Checking In

My goal at the beginning of this blog project was to write one post a day for forty days this summer.  It’s not working.  I think I’m going to be lucky to get twenty posts written before the end of the summer.  Life and work seem to be consuming what I hoped would be writing time.

Frustrating as that is, I plan to keep working on this project.  It’s just going to take a little more time than I thought.

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Open Book

Open Book:  A person who or thing which is open to being easily understood or interpreted. Also: a person who conceals nothing; a transparent person.

Last Thursday, a colleague and I attended the Scholarly Communication Road Show, sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries and held at James Madison University.  It was one of the best workshops I have attended in a long time.

When libraries first started talking about scholarly communications (around 10 years ago), I must admit that I did not pay a great deal of attention to the conversation.  It seemed to be a topic for larger libraries to ponder, and I had plenty of other issues to keep me occupied at my small university library.  Thursday’s workshop made me wish I’d been paying more attention.  Fortunately, the speakers did a great job of bringing me up to speed.

I took away from this workshop more than I can hope to include in a single blog post.  For today, I want to ponder the idea of openness.  The idea of openness has emerged in the last five years ago, and today “open” is used in many contexts, from open source to open education.  Openness means that anyone can participate, that access is free, and that the materials can be used and repurposed with few or no restrictions.

We are seeing new models for the publication and distribution of scholarly materials develop.  The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is one of the leaders in open-access publishing in the sciences and medicine.  And there are authors who are experimenting with making their books openly accessible.

I am currently reading The Mongoliad by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, and several others.  The novel started as a serialized publication on the internet, and it was also available as a social media application for some mobile devices.  The book was created online, and has now been published as a physical book.  But it also exists as a participatory space that readers can contribute to as they read and explore.  The website reflects the world of the Mongoliad as Stephenson and his co-authors were creating it; the physical book is the fixed, definitive version of that world.  Two more books are planned in the series.  It will be interesting to watch how the virtual and physical versions of the book evolve.

This book isn’t open access in the fullest sense.  Full participation in the website requires a paid subscription, just as reading the physical book requires a purchase.  For a truly open book, see Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.   Doctorow has made this book available for free download in multiple formats under a Creative Commons license.

The Copyright clause in the US Constitution reads:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

The Founders understood that the purpose of research and creativity is to inspire more research and creativity.  With the open access movement, we are finally returning to that ideal.




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The Rabbits’ Wedding

Rabbit's WeddingObject, v.  To oppose or disapprove.

When I was 4, my godmother gave me a copy of The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams.  I loved that book.  I loved the muted colors in Williams’ illustrations — black, white, and all the shades of gray in between.  I loved the way the yellow dandelions that the rabbits pick for their wedding pop off the page.  I loved the way that Williams drew the rabbits’ fur and the range of emotions he gave their faces.

What I didn’t know back in 1958 was that my godmother had given me my first banned book!  Because The Rabbits’ Wedding tells the story of a little black rabbit that marries a little white rabbit, some people thought Williams was trying to promote interracial marriage through his book.  In Alabama, the state Senate challenged the book.  Henry Balch of the Orlando Sentinel called it an attempt to brainwash white children.

Emily Wheelock Reed, then director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division, stood up to the Montgomery White Citizen’s Council and Senator E. O. “Big Ed” Eddins and made the book available.  It was, she felt, a book children would enjoy reading.  Reed was recognized for defending the freedom to read by the American Library Association and received the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Scroll of Honor before her death in 2000.

Garth Williams was surprised by the controversy his book caused.   ”I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings.”  The book, he said, ”was not written for adults, who will not understand it because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate.”

Defending the freedom to read is one of the basic tenets of the librarian’s creed.   Those of us today who face up to challenges of books like Fifty Shades of Grey or And Tango Makes Three follow a long line of librarians who have fought to keep controversial titles on the shelf.

I’m glad my godmother got me started on the right path all those years ago.




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Lost in a Good Book

My horoscope for yesterday read:

Your love of stories isn’t an indulgence:  it’s a necessary part of your growth.  A good book will suck you in, and you’ll never be quite out of it.  It will become part of the way you see the world from now on.

I read a lot, and many of the books I read are not particularly memorable.  I often will pick up a cozy mystery by an author like M. C. Beaton or Charlaine Harris to read on a plane because I need a bit of brain candy to get me through a long flight.   These books aren’t going to challenge my brain, and if I lose my place when I nod off for a quick nap, it doesn’t really matter.  Their plots are predictable, and if, as often happens, I pick up one I’ve already read, I can read it again with pleasure because I’ve probably forgotten most of the details.

The rarer treat is when I find a book that really does draw me into its pages.  I become so engrossed in the plot that I find myself thinking about it when I’m not reading.   In some cases, I’ve even found myself dreaming about them.  I want to dive into these books and read them as fast as I can.  I want to savor each nuance of the plot and characters, and I want to hurry up and find out what happens in the end.   If light mysteries are my brain candy, these books are my chocolate cake.

Cover of Kate Vaiden by Reynolds PriceOne such book for me was Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price.  I have read and re-read this book more than any other in my collection, and I was able to get Price to autograph it at a reading in Charlotte, NC.   Reynolds Price is one of my favorite authors.  He crafts a good story and sets in in rich and elegant prose.  He captures the character and characters of the South.  When I read his books, I feel like I have walked through the landscape he describes and that I have known the people he writes about.

More than anything, what I loved about Kate Vaiden was that it tells the story of a woman who isn’t afraid to live outside of the conventions of her time and culture.  Price published this book in 1986, his first novel to be published after surviving spinal cancer.  The cancer and its treatment left Price paralyzed from the waist down and in constant pain.  It also opened up creative floodgates;  Price published 26 books between 1986 and his death in January of 2011.

I read Kate Vaiden at a turning point in my life.  Newly divorced and ready to change jobs, I needed Kate as a role model.   I grabbed hold of one line from this book and used it as a lifeline as I moved forward:

“Strength just comes in one brand – you. Stand up at sunrise and meet what they send you and keep your hair combed.”

That advice and a good book will get me through just about any situation.


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Doing Things with Books

I would like you to think that I am the kind of person who regularly reads journals like The Literary Review.  I’m not, but I would still like you to think that about me, so today I’m going to link you to a review in the June 2012 issue.  In this article, John Sutherland reviews the book How to Do Things with Books in Victorian England, by Leah Price, professor of English and chair of the History and Literature program at Harvard.  I’ve ordered Price’s book, and I’ll tell you more about it when it arrives.

What struck me in Sutherland’s review was this paragraph:

If, as I have often enough, you teach a seminar in which the students, among their number, have six different editions of Middlemarch, they may be said to be studying the same text, but are they reading the same book? Does the difference matter? To pose the question historically: was a Victorian reading to his family from the four-volume Blackwood 1874 Middlemarch, with its emblazoned binding, generous leading, heavy rag paper, and loose typography, engaged in the same activity as the undergraduate reading the budget-priced, annotated, 10-on-12-point type, Penguin Classic paperback for an upcoming exam?

In one sense, all readers of Middlemarch are reading the same book.  For the most part, the text of Eliot’s novel will be the same from one edition to the next.  Dorothea Brooke’s story remains the same, whether printed on paper or displayed on the screen of a Kindle.

Five editions of Middlemarch

Middlemarch x 5

Still, the experience of reading Middlemarch is going to be different from edition to edition.  I did a quick check of my library’s shelves and found 5 editions of Middlemarch on the shelf.  (We also have a set of Eliot’s complete works, but I didn’t include these in my mini-experiment.)  In addition, Middlemarch is available as an electronic book.

For the purposes of comparison, I tried to look at the same content in each of these versions.  In the 1965 Penguin English Library edition, this was page 485.  The Penguin edition is a paperback, and the pages have started to turn brown due to the acidic content of the paper.  In a few more years, we will probably end up discarding this edition because of its condition.

Everyman edition of Middlemarch

Everyman edition of Middlemarch

Just down the shelf is the 1991 Everyman’s Library edition, printed in 1991.  This book is much more substantial than the Penguin edition.  The paper quality is good, and the binding is attractive.  Being a hardback edition, it has a nice heft to it that says, “Here is a book of substance.”

On opening the volume, one difference from the Penguin edition is that there is no page 485!  Instead, the Everyman edition follows the original page numbering used in Eliot’s first edition.  Each of the eight books that make up the total of Middlemarch is numbered separately.  The page that has the same text as page 485 in the Penguin edition is page 69 in Book  V:  The Dead Hand.  Like many novels from that time, Middlemarch was published serially.

Of course, this would be confusing if two or more readers were trying to discuss fine points of the book using these two editions, and that is one reason university professors will require students to use a common edition in a class.  For the individual reader, however, the difference in numbering schemes would not be particularly important to the reading experience.

If I wanted to read Middlemarch, I would opt for the fifth of these five editions, the Norton Critical Edition, published in 2000.  Like the Penguin edition, this is a paperback, making it comfortably light weight.  The paper quality, however, is better, and I won’t have to worry about brittle pages cracking as I read them.  In addition, the Norton addition includes explanatory footnotes to help a 21st century reader understand Victorian England.  It’s nice to know, for example, that “galligaskins” are long, loose breeches worn by young boys, without having to stop my reading to consult the OED.

One thing I noticed in thumbing through all 5 editions on the library shelves is that all 5 use a small typeface, and the page margins are somewhat narrow.   This, combined with the prose style of a Victorian author, makes for a printed page that is dense with type.  My presbyopic eyes find small type increasingly difficult, and I seem to prefer printed pages with a little more white space around the type.  Is this just a result of old age, or has reading text on the screen changed the way I look at type?  Have typesetting conventions shifted over time, thus changing the reading experience?

Topics to ponder another day…..

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Something fishy

Today is proving to be too hectic for a thoughtful blog post, so instead, here’s an example of an interesting piece of book art.  This piece was created by Matt Duke while he was a student at the University of Montevallo.  The fish is swimming in a plexiglass container, and the book fits snugly over that.

Beta fish in a book









Matt would slide the book off the plexiglass contained to feed the fish and to change its water.

Fish swimming in a book

Isabelle the fish

The fish was named Isabelle.  She became something of a library mascot while she was on display.

Using books in art is a topic to be explored more fully in the future.

(Photos courtesy of Carmichael Library, University of Montevallo, Montevallo, AL.)


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The Object of Desire

Book:  The total of charges that can be made against an accused person. Phr. to throw the book at (a person): to accuse of all the possible crimes; to award the maximum penalty. So to get or do the book (U.S. slang), to suffer the maximum penalty.

Object:  A person or thing to which a specified action, thought, or feeling is directed; the person or thing to which something is done, or on which something acts or operates. Usu. with of or a possessive.

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, explores the case of a John Gilkey, the man referred to in the title.  Gilkey  used stolen credit card numbers to purchase books from various rare book dealers across the country.   Gilkey didn’t steal books in order to re-sell them for cash.  He stole them because he wanted to own them.   He wanted to own them because he wanted to feel, “grand, regal, live royalty, rich cultured.”  Owning books, particularly owning rare books, to Gilkey, would bring him the admiration of others.

Book theft is as old as books themselves.   I imagine the librarians at the Ancient Library of Alexandria worried that some visiting scholar would make off with one of the Homeric scrolls in their collection.  Medieval libraries chained books to the shelves to keep them from wandering away.  (In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, library books are chained to the shelves to keep them from attacking the readers, but that’s a topic for another day.)   Almost all libraries today have some sort of book detection system that we hope will catch people who, as we say, “must have forgotten to check something out.”

Until I read Bartlett’s book, I tended to think that book thieves stole for monetary gain.  As an academic librarian, I have encountered a few student thieves who stole because they thought having a book would somehow give them an advantage in a class, but who didn’t want to bother to check it out legally.   John Gilkey’s case showed me that some book thieves, like Gilkey, steal because they love books to the point of obsession.  They, like Gilkey, love books too much.

Gilkey served time for some of his thefts, but only a few of the books he stole were ever recovered.  Many book thieves are never caught.   Perhaps it’s time for libraries to bring back the medieval tradition of the Anathema, a curse written on the book by the scribe who copied it.  A popular one is reputed to be from the Monastery of  San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.

 John Gilkey stole books because he thought owning them would make him seem smart.  Owning books won’t make you smarter.  Reading books will.

(Definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, online edition.)

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Welcome to Book/Object

This new blog is really a challenge to myself.  Can I write 40 little essays on books?  It’s a way for me to delve into the question of what makes a book a book.  Is it the content or the physical object that we bibliophiles love so much?

I plan to use the definitions of Book and Object from the Oxford English Dictionary as the jumping-off place for each day’s musings.  The Oxford English Dictionary is, by far, my favorite reference book, and I love the online version just as much as I love the print.  When I was an undergraduate student, a literature professor required us to consult the OED to see how the understandings of words in poems we were studying had changed over time.

The poem I was researching was Dylan Thomas’ “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” and one of the words I chose to investigate was “fuse.”  The only time I can remember asking a reference librarian for assistance during my undergraduate years (if I’d only known!) was when I went to the University of Georgia’s main library to find the OED.  She showed me the rows of volumes, and I sat down with them, looked up “fuse,” and got lost tracing etymologies and definitions and uses.  I fell in love with the OED that day, and that love has deepened as the OED has moved into electronic form.

The creation of the OED is itself a marvelous story.  There’s a brief version on the OED website, and several books have been written about it.  Two that are available in the UMW Libraries are:

Caught in the Web of Words:  James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, by K. M Elisabeth Murray.  (PE64.M8 M78 ).

The Professor and the Madman:  A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.  (PE1617.O94 W56 1998).

So — 40 posts in 40 working days.  There’s a biblical ring to that.  With the help of the OED, I think I’m up to the challenge.



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