant part of the neighbourhood.” That means reaching out to the local community as well. “Getting involved with local literary festivals, or bringing books or book discussion into the schools or libraries is always a great way to keep up visibility,” she says.

“Sending out a weekly or monthly e-mail is an effective and cost-efficient way for Hallett to keep her existing customers up to date on current and upcoming releases and events.” Ensuring that the store’s website remains fresh and dynamic is a vital component of the marketing mix as well. That technology can also help to cut costs in other ways. “It sounds tedious,” she admits, “but by establishing best-business practices through process streamlining, Hallett will be in a better position to keep an eye on cash flow, stay on top of special orders and monitor inventory. With such a low profit margin, there really is no wiggle room for any kind of systematic errors.”

Excerpted from the Globe and Mail, April 28, 2008

Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia

Turning Bytes into Books

ScrapbookingThe first time Jeannet Leendertse, a freelance book designer, saw the software on the Blurb.com website that could automatically produce a book, she was more than a little sad.

The software could help anyone turn some text and photos into a bound book in a few minutes.

Soon after, though, she saw an opportunity. “I realized there would always be people who appreciate time and effort going into design. I decided to put myself onto their website.”

Today, Leendertse still turns a pile of pictures and paragraphs into bound books, but instead of working just for a roster of major publishers like MIT Press, she helps individuals create books. She is participating in an offshoot of the scrapbooking phenomena, the hobby of collecting and preserving photos and mementos.

What was once a pastime for mothers recording family memories for their children has blossomed into a new, fertile marketplace of collaboration. People with stories to tell are creating personalized books filled with pictures, blog entries and even business proposals. While some of these glorified scrapbooks are aimed at the world at large, many new titles were never intended to be sold in stores or marketed in any way.

The digital tools – the camera, scanner and word processor – have opened the field of book creation to the amateur as the hobby moves away from pasting buttons and rickrack onto pages. But sometimes the bookmakers need a little help. Leendertse recently worked with the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who told her: “This is the artwork that I have. This is my story. How do you think the artwork tells the story best?”

She said he gave her access to his archives and they worked together to create “The Impulse to Preserve,” a 384-page book on Gardner’s philosophy of creating films. She organized the content and arranged the pages of the book. Soon afterward, a publisher, Other Press, saw the design and agreed to publish her finished work.

Suzzanne Connolly, a San Francisco-based book designer at Picturia Press, says couples who want to bind the pictures from their wedding day come to her with elaborate plans. “We decide on the layout, the colour, the fonts and the style and the flow of each book,” she said. “We can find illustrators, photographers and writers for our clients if it is called for.”

One of her projects was a 52-page 7- by-7-inch soft-cover book with black-and-white photos of a man’s huskies, including one that had just died. In another project, she converted a mother’s blog into a 116-page hardcover book.

“She writes practically every day and takes lots of pictures,” Connolly said. “She wanted to convert her blog into a book so that when her children grew up they would have something wonderful to look at for each year of their lives.”

Book creators use Adobe Photoshop (about $650), but others find the simpler and less expensive Photoshop Elements (about $100) adequate. Some amateur bookmakers prefer focused scrapbooking software like Nova Development’s Art Explosion Scrapbook Factory selling for about $40. As the name might imply, the package comes with thousands of fonts, illustrations, templates and “photorealistic embellishments” like pictures of buttons, ribbons or charms.

Companies that print bound books also offer free programs. Blurb.com and Picaboo.com distribute free software with all the tools needed to start a book. They expect to make money when users upload the final versions to their websites and order printed versions. A 7- by-7-inch soft- cover book from Blurb.com starts at $13 for 20 to 40 pages, with extra pages additional. Bigger, fatter books like a 150-page 13-by-11-inch hardcover cost $85. There are volume discounts. Picaboo.com sells some 20-page soft-cover books for $10 and offers a variety of bound books including ones covered with linen or padded leather.

Eileen Gittins, the chief executive and founder of Blurb.com, says that her site is working on nurturing a culture around creating books by cultivating relationships between the amateurs and the professionals. “We’re finding that books are this very interesting way for people who want to meet up. People want to see each other’s books,” she said. “We realized we had the beginnings of a marketplace here.”

Excerpted from Globe and Mail

The Tigris Runs Black with the Ink of Scholars

Iraq National LibraryThe brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this season of fifth- year anniversaries, one largely forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part because it relates directly to the politics of memory itself. Five years ago this week, US troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq National Library and Archives – one of the oldest and most used in the world. In Arab countries the old expression was “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.”

American troops were under orders not to intervene. Library staff who requested protection from the GI’s were told, “We are soldiers, not policemen”. American military orders did, however, extend to guarding the Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

The selective passivity of US forces was not only ethically questionable, but also a violation of international law. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries should not only be spared attack in wartime but also actively protected.

Despite the sack of a major cultural institution and the collapse of the society around it, the library struggles on, continuing a long tradition of resurrection from the ashes of war. The world’s first library was located in Mosul, in Northern Iraq. It was built in the 7th century BCE and produced the first known catalog in history. In 1927 a British archeological team unearthed it and, for “purposes of preservation”, carried off many of its artifacts – including the oldest known copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of world literature.

Iraq’s intellectual golden era came later and coincided with the Abbasid Dynasty ( 750-1258 ) whose capital was established at Baghdad. In 832, the construction of the Byat al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) established the new capital as an unrivaled center of scholarship and intellectual exchange.

The tradition of research there brought advances in astronomy, optics, physics and mathematics. The father of algebra, Al-Khawarizmii, labored among its scrolls. It was here that many of the Greek and Latin texts we accept as the foundation of Western thought were translated, catalogued and preserved. And it was from Baghdad that these works would eventually make their way to medieval Europe and help lift that continent from its benighted, post-Roman intellectual torpor.

In 1258, the Mongols descended on Baghdad and emptied the libraries into the Tigris, ending the city’s scholarly preeminence enjoyed for nearly 500 years. “Hence the legend developed,” as one scholar wrote, “that the river ran black from the ink of the countless texts lost in this manner, while the streets ran red with the blood of the city’s slaughtered inhabitants.”

Baghdad BooksThe current Director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive, Dr. Saad Eskander, estimates that over three days, beginning on April 11, 2003, as many as “60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite era documents were lost as well as the bulk of the Ba’ath era documents…. [and] approximately 25 percent of the book collections were looted or burned.” Other Iraqi manuscript collections and university libraries suffered similar fates.

Since then, Iraqis have once again tried to rebuild their library. The occupying powers have played along, but like so much about the Iraq War, their effort has been marked by ineptitude, hypocrisy and a cruel disregard for Iraqi people and culture.

Early in the occupation, L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), demonstrated an unwillingness to provide the basic funds necessary for the reconstruction of Iraq’s educational and informational infrastructure. Dr. Rene Teijgeler, senior consultant for Culture for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management office at the American Embassy in Baghdad, left his position in February of 2005, not having “the supplies of ready cash that could be used to acquire something as simple as bookshelves.” His position was left empty.

So the library staff have looked elsewhere, occasionally finding pieces of the old collection for sale there on Al Mutanabi street, home to Baghdad’s booksellers.

Many dedicated people have offered important solidarity. In Florence, the city government underwrote construction of a conservation lab. The Czech government funded the training of Iraqi archivists. With the exception of invaluable training sessions organized by private educational institutions such as Harvard University, American support has been limited to a relatively small number of individual scholars, a few dedicated nonprofit agencies, nominal USAID support and the cooperation of a handful of private
corporations. The British National Library has provided recently published English-language social science texts and donated microfilm copies of its colonial administrative records from its last occupation of Iraq. But the replacement of physical documents largely ends here.

It would be unfair and frankly absurd to blame American librarians and their shrinking budgets, rising legal costs and increasingly costly dependence on proprietary databases for the state of Iraq’s infrastructure. But the increasingly unstable position of American libraries is actually part of the same logic that produced that war. The disdain for cultural institutions does not stop at the border–bombs there, budget cuts here.

Excerpted from The Nation

Image: “Al-Mutanabi Street, 5 March 2007”, by textile artist, Eileen Doughty. See more of her work at Doughty Designs

The Library at Night

The Library at NightBook collectors might be presumed to be among the happiest of mortals. There, in the evening, they sit contentedly in soft easy chairs, beneath pools of warm lamplight, surrounded by their libraries — row after serried row of beautiful or rare volumes, all the great works of scholarship and the human imagination. Sadly, this cozy vision is usually little more than a daydream, though not for Alberto Manguel. As The Library at Night indicates, he has managed to take every reader’s castle in the air and put a foundation under it.

From a psychological viewpoint, most bookmen and women are actually among the more unfortunate sufferers on the wheel of life — for them there is no respite, no relief, from the insatiate ache of desire. Surrounded by plenty, they hunger for more. Collections are never complete. Unsigned modern firsts really do need to become signed or inscribed. Any merely fine copy suddenly looks dingy when compared to one in mint condition. Moreover, as everyone can attest, the exhilaration of actual possession lasts but a twinkling. The newly acquired treasure is soon slipped onto a bookshelf or even, as the bookcases fill up, into a cardboard box stored in the basement or the attic or the American Self Storage

Alberto ManguelA History of Reading, this superb all-around literary essayist, can actually find any one of his 30,000 books. As he tells us in The Library at Night, they lie readily at hand on dark wood shelves, in a building constructed on the ruins of a former 15th-century barn, adjoining a one-time presbytery, on a hill south of the Loire.

This in itself is a bitter pill. Yet what’s even harder to take is this: Manguel clearly reads and uses those books. His is truly a working collection, the engine for a serious international literary career, the ultimate source for such unusual compilations as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories and God’s Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression. Surely, though, the man is your typical melancholy, dry-as-dust bibliophile? Nope. Not only does Manguel own wonderful books housed in an eat-your-heart-out library in an idyllic part of France, he seems, well, content. According to The Library at Night, he lives with someone he loves, writes during the morning, potters among his books throughout the day and evening, and, come nightfall, sips wine in the garden with visiting friends from around the world.

The Library at Night — a series of essays on what one might call the Platonic Idea of a library. The individual chapters reveal its essentially meditative character: “The Library as Myth,” “The Library as Order,” “The Library as Space,” “The Library as Identity,” “The Library as Home” and so forth. Within each essay, Manguel tends to begin by revealing a few personal details of his reading life, which establishes a theme for more general observations about books and libraries. He then usually segues into an account of the career or obsessions of some exemplary book-person, meanwhile interspersing apposite quotations to underscore certain points, before bringing the essay to a quiet summing up. So here we learn (or learn again) about Melvil Dewey and his decimal system, Diderot and his Encyclopédie, Anthony Panizzi and the design of the British Museum Library, and Andrew Carnegie and his ambiguous philanthropy (he would generally pay for the buildings, which glorified his name, but not for the books inside them). In a brilliant final chapter Manguel slyly compares the literary tastes of two unusual booklovers: Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula.

The Library at Night is an elegant volume, in both its design and its text, though some of Manguel’s quoted anecdotes and insights (especially those pertaining to the Internet, that source of speedy answers rather than considered wisdom) will probably be familiar to admirers of Nicholas Basbanes ( A Gentle Madness),  and Sven Birkerts ( The Gutenberg Elegies).

Alberto Manguel has brought out a richly enjoyable book, absolutely enthralling for anyone who loves to read and an inspiration for anybody who has ever dreamed of building a library of his or her own.

Washington Post

I Can Has Book Deal?

Stuff White People Like and I Can Has Cheezburger have been topping WordPress’ Blogs of the Day charts forever.

Now both of those blogs have received book deals.

Lolcat Dumbledore is Gay

Stuff White People Like contains a list of cultural totems, including gifted children, marathons and writers’ workshops, that a certain type of moneyed and liberal American might be expected to like.

“The No. 1 reason why white people like not having a TV,” reads the explanation under entry No. 28, Not Having a TV, “is so that they can tell you that they don’t have a TV.”

Readers discovered stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com earlier this year, liked it and forwarded links to their friends, who forwarded them to lots more friends. Newspaper columnists mentioned it, stealing some of the better jokes. By the end of February, the NPR program Talk of the Nation ran a report on it, debating whether the site was racist or satire.

And then on March 20, Random House announced that it had purchased the rights to a book by the blog’s founder, Christian Lander, an Internet copy writer. The price, according to a source familiar with the deal but not authorized to discuss the total, was about $300,000, a sum that many in the publishing and blogging communities believe is an astronomical amount for a book spawned from a blog, written by a previously unpublished author.

One of the first literary agents to troll the Web for talent was Kate Lee, who in 2003 was an assistant at International Creative Management, the sprawling talent agency, looking for a way to make her name.

When she started contacting bloggers and talking to them about book deals, many were stunned that a real literary agent was interested in their midnight typings. Her roster was so rich with bloggers, including Matt Welch from Hit & Run and Glenn Reynolds from Instapundit, that the New Yorker profiled her in 2004. Two years from now, the magazine noted, “Books by bloggers will be a trend, a cultural phenomenon.”

And two years after that?

“If I contact someone or someone is put in touch with me, chances are they’ve already been contacted by another agent,” Ms. Lee said. “Or they’ve at least thought about turning their blog into a book or some kind of film or TV project.”

It will be difficult for the publisher to make a profit, said Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, she figured Random House would have to sell about 75,000 copies, a total that would likely land the book on best-seller lists, to earn back its $300,000 advance.

But can 1.5 million hits, the number Random House says Mr. Lander’s site has attracted, be wrong? If a blog has lured that many eyeballs in the freewheeling terrain of the Internet, publishers are willing to take a chance it will attract attention in the bookstore, said Kate McKean, a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, who is one of those now scouring the Web for new clients.

The site I Can Has Cheezburger (icanhascheezburger.com), which features lolcats, photos of animals with humorous, ungrammatical captions, debuted in January 2007. Three months later, Ms. McKean contacted the founders; by last August, they had chosen her over other agents, she said. The site has 1.6 million page views a day, she said, a fact noted in the book proposal she helped prepare.

After a bidding war among several publishers, Gotham Books signed her clients. Come this November, expect the I Can Has Cheezburger book on shelves. “It’s going to be predominantly photos but also will enlighten readers on the key memes of lolcats,” Ms. McKean said, referring to strange rules of grammar unique to the form.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lander, who is white, added his 92nd entry to Stuff White People Like: Book Deals.

“White people,” he wrote, “like having their dreams come true when they least expected it.”

New York Times: Fashion and Style, March 30, 2008