Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Codex Jonesing: More Book Kulchur Schtuff

Can I Help You Find Something?
An unnamed staff writer at the Utne Reader wrote a very short piece for their November/December 2003  issue titled, "How To Find That Book You've Spent Years Looking For." The article itself isn't all that remarkable, but the comments are something you might like. More than eight years later, people are still chiming in, the last, as I write this, five days ago. I suspect the Utne attracts this kind of thing. 293 comments, in fits and starts, never dead, the comment thread that won't die...but might help you find a book or two you've always wanted? 

Bleu Mobley's Creation: Warren Lehrer
Blue Mobley just might be both the greatest and most fecund prison writer of all-time, and he's come up with a book that consists of 101 other books, and he's somehow managed to credibly assimilate typical genre styles, with backstories for his characters that are at times quite elaborate, with interconnections, and actually it seems Lehrer created Mobley, and...and...I have to check this guy out when he gets it published. Lehrer's Mobley and books within books. Lots of fake books make one really good one?

A Most Democratic Model For Your Book Club
The Omni Book Club, which started near Sandusky, Ohio and has spread to a few other <ahem> chapters around the country, is structured thus: instead of some "leader" deciding what book everyone will read and discuss, the Omni Book Club meets on a given day and everyone talks about the book(s) they have been reading, or just finished. People bring their books and talk about their experience reading them. Sometimes you might want to read aloud a passage or two to give the gist of why the book was so cool, or what was weird about it, whatever. Maybe the book disappointed you...but at least it was your decision to read the book. I really like this idea, and still plan to take a page from the Omni and get my own lot of Berkeley weirdos together to do this, probably with herbs, spices, beer and/or wine. I'm thinking the wrinkle in the standard book club model should open up some chances for personal performance of some sort: likely some of the other participants don't know your book or author, and you can really try to "sell" the book in your own way, but I guess I'll have to see.

The Book and Its Re-Purposing: An Idea That Seems Burgeoning
In one of my all-time favorite novels, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, there's a passage in which one of the main characters keeps his stash of pot in a hollowed-out copy of Sinclair Lewis's vision of fascist Unistat, It Can't Happen Here. Nice little joke. I've since found that objects that look like books but are really hinged containers and fit on your shelves (with title, and author, usually looking like a book from the early 20th century) are easily found. Here's a booze-flask camouflage book. Why anyone would need to hide their booze I don't know, but it's witty enough. "It's funny you mention the 21st Amendment. I just happen to have a book on that right here..." And you open it, your pal sees your booze, you have a good laff. Cory Doctorow at boingboing loves this sorta stuff. 

Repurposing books is an artform, and will probably proliferate, because there's just so many old sets of encyclopedias, almanacs, atlases, and other books deemed as ephemera by someone; they're taking up too much space, gathering dust and we're just going to have to dump them at the Goodwill or public library, or...throw them away. Why not make them into furniture or Art? Here we see an example of old cookbooks made into a little shelf to hold...other cookbooks. 

A 34-foot high sculpture of books about Abe Lincoln. There are 6800 or so volumes that have to do with Lincoln, and it's located in the theater where he was assassinated. I wonder if, eventually, there will be enough books on JFK and his assassination to remake New York's Kennedy Center, to exact size?

What? Too soon?

Cut to the chase: you have to see this one in action to believe it: a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption to turn your pages for you. It's totally insane and wonderfully inspired. It's not a repurposing of books, but a zany way to help you read them, possibly on par with making a bathtub out of old books. Not for the practically-minded!

The OG Learns A New Thing: Human Skin To Bind Books?
Sometimes I confess something comes along that makes me think I've led a relatively sheltered life.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy: using human skin to bind books. I saw this article, and, given the tone of the site, I thought, "Every now and then I bet these guys let in a hoax article, for kicks." (Note the person who commented on the article, "The original Face Book.") I assumed this was a hoax. Then I found out anthropodermic bibliopegy was apparently real, and went on up to the the end of Victoria, around 1900, when dissected corpses had their skin tanned. I read the above linked article and the Wiki and it seems not like a put-on to me, but I'm still letting the idea sink in, as to why this was thought to be a Good Idea. The story is just sitting there, in my stomach, undigested, and making me feel a bit nauseated...The idea of the record of a criminal being bound by that very criminal's skin? Ghastly. But apparently a Neat Idea up to the end of Queen Victoria's reign. You have to read this article and then try to believe it. I guess I sorta believe it, but I'm not happy about it.

If you happen to own an old leather-bound book from between 1700-1900, and it has a "bizarre waxy smell" and different "pore size" compared to cow or pig hide...Let's move on, shall we?

Book Porn
No, not porn-porn, but images of books, people reading, great writers at their desks, ya know: book porn. Check this Tumblr site dedicated to this form of porn, which caters to the bibliomane in, I'm guessing, most of us. (?)

Nathan Myhrvold's Molecular Gastronomy Book
                                           Here 'tis. 5 Vols, 40 pounds, 2400 pages.

Here''s Myhrvold making an omelette in a way you probably have not, on the morning Today Show, from around a year ago. I wonder about the people who buy this book and actually get really deep into the finer points of molecular gastronomy. I imagine they're either very fun to party with, or not at all fun. The video is about 4 minutes:

Nathan Myhrvold's IQ is presumably very, very high. You can buy his cookbook(s) for between $400-$500. It delivers "science-inspired techniques for preparing food." Lemme know how this works out for ya. Here's an interesting article on Myhrvold and his cookbook(s).

                               Old books at Basking Ridge Historical Society, New Jersey.
                               Photo by William Hoiles. Wikimedia Commons. I was not
                               able to determine if any of these were bound using human skin.

Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872): Greatest Bibliomaniac Ever?
The illegitimate son of an English textile manufacturer, Phillips inherited a sizable estate, and seems to have devoted most of it in the attempt to acquire every book ever published. One who knew him called Phillips "vain, selfish, dogmatic, obstinate, litigious and bigoted."

Vellum is a very fine parchment made from calf's skin, and, as Phillips learned more about the book trade, his propensity quickly ran toward vellum, and he called himself "a perfect vello-maniac" and "paid any price asked."

Actuated by knowledge of various bibliocausts, Phillips wrote in an early catalog of his collection, "In amassing my collection, I commenced with purchasing everything that lay within my reach, to which I was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts." He liked the idea of having so many rare books that great scholars would be forced to ask him to use his library. And scholars did indeed use his immense, perpetually-metastasizing collection. I imagine it was a tremendous thrill for Phillips.

Phillips was well aware of great collectors who'd preceded him, but they didn't have some opportunities he'd had, history's vicissitudes throwing some fortune his way with, for example the French Revolution. Phillips: "There must be vast treasures upon the Continent in consequence of the dispersion of Monastic libraries by the French Revolution."

By the end of his life, writes Nicholas Basbanes in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, "The collection Sir Thomas Phillips left was so enormous that a full century of inventories, private sales, and auctions was necessary to sort it out. The bad news, for the British Museum at least, was that the man did not have it in him to give his collection to the nation outright; the nation's error was its failure to make a reasonable offer. But collections serve civilization in many ways. The irreplaceable material Phillips rescued can be found today in institutions all over the world where they serve scholarship. This was not his intention, but it was his legacy. Once the Court of Chancery declared in 1885 that his will was too restrictive, dispersal was possible." (p.122)

What was in Phillips' will? When he died he was bitter, confused, cantankerous and illogical. What reader is surprised at this? He willed that his books all stay in the same house (Thirlestaine), that no bookseller or "stranger" ever be allowed to arranged them, that one of his daughters and her husband never be allowed among the collection (Phillips had disapproved of the marriage), and that "no Roman Catholic should ever be admitted" to his library. He had not left enough money for upkeep of his library; his will toward his books was totally unrealistic. His favored son-in-law, the Reverend John Fenwick, said of Phillips after his death, that the man "pleased no one in life, and I expect he has managed to displease everybody in death as well." (p.122, ibid)

A Quote
"If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated." - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Bed of Procrustes, p.11.

Finally: Time Enough At Last
When I was 12-18 I was obsessed with the old black and white Twilight Zone series on TV, which had its original run from 1959-1964. There's one episode, "Time Enough At Last, in which a meek bibliophile/ardent reader, takes his lunch break in his bank's deep basement vault, where he can read in quiet before going back to work. While down in the depths, a nuclear attack levels the area, and he emerges, like some pathetic rodent, surveying the devastation. The wonderful thing: just as he's about to commit suicide, he realizes the public library's books were not incinerated in the blast (poetic license!), and this meek little guy, played by the illustrious Burgess Meredith, has time enough to read, at last. Here's the ending of the 22 minute episode:


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great post, as usual. It made me think of John Dee, who had a huge library for Elizabethan England, at least 2000 books if I haven't misremembered Frances Yates.

I named my poetry bookshelf the Empress after the prize winning pig in Wodehouse's Blandings novels.

michael said...

I know Dee's immense library was pillaged, many vols stolen from him: he was a scary magickian!

This site lists 3000:

At an early stage of Phillips's collecting life, he had over 20,000 volumes. When he died, I'm not sure what the number was. Where Dee was, in opinion, a fantastic figure and tremendous intellectual type (have you read his intro to a volume of Euclid?), Phillips seems more like an accumulating nut. He read, sure...but he wanted to OWN books, first and foremost.

You're the first person I've ever known who had named one of their own bookshelves. Do you arrange your poetry shelf - excuse me: "Empress" - in any particular way? My entire collection is ordered along a combination of the Dewey system, plus a competing thinking process that sez "These are the sorts of Joyce/Pound/Robert Anton Wilson/Fuller/Vico/Pynchon/Burroughs/Korzybski/anarchist authors that belong together." Also: here's a bunch of weirdo art books...

I really need to blog on McLuhan and Gutenberg Man. Soon...sooner...sooniest?

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I haven't read anything by Dee.

When I lived in Arizona and read a lot of poetry and Wodehouse I had a bookshelf in my room full of poetry arranged alphabetically. The Empress became divided when I moved some poetry books into my classroom. Just this semester I got a small bookcase in the front of my room just for poetry (alphabetically) - the Empress reborn! I still have a little over a shelf of poetry at home, arranged alphabetically. The poetry books I read for pleasure/study mostly stay at home. I don't have much time for reading at work. I have ten or so poetry books I find myself very slowly reading at present: The Collected Shorter Poems of Louis Zukofsky, Patterson, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, The Faery Queen, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, From Totem Poles to Hip Hop edited by Ishmael Reed, a book by Seamus Heaney, The Collected Poems of Patrick Kavenaugh, Lord Weary's Castle by Robert Lowell, etc.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


I admit it never occurred to me to name my bookshelf. When the Borders chain went out of business, I bought a bookshelf label for "Science Fiction" and put it on my living room bookshelf, in front of some of the SF.

I hope your book group on the Omni lines is a success.

Book trivia: Illuminatus! and It Can't Happen Here both have won the Prometheus Hall of Fame award.