Category Archives: books

New Looks at Old Books

Over on Twitter, someone recently asked me the really fun question, “What are the oldest books in your collection?” I’m don’t really have many old books, but those I do have tend to be associated with — c’mon, do I really have to say it? — Washington Irving.

Let me talk about three in particular, going from newest (a relative term) to oldest — which also means saving the best for last.

The first, and most recent, is an 1864 “Artist’s Edition” of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which Irving’s short stories were illustrated “with 120 engravings on wood from original designs” by some of the most noted artists of the day.

What’s missing on the title page? Why, Washington Irving’s name, of course; “Geoffrey Crayon” was just one of many pseudonyms Irving would publish under during his long life. Not to worry, though — Irving’s authorship was one of the world’s worst-kept secrets on both sides of the Atlantic.

The signature you see here for Mr. Crayon is part of the book — it’s not an actual signature, in ink, inscribed on the page — but the handwriting is definitely Irving’s. The artwork in the book is gorgeous, and printed with care. Above, for example, you’ll see an illustration for the Sketch Book‘s first show stopper, “Rip Van Winkle.”

The book is also full of what we might today call Easter eggs — little in jokes, or sly nods at the reader. Take, for example, this illustration for Irving’s “The Voyage,” in which Crayon reflects on his ocean voyage from the United States to England, and warns travelers of the dangers of sea trips. The illustration features four gentlemen in conversation around a table during their voyage across the Atlantic — and the figure in the middle is Washington Irving himself, based on a popular engraving of Irving from the era (the equivalent of a modern author’s headshot).

Later, in the Sketch Book‘s gangbuster’s closing number, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an illustration is meant to convey the charming nature of the quaint old Dutch houses in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The picturesque home in the engraving is clearly “Sunnyside,” Irving’s beloved home in Tarrytown, NY — just down the road from Sleepy Hollow — which he had built in the Dutch style (and other elements, including the Spanish-influenced tower) in the 1840s.

The next oldest book in my collection is one of the first I bought when I began researching Washington Irving in the late 1990s: a four-volume biography of Irving — the first one, in fact — written by his nephew Pierre M. Irving, and published in 1862, just three years after Irving’s death.

The true gem in my collection, though, dates back to 1819 (I nearly added, “….which makes it more than a hundred years old” and then realized it’s actually more than two hundred years old. And it’s just sitting there on my desk like it’s no big deal). It’s a first printing of the fifth American installment of The Sketch Book, which Irving was publishing serially and simultaneously in the United States, where it would eventually run to six volumes, and in England (publishing on both sides of the ocean at the same time prevented his work from being poached by publishing pirates — the 19th century equivalent of copyright infringement).

This particular volume has a special place on my desk, and in my heart. If I could have only one installment of The Sketch Book, it would be this one — because it’s the volume in which Irving’s five influential Christmas stories first appeared. (They would later be bundled as “Old Christmas.”) If you’re wondering why we associate Christmas with yule logs and wassail, carols and gifts, sleigh rides and family parties . . . blame Washington Irving. He made it all up, and then told us it had always been that way.

Anyway, it was my fascination with Irving’s Christmas stories that originally got me started on my journey as a biographer. That makes a first printing of his Christmas stories pretty special.

Oh, and if you’re a collector of old books who’s wincing at the bookseller’s sticker on the cover, you can relax — Moses Thomas was one of Irving’s handpicked U.S. booksellers, selling The Sketch Book out of his shop in Philadelphia; it was Thomas himself who stuck it there.

Also, I do love that the printer is serendipitously named . . . Van Winkle

75 cents was considered almost insanely expensive for a book — it’s about 15 bucks today — especially because this was just one book in a series. When some American readers objected, Irving brushed them off. “If the American public wish to have literature of their own,” he wrote, “they must consent to pay for the support of authors.”

Amen, brother.

Autumn Leaves

It’s fall, the publishing industry is back in full swing, and that means there are plenty of great new books to choose from.  Let’s see. . .

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, by my  colleague David O. Stewart. Stewart views Burr’s tale as both an adventure story and a political/legal thriller, and why not? Imagine a novel in which a sitting Vice President is charged for murder in two states, plans an elaborate military coup to overthrow the U.S. government (and have himself installed as the head of the new upstart government installed in its place), is indicted for treason, and is put on trial — and acquitted! — before the Chief Justice of the United States. A tale too unbelievable to be true? You bet — and yet it is.  Stewart’s book is available now—and getting spectacular reviews—so go get it (and look for a cameo appearance by Washington Irving, who made sure he had a good seat in the courthouse every day of Burr’s trial in Richmond).

The book currently sitting on my nightstand is Walter Issacson’s biography Steve Jobs, which is already kicking ass and taking names on numerous bestseller lists. Those of us who were keeping tabs on Issacson’s book for the past year (and who rolled our eyes when it was rumored, probably falsely, that the book was going to called either The Book of Jobs or iJobs) watched with interest as it was updated and revised after the manuscript was already completed to reflect Jobs’s resignation from Apple due to health reasons — and then revised again immediately following his death. That gives Issacson’s book the wonderful weight of immediacy—though it’s not like most us weren’t chomping at the bit to get our hands on this one anyway.

Coming up next week is the long-awaited And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by my pal (and fellow BIO member) Charles J. Shields, who pulls back the curtain on the enigmatic writer whose Slaughterhouse Five has been picked up by countless high school students who thought they were reading a horror novel.  Ahem.

I’m anxious to get my mitts on this one as well, though I’ll admit to having some inside information: namely, I know how hard Shields worked not only on the book itself, but on getting Vonnegut to allow him to write the story in the first place.  You can read that story and more  over on Shields’ way-cool blog  Writing Kurt Vonnegut, where you’ll learn all about his adventures as Vonnegut’s biographer — as well as beer, kids’ TV, and writing in general. Go. Now.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve largely given up fiction—but I’m still a sucker for Stephen King (yeah, guh head, make the face!) and I’ve gotta admit to being psyched for his newest, the massive, 960-page 11/22/63: A Novel. I had to fling aside the review in today’s Washington Post, which seemed too eager to commit the major foul of Giving Too Much Away.

And finally, I just read this afternoon that the fourth — but not yet final! — book in Robert A.  Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson comes out next May.

What are you looking forward to reading this fall? You don’t have to post it here, just talk amongst yuhselves.

Washington Irving, His Kith and Kindle…

Once again, when I wasn’t looking, Washington Irving went galloping into yet another format.  It’s now available as an e-book in the Kindle format—so you can read it on your iPad, so long as you have the Kindle app—and you can download it for a mere $9.99 right here.

If you’re one of those folks like me who still lives the analog life and prefers a physical book you can hold in your hands, the paperback version will be available on November 15.

R.I.P. Carla Cohen (1936-2010)

I was saddened this morning to learn that Carla Cohen — one of the co-founders of Politics & Prose, just about the coolest independent bookstore out there — passed away yesterday at age 74.  The Washington Post obituary is right here.

Politics & Prose — like Powell’s in Oregon — is one of great meccas for independent bookstore lovers.  It’s a place nearly every aspiring author — especially authors of non-fiction — wants to speak, especially on the off-chance that C-SPAN will be there to record the talk for broadcast.  It’s a place that’s unapologetically nerdy and erudite and just a bit eclectic.  Its clientele don’t come in looking for science fiction or romance novels; they want books of wonky politics, literary history, or economics.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Carla Cohen and her business partner, Barbara Meade, when I spoke about Washington Irving at P&P in early 2008.  She cared deeply about books, and even more about readers.  She’ll be missed.

Reviews in Brief: Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill (Mark Lewisohn)

Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn brings the same pop culture awareness and spry writing style he lavishes on the Boys to Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill, one of England’s most watched and — in public, at least — least admired comedians. You’ll quickly find that Lewisohn’s surtitle — Funny, Peculiar — is entirely appropriate, for what an odd, complicated, and interesting life it is, full of conflict, sadness, success, unrequited love, stage fright, a little luck, and quite a bit of genius.

You’ll get Benny’s early life, from growing up in a tightfisted family that made its money selling condoms to his brief military service and the odd jobs that would serve as the inspiration for later sketches. A lover of the stage — though terrified of audiences — Benny works his way through the seaside circuit (often as a straight man!) before finding his true calling, and talent, as a television comedian.

Those of us who know Benny only from The Benny Hill Show episodes that aired in the United States actually got to know Benny toward the tail end of his career, when clever comedy gave way to more suggestive sketches that had American audiences howling with laughter, but British critics and self-appointed purveyors of Good Taste groaning. Early in his TV career, Benny was admired for his quick-change ability (playing all the parts, for example, on a live version of “What’s My Line?”), his ability to mimic almost any accent, and his genuine charm. Even as Benny nipped the material of other comedians and (admittedly) raided old American joke books for materials, British audiences adored him, regularly voting him their favorite television personality well into the 1960s.

But as Benny’s fame soared internationally — his agent brilliantly marketed select shows for the new syndication markets in the early 1970s — his interest in even his own material waned, and Hill became a parody of himself, relying on bawdier material and deliberately pushing the censors to their limit.

Yet, those who knew Benny by his material would be surprised to learn that, privately, Benny was a very different man. Rather than a leering, dirty old man, he was haunted by fears of unrequited love — and love lost to an unworthy rival — yet once he was in a relationship, his standoffishness and apparent disinterest (which was most likely shyness) kept him from finding true love. And while he would never marry, he carried on extremely close — and secret — friendships with two disabled women for decades.

Even with his enormous fame and fortune, Benny was one of England’s famous tightwads, living happily in his parents’ unheated flat or in his own sparsely furnished apartment, eating great gobs of cheap food, walking everywhere, and generally baffling friends who would find uncashed checks for enormous sums tucked away in the back of a drawer.

Whether you’re a fan of Benny’s or not (and I am), you’ll be genuinely touched and saddened by Benny’s final years, watching his reputation decline at home, his sad rompings with the children and families of women he could have married, and his often fractuous relationship with his family. When Benny died in his flat in Teddington in 1992, his body sat for days, slumped in front of the television, before finally being discovered by police.

All told, a remarkable story, told in a typically wonderful, readable manner by Lewisohn.

No Longer Long Overdue

Yesterday at the New York Society Library, the estate of George Washington’s Mount Vernon presented the library with a copy of one of the two overdue books the first president checked out in the late 1700s. (You can read my original post about this right here.)

In a formal ceremony at the NYSL, James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, presented NYSL chairman Charles Berry with a copy of The Law of Nations, one of the two books that Washington checked out of the library in October 1789.  (You can read the full story of the ceremony here.)

The book isn’t the copy that Washington checked out — staff at Mount Vernon had no luck locating the original, so the estate purchased a similar copy, published the same year, from an online vendor for $12,000.  That raised some eyebrows among Mt. Vernon fans, who would rather have seen that money spent at the Washington home.

For Mr. Rees, though, it was a matter of principle.  By not returning the book on time, Rees explained, George Washington “did not do his public duty.”  I think Washington — who took civic duty seriously — would have approved. Sometimes a symbolic gesture is priceless.

Happy Launch Day, Jonathan Bender!

Congratulations to Lego addict (and fellow member of the Lyons Den) Jonathan Bender, on the release of his way-cool book LEGO: A Love Story. If you’ve been following Jonathan on his blog for the last few years (like I have), you know that he approached Lego as a sort of enthusiastic amateur, and developed the chops to become a master builder.  C’mon, how much fun does this sound? Check it out:

In search of answers and adventure, Jonathan Bender sets out to explore the quirky world of adult fans of LEGO (AFOLs) while becoming a builder himself. As he participates in challenges at fan conventions, searches for the largest private collection in the United States, and visits LEGO headquarters (where he was allowed into the top secret set vault), he finds his LEGO journey twinned with a second creative endeavor—to have a child. His two worlds intertwine as he awaits the outcome: Will he win a build competition or bring a new fan of LEGO into the world? Like every really good love story, this one has surprises—and a happy ending.

LEGO: A Love Story is available here, and you can even read some fun excerpts from it here.  Go get it.  While you do, I’m gonna go dig out all my old Lego space sets from the late 1970s, put them together, then attack them with my Raydeen Shogun warrior.  Just like the old days. My brother will vouch for me.

“I Cannot Tell A Lie: They Were Under My Bed.”

Those of us who have sheepishly returned an overdue library book and paid the seventy cent fine can be a bit less embarrassed now — because thanks to some recent record scrubbing by the New York Society Library, we found out we’re in good company: George Washington has two overdue books.

According to the story in the Guardian:

The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.

The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.

Sure enough, when the librarians checked their holdings they found all 14 volumes of the Commons debates bar volume 12.

Under the rules of the library, the books should have been handed back by 2 November that same year, and their borrower and presumably his descendants have been liable to fines of a few cents a day ever since.

Doing the math, that adds up to an overdue fee of about $300,000.  My pal Mark Bartlett, the NYSL’s head librarian, approaches this matter delicately and with a diplomacy that would likely have made the first president proud.  “We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” Mark says. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”

A Dose of Reality in High School Reading

Over in The Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews laments the absence of non-fiction on high school “required reading” lists.  “I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder,” Mathews writes. “But I think I would also have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.”

He’s right.  I can’t remember ever being assigned any non-fiction in high school, apart from in a journalism class where a wise teacher made us read any number of books of our choice by journalists (I chose Harry Reasoner’s Before The Colors Fade and Barbara Walters’s How To Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, both of which are long out of print.)

Independently, I read my share of non-fiction — usually books on pop culture, such as the history of films, television, theater, or comics (I remember drawing audible laughter from a biology teacher of mine when he turned over the book I had laid face-down on my desk to reveal The History of Little Orphan Annie) — but as far as required reading went . . . not so much.

Mathews isn’t certain what to make of this. Perhaps, he offers

…high school English departments’ allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that non-fiction is a bore. That in turn makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word “research.”

Could be.  Non-fiction, on the face of it, seems a bit too much like doing research for a term paper — which is about the only time students are required to pick up anything beyond the fiction shelves. Non-fiction seems intimidating, academic, and boring.  (True, sometimes it is — except most of the time, when it isn’t.)

Mathews closes by asking for suggestions on non-fiction books that high school students might like.  I think I’d try to keep things short — John Adams, for example, is one of the finest books out there, but at 750 pages, its length probably makes it unwieldly for your average class — and point students toward books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Stephen King’s On Writing.

What books would you recommend?

The Game is Afoot

The blog got pushed to the wayside over the past week — but here’s a bit of what’s been going on the past few days:

– We went to see Sherlock Holmes.  Madi is something of a Sherlockian  — as well as a major Robert Downey Jr. fan — so this one was a no-brainer for our family movie outing (none of us — not even the more science fiction-inclined Barb — can get up for Avatar, which seems to be all form, no substance). We absolutely loved it.  I’m not enough of a hardcore Sherlockian (I consider myself a lapsed amateur) to either appreciate some of the small details or get annoyed at liberties with the legend, but it definitely worked for us — and it’s not giving anything away to say it ended on a delightfully predictable cliffhanger.

While we’re on the subject, here’s a neat article in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine about Arthur Conan Doyle’s — and Sherlock Holmes’ — London.  Or at least what’s left of it.

– While at the mall this weekend, we came across one of the few remaining Waldenbooks in the area — and this one, in fact, was going out of business.  That meant everything in the store was on sale, some of it as much as 70 or 80 percent off.  No dummies, Barb and I dove in.

The shelves were mostly picked over — any new releases were long gone — and there was little sense of organization, but we scoured the shelves nevertheless.  I managed to snag a recent bestselling but terribly trashy bio of Michael Jackson and one of Kevin Smith’s books, while Barb filled up thrillers, an atlas, and a really interesting guide to the burial places of famous people.  Ah, clearance sales — the meth of book nerds.

– And finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that last Friday, January 8, would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday.  Play us off, Elvis.

Thangyew. Thangyewverrahmush.