1. Stefan Zweig -- the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler -- adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience. Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall...If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently...humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived -- New York, London, Rio -- Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end. 2. Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books -- simply existing in their physical presence -- corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year? Now all you needed to do -- according to the new research -- was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching. Zweig grew up around books -- more than 10 -- and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels -- Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few -- and biographies -- on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably -- flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans. But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him -- his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity -- that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental. 3. Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?” Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?” Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure. You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend -- that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips. In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” -- the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others -- resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation. 4. If this is how we’re going to save the book -- decorative mimicry -- well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying -- that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires -- a la Zweig -- that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then -- the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books -- a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings -- and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that. 5. I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.
The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee. I've lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different -- the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example -- or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide. Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far. It's notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. "It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn't appeal to others," says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. "But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover." But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about. Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called "How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge" and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde's side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover -- embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you've been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train -- the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how. Purity by Jonathan Franzen Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg Both designs take inspiration from the publisher's description of the inciting incident: "This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze." However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara It's hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn't echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar's art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won't enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000. Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present. Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground. John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected -- correctly -- that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field. Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author. Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books. Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.” Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times. Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.” In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.” In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin -- in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books. On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: "Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?” In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: "She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane -- it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.” Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review. Jeff Buckley owned the book Addiction Recovery for Beginners by David Brizer. Tupac Shakur owned In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker. Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books -- rounded up by librarians -- now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe. Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: "Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her." Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent -- and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again. Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s. Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters -- no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.” If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world -- not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed. Or is it? On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.” The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference -- each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler. Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman. They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead -- “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates. First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie -- though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” -- but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie. Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins. Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable -- and gratifying -- challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes -- words, phrases, and translations. And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it. The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book -- the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf -- but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book. In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate -- but it was a risky proposition. Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.” That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis. Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.” It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book -- found on eBay, no less -- contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.” Still others -- a cynical crowd -- might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript -- Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.” In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation. As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.” Nota Bene It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia -- this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233. Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.
“Forty-five?” “Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.” “How much is that going to cost?” “Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.” “Jesus.” “But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what's in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?” “Not pillows.” Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge. I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner. I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons. It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate -- Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun. In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly. Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard -- I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don't quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car. Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them. After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail. “Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter. “I understand.” “If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.” (Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?) “Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies -- not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.) Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform. I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready. But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild -- twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well. I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles -- one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash. The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?) I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner. However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received. They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work. The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed. Image Credit: pixshark.
1. Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands. 2. Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon. 3. Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking. The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption. 4. Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters. 5. Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” -- elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.” 6. Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term "graphic designer," said colophons were "shop talk." He thought that readers “don't care to know and they don't need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer's vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman's pants.” 7. Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product. 8. Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion. 9. When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes: Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence -- these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger -- I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed. 10. Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words. 11. When writing about books -- a world within a world -- I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater. 12. I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons -- and the spirit behind them -- are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition. 13. I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new. 14. I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem. 15. Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond. 16. William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon. 17. Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch. 18. This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante. 19. I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon. 20. It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again: Form and function is so important to us on every level -- and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it -- but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?
Like many avid readers, I’m a sucker for book covers. I drink in everything about the dust jackets on hardcovers and the skins on paperbacks -- the font of the title and author name, the artwork, the flap copy, the author photo and bio, the credit for the cover designer, even the blurbs. Yes, I’m also a sucker for blurbs, especially if they’re written by somebody I know, admire, or envy. Lately I’ve been noticing something that might qualify as a trend in book covers. Though wildly different in concept and composition, these covers share something I find irresistible: the words are typewritten, usually on erratic old machines that result in subtle imperfections. The letters don’t quite line up, the spacing is uneven, the darkness of the impression varies from letter to letter because the keys were struck with erratic pressure. Many of these covers include x’ed-out or crossed-out words. They were made by a machine but they reveal a human touch, and they’re the opposite of the chilly perfection of computer-generated type, including that ersatz, too-perfect font known as “American Typewriter.” No doubt one reason I’ve noticed these book covers -- and responded so warmly to them -- is because I write on a Royal manual typewriter that was built in 1948 and still works like new. But the bigger reason these covers have caught my eye and captured my heart is because they’ve so ingeniously captured the essence of the writing process. Simply put, these covers convey that writing is a messy business, a jumble of ideas, a string of false starts and dead ends and restarts. They also hint at the most central of truths: no piece of writing is ever truly finished. So here are a few of the typewritten covers that have caught my eye recently. It’s my little analog hymn to the human touch and to the eternal beauty of ink on paper. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel This is one of those rare instances when the story behind the book is almost better than the cover or the book itself. Lee Israel had written biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder before her writing career hit a rough patch in the 1990s. So she acquired a small arsenal of manual typewriters -- Royals, Remingtons, Olympias -- and after some judicious research began forging typewritten letters and the signatures of their famous “authors,” including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, the silent film star Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, and many others. Israel then sold the forgeries for about $100 apiece -- until she was arrested and sentenced to probation and house arrest. Below is a sample of Israel channeling Dorothy Parker, including the line that became the book’s title. With its mention of a hangover that’s “a real museum piece,” is it any wonder that Israel’s work fooled so many people for so long? The cover of Can You Ever Forgive Me? includes the typewritten, x’ed-out names of several of the prominent people whose letters Israel forged, including Parker, along with Israel’s signature, which, presumably, is genuine. She died last year at the age of 75. Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis Nobody does compression like Lydia Davis, and the 41 words on the cover of her latest collection of short stories could almost be a Lydia Davis short story. In fact, if you add just seven words -- “I was recently denied a writing prize...” -- to the beginning of the fragment on the cover, you would have the three sentences that make up the collection’s title story. (Some of the stories consist of a single sentence.) This cover relies not on cross-outs but on the clever use of color to get its message across. Against a white backdrop, the typewritten letters are green, until you get to the titular contractions and the author’s name, which are black. Those conventional black letters are the ones that jump off the cover. Very clean and concise and counter-intuitive, just like Davis’s stories. The Way It Wasn’t by James Laughlin James Laughlin, the patrician founder of New Directions, called his autobiography an “auto-bug-offery.” Unfinished at his death in 1997 at 83, it’s actually more like a scrapbook, full of snapshots, snippets of published works, reminiscences, rants, and lists. The cover -- just the typewritten title and a photograph of the handsome author under his signature -- is far more understated than what’s between the covers. Laughlin knew, worked with, published, or had an opinion about absolutely everybody. He went to a New York Yankees game with Marianne Moore. He went butterfly hunting with Vladimir Nabokov. He was capable of delicious invective, as with this string of epithets for Paul Bowles, who he called a “hashish-eating scum-bag,” a “dog’s-behind licker,” a “vomit-drinker,” a “snot-sniffer,” and a “dribble-pisser.” This book is a welcome reminder that snark is not something new and, when done right, it can be a thing of beauty. The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald The title and author of this 2009 paperback are typed on a sheet of paper that’s in the carriage of a typewriter that’s in serious trouble. The machine looks like it has just been gnawed on and spit out by a great white shark. It looks mangled and wet. Which is not a bad metaphor for Fitzgerald’s state of mind during his messy, booze-marinated decline, so poignantly captured in these writings assembled by Edmund Wilson. Scissors by Stéphane Michaka This French novel is spun from the testy relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish, whose heavy-handed cutting gives the novel its title. Beneath the title and author’s name, a string of typewritten words, inspired by the title of a Carver short story collection, are crossed out with a red pencil: “It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we are talking about when we talk about love.” The maraschino is a hand-written blurb from NPR across the top of the cover, which calls the book “(An) empathetic exploration of an author’s soul.” It’s also an exploration of the Faustian bargain Carver made with Lish in order to secure his fame. Memories of a Marriage by Louis Begley The cover on this 2013 hardcover shows a woman in a black dress, seen in profile, sitting on a park bench and gazing longingly into the distance. There is no man in the picture. The word “marriage” in the typewritten title is crossed out twice in lower-case letters before it survives as “MARRIAGE” in capitals. This is the high-WASP story of a man’s obsessive dissection of an old friend’s marriage, which he had believed, wrongly, was kissed by happiness. Since the novel is a quest for a narrative that requires constant revision, those repeated cross-outs of “marriage” are a perfect touch. Disgruntled by Asali Solomon Asali Solomon’s debut novel is the coming-of-age story of Kenya Curtis, a black girl in Philadelphia who’s trying to rewrite the conventional, confining narratives of race. The title and author’s name are typed on three sheets of colored paper -- one pink, one green, one turquoise -- that have been torn apart and unevenly patched together, just like Kenya’s world. The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson Scott Donaldson’s new book is a meditation on his 40-year career writing biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Charlie Fenton, and John Cheever, among others. This cover may be my favorite of the bunch. The title and subtitle are typed in capital letters over the suit jacket of a man whose face is obscured by a great cloud of unintelligible typed letters. It’s a deft way of illustrating the book’s two warring premises: that “knowledge of (a writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa,” even though, as Donaldson admitted to me in an interview, “you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.” No wonder that poor biographer on the cover is drowning in gibberish.
Last winter I found myself lost in a draft of a novel, unable to keep track of the events in my book and getting hung up on unimportant logistical details. I felt kind of stupid because my story was simple, one that only took place over a few months in 1996. I had a list of scenes and an outline of what I had written but the only way I could really get my bearings was to Google old lunar calendars. Finally, I took a big piece of paper from my son’s easel and drew a three-month calendar that I could look at as I worked. In the calendar squares I wrote the events of the story, like a diary. After I did that, it was much easier to write. It was as if my brain could finally relax once the events of the story were organized in a familiar way. Shortly after I drew this calendar, I read an interview with Michelle Huneven on this site and smiled in recognition when she explained that “the difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Then, last fall, I was reading The Millions interview with Emily St. John Mandel and was fascinated by the spreadsheet she created to organize her novel Station Eleven. I got curious about the other visual aids that novelists create to manage their books, so I asked around and gathered a variety of notebook pages, diagrams, and timelines. In my search for material, I was often stymied by two factors: 1) writers had thrown out notes and materials related to finished novels and 2) writers were nervous about sharing their notes, especially for works-in-progress. I can certainly understand this vulnerability, and in fact I still feel a little silly about the calendar I’ve shared above. I doubt I would feel so foolish if I were working on a biography or reporting a complicated story from a variety of sources. But there’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional. So, I thank the writers below for sharing (and saving!) their peculiar and illuminating designs. And if you’re in the midst of a novel now, and stuck, maybe the answer is not to keep typing but to get a blank piece of paper and start drawing. Claire Cameron, notebook pages for The Bear I am always underlining, clipping and making notes. Sometimes I decide that it's time to put some of these little bits of paper into a notebook. I like to think that I'm working on my visual side, but lately I've realized that I'm actually thinking. When my hands are busy, my mind is free to run. These are a couple pages that I made around the time I was writing my recent novel, The Bear. It's a survival story of two young kids who are lost in the wilderness after their parents are killed by a black bear. [caption id="attachment_73762" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, from top: Man with Bandage (1968) from Fred Herzog: Photographs; Kotjebi “fluttering swallows” children in North Korea.[/caption] This page gave me a feel for the mix of vulnerability and resilience of the kids in The Bear. I read about Kotjebi or 'fluttering swallows' -- street kids in North Korea. Apparently they are often seen with a tube of toothpaste in hand as they believe it will help with the constant indigestion that comes from garbage-based diets. It's crushing to think about, but it's also the opposite of helpless. The kids are forming their own culture to help them survive. The stark, blocked composition in the Herzog photo spoke to me of a certain toughness. And that women. No one is going to mess with her, right? [caption id="attachment_73766" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, clockwise from top left: The Tent by Tom Thompson, I cut it from a calendar from the McMichael Gallery; a slightly smaller Coleman cooler, I’ve lost track of who owns this particular one; a purple flower; Cat Power; a note, typical of the specimens that I find on my bedside table each morning ; Cat Power again.[/caption] The Bear ends with a short epilogue where the grown kids revisit the site of the bear attack. I knew the exact note that I wanted to hit -- I could hear it -- but I couldn't find it in my keyboard. I made this page while I was thrashing through that part of the edit. I thought, what do I know? And I stuck that all on a page. Lauren Groff, notebook pages for Fates and Furies (forthcoming from Riverhead, September 2015.) This is a page of my notebook that I used in writing my next novel, Fates and Furies. I've thrown out the enormous eight foot square wall-maps of incident and character that I relied on during the first three years of writing this novel; this page from my notebook is from just after I discovered I hadn't been writing the two slender novels I thought I'd been writing, but rather one (much fatter) novel. I love revising, but am easily overwhelmed, and I have to make lists and only concentrate on one change at a time to get through it all. Though this page is incomprehensible to me now (more god? Fat man -- & Dwight?), at the time it was my roadmap for the things I needed to do, from most urgent to least. The drawing under the notebook was given to me by my next door neighbor and friend, the kick-ass cartoonist Leela Corman, and it powered me through finishing the manuscript. Tania James, notebook page for The Tusk That Did the Damage I wrote a novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, that involves three different perspectives, that of an elephant, a filmmaker, and a poacher's brother. Even with these differing perspectives, I wanted to keep the story flowing forward, to have the tail end of one section feed into the next. Hence my predilection for arrows. Scott Cheshire, notes from High as the Horses' Bridles I found this page, one of about five pages I used to occasionally and desperately display on my desk because they apparently helped me keep things "in order." Scrawled with phrases like "cell-phone logic," "truth!?," and "BOIL X2," I have no idea what they mean anymore. They look embarrassingly like those pieces of paper you see on cop shows, pinned to walls behind the desk of a brainy detective working on a tough case. My favorite phrase from this page: "This is the thing -- Joe." Joe is underlined, and circled. I have no idea who he is. Katherine Hill, timeline for The Violet Hour I began this timeline to keep track of all the narratives I'd started when I was drafting The Violet Hour. The early versions were really messy and full of question marks and speculations. But by the time I was making my final revisions, the timeline had grown shorter and tighter, and I was using it as a kind of retrospective blueprint: a file I could reference to make sure everything in the world of the novel was in line. It's a document of the novel's events -- or most of them -- but it's also, in a very real way, a document of the novel's process. By the time it was done, I knew the novel was basically done, too. Alexander Chee, drawing for The Queen of the Night (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016) This is a drawing I made in the back of my copy of The Kill by Emile Zola, which I was reading for research at the time. One of the hardest things for me to figure out with The Queen of the Night was how to structure the story. The novel is about a woman searching her memories of her past, identities she's adopted and discarded in order to survive a world that wasn't made for her to survive in. My narrator is the kind of woman I would glimpse in little glances to the side in novels like The Kill, and I wanted to make a novel that put her at the center. But it is very tricky to write a novel about someone who lies to themselves and others in order to live -- telling the truth even to herself is dangerous. When I did this, I had written several drafts, writing and then discarding sections until I realized the discard file -- where I saved everything -- was the novel. It was a novel composed out of rejected selves. This drawing then was one attempt to get the structure right. It's not what ultimately happened for the structure, it's a middle version I moved on from, but it helped me get there. I took a learning styles test once that told me I was a visual mathematician, and while I doubted it at the time, I think that it is true. I first did it to diagram a novel whose structure I was trying to understand while working on my first novel. I do it on chalkboards with my students now, to explain the way the force of the narrative moves the reader's attention. Looking at this now, I might have to get this made into a t-shirt to wear while on tour. Michelle Huneven, binder notes for a work-in-progress I am writing a novel about a church’s search for a new minister. I am following an actual process as determined by the denomination, which means I have a series of events in a set order that I have to somehow make dramatically interesting. I have all of these pamphlets and brochures and guidelines outlining the process; I have timelines, I have interviews with people who’ve conducted searches and those who’ve been hired (or not). And then, I have seven characters on the search committee who all have stuff going on in their lives... For a long time I had two or three manila folders of notes and any number of “notes for novel” files on my computer. A good portion of my writing day was spent trolling through these files for the nugget I needed, which was fine for a while because it familiarized me with all the stray bits I’d accumulated. Then, I started writing the book itself by hand on legal pads. And not on the same legal pad. Which meant that, when I wanted to write, I had to go through various legal pads to find where I wanted to work. That, too, was fine for a while, because I was constantly reviewing what I’d done. But at a certain point the accumulated disorder had me whimpering. Down to the floor I went. I had inherited my mothers three-hole punch (she was an elementary school teacher), and I had an empty three-ring binder sitting around, so I printed out all the notes on my computer, and put them in the binder with all my other notes and pertinent papers. Soon, it came clear that having research and writing in one binder was inefficient -- too much paging back in forth. So it was off to Office Depot, where I bought more binders and file dividers, and spent some very happy hours on the floor punching holes and organizing. (Since then, I also created separate binders for short stories and journalism...and, yes, recipes.) The floor of my office, as you can see from the picture, is my largest flat surface, so I’m down there when researching, and also when punching holes in new material. I can also work from both binders while writing...which proves that, at certain points, the floor is more useful than the computer screen.
In an effort to merge two loves of mine -- writing and photography -- I recently began this photo series that pairs snippets of novels with fun visuals that expand upon their cover art. To see more of the ongoing series and the prose captions that accompany each image, please follow @lifeserial and check out my #lifeserialreads tag on Instagram. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes California, by Edan Lepucki Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng Reunion, by Hannah Pittard The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller The First Bad Man, by Miranda July The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer
We recently posted a new edition of Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: U.S. Vs. U.K. These comparisons are fascinating -- what does a "little billboard" on a book say about our respective cultures? I was recently looking at the covers of Dutch-language books and found many titles that I recognized. Despite our different cultures, we share many overlaps in our literary taste. I hoped that I could draw some conclusions about those tastes by comparing U.S. and Dutch-language book covers. After spending way too much time on the task, I conclude that I can't. The comparisons, however, are equally fascinating. With my tongue in one cheek, I've provided a few thoughts below. You are encouraged to take equally wild stabs in the comments. If anyone has more cultural insight, please do weigh in. The American covers are on the left, and the covers from the Dutch originals or translations are on the right. The Dinner is a good place to start as it was first published in Dutch in 2009. I understand the scorched place setting of the U.S. cover. Looking at the lobster on the Dutch cover...I'm thinking of a seaside restaurant in Maine. Maybe it's evoking the feelings that lobsters have when they go into a pot? That's how the tension of the novel feels, like being boiled alive? A Millions favorite, Stoner. I read the New York Review Books Classics version and it blew me away, so it is difficult for me to say anything that might sound disloyal. However, if I could draw a picture of my face after I read the novel, I would have looked exactly like the man in the Dutch cover on the right. I had to run this Dutch title through Google Translate to make triple sure that I had the cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad. It becomes "Visit the Thugs" in Dutch, which has a nice ring to it. I'm less clear about what purples evoke to the Dutch that turquoise on the U.S. hardback cover does not? Why one less fret on the neck of the guitar? Google Translate was no help in answering these questions. Some of the imagery for Freedom is similar, but the covers have very different feels. To me, the lake country in the U.S. cover evokes the gentrified world view of Patty and Walter Berglund. I'm interested in the choice of a flat field -- is it trying to say something similar to a Dutch speaker? If there is an Ornithologist out there, please let me know if the bird on the right speaks Dutch or English. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: wow. Anthony Doerr's Dutch translation is interesting as the publisher went with the U.K. cover (we declared it "pretty dull.") Maybe the Dutch designer agreed because there are some differences. Most striking are the changes of tint. The girls dress, for example, is much more vibrant on this cover than on the U.K. version on the right. In general, the U.S. cover takes the broader view of the book I read. I wonder if a reader in Amsterdam or London would disagree?