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Book Notes, October 2020

October 25, 2020

Books on sofa October 2020


The venerable London bookseller Sotheran’s (mentioned before) headed an advertising email ‘A month devoted to reading books & revelling in art’, and called this month ‘Booktober’ (and maybe next month ‘Novel-ember’). Isn’t every month Booktober, just as every day is Book Lover’s Day?

In the Eye of the Beholder

An antiquarian bookseller described an item as ‘interior excellent’ but did not mention the condition of the binding other than that it was made from later tree-calf (i.e. calfskin chemically treated to have a pattern roughly resembling a tree). Wayne asked for more information about the binding, as a bookseller will sometimes emphasize one quality to distract from a defect: interior excellent, (by implication) exterior not so good. In this case, the binding was in fact good, though nothing special.

Around the same time, Wayne read a Catalogue No. 1 by another bookseller. There are few antiquarian catalogues no. 1 being issued these days, especially in print, but they’re always worth looking at, since booksellers just starting out may offer exceptionally good prices in their inaugural catalogues to attract customers and develop a base. This was also a well-designed catalogue; but because a professional-looking catalogue can subconsciously confer the notion of quality on anything it lists, it’s important to read the descriptions very carefully. Wayne thought this one notable for the disconnect at the end: ‘light shelfwear and soiling to cloth, toning and foxing throughout text, some light waterstaining to margins, rear free endpaper torn, a handsome copy’.

Struggling Indies

The New York Times published an article about the struggles of independent bookstores (indies) versus the online behemoth (predominantly Amazon). ‘Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.’ Some of the readers who commented don’t buy books locally because they’ve adopted ebooks. Others say, with perfect reason, that local shops don’t (can’t) offer the discounts Amazon can. A few book buyers do still patronize their local independents. In our rural village in north-west Massachusetts there’s only a small shop for new books, which also sells coffee and handles college texts; it seems to do good business, or did before the pandemic, but for the most part it doesn’t stock what we want to buy (books like most of those listed below). A half hour away is a Barnes & Noble, but its stock isn’t as broad as at other Barnes & Nobles, not even all of the new Del Rey Tolkien editions which surely come under the heading of popular literature, and anyway B&N isn’t an indie. There is an indie about an hour’s drive from here, but it’s small and has never had anything to tempt us.

Sometimes we buy from Book Depository (UK), but they’re owned by Amazon, and Book Depository’s prices are sometimes much higher than Amazon’s. Amazon UK get a little business from us, but their packaging leaves much to be desired. Wayne received a box broken open at the ends, and the book inside not only had damaged (indeed, shredded) corners and edges but was wet, unsalvageable – and it wasn’t raining that day in Williamstown. More and more, for British books at least, we’re looking to Blackwell’s in Oxford, as their prices are good and their packing has been excellent. Wayne has also discovered the Pallant House Gallery (West Sussex) bookshop for certain art books; they too pack very well.

The photo at the head of this post shows our current month’s haul (so far; a few more should arrive still in October). Christina puts them in our booklist, and covers dust-jackets with Mylar, at the end of each month.

Time Magazine’s Best One Hundred Fantasy Books

John Rateliff mentioned this recent list in his blog. Some of the one hundred titles haven’t been out long enough to earn the title of ‘best’, while at the same time (as John points out) the list omits important authors such as Lord Dunsany. But really, the whole thing is a cheat to begin with. The Lord of the Rings is on it, naturally, but as three of the one hundred: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as if they were separate works and not three parts of a single whole. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy gets the same treatment; granted that The Golden Compass (Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass were written and published with more separation than The Lord of the Rings, they still comprise a single work rather than a series, and should be treated as one work on lists like this.

New Reading (Wayne)

Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire by Douglas Fordham. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019. A beautiful book on aquatint prints of foreign lands (relative to Britain), with much on their makers and the culture that produced a market for them. The text, however, is aimed at specialists rather than general readers.

Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe by Roberta J.M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff. Reaktion, 2019. A folio with many illustrations, emphasizing related art more than the science of astronomy. I’m teaching a course on the great astronomers this term with Prof. Pasachoff, and have known Roberta (Curator of Drawings at New-York Historical Society) for many years.

Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style by Alison Brown. DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2019. This catalogue accompanied the splendid exhibition we saw at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, last year.

John Nash: Artist & Countryman by Andrew Lambirth. Unicorn Press, 2019. A long account of Nash (1893–1977), perhaps too long, setting him in a larger history and art culture. Its images are often too small to be effective, and there are many works mentioned in the text which aren’t illustrated. I’ve just bought yet another biography of Nash; we’ll see how that compares. I disagree with Lambirth’s appraisal of Eric Ravilious, that his popularity stems largely from nostalgia, and that had he survived the war (Ravilious’s plane disappeared over Iceland in 1942) he would have had nowhere to go in terms of artistic development – by which Lambirth means, presumably, he would have remained a ‘decorative’ artist or given art up altogether.

The Lost House Revisited by Ed Kluz. Merrell, 2017. Kluz makes sad, haunting mixed-media pictures of English grand houses that have been lost to time, mainly to fire and neglect. Here again I know some of the contributors: Tim Knox, ex-Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum (now at the Fitzwilliam), and art historian John Harris.

POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939–1945 by Adrian Gilbert. John Murray, 2006. A more concentrated account than Gillies’ Barbed-Wire University I read earlier.

Scene through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving by Anne Desmet. Ashmolean Museum, 2020. Another exhibition catalogue, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t get to Oxford this year to see it. The book reproduces many (to me) unfamiliar wood-engravings and provides a good history of the art in the past century, but the arrangement, by theme, confusingly spreads information about individual artists hither and thither.

Serpentine by Philip Pullman. Penguin Books, 2020. A story of Lyra and Pantalaimon set between The Amber Spyglass and The Secret Commonwealth, and anticipating the latter. Filled out with illustrations by Tom Duxbury, it’s a very slim book; I read it in about fifteen minutes. But I love Lyra, and forgive Pullman the adverse comments he has made about Tolkien.

Telling the Map: Stories by Christopher Rowe. Small Beer Press, 2017. I was attracted to this book by its cover art by Kathleen Jennings, the style of which deliberately echoes Pauline Baynes’s Tolkien poster-maps. The stories are science fiction mainly in the short, strange, Twilight Zone mode. Most are too short, ending just when a concept or character was getting interesting. Even the longest piece, the novella ‘The Border State’, needs more space to avoid an ending that seems abrupt.

  1. Derp MaGerp permalink
    October 26, 2020 2:26 pm

    I’m curious as to what the edition of “Unfinished Tales” (in the picture) makes it interesting (collectible) to you? Surely you have many editions of this classic?

  2. October 26, 2020 6:53 pm

    The copy peeking out is the new trade edition from HarperCollins. Hidden behind it in the photo is the new HarperCollins deluxe edition. Since this morning, those two have been joined by the new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition. Yes, indeed, we have many editions of Unfinished Tales, approaching thirty in English, plus translations. The new editions are collectible by definition, if one’s aim is to have a bibliographical collection – including every edition (not every printing or every minor change of cover). But if more is wanted to make another copy interesting, the new editions have illustrations by Lee, Howe, and Nasmith.

  3. Nicholas Watkinson permalink
    November 21, 2020 8:37 am

    As the Corrigenda comments appear to be closed, I am writing here for lack of finding a place to initiate a comment not strictly related to open blog entries.
    After a few months’ pause (hardly a genuine Tolkienian hiatus) I have completed reading the fascinating Chronology and have the following notes which you may wish to take on board
    p.406 27 May 1952. I am puzzled by the reference to Dante’s ‘Paradiso cantos 27, 30, 100 and 114’ since the Paradiso has only 33 cantos usually referred to by Roman numerals (as at the end of this entry and similarly elsewhere for the other cantica, eg Inferno and Paradiso on 26 May 1953 and Purgatorio on 18 February 1947).
    p.499 14 August 1955 line 13, ‘find seats’ rather than ‘finds seats’
    p.523 19 September 1956 line 2, The Two Towers should be in italics
    p.525 14 December 1956, ‘Doddington Court Now Library’ seems a very odd title – is it perhaps ‘Doddington Court New Library’ (to distinguish it from the Old Court)? It may of course be a newspaper misprint.
    p.540 26 September 1957 line 4, ‘preferably’ rather than ‘preferable’
    p.548 20 February 1958, ‘of the German Hobbit’ rather than ‘of German Hobbit’
    p.563 28 October 1958, ‘As an elector’ rather than ‘An elector’ (improves the syntax I think)
    p.570 6 April 1959 line 9, ‘an error’ rather than ‘a error’
    p.583 21 January 1960, ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ rather than ‘Fellowship of the Rings’ (unless it is meant to be ‘Lord of the Rings’, but I think the volumes are published on separate dates)
    p.606 16 May 1961, ‘had not consulted him’ rather than ‘had not asked consulted him’
    p.610 ?Early October 1961 line 7, close brackets after ‘proportion’
    p.617 23 January 1962 last line on the page, close square brackets after ‘Oxford’
    p 698 10 May 1966, the opening perhaps should read ‘Tolkien writes to Joy Hill giving some details of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth he thinks Rayner Unwin should look at …’ rather than starting a new sentence after the title of the poem
    I may say in passing that the rest of the entry for this date sent shivers down my spine as I imagined that Tolkien was reacting to a fan letter that I had sent at about this time. Luckily I addressed the letter to Museum Street and it is more than likely that Joy Hill replied to it without bothering Tolkien (that was my impression at the time – the correspondence has since perished, or at least been mislaid, at my end). There must be little worse in its line to an exalted professor than the cocky cleverness of a schoolboy, all too easily seen as impertinence and the result of negligent inattention to the text in question.
    p. 799 ?Mid March 1972 last line, ’21 Merton Street’ rather than ‘1 Merton Street’
    p. 810 ?Late April 1973 line 7 ‘sends but omits’ rather than ‘send but omits’
    Index: Dawkins, R.M. I think there is no reference in C152 (he is ‘starred’ on C162 which should properly be the first rather than the second index entry)
    Index: Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature – the first reference should be to C142 rather than C143 (no reference on the latter page)

    Many thanks again for providing and maintaining this wonderful resource – it has been a delight to read. And already I know that the accompanying Reader’s Guide is dangerously addictive.

    • November 21, 2020 5:20 pm

      Thanks, Nicholas. We agree with most of your findings. The Dante reference, which we misread in the records of the Oxford Dante Society, must be to Paradiso canto XXVII, lines 30, 100, and 114; Entwistle referred in his talk to three works by Dante concerned with the medieval (Ptolemaic) view of the heavens. ‘Doddington [i.e. Deddington] Court Now Library’ is correct: Deddington Court became Deddington Library. ‘An elector’ seems good to us. And the entry for 10 May 1966 needs only ‘it’ after ‘look at’ to be correct.

      • Nicholas Watkinson permalink
        November 22, 2020 8:14 am

        Thanks Christina and Wayne for your comments and clarifications. As is often my experience with newspaper headlines, it is only after looking hard on several different occasions that I finally grasp the syntax – hence my confusion over the Library at Deddington. I see now that the headline was a statement of an event (‘court becomes library’) rather than that it was announcing the name of the library!

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