Pickings & Choosings

Spooner on Hogarth or how 19th century opinions of Hogarth didn’t always concur with those of the 18th century.

“His [Hogarth’s] design and colouring pose little merit. He was incapable of conceiving or illustrating a single noble passion of the human soul, and combined his burlesques with elevated subjects in a most disgusting manner, of which his ‘Sigismunda’ is an example. His mind was of a very low order, totally devoid of delicacy, refinement or education. Naturally of a vulgar and satirical disposition, his asperities were never softened by contact with refined society. Like many others who attain position by wealth alone, he evinced his narrowness of mind by affecting to despise all knowledge which he did not himself possess. and continued gross and uncultivated during his whole life.The eulogy above was published in New York exactly one hundred years after Hogarth’s death.”(from Howard Simon’s Five Hundred Years of Art Illustration, p. 60).

3D Globe Project

Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine has initiated a project to use 3D imaging to capture its rare globe collection, among one of the largest and finest collections in the U.S. Perhaps even more impressive, the National Endowment for the Humanities has granted 500K to help fund the initiative. For a sneak peak of this technology, visit the Osher Map Library website

Renaissance Selfies

Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack introduces the 16th-century ‘fashion blogger’ who documented his life in clothes – and explains how she brought his take on couture up to date.

Hell Hath No Fury like a Printer Scorned

One-hundred-and-fifty pieces of Doves Press type recovered from the River Thames.

The Skinny on Parchment Archaeology

Millions of documents stored in archives could provide scientists with the key to tracing agricultural development across the centuries. Amazingly, thanks to increasingly progressive genetic sequencing techniques, the all-important historical tales these documents tell are no longer confined to their texts; now, vital information also comes from the DNA of the parchment on which they are written. More here.

Medieval Images

A marvellous entry point into the medieval imagination.

Why your loved one smells like a second-hand book

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute.”

Perfumes: The Guide 

Perks of the Trade

“In 1516 [Johannes] Froben persuaded Erasmus to let him publish his Greek New Testament by promising to match any offer he received from other printers. Later, as their relationship matured, Froben would buy a garden in Basel to provide Erasmus with a suitably relaxing environment for contemplation.” (Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New haven. Yale University Press, 2010).

Against the Printing Press

“This is what the printing presses do: they corrupt susceptible hearts. The silly asses do not see this, and brutes rejoice in the fradulent title of teachers, exalting themselves with a song like this (be so good as to listen): ‘O good citizens, rejoice: your city is well stuffed with books. For a small sum, men turn themselves into doctors in three years. Let thanks be rendered to the printers.’ Any uncultured person without Latin bawls these things.”

(from Filippo de Strata. Polemic against Printing, trans. Shelagh Grier with an introducton by Martin Lowry (Birmingham, Hayloft Press, 1986).

The labour of the scribe is the refreshment of the reader

“In a tenth-century Spanish copy of Moralia in Job of Gregory the Great (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacionale, MS 80), the comment that the scribe Florentius of Valerancia entered at the end is practically a literary composition in itself:

‘The labour of the scribe is the refreshment of the reader: the former weakens the body, the latter profits the mind. Whoever you may be, therefore, who profit by this work, do not forget the labouring one who made it, so that God, thus invoked, will overlook your sins. Amen. because one who does no know how to write thinks it no labour, I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering. Therefore, turn the pages slowly, reader, and keep your fingers well away from the pages, for just as the hailstorm ruins the fecundity of soil, so the sloppy reader destroys both the book and the writing. For as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe. Explicit, thanks be to God.’”

Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithica. Cornell University Press, 2007. p.23

Human Leather

Specializing “in producing exquisite and exclusive products for an extremely discerning clientele. All products are carefully hand-crafted by experienced master craftsmen, with years of experience in handling the finest leather known – Human Leather.” Yes, that’s right, human skin. You can get watch straps, wallets and shoes, but I don’t see a mention of book bindings. There’s a bit of a waiting list, apparently!


The most tragic case of bibliomania I have ever encountered was when I was called in to investigate the library of a man whose obsession for buying books was such that unless he got rid of them his wife would leave him. I would in many instances recommend discarding the wife, the latter being more easily replaceable. When I got there I found an overweight, profusely sweating man who sat in a small clearing surrounded by tens of thousands of books, all of them stacked on the floor. All the rooms were similarly filled—there was a mattress floating in a sea of books, a toilet barely accessible, a kitchen about to go up in flames. The man sat there, a pleading look in his eyes, awaiting his execution. “They’ve got to go, all of them,” he whispered. The books were so thickly stacked one could see only the spines of some of them. After a couple of hours of quarrying through them, I realized that there was not a single book one could purchase for resale. Maybe there was at the centre of one of those piles, if one could get at it, but it seemed unlikely. One develops and instinct for such things. It was a graveyard not so much of the unreadable because, after all, surely there was something to be gleaned from any number of those volumes, but of the unsellable. This was the dark obverse of the book trade, the dank basements full of books whose authors were completely forgotten, and yet what joy and celebration must have attended the publication of each of these volumes. I promised the man I would call in a general second-hand dealer. There were enough books to fill at least two shops. A couple of weeks later, I saw this dealer and asked him how he got on. It was Ike Ong of Skoob Books. He looked at me and replied, not without a hint of annoyance in his voice, “Were you playing with me?” I never did learn of the sweaty man’s fate.” p.34

Marius KocieJowski, “A Factotum in the Book Trade.” CNQ Canadian Notes & Queries: Number 82 spring/summer, 2011

E-Books and Trees

“Some think that the e-reader will save trees. Soon, according to a recent New York Times article, we will possess over 100 million e-readers. What a savings in our forests, right? Wrong. Here’s what an e-reader is: a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa. To make one e-reader requires 33 pounds of minerals, plus 79 gallons of water to refine those minerals and produce the battery and printed writing……..Here’s what it takes to make a book, which, if it is any good, will be shared by many readers and be preserved and appreciated in personal, public and university libraries that survive the gigantic digital book burning: recycled paper, a dash of minerals, and two gallons of water.”

from Bill Henderson’s column, entitled “Books Without Batteries,” in the April 11, 2011 issue of Publishers Weekly.

Mr. Henderson treats the e-reader and printed book as equivalents, but the fact is that an e-reader can store many books. The manufacturer of the Kindle 3 says that it can store up to 3,500 books. Even if this is an exaggeration—say it can store 2,500 books—it would take 5000 gallons of water to produce the same number of books in paper, plus 2,500 times a “dash of minerals,” which may very well add up to more than 33 pounds. And, come to think of it, all this will only affect forests if the they occur in the same place as the desired minerals.

June 28, 20011

Gutenberg and Reverse Engineering

“Other than western ego, I see no technical reason not to assume that Gutenberg saw pages of Asian printing (probably from movable type and possibly also xylography) and reverse engineered them, inventing nothing at all. If Bill Gates could reverse engineer (aka hack) the original MS DOS, remove the developers’ names and replace them with his own (as reflected by the Falcon DOS 3.0 that I own), why not Gutenberg? The physical impressions in the paper left by any examples of the 9th to 15th century Asian movable-type printing that Gutenberg easily might have seen (Marco Polo again?) would be sufficient for any half-way creative individual trained in, for example, casting gold, to re-imagine the process. [List rules are that I cannot attach an image of 9th century Korean movable type, from a textbook.But such exist.] “

Gordon C. Thomasson on the SHARP-L Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing [SHARP-L@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU]

March 14, 2011

Myles na Gopaleen and the Limited Edition World

‘The Irish humorist Myles na Gopaleen (also known as the writer Flann O’ Brian) had the caricature of the limited edition world down to a ‘T’.

“Positively no reprint. Reproduction in whole or in part forbidden. Three hundred copies of which this is Number 4,312. Hand-monkeyed oklamon papers, indigo boards in interpurpled squirrel-toe, not to mention twelve point Campile Perpetua cast especially for the occasion. Complete, unabridged and positively unexpurgated. Thirty-five bob a knock and a gory living bleeding bargain at the price.”

(from Cathy Courtney’s The Looking Book: a pocket history of Circle Press 1967-96: London, Circle Press [1996].

Arcimboldo’s The Librarian

“Famous in his lifetime, Arcimboldo was largely overlooked for centuries after his death in 1593 at 66, only to be rediscovered in the 20th century and hailed as the grandfather of Surrealism. One painting singled out as unusually modern is The Librarian, c. 1566, a “triumph” of modern art in the 16th century, one art historian says. With its feather-duster beard and keys for eyes, it is said to portray the court historian Wolfgang Lazius, author of some 50 volumes. Today, Arcimboldo’s paintings at the Louvre Museum in Paris are among the most popular in its collection.” For more Arcimboldo see the Smithsonian website.

Barthes’s ideal text=hypertext?

Michel Chaouli says: “Is it possible that hypertext realizes precisely the ideal text that, for example, Roland Barthes had in mind in the 1970s..”

The ideal text that Rolandes Barthes had in mind was reversible, or open to the greatest variety of independent interpretations and not restrictive in meaning.

Reference: Chaouli, Michel. “How Interactive can Fiction be?” Critical Inquiry 31.3 (2005): 599-617

The OED online defines punctuation as follows: “The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks;”

The link or URL as punctuation mark

Mark Bernstein argues for the link or URL as a major innovation in writing: “What matters most in electronic writing is the link. Links are the first new punctuation marks to appear in centuries, the most important technical innovation in our literary machinery since the comma. Other aspects of electronic writing change print practice at the margins—audio or video illustrations, colour imagery, print-on-demand or electronic distribution—but links change writing itself.” from p.4 of “Into the Weeds.”

Michel Chaouli, perhaps working from the belief that punctuation should lend semantic clarity to a text, challenges the notion of the link as punctuation mark on the basis that it often introduces a level of semantic confusion to a text by presenting the reader with a link without clearly defining its meaning or destination: “ Some of the difficulties with reading hypertexts derive from the curtailment of interpretive freedom we experience when the text burdens us with cognitive demands, when, for example it places the onus on determining the semantics of a link squarely on us.” (p.610)…The confusion we sense results in part from the semantic looseness that marks all hyperlinking…” (p.612).

Bernstein and Chaouli each champion different approaches to reading literature, i.e. ‘closed’ and ‘open’ approaches, both of which pre-date the invention of hypertext. As J. Yellowlees Douglas puts the case for the latter in “How Do I Stop this Thing? Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives”: “What satisfies then is “a” reading not “the” reading. Our sense of arriving at closure is satisfied when we manage to resolve narrative and to minimise the ambiguities, to explain puzzles, and to incorporate as many of the narrative elements as possible into a coherent pattern…” (p.85).


1. Bernstein, Mark. “Into the weeds” in Bernstein, Mark and Diane Greco (eds.). Reading Hypertext: Watertown. Eastgate Systems, 2009.

2. Chaouli, Michel. “How Interactive can Fiction be?” Critical Inquiry 31.3 (2005): 599-617

3 Douglas, Yellowlees J. “How Do I Stop this Thing? Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives” in in Bernstein, Mark and Diane Greco (eds.). Reading Hypertext: Watertown. Eastgate Systems, 2009.

Odiferous tanneries of ancient times

[the following was taken from the Wikipedia entry on “tanning:” January 10, 2011.]

“Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore. First, the ancient tanners would soak the skins in water to clean and soften them. Then they would pound and scour the skin to remove any remaining flesh and fat. Next, the tanner needed to remove the hair fibres from the skin. This was done either by soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply letting the skin putrefy for several months then dipping it in a salt solution. After the hair fibres were loosened, the tanners scraped them off with a knife.

Once the hair was removed, the tanners would bate the material by pounding dung into the skin or soaking the skin in a solution of animal brains. Among the kinds of dung commonly used were that of dogs or pigeons. Sometimes the dung was mixed with water in a large vat, and the prepared skins were kneaded in the dung water until they became supple, but not too soft. The ancient tanner might use his bare feet to knead the skins in the dung water, and the kneading could last two or three hours.

It was this combination of urine, animal faeces and decaying flesh that made ancient tanneries so odiferous.”