Anatole France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921; the award committee, maybe taking a cue from his surname, lauded his “true Gallic temperament.” And there is no denying it: France was French. His celebrated temperament is maybe most visible in Penguin Island, his 1908 novel, which boasts one of the most singular premises in all of fiction. Pitched as a satirical history, it tells the story of Penguinia, an island civilization whose trajectory through the centuries is more or less the same as that of the real France. The difference is that this island is peopled by penguins. Read More
It’s time. I must bring to your attention the least essential controversy of 114 years ago: nude bookplates.
Yes, everyone loves a good ex libris, and time was when no serious reader would be without one—but you couldn’t just go slapping any old thing on your flyleaves. You had to exercise good taste. In a 1902 book called Book-plates of To-day, Wilbur Macey Stone—whose very name conjures many constipated nights with a musty tome by the fireside—lays out a few aesthetic guidelines for the bookplate connoisseur. And it isn’t long before he gets to the big issues. Read More
“Never saw him write even the shortest note standing up,” Proust’s housekeeper Celeste Albaret wrote. Proust, it seems, spent the better part of his day—and the last three years of his life—in his spartan, cork-lined bedroom. He wrote, according to his biographer Diana Fuss, “from a semi-recumbent position, suspended midway between the realms of sleeping and waking using his knees as a desk.”
His bedchamber has been fully reconstructed at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris’s Marais neighborhood. This is apt; when forced to move from 102 Boulevard Haussmann later in life, the author was at pains to keep his environment intact. An exact copy, the Carnavalet installation is small and snug. According to Albaret, Proust wanted no distractions whatsoever from his writing, nothing extraneous in the room. Writing implements were arranged close at hand on a series of occasional tables; everything else was simple and unadorned. Read More
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.
Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)
By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More >>
Compared to other aspects of the book arts—typography, binding, tooling—the dust jacket is a pretty recent innovation. Depending on whom you ask, it was born either in 1833, to adorn an English novel called Heath’s Keepsake, or it was an earlier, French invention, a maturation of the yellow paper jackets their softcover books often came wrapped in.
In any case, the dust jacket didn’t come to Germany until around 1900—but by the birth of the Weimar Republic, nineteen years later, German artists were doing incredible things with the medium. The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic is a catalogue of the Jürgen and Waltraud Holstein collection, comprising the covers of a thousand books published between 1919 and 1933 by some 250 houses in Berlin. Between the two world wars, the city enjoyed an astonishing expansion in its book production and its libraries: from 1920 to 1927, about three hundred new publishing houses emerged, many of them intent on printing books that experimented with the latest advances in art and design. As Steven Heller explains at Design Observer, there was a practical reason for the design boom, too: Read More
A glossary of Boontling.
Between 1880 and 1920, the residents of a relatively isolated Northern California town called Boonville spoke a secret language. Boontling, as the locals called it, was an elaborate jargon developed either by the men working the hop fields who wished to keep their conversations private, or by women who wanted to gossip unobtrusively about a young lady who had found herself kaishbook (pregnant). Whatever its origins, the language soon spread through the small community, who used it to confuse outsiders. The lexicon included phonologically changed words borrowed from regional Appalachian dialect, Spanish, and the local Pomo Indian language; it later expanded to include invented figures of speech, nouns turned into verbs, onomatopoeia, and other neologisms.
In 1971, Charles C. Adams, who was widely recognized as an authority on the dialect, published Boontling: An American Lingo, a linguistic and historical study on the slang, which came complete with a dictionary. Here are a few of our favorites: Read More