Random rummaging and reliable references

shelves

The Ultimate Book Guide: Over 600 great books for 8-12s
Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (editors) Susan Reuben (associate editor)
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate 2001-3 (introduction)
A & C Black 2004

I couldn’t resist picking this up secondhand, especially as I love books that I can dip into, for both reliable references and for random rummaging. Despite not being completely up-to-date (what printed publication can ever be?) or truly comprehensive (as far as I can see most of the books are Eurocentric or North American, so very little world literature) this is a volume I shall hang on to — that is, unless I get my hands on the 2009 edition (subtitle: Over 700 Great Books for 8-12s).

Continue reading “Random rummaging and reliable references”

Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Laurie Frost:
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)

Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.

Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.

Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.

Continue reading “Guide to Lyra’s worlds”

Word hoards

A collocation of dictionaries

I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.

I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)

And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?

Continue reading “Word hoards”

Mischievous, not misleading

giuseppemariacrespi_bookshelves
Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Bookshelves (Wikimedia)

Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore
Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993

With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres.

Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.

I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod:
Continue reading “Mischievous, not misleading”

A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

Continue reading “Castelophiles only”

Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time

Beethoven in middle life, a new portrait by Batt (1937) on loan from a private collection to the Royal Academy of Music

Percy Alfred Scholes The Oxford Companion to Music
Oxford University Press 1963 (1955)

The ninth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1955 and still under the control of the original editor, is authoritative, idiosyncratic and certainly of its time. A typical example of Percy Scholes’ writing style can be seen in the Preface to the original edition of 1938:

Following this preface will be found the long list of the many who have tried to save the author from, at least, the faults of his own ignorance or inadvertence, but should the reader chance to discover that the author is anywhere insufficiently saved he should not take it that the blame necessarily falls on those enumerated in the list.

A footnote helpfully tells us that In the present edition this long list, with its many additional names from the seven intervening editions, has been merely summarised. This circumloquacious tendency may appear to explain the nearly twelve hundred pages of this hardback, but in truth they are packed with detailed information and references. The detail includes entries on composers, styles, genres, countries, foreign musical terms, instruments, synopses of operas and much else. Interwoven are close on two hundred monochrome plates illustrating different themes, using old prints, photographs and diagrams. Continue reading “Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time”

Literally challenged: The End?

Via Goodwill Librarian on Facebook
Via Goodwill Librarian on Facebook

Here’s a round-up of where I’ve got with my personal challenge to read at least 50 books in 2015 in 50 different categories. Now it’s officially 2016 (Happy New Year!) I see that I’ve fallen short of my 2015 objectives — though what with reading other books not in any of the categories listed I suspect I have in fact got through my allotted number, or very close to it.

Here’s the full list, with titles still to review in bold:

Continue reading “Literally challenged: The End?”

Armchair travelling

camelot
Camelot by Aubrey Beardsley, detail from How Queen Guenever rode on Maying

Neil Fairbairn
A Traveller’s Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur
Evans Brothers Ltd 1983

Geoffrey Ashe
The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain
Gothic Image 1997

Neil Fairbairn’s 1983 Traveller’s Guide inevitably invited comparisons with Geoffrey Ashe’s A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain (1980 and 1983, confusingly reissued as The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain in 1997). This would be unfortunate as the two are different animals, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, though both include illustrations and maps.

The first obvious thing about Fairbairn’s Guide is Continue reading “Armchair travelling”

A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of Continue reading “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer”

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”

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?”

How to speak improper

A plate of oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) Oyster: "a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man"
A Plate of Oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/cartoon/plate-oysters.html
Oyster: “a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man”

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Foreword by Max Harris
Senate / Studio Editions 1994 (1811)

No, that’s not good enough. The title page of the original (a facsimile is included in this edition) is much more informative as well as entertaining, and is worth reproducing, after a fashion.

Lexicon Balatronicum
=========

A
DICTIONARY
OF
Buckish Slang, University Wit,
AND
PICKPOCKET ELOQUENCE.

==========
Compiled originally by Captain Grose.

AND NOW CONSIDERABLY ALTERED AND ENLARGED,
WITH
THE MODERN CHANGES AND IMPROVEMENTS,
BY A
MEMBER OF THE WHIP CLUB.
ASSISTED BY
Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge; and William
Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman’s Hotel.

So just what is this Lexicon Balatonicum and what was its purpose? To answer the last first: it was a spoof dictionary, a compilation of obscure and not so obscure words and phrases put together for a laugh. The clue is in its first title: Continue reading “How to speak improper”

No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: Continue reading “No Zeroes here”

Still bookweeding

library

The cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld is well known for his Guardian cartoons, especially in the Saturday review pages. One of his more popular items appeared on the 9th June this year; entitled ‘My Library’, the books there displayed are colour-coded and categorised under the following headings, to which I’ve here added my own commentary as it applies to my shelves.

Continue reading “Still bookweeding”