Backwards Books

Qualifying for an obscure facts about books award, is an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘How Book Lovers Turned Things Around’ by Anita Singh.  Appearing on 19/4/17, it said:

“If you want to display books on shelves the traditional way, try turning your books back to front.  Placing books on shelves with the spines facing outwards is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Mark Purcell, former libraries curator for the National Trust who now oversees the research collections at Cambridge University Library.

Mark Purcell

“‘Until fashions changed in the 18th century, book titles and authors were not printed on the spine but written in ink on the edge of pages.  The turnaround happened when the wealthy decided having titles embossed in gold leaf would add a certain cachet.  If you’d gone to almost any library in England, Wales or Scotland until 300 years ago the books were kept backwards,’ Purcell said at the Hay Festival.  ‘In those days the cultural supposition was that books had the title printed on the edges of the pages in ink.’

“The first known English book with a title gilded on the spine was printed in 1604, he said, and that was considered ‘cutting edge’.  Then followed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, what historians call ‘the great turnaround’, where the method of display was reversed.”

I suspect that a change in binding technology may also have been partially responsible for this change.  It may have simply been more difficult to print the author’s name and the title of the book on spine of the book.  But, judging by the picture above, it is easy to see why book owners preferred to display their possessions with the title and author’s name on the spine.

 

The new ‘Parthenon of Books’

There is an article in Architectural Digest, posted on July 11 by Nick Mafi , the title  – 100,000 Banned Books Have Been Formed into a ‘Parthenon of Books –  of which caught my eye.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis banned books that were written by authors who were of Jewish descent, or had pacifist or communist sympathies.  The list included such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London.  Now, some eight decades later, a monument is being constructed in honour of these censored books.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín has created a full-scale replica of one of the world’s most famous structures, the Parthenon in Athens, constructed entirely from censored books. The symbolism is striking, as the Parthenon is the very antithesis of political repression. Indeed, the artist went on to add in a statement that the original Parthenon is “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.”

The display is part of the Documenta 14 art festival in Kassel, Germany. Now in its 14th iteration, the Documenta was first established in 1955 an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art, after the horrific years of Nazism. For the current exhibition, Minujín created the structure by sourcing 100,000 donated books from around the world. The novels were then secured to the steel structure with plastic sheeting, protecting them from the natural elements while allowing sunlight to filter through the building. The site of the exhibition is noteworthy as well, as the city of Kassel (located in central Germany) was where several thousand books were burned during the Nazi-led campaign to rid the country of books deemed un-German.

The temporary exhibition will run through September 17, 2017. When it ends, the books will be taken down and recirculated around the world.”

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

A friend of my wife’s gave me this book to read with assurances that I would certainly enjoy it.  One night, when I was about half way through the book, there was an interview of the author, Elizabeth Strout, by George Alagiah on the BBC World News channel.  The interview was recorded at the last Hay Festival.  I warmed to Ms Strout – in part – because two nights previously there was another interview from Hay of a poet, whose name I don’t recall, and whom I found unintelligible.  In her interview at the Hay festival,  Ms Strout said that her writing is shaped by the ordinary people she knew in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout was born in 1956 in Portland, Maine,  She attended Bates College and the University of Syracuse.  She waitressed before writing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Her debut was met with widespread critical acclaim, became a national bestseller, and was adapted into a movie.  She has since written five novels, My Name is Lucy Barton  being her fifth.  Her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, was published in 2008. The book features a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.   Louisa Thomas of the New York Times said: “The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling—a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”

Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton is centered on the unexpected interaction between Lucy Barton, who is in hospital suffering from complications following surgery, and her estranged mother, who has flown east to be with her.  Throughout the book, Lucy has recollections about her childhood in rural Illinois with an impoverished family: distant father and mother, a sister and brother.  Lucy, herself, has gained an education, a marriage, two small daughters, and a career as a writer in New York City, thus estranging herself from her family.  The dialogue between the two women is both limited in the sense that there are unspoken words, and informative in revealing something of their respective characters.  Ms Strout strikes this balance in her writing very well.  She also uses the descriptive recollections of people of the past to elucidate some of the values of the principal characters.  She uses unique voices which shed light on the characters, and her writing style flows simply.  Characterisation is clearly Ms Strout’s strength.

My Name is Lucy Barton is, at 188 pages, short enough to be considered a novella, rather than a novel.  For me, while the writing flows beautifully and the characters are very much alive and their circumstances unique, what was missing was how and why the current circumstances arose.  Why, for example, did Lucy’s father lock her in his pickup for hours – on one occasion with a large brown snake?  We are told that is was a frequent occurrence, but we don’t know why, and knowing why and how it came about would shed further light on the characters.  All of the characters are certainly interesting, but I feel like a hungry diner who was served only an appetizer.

“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?