Archive for the ‘bibliophilia’ Category


The Enemies of Books by William Blades

28 October 2008

In an effort to promote one of my pet online projects, Project Gutenberg’s Distributed Proofreaders, today’s review is of a book that is now freely available online for downloading as either an HTML or text file. (The text is also available as a PDF file from Google Books, if you prefer that format.)

The Enemies of Books by William Blades

William Blades (1824-1890) was the son of a south London printer who apprenticed into his father’s trade and later came to run his family’s successful printing business. His interest in printing and the print trade was not confined to the books on his family’s presses; early in his career, he became interested in the history of printing in England, and particularly in the work of William Caxton, the printer who first introduced the printing press to England in the later part of the fifteenth century. As part of his research into the output of Caxton’s press, Blades frequently went in search of books printed by Caxton and other early English printers, and his exposure to public and private libraries throughout Great Britain provided him with the opportunity to see numerous examples of proper and improper care for books. The Enemies of Books (1888), his best-known work, is a study of the many natural and man-made forces that can easily damage or destroy books and the ways to protect books against these depredations.

As an experienced printer and book collector, Blades was well acquainted with the natural enemies of books, most of which still pose hazards more than a century later. Fire is one of the obvious enemies, whether in the form of an errant spark from a chimney setting an entire collection alight or a deliberate attempt to collect and burn morally, socially, or politically unsuitable books. Blades gives examples of several pagan libraries burned by Christians and Christian libraries burned by pagans; fire, in this instance, is an equal opportunity destroyer. Water in any form is another enemy of books, for continued storage in a damp, mouldy, or frosty environment will destroy books as surely as if they had been lost at sea. Blades also describes how gas and heat can severely damage leather and cloth bindings; explains how dust, poor shelving habits, and outright neglect have been responsible for many a lost library; and goes into considerable detail about the ravages of vermin such as mice and rats, cockroaches, and the various insects that are classified under the catch-all term ‘bookworm’.

Blades’ strongest criticisms, however, are directed at the human enemies of books. He denounces bibliomaniacs who are not above stealing entire libraries to satisfy their acquisitive spirits, careless bookbinders who rebind otherwise fine volumes with shoddy workmanship and poor-quality materials, and greedy collectors who will cut pages or prints out of books and toss the gutted carcasses aside. (This is still quite true today: to give just one example, a completely intact edition of James Audubon’s original Birds of America recently sold at auction for several million dollars precisely because so many other editions have been cut up to sell the prints separately.) And as Blades was certainly a man of his era, it comes as little to no surprise that one of his later chapters focuses on the lurking dangers of servants (by which he generally means maids or housekeepers, or occasionally wives if there is no live-in maid in the house) and children. He bemoans the fact that so many wives and servants will insist on cleaning and dusting a man’s library whether or not it needs it, and cause all manner of damage to books in an effort to be helpful and thorough in the cleaning. Granted, the fairer sex are not automatically hopeless when it comes to books — ‘if one Eve in the family can be indoctrinated with book-reverence you are a happy man; her price is above that of rubies; she will prolong your life‘ — but a woman must be instructed and supervised properly in the methods of book-cleaning to prevent any mishaps. And if women are to be condemned as careless handlers of books, then children are absolutely fatal to a man’s library. They are prone to committing casual acts of ‘book-murder’ as they scribble in and rip pages from books, break hinges and spines, smear dirt and sticky fingermarks all over the pages, and occasionally pluck the books from the shelves and build table-forts with them or use them as projectiles in war games with their little chums. Of all the enemies of books, general ignorance would seem to be the worst and most persistent offender.

The Enemies of Books is a good old-fashioned bibliophile’s rant, and as a result its author may come across as a more than a little eccentric to those who might not happen to share his sentiments. ‘Looked at rightly,‘ Blades declares in the epilogue, ‘the possession of any old book is a sacred trust, which a conscientious owner or guardian would as soon think of ignoring as a parent would of neglecting his child.‘ Not everyone might be willing to go so far as to equate an improperly cared-for book with a deprived child. Yet the enduring popularity of this short work owes much to its author’s passionate language and well-researched anecdotes, which create a distinctive (read: perpetually scandalised) authorial voice that is perfect for a work like this one. And for someone who was so keen to ensure that books are protected from their enemies, Blades might be pleasantly surprised to see that his own book has been preserved in several different digital formats more than a hundred years after it first left the presses.


Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

7 October 2008

Falling a bit behind in my book reviews, mostly because my writing energies have been devoted to preparing for the Film & History conference at the end of this month. I’ll post new reviews when I can.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

It began with an attempt to purchase a birthday present for less than $20. Nancy and Larry Goldstone had decided to limit the amount they would spend on birthday gifts for each other that year, and so when Nancy managed to acquire a good used copy of a fine edition of War and Peace for $10, she considered it a brilliant find. That edition of Tolstoy, however, opened the door to the world of used and rare books, and the Goldstones soon found themselves drawn back to local used book stores in search of replacements for other books in their collection that were falling apart. In time, they go from being people who had never thought of themselves as ‘collectors’ to eager bidders for a first edition of James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr Chips at a Swann Galleries auction in New York City.

Used and Rare, as its subtitle suggests, reads very much like a travelogue, focusing as it does on how the authors slowly branch out from the offerings of the used book stores in their small corner of New England. The Goldstones rarely go farther afield than Boston or New York City, constrained as they are (most of the time) by the need to find a reliable babysitter for their young daughter. The emphasis of their story is less on the books themselves and more on their gradual awakening to the small details of the book trade, from the initial sticker shock at the cost of a complete set of Charles Dickens’ works to…well, mostly the sticker shock at the prices of the books they come across along the way. One small sour moment in their otherwise pleasant experiences occurs when they attempt to view the rare books held in the Boston Public Library, and are brusquely turned away by the librarian for not having a letter of introduction or a specific reason for requesting to look at the books, apart from simply wanting to see them. (Considering that this happened in the mid-1990s, before the widespread availability of the Internet, the Goldstones might be forgiven for not knowing the standard access procedures for rare-book collections in libraries.) Otherwise, though, they find much to enjoy as they look for books that interest them, and learn a bit about the history of book-collecting and what drives people to build a collection of their own.

Overall, Used and Rare is a quick and easy read, relaxed and light without being overly fluffy. The Goldstones freely admit that they are amateurs in the book world, and make no pretensions of being more ‘in the know’ than they actually are. In its own way, this very amateurishness gives the book a refreshing quality, as it allows the reader to share in the sense of wide-eyed wonder that the authors feel with each new discovery and each successful foray into small, dusty shops filled with potential treasures.


Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World by Nicholas Basbanes

16 September 2008

And now for the last of the Nicholas Basbanes books in my queue. I’ve yet to read Editions & Impressions, the book he published earlier this year, but once I do I expect I’ll have a review of it written fairly soon thereafter.

Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World by Nicholas Basbanes

Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond stories, was a book collector who had an interest in works that, as he considered it, ‘made something happen’. The category was deliberately broad and unspecific, which allowed him to amass a collection of books (now held at Indiana University’s Lilly Library) that included works as diverse as Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, Wilhelm Röntgen’s monograph on the discovery of X-rays, and (I suppose this is a given, all things considered) Mein Kampf. A book collection like this provides an good opening for a conversation on this very topic: what does it mean to have a book that makes something happen? And what about the people who write these kinds of books — what kinds of books did they read, and how did these books shape how they thought and wrote later in life? Can we study a particular book based on what its author read, or does that put us into a dangerous position of overly blurring the line between an author and his or her works? Nicholas Basbanes attempts to answer questions like these in his most recent book about books, Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World.

Basbanes looks into the reading habits of notable individuals, ranging from literary figures (John Milton, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust) to scientists (Thomas Edison) to politicians (Thomas Jefferson, Adolf Hitler) to criminals (the Unabomber), studying how they interacted with the books they read and owned. The poet Samuel Coleridge heavily annotated his books, to the point where Coleridge scholars have delved into his annotations in search of clues to interpreting his poetry. Other writers kept detailed commonplace books, collecting interesting quotations and passages from the books they read — the practice of keeping a commonplace book was once taught at certain institutes of higher education, such as Oxford and Harvard. Greater awareness of the relationship between authors and the books they read has even spurred the development of a scholarly subfield focused on in the history of reading. But scholars are often divided on the question of how much weight should be given to an author’s reading history, and Basbanes’ interviews with contemporary scholars such as David McCullough and Harold Bloom show the different viewpoints that several modern readers have adopted when evaluating this approach to studying literature.

The nearest approximation to reading Every Book Its Reader is very much like walking through a library, picking books off the shelves at random and flipping through them, reading a passage or a page or a chapter here and there before replacing the book on its shelf and moving on. Someone who enjoys this style might think of it as ‘open’ or ‘free-flowing’; someone who dislikes it might just as readily call it ‘disjointed’ or ‘shallow’. Every Book Its Reader does not quite seem to flow in quite the same vein as A Gentle Madness or A Splendor of Letters. It comes across more as a collection of stream-of-consciousness essays peppered with anecdotes and stories than anything else. As a result, it is difficult to know how to evaluate it — opinions are likely to depend on the reading style and particular interest of the person reading this book. Those who have enjoyed Basbanes’ previous forays into book culture might be disappointed by the looseness of the chapter organisation and the lack of focused attention he seems to give to his chosen topics. As a reader, I think I would have liked a slightly broader range of authors — namely, more on authors and individuals who are not from the Western literary tradition. I also would have preferred a somewhat more organised writing style for a book of this nature, or at least a more in-depth exploration of some of the topics that Basbanes chooses to touch upon only briefly. Nonetheless, it provided me with a few more books to add to my to-read list, which is one of the things that a book about books really ought to do.


Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the 21st Century by Nicholas Basbanes

7 September 2008

More books about books, as I continue to work through my review backlog. I’ve come up with a schedule for the books that’ll be posted here in the next few months, so perhaps I’ll be able to keep a bit more on top of things for a while.

Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas Basbanes

Nicholas Basbanes’ first few books were mostly about the people he met and places he visited in his travels as a writer of books about books. Whereas books like A Gentle Madness dealt primarily with the bibliophiles and Patience and Fortitude focused mainly on the historical and contemporary repositories of books in the Western world, this book takes a slightly different turn. In it, Basbanes talks about the actual process of collecting books and how to go about it, with plenty of hints and tips mixed in with anecdotes of the book trade.

As a guide to book-hunting, Among the Gently Mad gives sound advice on how to go about building one’s own book collection. Basbanes sensibly advises his readers to collect something that truly interests them, rather than buying a bunch of random books on the off-chance that their value might appreciate over time. He compares the person who wants only pristine signed copies of books to those who prefer to have more personalised inscriptions, though he doesn’t say that one is superior or inferior to the other. (Some people can be very particular about autographed copies: the actor Stephen Fry once spoke of a person who asked him to sign a book, ‘Just “with every good wish” and then your name, please’.) He describes the good and bad aspects of book-buying off the Internet and eBay compared to browsing through actual used bookstores — for one thing, the online search engine, no matter how thorough, is not a real replacement for a real-life relationship with a reputable bookseller. He also evaluates the relative importance of the things that matter to book collectors, such as the value of dust jackets, and explores the many venues at which books are sold, from the noisy chaos of a flea market to the anxious hush of an auction house.

Most of Basbanes’ advice is pitched at more ‘serious’ collectors, or those who would wish to describe themselves as such. As a result, it might go a bit over the head of the person whose primary exposure to the rare-book trade is reading about the latest mind-boggling price for a first-edition signed copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (more than £20,000 at one 2007 auction). Basbanes also provides a good deal of information about his own collections and the stories behind the books he has acquired over the years — often in detail that can become a little tedious at times. Yet much of the details are there to show precisely how one can build a book collection that is truly able to reflect the spirit of its collector, can be shared with one’s closest friends and relatives, and one day may even be given to a library or museum to preserve the time, diligence, and loving effort that went in to assembling that collection in the first place.


Patience and Fortitude and A Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbanes

26 August 2008

I recently finished one of Nicholas Basbanes’ more recent books, and upon uploading it to the review I queue realised that with the exception of A Gentle Madness, I had not posted my reviews of any of his other books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll attempt to rectify that.

Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go about the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy by Nicholas Basbanes

Appropriately enough, for a book on the history of libraries, Nicholas Basbanes named his second book-about-books after the twin marble lions who guard the steps of the New York Public Library. Patience and Fortitude received their names from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s as a testament to the strengths that the people of his city would need in the harsh economic climate of the day, but they apply equally to the determination that is required to preserve and maintain a library that will withstand the tests of time.

Patience & Fortitude is a lengthy, fascinating history of libraries and the book collections that end up in libraries, from the great (and now mostly lost) treasures of antiquity in the Library in Alexandria in Egypt to the Library of Congress’s origins in the contents of Thomas Jefferson’s bookshelves — and other libraries and collections of note, housed in universities, monasteries, and private homes. Even examples of great fictional libraries, such as the labyrinthine abbey library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, have a part in this narrative. But along with the stories of libraries come stories of the difficulty of maintaining those libraries, as space and funding restrictions force difficult choices on librarians and administrators. For that matter, catastrophes like the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986 (touched upon by Basbanes, but not nearly delved into enough) also show how successive years of funding cuts and an arsonist’s work destroyed or damaged nearly two million books in a matter of hours.

Basbanes’ focus is mostly on the great libraries, the ones whose collections and resources have built up their well-deserved reputations over the years. Yet of all of the voices heard in Patience & Fortitude, one very small voice seems to be missing — the voice of small, local public libraries, which provide a basic, vital service to their communities, operating on tiny budgets within small spaces. It is the one voice that is seldom heard in an otherwise exceedingly thorough book, but as an example of both patience and fortitude it is somewhat surprising that it does not have a more prominent place.

A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World by Nicholas Basbanes

A Splendor of Letters is the third in Basbanes’ triology of connected books about books. Whereas A Gentle Madness focused on those who take their love of books and book-collecting to extremes, and Patience and Fortitude focused on the evolution of libraries through the centures, A Splendor of Letters turns toward specific issues of book preservation and the ways in which people have attempted to save (and in certain situations, destroy) books through the centuries.

Basbanes’ first two books are a little more specific in scope, dealing with a certain kind of person in the first and a certain kind of place in the second. In comparison, the third ranges across a much wider field, jumping from observations on the characters who frequent used book sales at modern public libraries to speculations on the knowledge that must have been lost when the Romans sacked Carthage in the second century BCE. Preservation is often a frustrating subject in the book world, as limitations on funding and technology seem to work hand in hand with poor storage conditions, ignorance, malice, and the general ravages of time as the natural enemies of the book. The rise of digitization has opened a whole new area of debate for preservationists. Thankfully, the sections that look into the effects of new computer technology on books manage to steer clear of the worst of the old book vs e-book debates, though Basbanes (like many) seems fairly convinced that the e-book is not likely to ever replace the physical act of reading words that have been printed on paper and bound together in hardback or paperback form.

One of the most powerful sections in A Splendor of Letters is Basbanes’ account of the efforts taken to restore the libraries, particularly the university libraries, that had been destroyed by the warring factions in Bosnia during the worst of the crisis years. Professors and research students all over the world came together and pooled photocopies of book pages, sections hand-copied out of books and preserved on loose-leaf notes from research trips, whatever scraps of information they could dredge up from their own work, all so that a record could be made of what had been in the libraries before they were destroyed. From these fragments, the collaborators hoped to produce a list of needed books and journals in an effort to obtain reprints or donations of as many of the works that had been lost as they could track down. A very tangible sense of loss permeates even the most thorough account of dedicated preservationists such as these — and A Splendor of Letters is at its best when it highlights these impressive but nonetheless bittersweet moments.


Commentary: Politico’s Great Statesmen Series

1 July 2008

I’m sitting on a backlog of not-quite finished reviews at the moment, so in lieu of rushing through the first one in the queue (which is likely to be about Edmund Burke), I’m going to slip in a bit of commentary about Politico’s Great Statesmen book series.

The Great Statesmen series is a line of reissued political memoirs and biographies of various British politicians. I’ve acquired four Great Statesmen titles in the past year, two biography (Francis Beckett on Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe on Alec Douglas-Home) and two autobiography (Geoffrey Howe’s Conflict of Loyalty and Denis Healey’s Time of My Life), and I’ve been very satisfied with the series’ production quality and appearance. I do quibble somewhat with the inclusion of Francis Beckett’s biography, which may be one of the more recent Attlee biographies but is by no means the most well-written. (My arguments on this front are set out in a review I wrote for the May 2008 issue of Political Studies Review.) Yet on the whole, it is very good to see a publisher taking the time and effort to put together a quality series of this nature, almost made for collecting by those who are fond of modern political history.

At the time of this writing, the main Politico’s Publishing Web site is not working very well for me. It’s a pity that the Politico’s Web site maintainers haven’t set up a separate section to show off this line, because it’s well worth the Web space. I’ve been able to compile a partial list of the titles currently available in the Great Statesmen line — I may have left out one or two, but these are the ones I have seen offered for sale online and in some bookshops.

Clem Attlee – Francis Beckett
Anthony Crosland – Kevin Jefferys
Alec Douglas-Home – D.R. Thorpe
Hugh Gaitskell – Brian Brivati

Time and Chance – James Callaghan
Time of My Life – Denis Healey
The Course of My Life – Edward Heath
Conflict of Loyalty – Geoffrey Howe
A Life at the Centre – Roy Jenkins (which I have reviewed here)

Reviews of both the Thorpe and Beckett biographies are in the abovementioned review article, and I’ll be writing a review of Geoffrey Howe’s biography for Political Studies Review in the near future. I’ve yet to start Healey’s memoirs, but when I finish that, I’ll be sure to post a review of it here.


Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

27 May 2008

I’m finding it a bit rough going after a holiday weekend, but I think this review will suffice.

Freedom’s Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain by Donald Thomas

Nearly 40 years ago, a young scholar named Donald Thomas wrote a book called A Long Time Burning: A History of Literary Censorship in England. Based on Thomas’s PhD work, the book was a sweeping overview of four centuries of prosecutions for the publication of seditious, obscene, or blasphemous literature in England, spanning the late 1400s through the 1890s. Yet during the publication process of his own book, Thomas learned that he and his publishers might very well face charges under the Obscene Publications Act for reprinting some of the troublesome passages that had come up before the magistrates in the past. Even cited in their historical context and treated as scholarly material, some works were still not considered fit for public eyes. Although Thomas and Routledge Press were never brought to court for A Long Time Burning (a fact which actually surprised a few of the book’s reviewers), the possibility of a book on censorship itself being censored prompted Thomas to consider the history of censorship in a far more recent time.

As the title indicates, Freedom’s Frontier looks at the history of censorship in twentieth-century (and early twenty-first century) Britain. Thomas focuses primarily on the censorship of printed texts, from the attempts to ban Oscar Wilde’s various writings, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, to the classic case study of Regina v. Penguin Books (the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial) to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Outside of the literary scene, Thomas occasionally broadens his scope to take in other kinds of censorship. He includes accounts of government-ordered prosecutions in the interests of national security, such as the banning of the Communist Daily Worker during World War II and various attempts to suppress the publication of news stories and political memoirs under the tenets of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) and the Official Secrets Act. He also looks at theatre censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the public outcry against the violence and sadism of American ‘pulp mags’ and horror comics, the creation of the British Board of Film Censors (later the British Board of Film Classification), and recent attempts to pass legislation against speech or writings that promote racial or religious hatred. Few details escape Thomas’s notice, particularly those that have a touch of humour or absurdity to them, and the wide variety of materials he covers provides a catalogue of the challenges to freedom of speech and expressions.

The research in Freedom’s Frontier is unquestionably good, solid and thorough and designed to pique the reader’s interest. One point of concern in the book’s organisation is that it starts to run into a few difficulties in the second half. Thomas begins Freedom’s Frontier by looking at the history in semi-chronological stages, breaking down his overviews into recognisable dividing lines — pre-World War I, World War I, the interwar period, the run-up to World War II. After World War II, though, he mostly shifts his approach into separate sections by genre (literature, government/defence, and so on), and then runs with the section almost up to the present day. The genre approach has its merits, particularly when there is a lot of material to cover, but after the smooth single narrative of the chronological sections it feels very jarring to have to break off and jump back half a century with each succeeding chapter in order to tackle the next genre.

The new censorship challenges of this century have much to do with the power of technology — such as the projects by China and other countries to restrict their citizens’ ability to view specific Internet sites — but the old arguments about the potential limits of the free expression of ideas have not greatly changed. The main targets of official censorship may have changed over the past century, but in many ways governments are still relying on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tactics used to implement it, rewriting old laws to tackle new foes. Freedom’s Frontier, more often than not, is the story of how modern legal battles over censorship have forced society to confront attitudes and values, matters of personal taste and individual judgment, that it had not thought to question. It is a story worth telling, and worth reading.


Library Research Models: A Guide to Classification, Cataloging, and Computers by Thomas Mann

15 April 2008

I’ve long had an interest in libraries and how they work, so when I saw this book on a research trip to the Library of Congress, I thought it would be sensible to do a bit of reading to learn more about the theoretical side of library work.

Library Research Models: A Guide to Classification, Cataloging, and Computers by Thomas Mann

Most people who do research (myself most definitely included) tend to have set ways in which they search for information. I grew up at a time when the standard card catalogue was on its way out, but I can still remember going to the library in my childhood and learning how to search for the books I wanted by flipping through the racks and racks of little off-white, typewritten cards. As I grew older, searching for journal articles involved several large volumes entitled The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, or larger guidebooks on similar subjects. With the advent of computerised and finally online catalogues, searching for books and information became a matter of typing in specific words. But searching in these set ways often restricts the amount of information one can locate, and leaves entire avenues of available information unexplored.

The author of this book worked as a general reference librarian in the Main Reading Room in the Library of Congress, and his experience with how people go about their research seems to be put to good use in this book. Library Research Models describes several different set ways of thinking often used by researchers, examining and weighing the pros and cons of using each library research model. In doing so, Mann also explains how libraries are organised and books are arranged on shelves — understandably, the bulk of the explanation is given over to the organisation methods used by the Library of Congress and other large libraries that operate on the same principle. The different ways of conducting research can produce rather different results, and Mann takes the time to show just how a individual researcher’s mind might work, and what alternate methods might be tried to produce improved research results.

The only fault I can find with the book is really no fault of its own; having been written in 1993, there are more than a few sections that are…well, more than a little out of date. The sections that deal with computer technology reflect the fact that the book was written in the early 1990s, and a revised edition would surely have quite a bit more to say about the use of the online catalogues and the use of the Internet in information location. A revised edition might even have to split into two parts, one to deal with traditional methods of searching and one to focus solely on the use of the Internet as a point of reference. But as an introductory point of reference, without getting into the changes caused by the computer and the use of the Internet, Library Research Models seems a decent place to start. It certainly made me think more closely about how I go about looking something up in a list or a catalogue, and what kind of productive use I make of my time when I’m actually browsing deep in the stacks.


Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

20 January 2008

I may be able to move back up to three review posts per week fairly soon, depending on how the backlog looks. Right now I have several reviews waiting to go, so it’ll be a matter of spreading them out and pacing them accordingly.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and mystery columnist for the Washington Post, knows the importance of examining and evaluating the books that she has read over the years. Books have been the centre of her life for a number of years now, so perhaps it is only natural that she would write a book that looks at her life as a reader and how certain books and genres have shaped her reading experience and her approach to life. And in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Corrigan attempts to explore her longstanding and complex relationship to the books in her life, from her early childhood favourites to the books she comes back to time and again as a adult. As she says in her oft-quoted introduction: ‘It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others –- even my nearest and dearest -– there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.‘ It’s a sentiment that a number of readers share, certainly.

Quite possibly the best section in the book is her paean to hard-boiled detective novels, a genre that she believes has been overlooked and underappreciated by critics and academics. Corrigan delves into the world of noir, the stories of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and provides some interesting insights into how the traditional detective novel’s perspective on class and society makes it a quintessentially American work of fiction. She also has a few words to say about what she calls the female version of the ‘extreme-adventure story’ — where the gruelling experiences and hardships of a man climbing a mountain or facing death on a battlefield are mirrored by a those of a woman fighting to escape an abusive husband or devoting her energies to caring for an elderly relative on her own. (I’m not quite sure that I agree with all of her thoughts on this subject, but I’m still attempting to figure out where my reservations come from.)

That said, it should be noted that Corrigan’s attempt to describe her passion for books and illustrate the influence of literature on her everyday life becomes increasingly strained the farther away she goes from the books. As the distance from the literary analysis increases, the more her prose starts to drag and the less careful her word choices become. In one section, the term ‘WASP’ — with all its vaguely perjorative connotations and its feel of inverted snobbery — shows up four or five times in about as many pages as Corrigan talks about her Irish-Polish Catholic childhood and heritage. I ended up barely skimming Corrigan’s account of her travels to China to meet and bring back her adopted daughter, and the section in which she recalls her feelings of disenchantment and isolation during graduate school had me biting my lip in exasperation by the end of it. I won’t go quite as far as Corrigan herself does by summing up her book with her suggestion for a one-word negative review if Leave Me Along, I’m Reading‘Gladly’ — but I do think that some book-centric memoirs such as Corrigan’s have a tendency to blur the line between the books and the memoirs a little too much for my liking at times.


Travels in Hyperreality, How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, and On Literature by Umberto Eco

15 January 2008

For today, here’s a handful of short reviews — three collections of essays and other short pieces by Umberto Eco, Italian professor of semiotics and author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco (1990)

The essays and pieces in Travels in Hyperreality often focus on Eco’s chosen field of semiotics, the study of signs and the ways in which meanings are made and understood through the use of signs and symbols. The ‘hyperreality’ that Eco refers to in the title essay is not exactly easy to explain, but in a way it can best be described by the figures in a wax museum: everything is made to be as life-like and realistic as possible, but done so in a way that the human eye and human brain cannot truly accept those wax figures as anything but fake. The long title essay looks at the hyperreality of wax museums, ‘Old West’ tourist towns, and Disneyland — in short, of many tourist attractions in America — with an intriguing academic detachment borne of many years of looking at how we as human beings define our reality.

The essays of Travels in Hyperreality were mostly written in the 1960s and 1970s, and they’re definitely dated by the examples he uses and the references he makes. Eco wonders in one essay what kind of reaction would result from an attack on a major sports field in the middle of a football game — it’s clear that the essay was written several years before the murder of the Israeli atheletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Readers who have little patience for Marxist interpretations of society might find certain essays problematic in that regard. But Travels in Hyperreality is for the most part just that: a collection of travels and accompanying observations about reality and about the aspects of life, both good and bad, that seem to be a little too real for comfort at times.

How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays by Umberto Eco (1994)

This book is a selection of various humourous essays and short story fragments written by Eco over the years, collected here in book form. The title essay opens the book, and in it Eco relates an odd tale of his attempts to keep a piece of fresh salmon in the mini-bar refrigerator of his London hotel room during a short stay in the city. (Not only was the attempt unsuccessful, but he also ended up with a staggering bill for all of the alcohol and beverages and nibbles he had to remove from the refrigerator in order to stuff the salmon into it each day — and he gained a bit of reputation amongst the hotel staff for extreme overindulging.) Most of the other essays are similar in tone, filled with wry observations on travel, modern technology, the weirdness of other human beings, and the busyness of everyday life in general. With subjects ranging from ‘How to Replace a Driver’s License’ (in Italy, apparently, this is almost an impossible feat) to ‘How to Buy Gadgets’ (a must-read for anyone who has boggled over a Sharper Image catalogue or one of those magazines found in the seat-pockets on airplanes), plus a few articles that are wicked parodies of nonsensical academic jargon and bureaucratese, there’s enough variety in the book to ensure that no one theme is repeated to the point of wearing out.

How to Travel with a Salmon is, I think, a very good short introduction to Eco’s brisk and clever writing style and his sense of sly and subtle humour. It definitely made me laugh out loud in places, and I spent much of the rest of the book trying and failing to keep a straight face. It’s also a very good travel book, since the essays are short enough to be read in little chunks and funny enough to be a welcome distraction from whatever craziness happens to be plaguing your immediate surroundings.

On Literature by Umberto Eco (2005)

Another collection of writings by Eco, all of a more literary and/or scholarly bent. Most of them were given as talks or written as papers for conferences, and the array of subject matter is extremely broad and…I think ‘erudite’ is probably the best word for it. There are essays about the literary style of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, observations on the use of style and symbolism in different authors’ works, an interesting essay which attempts to evaluate ideas of ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ literature, and a rather critical one about the wit of Oscar Wilde (he doesn’t dislike Wilde’s aphorisms per se, but considers them more shallow and superficial than most people tend to think). More than a few of the essays, I freely admit, go over my head — primarily because in them Eco is discussing or making references to books I have not actually read or even heard of before. But they do pique my interest in the books he happens to be talking about, so perhaps one of these days I will come back to my copy of On Literature and find that something he’s written makes more sense to me at that point then it does right now.

One of the most interesting essays in this collection — my favourite, in fact — explains how he writes, or how he worked to develop the ideas for the works that he’s best known for writing (The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum in particular). The amount of time and effort Eco puts into his work really shows when he explains how he crafts his stories. One point in particular worth mentioning is how he tends to write dialogue in relation to time — if two people were walking down a corridor having a conversation, he says, and the conversation had to finish before they reached the end of the corridor, then he (as author) would have to figure out the length of the corridor so that he could time the length of the conversation in his head and adjust his characters’ walking speed accordingly. It’s this kind of detail that really make his work stand out. Speaking as someone who enjoys finding out what makes authors tick, it’s a pleasure to see in this collection of essays that Eco is also very much interested in learning about authors and the things that make them tick.