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Material Objects

October 22, 2014 | by

Lessons from Rare Book School.

Edward Collier, Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, 1699.

Four stories underneath the stately Georgian campus of the University of Virginia, I was with a group of rare-book experts scrutinizing a five-hundred-year-old Italian woodcut of two chubby infants. They framed a capital letter L. One, with a look of insouciant concentration, was thrusting his butt over the downslope of the L to defecate on it.

“The woodcut accompanies Andreas Vesalius’s discourse on the muscles of excretion,” Roger Gaskell, a rare-book dealer based in Cambridgeshire, told the group. It turns out that Vesalius, the Renaissance physician remembered today as the father of modern anatomy, had an intensely strained relationship with his publishers. “This initial letter differs from the others in the book—despite the fact that the printing house had a perfectly good L already cut,” Gaskell said. “So I rather suspect this shitting putti was a message to his publisher.”

Over a coffee break, the members of Gaskell’s seminar mingled with three others led by such luminaries as Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare-book division at the Library of Congress. They were gathered in a warren of windowless basement rooms for an annual rite of passage in the world of antiquarian texts: Rare Book School. Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

20580

From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

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Bulletin

Tonight: Prurience!

October 22, 2014 | by

desade

An engraving from the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, 1796.

Tonight at the French Institute Alliance Française, our very own Sadie Stein moderates a discussion called “Obsession & Fantasies: From the Marquis de Sade to Fifty Shades of Grey,” part of the FIAF’s ongoing series on “The Art of Sex & Seduction.”

At what point does a taste for the erotic go from acceptable to perverse? Learn about the impact of the notorious Marquis de Sade on contemporary culture and literature, as well as the current fascination with erotica and kinky sex.

The panelists include Toni Bentley, the author of The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir; Daniel Bergner, the author of What Do Women Want?; and Caroline Weber, a writer and professor at Barnard College. As moderator, Sadie will permit, indulge, censure, steer, and otherwise adjudicate this delicate conversation as she sees fit. Will there be titillating digressions? Psychosexual revelations? Exactly how many of the 120 Days of Sodom will be discussed? Will anyone bring a cat-o’-nine-tails, and if so, will he or she use it? There’s only one way to find out.

The discussion begins at seven. Tickets are available here.

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On the Shelf

Still Flying High, and Other News

October 22, 2014 | by

hightimes

Detail from the cover of the first issue of High Times, 1974.

  • Ben Bradlee has died at ninety-three: “In his personal vernacular—a vivid, blasphemous argot that combined the swear words he mastered in the Navy during World War II with the impeccable enunciation of a blue-blooded Bostonian—a great story was ‘a real tube-ripper.’ This meant a story was so hot that [Washington] Post readers would rip the paper out of the tubes into which the paperboy delivered it.”
  • High Times turns forty: “It’s easy to forget how radical an outrider of the counterculture this magazine was. Its editors were (and are) brave, subversive and funny. They’ve tended to take nothing seriously except for one crucial thing: the way so many lives have been destroyed by an inept and misguided war on drugs.”
  • A well intentioned, poorly executed update to the Scrabble dictionary has turned into “a clusterfuck,” reliable sources indicate. “There are typos, valid words which have been excluded, and invalid words which have been included … The biggest issue among competitive players is the lack of a publicly available electronic version of the new list … Because of Hasbro’s copyright, and the absence of a public electronic list, errors have been tedious to identify.”
  • Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata was a famously caustic attack on his wife, Sofiya. She struck back with “Whose Fault?”, a rebuttal in the form of a short story: “Like Tolstoy, Sofiya criticizes the sexual double standard, but she’s far more sympathetic to women, who are kept in ignorance until marriage, then expected to satisfy their husbands and remain beautiful and docile through a long series of pregnancies and betrayals.”
  • “There was a long period when an outhouse was a perfect convenience, and a well-built one could be a luxury good. The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is trying to recapture their golden age with an unusual kind of restoration project: The refurbishment of three high-end outhouses—or privies—from the late eighteenth century.”

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Look

The Fruit of Another

October 21, 2014 | by

hilarion

Dominique-Louis-Féréa Papety, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion, 1843–44.

Octave Tassaert, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion, 1857.

Let’s talk about temptation, because it’s Saint Hilarion’s feast day. A fourth-century anchorite who followed the ascetic precedent of Anthony the Great, Hilarion lived for most of his life in a desert in Syria Palaestina, where … not much happened, presumably. He refused to take food before sunset and, perhaps as a result, faced a slew of hallucinations temptations. These he avoided, being saintly. When at last he rejoined civilization after many decades in the wilderness, he didn’t much care for society—so many people!—so he retreated into austerity again, in Dalmatia and then in Cyprus, where he died.

I’m simplifying things a bit.

The man wrought some miracles, for instance, but those are not my concern.

Much of what we know about Hilarion—the name is from the Greek hilaros, meaning cheerful, not super funny, though neither seems to describe the Hilarion in question—comes from a chronicle written by Saint Jerome in 390 A.D., a strange, captivating, and fittingly arid read, particularly in regards to Hilarion’s temptations: Read More »

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On Translation

Counterpunch

October 21, 2014 | by

On a sentence by Robert Walser.

Plantin_letterpress

Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »

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