Sunday, February 26, 2006


Homeward Hardbound (Pt II)

Last year I posted about the intriguing premise of Julie Myerson's Home: The History of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House. I actually came across another such book while in London recently -- and I feel foolish for not buying it, because now I can't find the scrap of paper I wrote its title on.

Anyway, they seem to be part of a burgeoning genre, because today's Times reviews Gillian Tindall's The House By The Thames: And The People Who Lived There.

When Tate Modern opened, the eyes of the world were on Bankside. This riverside causeway on the opposite side of the Thames to St Paul’s now hums with visitors, many arriving across the Millennium Bridge. Only a few yards from the foot of the bridge stands a curious leftover: 49 Bankside... For Gillian Tindall, it has become “emblematic of an entire world we have lost”.... In her previous book, on the 17th-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar, Tindall visited the area to search for the place whence he drew his famous panorama of London before the Great Fire. She found sheet-glass office blocks, tired industrial buildings, battered tenements; corner pubs, parking lots, and scraps of derelict earth freighted with sodden litter; exuberant buddleias sprang from stone and brick. Now she has dug deep into its history.
She digs into piles of newspapers and public records to uncover the many lives of this building. As you would guess, I'm absurdly excited by a book like this. I have a suspicion many more may be on the way, too: there is already enough public demand for such studies -- no doubt stoked by House Detectives and other such shows -- that I now see another rather telling new UK book reissue this month: Nick Barratt's Tracing the History of Your House, which is now also the basis of an Online House Detective website.

The explosion of digitally searchable primary records almost certainly has an awful lot to do with this trend. And the pickings are only going to get richer over the next decade....

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Homeward Hardbound

Over at the Guardian, Jay Parini muses over his visits to the houses of long-departed writers:

As a biographer of Robert Frost, I made a point of visiting his many houses. Several summers in a row I lived for a period at the Homer Nobel Farm in Ripton, Vermont - Frost's main residence from 1938 until his death in 1963. I loved soaking in the claw-footed tub in that old farmhouse, and could easily imagine Frost in the same bath, listening to the wind in the bushy hemlocks outside the bathroom window. Once, while sitting on the porch with my youngest son in early evening, a couple from New Jersey wandered up to the steps. "Wasn't this the home of a famous writer?" asked the woman. "Yes," said my seven-year-old son, "Stephen King used to live here."
Although the article doesn't mention it, there's a small but longstanding genre of such accounts. It begins at least back in the 1850s with Homes of American Authors:

The idea (and material) was borrowed in the 1890s with Elbert Hubbard's anthology Little Journeys to the Homes of Great American Authors. (Hubbard had a whole series of such Little Journeys books for artists, musicians, etc. They seem to have been popular -- they turn up all the time in used bookstore stacks). I haven't read it yet, but more recently J.D. McClatchy's American Writers at Home revisited the genre.

Hmm. When, I wonder, will the NY Times Magazine issue its Domains column in book form?



Michael Sappolis passes along word of a Boise State U project dedicated to Herman Melville's marginalia. From their website:

Melville’s Marginalia Online will soon provide a fully searchable (and forever current) listing of the more than 500 known titles connected to Melville and his immediate family members. Along with maintaining the Check-List of titles and editions, Melville’s Marginalia Online is a long-term project devoted to the editing and publication of markings and annotations in the books that survive from Melville’s library.
The marginalia from Melville's copy of Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale is already up, and it looks like a couple of Matthew Arnold volumes are on the way. Marginalia might seem like a curiously -- well, marginal area of study -- but it gives some fascinating glimpses into a writer's mind. Melville and his contemporaries knew this as well as anyone.

Here's Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the Democratic Review of November 1844:

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value.... In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly- boldly- originally- with abandonnement- without conceit- much after the fashion of Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Sir William Temple, and the anatomical Burton, and that most logical analogist, Butler, and some other people of the old day, who were too full of their matter to have any room for their manner, which, being thus left out of question, was a capital manner, indeed,- a model of manners, with a richly marginalic air.

The marginal note is not exactly a lost art, but it might be a faded one; one certainly finds far more 19th century books with deliberately wide margins intended for writing. And, I'm afraid, notes written in ballpoint just don't look very good.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Lint In The Nose Furnace

One of the week's best wheezes is over at The Stranger, which reviews cartoonist Jeff Lint's The Caterer:

Desperately out of print since 1976 (when the series was cancelled because of issue nine, in which Marsden goes on a killing spree at Disneyland), The Caterer is arguably the strangest comic book ever published. Word bubbles crammed with postmodern rants are paired with action-packed panels illustrated in stereotypical '70s form. Reading it is essentially an exercise in tolerance and bewilderment....

"I need a coffeepot the shape of my severed head," Marsden says in a phone call to his college's faculty office. This is the opening panel. Rather than question the demand, the blond secretary lets Marsden continue: "If you take a catfish by the whiskers and pull outward it inflates into a life raft. I know this for a fact, Mister Skeleton."
It sounds too good and crazy to be true -- which, of course, it is. Lint is literally a legend:

Further compounding The Caterer's weirdness is that author Jeff Lint never lived. Existing halfway between Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout and whoever the hell JT Leroy is, Lint is—if I have this correct—the creation of British sci-fi novelist Steve Aylett. Aylett has written an entire faux-biography of Lint, called Lint, which was published last year. According to Lint, Lint ran with the Beats, was trippier than Philip K. Dick, and had a fan in the young Ann Coulter. A representative sentence: "On July 13, 1994, Lint had a near-death experience, followed immediately by death."
There is, of course, a Jeff Lint website dedicated to the books of the illustrious Mr. Lint, such as One Less Bastard (1946), Nose Furnace (1958), I Blame Ferns (1959), and Turn Me Into a Parrot (1962). If you already have the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, this may be the next essential addition to your library of nonexistent literary titans....


Hangover Square

My review of Patrick Hamilton's newly reissued 1941 novel Hangover Square is now up at the Village Voice. Here's the hopelessly infatuated protagonist George Harvey Bone, in a particularly memorable moment of phone-booth desperation: "It was very thrilling to have got right into her flat, right into her bedroom, disguised as a bell, merely by paying twopence..."

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Getting the Finger

Someone's got a vintage copy of my favorite Keeler title up for auction on eBay-- my own copy rules the roost atop the living room piano, which is the space I reserve for favorite odd titles like I Was Hitler's Maid and Desultoria: Recovered MSS of an Eccentric.

The title? It's....


Fun With Statistics

Lots of coverage today in Britain over the Waterstone's saga and the departure of literary kingmaker Scott Pack. For those of you who haven't been following this mercantile soap opera, an article aptly titled The Aim Is Volume Sales in the Times of London gives a quick overview of the history of British bookselling, including this lament:

WATERSTONE’S WAS ONCE the favourite bookseller of the literati.... You would certainly expect the shops to display large piles of widely reviewed works of fiction. But no longer. One of the most acclaimed titles of the year has been Helen Simpson’s collection of stories, Constitutional. The initial order for all Waterstone’s branches was 225 copies — just over one for each branch. By comparison, Hatchards, the Waterstone’s-owned shop in Piccadilly, has 300 copies of Joanna Trollope’s Second Honeymoon. Scott Pack, Waterstone’s books buyer, has said that he finds the literary pages of newspapers irrelevant.
Meanwhile, Nigel Reynolds reports in today's Telegraph:
His head office decisions on which books should be placed in Waterstone's windows, promoted heavily or sold cheaply in "three-for-two" offers, are blamed by many authors for creating the cult of the often low-brow bestseller - celebrity biographies, "chick lit" and thrillers - at the expense of better quality literature....

Mr Pack has announced that he is leaving for "personal reasons" but will remain with the company for six months while he looks for another job. A Waterstone's spokesman said yesterday that neither Mr Pack nor the company would comment further. Insiders say, however, that Gerry Johnson, who arrived as Waterstone's new managing director four months ago, regards the attention paid to Mr Pack's influence as highly embarrassing and has pledged to give power back to local managers.
Reynolds goes own to note the company's duly registered denial of this explanation and of criticism of Pack: "It claims that of 67,500 titles stocked last year, only 5,610 were selected by Mr Pack's buying team."

Ahh -- very nicely played.

But enough witty statistical banter about the number of titles: what's the breakdown for the total number of copies ordered? If 50,000 copies of one title get ordered and placed in window and front table displays, and a staffer in Thetford orders 1 copy of another title that gets stuffed into their store's back shelf... that's not exactly equivalent, is it?


Black Books!

You might recall that a year ago I was jumping up and down and hollering over the prospect of BBC America airing Black Books -- one of the funniest comedy series I'd seen on British TV in years, and possibly even the equal of Fawlty Towers. Well, it's finally out on DVD in the US now. If you care about books, comedy, or books and comedy... you must, must get it.

(Netflix also has it, so you really have no excuse now.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006


I Read Dead People

The Bookseller is running its annual Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. Contenders include Nessus, Snort and Ethereal Powertools (Elsevier) and -- wait for it -- How People Who Don't Know They're Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It.

The latter title almost sounds too good to be true. But I have indeed found an interview with author Gary Leon Hill.

And oh, it's a corker:
Q: How did you become interested in this subject originally?

A: When my Uncle Wally Johnston told me he'd been talking to the spirits of people who were dead and didn't know it, I wanted to know more about it. I borrowed the audiotapes of their sessions and wound up transcribing 300 pages of dialogue -- Wally talking through his psychic friend Lorraine with various entities stuck on the other side. As a psychologist, ghost counseling was a natural extension of Wally's counseling work. The difference being, in these cases, his clients were dead.

Later, when asked who is at risk for picking up, er, People Who Don't Know They're Dead, he explains:
Those most at risk are people who drink heavily or use a lot of drugs, and people who work in or hang out in bars, where people routinely lose consciousness.... But, according to Wally, I doubt if you could walk through a mall without picking one up, which is the source of my title for Chapter 8 Walking Through the Mall.

Wow. Surely this book should have a lock -- a death-grip, you might say -- on The Bookseller's prize.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Shaggy Dog Stories

Off to the land of freaky bindings! First up, on eBay there's a Victorian "mechanical Bible scroll" -- this is a new one to me -- with hundreds of pictures apparently operated by turning a key built into binding. Though the key is now missing, the seller notes that "You can turn this with a screwdriver."

I love the idea that some buyer might, say, go into a Starbucks and start "reading" by jamming and twisting a screwdriver into an old book...

Still not a weird enough binding for you? Okay. Allegedly the architect Le Corbusier bound his favorite book in the hide of his favorite dog:


Earn Five Shillings!

After I posted last weekend about the wonderful UK reissue of The Week-End Book, John Boling at Overlook Press emailed to say that it is indeed getting reissued in the US -- and sure enough, an Amazon page has now appeared for it, listing a release date of June 22nd.

In the mean time, I will pass along one of John's favored quotations from the book, this from a chapter entitled The Law And How You Break It, explaining the fine points of flotsam and jetsam:
When it cannot be ascertained who is owner of such goods, then, if they are found in the sea, they belong to the finder. But all wrecks and wreckage cast ashore are in general the perquisites of the Crown, unless the owner of the land on which they are found has a legitimate "grant of wreck".... Week-enders (and other persons) who happen to find a corpse on the shore are obliged to notify the police within six hours. The reward for fulfilling this obligation is five shillings.


Neither Fiction Nor Fowl

The recent hand-wringing over the Frey affair has made me revisit a post I sent to my Iowa students a few months back about the term "non-fiction"....

This August NYTBR essay by Rachel Donadio ponders the apparent rise of nonfiction in recent years:

Like painting, the novel isn't dead; it just isn't as central to the culture as it once was. In our current infotainment era, in which the line between truth and ''truth'' is growing ever more blurry, readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one. Depending on your worldview, fiction and nonfiction are either ensconced in a healthy, mutually affirming relationship, or they're locked in a death grip, vying for America's attention.

Here's a question: Why is this one particular genre being set against all others? Why, one might ask, is the all-important demarcation between novels and... everything else? How is it that everything else came to be defined in terms of what it is not: i.e. "non-fiction"?

This dichotomy seems so natural to us now that it's hard to imagine it not existing. But when I turned to the OED to look up the origins of the term "nonfiction," I found to my great surprise that my old 1971 edition didn't even list it. Hmm. So I turned to the New York Times historical database. Running a search on "nonfiction OR non-fiction" proved interesting indeed.

The first occurrences of the word date to 1901. More intriguingly, they occur in articles about public librarians reclassifying and rearranging their books, and this usage seems limited to library-related articles for years afterwards. Why was it, then, that librarians were suddenly so interested in defining books as not being fiction? Because -- get this -- they were worried that the public was reading too much fiction.

That's right: by rearranging shelving and making it easier to find books that were specifically not fiction, librarians were hoping the public would start consuming something other than brain-candy. "The cheering consequence was a marked increase in attendance and circulation, while the percentage of fiction was reduced," reported the Times in the August 24th 1901 article that marked their first use of the word "non-fiction."

Curiously, within a year one author over at the Brooklyn Eagle was predicting the day when novels would be shoved aside altogether:
They are not necessary, and even now their merit and their interest are fast declining. As historic records, the world will file its newspapers. Newspaper writers have learned to color every day events so well that to read them will give posterity a truer picture than the historic or descriptive novel could do, and as for the psychological novel, that will soon cease to be....
The source of this remark? ... Jules Verne.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


US News & World Report As A Second Language

The current U.S. News and World Report claims:

Now that A Million Little Pieces author James Frey has had his 15 minutes of fame, another memoir's accuracy controversy is stirring. The government of China banned the showing of the Steven Spielberg-produced film Memoirs of a Geisha because, well, famous Chinese film stars are cast as Japanese geishas.

Uh, guys? -- it's not a memoir.

(P.S. "another memoir's accuracy controversy is stirring"? US News a editor copy is needing.)


Whale Oil Salesmen

Nicholas Von Maltzahn notes in this week's TLS that the recent whale in the Thames was not, as previously claimed, the first such occurence. Turns out it also happened in 1658:

...The diarist John Evelyn reports the whale’s stranding at low tide. It “was killed with a harping iron, struck in the head”, whereafter with “a horrid groan, it ran quite on shore and died” (Diary, June 3, 1658). His description is corroborated by a newsletter from John Barber to Viscount Scudamore (June 8, 1658):

“The people of this Towne have gratified their eyes for almost a weeke together with a Succession of novelties: Green-goose-faire is the preface to the trapanning of a young whale betwixt Blackwall and Greenwich: a strange and unwonted spectacle here; it is sayd to be faeminine, & about 58. foot long, & about 12. in thicknesse; She was first discovered neare Blacke-wall, pursued by hideous cries of watermen, strucke first by a fisher man’s anchor, throwne from a bold hand, & then attempted by severall engines, V[iz.], musket-shot, resented his wounds soe highly that he made an outcry the most terrible that fancy could create; in fine they kill’d him, & drag’d him at a loyter [lighter, a boat used for lading] to Greenwich where then thousands of people in a day are to see him: men & ladies are carried on porter’s backes to him as he lyes in the water . . . (British Library, Add MS, 11043, f. 107)

The sightseeing tapered off, one guesses, as Barber goes on to comment that rotting whale now "stinks intolerably." And for anything to outstink London itself in 1658 really is something of an achievement.

A sign of our respective eras: while the 1658 whale was probably rendered for valuable oil, in the present sellers on eBay fetched £2050 for the watering can used on the whale.

Oh, and of course.... the whale's soul is now for sale.


Belle De Jour

Among my finds at the British Library this week was a 1770 guide to London con-men, published "for those newly arrived from the countryside." Among its more curious claims: "Pimps. These are the most despicable wretches, generally composed of French cooks, barbers, and valets."

Hmm. I'm still trying to figure out how exactly this second career for French cooks came about...

Saturday, February 04, 2006


The Week-End Book

One of my favorite finds this last week was not in a secondhand store -- the pickings in Charing Cross seemed slim, which is probably a sign of how spoiled I have become from hunting for antiquarian books on eBay -- it was in Hatchard's, where I came across the new and beautifully printed reissue of Francis Meynell's 1924 classic compendium The Week-End Book.

The Duckworth catalogue sums it up rather nicely:

The Week-End Book is an invaluable book for week-enders of all ages. Containing a wealth of advice from what to eat on country jaunts ('Use tinned goods, but disguise them. No-one should ever suspect that they are tinned'; 'N.B.—mice cooked in honey should be imported from China, not prepared at home'), to tips on bird-spotting and types of bird ('The blackbird possesses a quite different emotional quality from the robin, being full of fears, suspicions and nervous reactions').

No sign yet of a US reissue....


My Duty of Dereliction

Last week's Time Out London carried word of the fascinating Derelict London website; among its finds is a picture of the London Necropolis Railway, which is also the subject of curious piece in the latest issue of Cabinet.

Also, this is what a derelict Tube train looks like:


Eats, Shites & Leaves

Staying in London certainly reacquainted me with the ancient British tradition of taking the piss out of authors. Along with an item by poet laureate "Andrew Goingthroughthemotions" ("Everything changes all the time / The sea, the sky, the seasons. / That sort of thing."), this week the satirists at Private Eye featured an, er, "excerpt" from the latest Naomi Wolf:

I had a lovely home and a beautiful family. My books had earned universal praise. But I still felt spiritually depleted. There was still something missing. Suddenly, I knew what it was.

"Daddy," I said, my soft azure eyes burning brightly. "Together, you and I -- together we must build ourselves a shithouse."

....Then he spoke, wisdom distilled from eight decades. "A shithouse," he said, "is an outdoor lavatory, an out-house containing a large receptacle for the purpose of defecation. But, more than that, it is a sanctuary, also, for the process of urination." A tear entered his eye. It was a tear of hope.

"Together, Naomi," he said. "You and I shall build that shithouse."

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