Virtual bookshelves

card index

How much the world changes in a lifetime! Hands up if you can remember having to physically find a public telephone box to call from (when it worked) if you needed to tell someone you were running late? Or having to wait a few days for your film to be developed and printed by a specialist shop to see if those snaps you took were works of art or a waste of time? Or going into a library and searching through yellowing index cards in catalogue cabinets to see if they housed the book you were looking for?

Sometime in the last century I morphed from a bona fide student to a branch library assistant and I retain deeply imprinted memories of Continue reading “Virtual bookshelves”

Unreliable evidence

Berkeley Castle from an old print
The courtyard of Berkeley Castle from a lithotint of the 1840s (public domain)

Paul Doherty
Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
Robinson 2004 (2003)

On the one and only time I visited Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, way back in the sixties, the chamber where Edward II was reputedly murdered was billed as a highlight of the tour. Later, as a student at Southampton University in 1969, I remember Ian McKellen playing Edward II in Marlowe’s play of the same name, raising shocked intakes of breath as he entered planting a kiss on the lips of the King’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

The notorious manner of the king’s death — “by a red hot poker being thrust up into his bowels” according to the contemporary Swynbroke chronicle — often overshadows the complicated life and reign of Edward. Paul Doherty’s study promised a new look not only at Edward but also at Isabella, the wife he was betrothed to when both were still young.

Continue reading “Unreliable evidence”

Reverting to type

AD1701
ANNO D[OMINI] 1701 is the year this façade was built, now part of Bristol Galleries shopping mall
Peter Dawson The Field Guide to Typography:
typefaces in the urban landscape

Thames & Hudson 2013

Nowadays our familiarity with typefaces derives from the choices we have when writing electronic documents, such as Arial, Book Antiqua, Comic Sans, Courier New, Lucida Console, Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Verdana and so on. But did you know that there are well over 150,000 typefaces available, a number that grows with every day? And that many of these typefaces have been around in one form or another since at least the middle of the 15th century, when the printing press was introduced into Europe, and some a lot earlier? Appropriately, this book’s Foreword by Stephen Cole points to ornithology as an analogy, with typography enthusiasts as preoccupied as any birder with identification, classification, distinguishing features and documentation. Even more aptly this guide includes a photo of a pile of books on birdwatching, with an explanatory key to the various typefaces used on the individual spines.

Peter Dawson’s Field Guide is just a little different from those birding books. Continue reading “Reverting to type”

Mundane to magical

grimm

Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)

It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:

We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…

Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.

Continue reading “Mundane to magical”

On bookmarks

missale
Bookmarks in a 1922 Missale Romanum

When I worked in public libraries — even contemplating getting qualifications — I became aware of the surprising range of objects people used to show where they had got with their reading. Paperclips, scraps of newspaper, bus tickets, sewing thread, a ladies glove — all supplemented the usual dog-ear solution of folding down a corner of the page. A colleague even recounted the tale of the fried egg bookmark, though I suspected that may have been apocryphal, a bit of urban legend or friend-of-a-friend ‘foaflore’.

Of course, older books had their own built-in cloth bookmarks, Continue reading “On bookmarks”

If this is the answer, what is the question?

Decluttering, discarding, downsizing… You may well be fed up to the metaphorical back teeth with my ongoing saga of denuding my bookshelves in preparation for a move. And yet, if you’re a booklover — I’m assuming you are one if you’re following a blog dedicated to exploring the world of ideas through books — such talk may induce a frisson of fear. It does for me. But confessional posts like this help me come to terms with the trauma of parting with books, and may even help you when your time comes!

Continue reading “If this is the answer, what is the question?”

Snapshots of the author

mindmap

Diana Wynne Jones House of Many Ways
HarperCollins 2008

Many of the pieces in Reflections, the collection of writings by and about Diana Wynne Jones, address the question authors often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? And of course there is no single simple answer. She does however offer this suggestion, in an item entitled ‘Some Hints on Writing’:

When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out.

With House of Many Ways I found it hard to force a plan onto a review, so adopting Jones’ modus operandi for this commentary seemed an appropriate way to go about it. The beginning has been taken care of, and the conclusion is virtually foregone, and now it’s time to move to the images that arise almost unbidden from a second reading of this fantasy. Many of them involve snapshots of the author herself. Continue reading “Snapshots of the author”