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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fearfully Asymmetrical: Her Fearful Symmetry

I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife so passionately that I couldn’t wait for Audrey Niffenegger’s next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry , and I actually broke my rule (used copies only) and purchased a new trade paper copy. And was awfully disappointed. I had looked forward to the setting – London’s Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger is a guide and where are buried some significant Victorian authors and artists. I suppose that I expected too much from the book in my anticipation.

In fact, I felt very uncomfortable with the characters and the story – as I suppose could have been the intention with what amounts to a ghost story. Even the font employed for the chapter titles made me uneasy, with its sketchy lack of symmetry – again, perhaps an intended effect. That is not to say that the novel is not well-conceived or well-written: it is both, although Niffenegger’s prose tends to be static and visually-oriented. But even that makes sense since she is primarily a graphic novelist.

For some reason this book reminded me of Tim Powers’ 1989 novel, The Stress of Her Regard. That one also left me feeling disturbed in a similar way. (Enough so that I still shudder when I think of it, and I read it when it was published.) I guess the operative term for both novels might be “creepy.” Which, of course, some people really love. I have just never relished that kind of creepiness – like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I can neither believe it nor enjoy it.

The novel also ends on an ambiguous note that I always feel is a bit of a cheat.
I think my favorite character in this book is Martin, whose OCD is so bad he can’t leave his apartment, but who eventually pulls himself together (with a little help from his friends and some medication) to make the journey to Amsterdam to join his estranged wife. The main characters never really seem to have much gumption or purposefulness, except perhaps for the one who is dead.

This font style that I mentioned puzzled me, though. I can’t tell if it is supposed to look like Victorian iron work or script, or if it is just intended to be unsettling. If the latter case, it achieves its goal. It is both difficult to read at times, and kind of … well….creepy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Death of the Book as We Know It

Well, there is a lot of doom and gloom among booksellers about the future of the book – meaning the printed codex, of course – with the onslaught of digital reading devices. I saw them as evil incarnate in the beginning, but having listened to many arguments pro and con, I’m now revising some of my preconceptions.

Our thinking about books is somewhat entrenched in the way we have regarded them in the past: As repositories of knowledge and literature, as primary tools for access to information, as objects that we enjoy for their beauty, as means of entertainment. In fact, the only thing really missing from that list in digital format is the tactile aspect – the beauty of fine printing, lovely reproduction of artwork and maps, the feel of paper and cover materials, the smell of a freshly-printed or old book. And it does remain to be seen if digital copies can outlast good old paper and cloth. The technologies seem to move along very rapidly and a lot of things can get left behind and lost.

But when I think about the implications of the progression of technology, the future of the electronic reading device seems to warrant some respectful consideration. We need to realize that the current examples – Kindle, Nook, and the rest – are just baby steps into the possibilities. At some point they will surmount the need to replicate the codex, and take the concept of “book” much further. We already see some applications on the Internet that can be incorporated. If you’re reading about a certain type of music, you can click a link and hear an example. Some e-books already provide dictionaries (I’m always jotting words onto scraps of paper or post-it notes, if handy, and inserting into the book I’m reading to look up later), and they could provide many more layers of research and reference, including videos, 3-D maps and applications, and other scholarly or entertaining aspects.

In the grocery store parking lot the other day we were about to open the rear hatch of the van to load our purchases when a woman walking by spotted my Tomfolio magnetic sign and asked what it was. I explained that Tomfolio is an independent bookseller’s co-op website, and she was excited, declaring herself a “book nut.” I mentioned e-books and she threw up her hands, swearing she would never touch one. “I love my books! They’re MINE! I like to write notes in them. I like to share them with friends. I like to read the notes they write so we can discuss our thoughts about various passages. I want to KEEP them where I can SEE them and TOUCH them!”

The following night we were at a party, and I fell into a lively discussion about books with Mary Lou, another passionate reader. And then she mentioned “Kindle” and I stuck my fingers in my ears and went “neener neener neener” but she made me listen. Her arthritis, she said, made it impossible for her to hold a hardcover book for long, and paperbacks became difficult to hold open. But her Kindle could be propped up for reading without pain for as long as she wished.

About then our party host mentioned his Kindle, and I asked to see it. I admit I had never looked at one before. He has the “Third Generation” (I guess that means something). In response to my questions he showed the dictionary, the ability to make notes and retrieve them as footnotes, and the option to listen rather than read, with a choice of voices even. (I imagined sitting through a boring meeting with the earpiece in, listening surreptitiously to a book being read.) He also had the cover, which incorporates a reading lamp, so the absence of backlighting is not a problem.

I thought about some applications that others have mentioned – frequent travelers can take a “suitcase full” of books along, but all in this small device. Books that are difficult to obtain in certain parts of the world are easily downloaded – without having to pay heavy shipping or customs costs. And so forth.

I may take a look at some of the other devices out there. The Kindle seems unnecessarily restrictive with its proprietary downloads, etc. But I understand that there are some now that will download library books and purchased or free digital texts from a variety of sources.

In other words, it looks as though e-readers could become useful tools. I’m so hardwired into codex reading habits that it would be difficult, I think, to derive the same pleasure from a “tool.” And there are certainly many types of books that would not translate at all. I just received a letterpress-printed calendar and spent five minutes just stroking it. You can’t get that tactile satisfaction from a little plastic box. But there is no denying that the e-reader has a place in the future. I cannot agree that it will replace the printed book altogether, and perhaps not even to a significant degree. It’s going to be an interesting phenomenon to watch, in any case.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Little Blue Books are a series of small staple-bound books published by the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company of Girard, Kansas (1919–1978). In size about 3½ by 5 inches (8½ by 12¾ cm) the booklets were designed to fit easily into a shirt or pants pocket.

The Little Blue Book series were published by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and his wife, Marcet. Emanuel Haldeman-Julius was a socialist, a Jewish atheist, , and a newspaper man. The couple purchased the Appeal to Reason Publishing House in Girard, Kansas (a failing socialist newspaper for which H-J, as he is known, had been editor) in 1919 and set out to publish easily-affordable booklets.

The original version was Appeal's Pocket Series, printed on cheap pulp paper with stiff red wraps. Over the next several years the name and cover color changed several times, including the People's Pocket Series, the Appeal Pocket Series, the Ten Cent Pocket Series, the Five Cent Pocket Series, and finally Little Blue Books in 1923. The price remained at five cents per copy for many years and the Little Blue Book name stuck.

Little Blue Books attempted to provide a "University in Print" for the working class. Many notable authors began their careers in the Haldeman-Julius stable. Many other noteworthy works by the more famous appeared in these booklets for the first time. The subjects covered everything from literature and fine art to basic language and math skills, home improvement, mental improvement, history, and social issues such as abortion, racial issues, religious issues, the KKK, evolution, etc. The series provides truly significant peek at cultural standards in the first half of the 20th century.

Some of the titles are available on my website:

While I have hundreds more available but as yet unlisted. (Just inquire if you have particular needs!)


Sometimes a telephone call is so oblique, I wonder if the caller and I live on different planets – or perhaps just different planes!

Me: “The Prints and The Paper.”
She: “Yeah – I found….I see….I…um…..It says here you have RARE BOOKS?”
[warning alarms…..]
Me: “Well, I do sell USED and rare books.”
She: “Right. So you have RARE BOOKS?”
Me (reluctantly): “Well, I have some….”
She: “I have this book…..”
[LOUD warning alarm….]
She: “I’m trying to find out….like, why this is a RARE BOOK.’
Me: (feeling a bit lost): “Well – uh – what book is it.”
She, proudly: “It’s LITTLE BLUE BOOK!”
[oh dear oh dear oh…….]
Me: “uh, well – which one is it?”
Me: “Well, there are a couple of thousand Little Blue Books. Most of them aren’t worth much – I have hundreds I would sell for $1 apiece. So what title is yours?”
She; “I TOLD you! LITTLE BLUE BOOK. You mean it’s only worth a dollar? How can a RARE BOOK be worth a dollar? And you have hundreds of it?”

Me: (I spend considerable time trying to explain that there are many authors, many titles….some are scarce and worth a little money, most are not….there are some collectors, but not many….I keep trying to determine what she has and/or what her question is….)

She: “Well I saw this book you have for $8. It’s the LITTLE BLUE BOOK so I’m trying to figure out why a rare book is $8.”

I’m not too sure how the conversation finally ended – I was pretty confused by then and I remember only that she was rather hostile and ended our discussion abruptly.

I’d like to ask “what’s next?” but I’m afraid I’ll find out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Well, probably “whatever,” but this morning I received a telephone call from someone in the UK who is working on a TV program about “interesting things” and they were researching ephemera, particularly aviation ephemera. Of course the questions were mostly ingenuous – who buys it? What is significant? and so on, but I managed to give her a small portrait of some aspects of aviation ephemera and collecting, some insights into who collects it and why, and suggest a few more contacts for her to pursue.

She had, of course, called me because of a piece that I have listed online, which is really ephemeral and probably unique, and will take just the right person to discover and purchase it…a Qantas airline trip log that was signed by most of the crew.

Airline ephemera is collectible – partly because of nostalgia for “the way it was.” Remember when you received a whole packet full of souvenir items when you boarded a plane? Brochures, postcards, stickers, maps, “wings” for the kids, luggage tags, chewing gum, and what-all? Heck, remember when you could count on a full meal, usually with several choices, beverages being served constantly – or even just going to the gate to board without all the scanning and delays? Of course we miss those days!
In my experience, there are a thousand and one reasons for collecting anything, and the next person who purchase aviation ephemera from me will have reason 1002. That’s why I love it!

Here are links to my listings for these items on The Prints & The Paper. I can't seem to get them to publish as clickable links, but if you're interested I guess you can copy/paste them into an the address line:

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Coming Back

Sometimes you can just get blindsided by Life and knocked right off the rails. Throw in some illnesses, deaths, injuries, obligations, and even house renovations and it's hard to stay on track. Getting back on track is another hurdle - I'm somewhat surprised that I could even remember how to access this blog! So this is a test run.

In spite of all the disasters we have pursued our house updating plans and seeing what we did in the last year in encouraging - new floors in main rooms upstairs and down, a new front door, a remodeled fireplace (from ugly big rough concrete brick to a plastered surface with glass tile inset and slate hearth) and freshly-painted walls. With my mother's death we gained acess to much more space in the house and so we moved Gary's den downstairs and at last I have a dining room! We have only just moved furniture into the living spaces the past couple of weeks - do not yet have many pictures on the walls or other decor in place, but it's liveable.

Well, If I have figured out how to post here again I hope to stay "regular" with some upbeat or interesting comments, notes, opinions, crotchets, announcements, observations, research, and mutterings on books, ephemera, life, the universe, and everything.