How Books Were Made

A 19th Century dictionary may be the new Rolex.

In the same way that people value fantastically complex mechanical watches ever more as electronic watches get cheaper, people may well come to value expensive hand-made books even as bookstores vanish, shelves get dumped into landfills, and reading becomes a wholly digital experience. The pick-up line of the future may be “would you like to come up to my apartment and see my … book?”

Via Neatorama I learned about Johnny Carrera, the owner of Quercus Press, a printer in Waltham, Massachusetts. That puts Quercus more or less in my back yard, which makes them pretty cool already as far as I’m concerned. Even better, Quercus has published the Pictorial Webster’s, which consists of all the illustrations from the 1859, 1864, and 1890 editions of Webster’s dictionary. Sure, you can buy the Trade Edition for $35, but Good Heavens! wouldn’t you be the man about town with your own hand-tooled Full Leather Goat Binding edition. All yours for $3500.

There’s a great story about how the project came about. Nothing makes me salivate like tasty jargon, and sentences like this just suck me in:

While I was repairing the paper, re-lining the spine, and backing it with an extended alum tawed lining which I used to attach new split boards, and covering the book with alum-tawed goat, a classmate showed me an article about the Merriam-Webster Co.

Alum-tawed goat! This is a man who owns a working 1938 Model 8 linotype machine. And knows how to use it. Now watch this movie, and be sure to at least watch the old Model 8 chugging away at around 1:40. It’s thrilling. It’s horrifying. This is the way the world used to work!

Pictorial Webster’s: Inspiration to Completion from John Carrera on Vimeo.

“Hey, babe, want to come up to my apartment and take a look at my Full Leather Goat Binding?”

Good Calories, Bad Calories

Aristotle observed that an object falls at a rate that is proportional to its weight. Heavy objects fall quickly, and light objects fall more slowly. Makes sense, right? For hundreds of years Aristotle’s word on this was so widely accepted as truth that there was simply no point in performing an experiment to verify or contradict it. Why bother? It was enough to say Ipse dixit, literally “he said it.” If it was good enough for the old man, it’s good enough for me. It took the righteous and contrary Galileo to proclaim what anyone who bothered could see: Look here! I drop a grape and an orange together and they fall at the same rate. This man Aristotle is either a fool or a liar.

When we look back at this episode, Galileo is always our friend. We sit next to him on the bench and chuckle. Grinning and pointing at the Aristotelian dopes, we ask him: How can all those people be so stupid?

Galileo is right not to be so impressed with us. Now as then, it happens all the time.

To choose a more recent example, why are Americans getting so fat? The answer is obvious. We’re rich, lazy, and overfed. Case closed. But the data doesn’t support the story. Exercise and caloric intake don’t correlate with weight gain. And perversely, sometimes malnutrition, poverty, and obesity appear to be best friends. What’s going on? Science writer Gary Taubes has taken on this important subject in his book Good Calories Bad Calories. Here’s a lecture of him talking about his book.

My brother Paul is an endocrinologist who is especially taken with the book. He talks about it all the time. He talks about it so much that I asked if he’d be willing to write about the book and why it matters. Happily, he agreed, and here is the result…

Continue reading “Good Calories, Bad Calories”

Alan’s favorite graphic novels

English teacher (and Star Chamber Correspondent) Alan Kennedy writes to tell us about a new book recommendation site his brother-in-law is building called Flashlight Worthy. With lots of hand-picked book lists and reviews, it’s a sort of annex and way station to Amazon.

For our purposes here, one of the fun things about it is Alan’s list called The Best Graphic Novels. I didn’t know Alan was a fan of graphic novels, but I see he’s picked some of my all-time favorites too. American Born Chinese was a recent lucky find for me, and was part of my omnivorous search for a better understanding of the crashing surf between Chinese and American cultures.

I was thinking of adding a list on books about numbers: pi, e, i, phi, zero, infinity, and one. But I’ve only read two of those so far, and at any rate, Flashlight Worth is still in beta, so it doesn’t support automated book list creation yet. But it looks like a fun place. Check it out.

Next up for H. sapiens: Building the big bug

I recently finished Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade, a book about the evolution of the human race which I happily recommend.

Studying the history of human development has typically drawn on things buried in the dirt: paleontological/biological artifacts like the fossilized bones in Olduvai Gorge for one example, and archaeological/cultural artifacts like the ruins of Nineveh and Route 66 for another. The problem is that stuff comes out of the dirt… very… slowly, putting a real damper on our ability to learn quickly. Wade’s book focuses on a new kind of ore, which is the living information buried in our genes and in our languages. Genetic data in particular is a fabulous gold mine for those trying to work out our past.

Surprisingly, it’s not just human DNA that’s useful. It’s possible, for instance, to work out approximately when humans started wearing clothes by genetically dating when human lice split into head-dwelling species and clothes-dwelling species. Clever! And we’re starting to get a remarkably accurate story of how humans migrated out of Africa and populated the world.

Happily, Wade is not the least bit gun-shy in talking about evidence of evolution currently under way in humans. There is good evidence that our behavior is pacifying with remarkable speed owing to the powerful adaptive advantages of law-abiding socialization. But just as evolution selects for the important, so it forgets the unimportant. Sadly, we’re shedding our sense of smell with alarming speed. A good nose makes your dinner taste good, but it’s not especially selected for. Rats can synthesize their own vitamin C, but humans lost that ability long ago. As long as you take your Flintstones vitamins, who needs to synthesize the stuff?

Obviously this all leads to the big question: what’s next? Wade doesn’t speculate much, but I will. It seems clear that modern medicine is going to allow our onboard health maintenance to get weaker and weaker. Just to pick one example: accurate, timely vaccines mean our native robustness won’t be put to the test, and that which isn’t selected for drops away. This may appear disturbing, but really what we’re doing is evolving an outboard immune system. We are offloading many heretofore intrinsic biological tasks to the next level of abstraction: the community.

This includes the outboard brain. Networks are the nervous systems for the big bug, the communal organism that we are becoming. Just as individual cells had to make some dramatic accommodations in order to form multicellular organisms, our native behaviors will be ever more conducive to hive action. We’ll sure have to get rid of all the errant terrorism genes before we can manage long term space colonies. It only takes one crazy person to wipe out a space village.

Strange machines and Wunderkammern

Quick: which is more important? Reason or wonder?

Don’t tell me you need more information… just answer the question. Which is more important? And which is more powerful? They clearly have a tangled relationship. Science fiction authors and scientists are always quoting each other. Arthur C. Clarke, quoting himself, famously conflated magic and technology: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I just finished reading a gift from my sister-in-law, an odd little book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. Actually, the book isn’t so odd… it’s the book’s topic that is odd: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. The cabinet of wonder is the museum, a bizarre and disordered little museum on a nondescript street in Los Angeles. But the more nonsense you read about it, the more sense it all makes. Wonder is the fountainhead of reason.

Wunderkammern, or rooms of wonder, were the sixteenth century predecessors of museums. In modern terms, they were eccentric collections of tchotchkes and oddities from the natural world thrown together with, ideally, a sense of style.

Like this: Athanasius Kircher takes us from here to here, where we learn about these and this which eventually takes us to Arthur Ganson’s Machines (make sure you watch Wishbone Man walking, that tiny tireless Sisyphus). And from Wishbone Man it is a short stroll to here.

The U.S. Navy in WWII

The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War

The amount of activity undertaken by the U.S. military in World War II is truly staggering to contemplate. Germany had to fight on both eastern and western fronts, but America fought on eastern and western fronts each separated by thousands of miles of ocean from the homeland. This meant mastery of the seas was imperative. Morison managed to talk President Roosevelt into giving him, as a working historian, a naval officer’s commission and assignment to various warships throughout the conflict. His book does a thorough job sketching out the scope and drama of U.S. naval operations in the war, and since he was literally on the scene at the time, he adds a welcome journalistic touch from time to time. For instance, he tells us that nobody in the service called Admiral William Halsey “Bull” Halsey. It was just Bill. Now you know.

Confederates in the Attic

I’m reading a book called Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz.

Its subtitle is “Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” and in it the author travels through the modern South talking to people about the Civil War, what they know of it and what it means to them. Horwitz, who spent years as a war correspondent in places like Bosnia and Iraq, is surprised to find so many people (eccentric and otherwise) who are intensely passionate about that ancient conflict. They aren’t interested in seceding anymore so much as they are interested in remembering and romanticizing the Lost Cause of the Old South. I admit I’m a sucker for Civil War books, but this is a great read.

I am a Southerner, and I’m glad the South lost that war. It fought for the wrong reason and lost for the right reason.

But what a story!

It’s damn near impossible to read about the run-up to Gettysburg or Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg and not be swept up by the drama of it. And I’ll tell you one thing the South has that the North does not: we know what it means to have lost a war. And I’m not talking about any Vietnam did-we-lose-or-didn’t-we ambiguity. We were whupped fair and square, invaded, defeated, and occupied. Strangely, there is a perverse comfort in that. The South stood up for what it believed and was pinned to the floor. The burden’s off. All Southerners, eccentric and otherwise, are welcome to relax in the warm and weathered lap of humility. It makes it a little bit easier to kick back and live a life.

You want some bourbon? Drink some bourbon. You want a smoke? Light up a goddamned cigarette. A little blustery Uncle Sam is all well and good, but it helps to be able to chuckle.

The Cause is Lost, but the memory endures. I’m glad the cause lost, but I’m glad the memory endures.

This week, we are grateful to St. Frank for sharing a word with us about cigarettes and enduring memories.