Margaret Atwood on what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the age of Trump

From the New York Times: Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.

Back in 1984, the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew. [continue]

Aratea: Making pictures with words in the 9th century

If illustrations from a 9th-century manuscript sound like something you’d like to see, this will ring your chimes. From the Public Domain Review: Making pictures with words in the 9th century.

While popularised by Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful Calligrammes from 1918, the art of making images through the novel arrangement of words upon the page can be traced back many centuries. Some of the earliest examples of these “calligrams” are to be found in a marvellous 9th-century manuscript known as the Aratea.

Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from HyginusAstronomica. The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page, and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words or images would make full sense without the other there to complete the scene. Also, note the red dots on each picture: these show where the stars appear in the sky. [continue, see illustrations]

For the Edwardians, bookplates were as rebellious as modern day tattoos

From The Conversation: For the Edwardians, bookplates were as rebellious as modern day tattoos.

For countless young people, and even the odd deeply defiant older person, tattoos are the ultimate way to express your identity.

Go back just over 100 years, however, and revealing your personality to the world was a very different matter. Though tattoos and intimate piercings were had by people at all levels of society – even King Edward’s son, George V, was said to have had a tattoo during his time in the Royal Navy – the slightly more conservative Edwardians turned to something very different: bookplates.

The small decorative labels used to denote book ownership which date back to the 1500s, became hugely popular across the Western world at start of the 1900s, fading into obscurity just before World War I. But they offer a fascinating insight into the people who used them. [continue]

Trespassing in Christina’s World

From the New York Times: Trespassing in Christina’s World.

We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplused. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.

My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive. [continue].

Library Hand

How cool is this? From Atlas Obscura: Library Hand, the Fastidiously Neat Penmanship Style Made for Card Catalogs.

In September 1885, a bunch of librarians spent four days holed up in scenic Lake George, just over 200 miles north of New York City. In the presence of such library-world luminaries as Melvil Dewey—the well-organized chap whose Dewey Decimal System keeps shelves orderly to this day—they discussed a range of issues, from the significance of the term “bookworm” to the question of whether libraries ought to have a separate reference-room for ladies.

They then turned their attention to another crucial issue: handwriting. As libraries acquired more books, card catalogs needed to expand fast in order to keep track of them. Though the newly invented typewriter was beginning to take hold, it took time and effort to teach the art of “machine writing.” Librarians still had to handwrite their catalog cards. And this was causing problems.

“The trouble in handwriting,” said Mr. James Whitney, of the Boston Public Library, “is that there is apt to be too much flourishing.” [continue]

Of course you’ll want to read the rest of the article to learn about the solution they came up with, and see the photos of the results.

Meet ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’

From the Washington Post: Meet ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’.

In front of you, a mosque built of mud and clay that served as a center of learning in the Middle Ages. Here, scholars once gathered to discuss fine points of jurisprudence and philosophy. Poets set down their verses. Artisans created beautiful manuscripts, original works as well as copies of volumes from faraway times and places.

Now turn around and take in a different scene: a sandy square, where not long ago Islamist extremists meted out severe punishments for playing music and other crimes against Sharia law. Children kick a soccer ball, the dust flies. All around you is an economically depressed, psychologically traumatized city wondering whether it has a future. (…)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” by Joshua Hammer, vividly captures the history and strangeness of this place in a fast-paced narrative that gets us behind today’s headlines of war and terror. This is part reportage and travelogue (there is a great deal of “setting off” in Land Cruisers, camels and small boats along the Niger River), part intellectual history, part geopolitical tract and part out-and-out thriller. [continue]

Linguist explains secret language of Gulliver’s Travels

From Science Daily: Linguist explains secret language of Gulliver’s Travels.

Irving N. Rothman, a professor of English literature and Jewish studies at UH, says the mystery words are, in fact, variations of Hebrew. His conclusions are published in the summer 2015 edition of Swift Studies, an annual review of scholarship on the work of novelist Jonathan Swift from the Ehrenpreis Center.

In the article, “The ‘Hnea Yahoo’ of Gulliver’s Travels and Jonathan Swift’s Hebrew Neologisms,” Rothman points out a number of clues he used to reach this conclusion. Swift, he notes, was an Anglican minister who studied Hebrew at Trinity College.

“Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726, is Swift’s best-known work, a satire on human nature, politics and the traveler’s tales popular at the time. [continue]

In more innocent days, you could write about cocks and not be misunderstood

From The Guardian: In more innocent days, you could write about cocks and not be misunderstood.

The brave and resourceful small girl in Arthur Ransome’s 1930 classic, Swallows and Amazons, is called Titty. But not, we learn, in the new film version being made by the BBC. There she will be renamed Tatty, to avoid “too many sniggers”.

It’s not the first time this indignity has befallen Titty, who was named after the traditional English fairytale, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse, in a more innocent age. (According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word “tits” only started being associated with breasts in about 1928.) She was rechristened Kitty when the story was televised by the BBC in 1963, though she re-emerged with her original name in the 1974 film adaptation, and in a later radio broadcast in 2012. [continue]

One wonders how many words have undergone a similar transformation. A few years ago The Beaver, a magazine about Canadian history, had to change its name. Remember? The NYT wrote about it: Web Filters Cause Name Change for a Magazine.

The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque

From The Public Domain Review: The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque.

At the end of the seventeenth century a new literary genre or subgenre emerged in England, one that might be characterized as the nocturnal picaresque. Its authors, who were moralists or satirists or social tourists, or all of these at the same time, and who were almost invariably male, purported to recount their episodic adventures as pedestrians patrolling the streets of the metropolis at night.

These narratives, which often provided detailed portraits of particular places, especially ones with corrupt reputations, also paid close attention to the precise times when more or less nefarious activities unfolded in the streets. As distinct from diaries, they were noctuaries (in his Dictionary of the English Language [1755], Samuel Johnson defined a “noctuary” simply as “an account of what passes at night”).1 These apparently unmediated, more or less diaristic accounts of what happened during the course of the night on the street embodied either a tragic or a comic parable of the city, depending on whether their authors intended to celebrate its nightlife or condemn it as satanic.

The nocturnal picaresque, composed more often in prose than verse, was a distinctively modern, metropolitan form that, like several other literary genres that emerged in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprised [continue]

Can reading make you happier?

We know a man who seems limited in outlook and rigid in thought. A friend’s assesment of him included her guess at how he had come to be this way: “He hasn’t read enough novels.” I think of that often, and the conversation came to mind again while reading this article from the New Yorker: Can Reading Make You Happier?

Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.” I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying). I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives. I loved John Updike’s stories about the Maples in my twenties, for example, and hate them in my thirties, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: [continue]

I loved this article.

On a personal note, it was a work of fiction that helped me forgive the man who broke my heart many years ago.

What books have had a profound impact on you?

Medicine’s hidden roots in an ancient manuscript

From the New York Times: Medicine’s Hidden Roots in an Ancient Manuscript.

The first time Grigory Kessel held the ancient manuscript, its animal-hide pages more than 1,000 years old, it seemed oddly familiar.

A Syriac scholar at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, Dr. Kessel was sitting in the library of the manuscript’s owner, a wealthy collector of rare scientific material in Baltimore. At that moment, Dr. Kessel realized that just three weeks earlier, in a library at Harvard University, he had seen a single orphaned page that was too similar to these pages to be coincidence.

The manuscript he held contained a hidden translation of an ancient, influential medical text by Galen of Pergamon, a Greco-Roman physician and philosopher who died in 200 A.D. It was missing pages and Dr. Kessel was suddenly convinced one of them was in Boston.

Dr. Kessel’s realization in February 2013 marked the beginning of a global hunt for the other lost leaves, a search that culminated in May with the digitization of the final rediscovered page in Paris. [continue]

I love it when a story relates to so many of my interests. (History, books, medicine, old manuscripts, digitization, Vatican library… and on and on!)

The dance of death

From Wikipedia: Danse Macabre.

Dance of Death, also variously called Danse Macabre (French), Danza Macabra (Italian) or Totentanz (German), is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death unites all. La Danse Macabre consists of the personified death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave — typically with an emperor, king, youngster, beautiful girl, all skeletal. They were produced to remind people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life were.1 Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts; the earliest artistic examples are in a cemetery in Paris from 1424. [continue]

Oh, and you wouldn’t want to miss Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death Alphabet.

Library to share 14th-century royal cookbook online

Now this is the kind of thing that makes the Internet worthwhile. From the Guardian: Library to share 14th-century royal cookbook online.

A rare medieval cookbook is to be digitally photographed page by page and the results uploaded to the internet for gourmands around the globe to study.

Forme of Cury, a recipe book compiled by King Richard II’s master cooks in 1390, details around 205 dishes cooked in the royal household and sheds light on a little-studied element of life in the Dark Ages.

Written in Middle English, it contains the instructions for creating long-forgotten dishes such as blank mang (a sweet dish of meat, milk, sugar and almonds), mortrews (ground and spiced pork), and the original quiche, known in 14th century kitchens as custard. [continue, see photo]

I will probably dream of this all night, and wake up tomorrow obsessing about the book.

British Library acquires Dering Roll

From 24 Hour Museum: British Library acquires Dering Roll – A who’s who of Medieval arms.

The British Library has acquired the UK’s oldest known heraldic medieval manuscript following a successful fundraising campaign.

The Dering Roll, a painted register bearing medieval coats of arms from the last quarter of the 13th Century, represents a fascinating ‘Who’s Who’ of medieval knights.

Focussing on knights from Kent and Sussex and produced in South East England between 1270-1280, probably in Dover, it is thought the roll was commissioned by Stephen of Penchester, the Constable at Dover Castle from 1268 to 1299.

It tells a fascinating story of [continue, see photo]

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The secret code of diaries

From the BBC: The secret code of diaries.

The 300,000-word journal of Charles Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist movement, which was written in an obscure shorthand, has been solved and the diary transcribed. It has taken nine years.

It appears that the shorthand was used not for speed, but for security. What was so important that it required the secrecy of a complex code?

(They tell you later on in the article.)

Wesley’s is not the only diary that has used a code, however, with everyone from Beatrix Potter to British prisoners of war using their secret diaries to express feelings that no-one else was meant to understand. [continue]

This kind of stuff fascinates me, partly because I’ve thought up a secret code system of my own, which I think would be awfully difficult for somebody to decode. Maybe one day I’ll develop it.

Israel to make Dead Sea Scrolls available online

From The Guardian: From papyrus to cyberspace: Israel to make Dead Sea Scrolls available online.

Scientists and scholars in Jerusalem have begun a programme to take the first high-resolution, digital photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls so they can be made available to the public on the internet.

The Israel Antiquities Authority this week ends a pilot project that prepares the way for a much larger operation to photograph the 15-20,000 fragments that make up the 900 scrolls which were discovered 60 years ago by shepherds in caves close to the Dead Sea. (…)

Now, in a project that could take five years and will cost millions of dollars, the fragments will be photographed first by a 39-megapixel colour digital camera, then by another digital camera in infra-red light and finally some will be photographed using a sophisticated multi-spectral imaging camera, which can distinguish the ink from the parchment and papyrus on which the scrolls were written.

Eventually all the fragments will be available to view online, with [continue]

CAPTCHAs work—for digitizing old, damaged texts, manuscripts

From Ars Technica: CAPTCHAs work—for digitizing old, damaged texts, manuscripts.

Over the course of history, humanity has suffered some horrifying damage to our collective cultural legacy in the form of books and other text lost to accident or neglect. The digitalization of text holds out the promise of permanently preserving the written word in an archive that can be distributed widely and kept safe from accidental damage. This presents archivists with a challenge: the works that are most in need of preservation are likely to already be damaged or distorted, making the use of automated scanning and text processing less likely to succeed. Researchers are now reporting on a successful way to identify the words that computers can’t handle: turn them into CAPTCHAs, and get people to do the work.

For those who haven’t heard the term, CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. In practical terms, a CAPTCHA takes the form of a string of characters subjected to distortions that make it difficult for computerized character recognition to identify them. Humans, who have a visual recognition capacity that vastly outperforms even the best computers, generally do pretty well in identifying these distorted characters. That has made the CAPTCHA a useful tool (although the bad guys are catching up) for keeping spam bots from harvesting e-mail addresses or posting spam-filled messages to public forums.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon noticed a while back that [continue]

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In search of Western civilisation’s lost classics

From The Australian: In search of Western civilisation’s lost classics.

Stored in a sky-lit reading room on the top floor of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples are the charred remains of the only library to survive from classical antiquity. The ancient world’s other great book collections — at Athens, Alexandria and Rome — all perished in the chaos of the centuries. But the library of the Villa of the Papyri was conserved, paradoxically, by an act of destruction.

Lying to the northwest of ancient Herculaneum, this sumptuous seaside mansion was buried beneath 30m of petrified volcanic mud during the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24, AD79. Antiquities hunters in the mid-18th century sunk shafts and dug tunnels around Herculaneum and found the villa, surfacing with a magnificent booty of bronzes and marbles. Most of these, including a svelte seated Hermes modelled in the manner of Lyssipus, now grace the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

The excavators also found what they took to be chunks of coal deep inside the villa, and set them alight to illuminate their passage underground. Only when they noticed how many torches had solidified around an umbilicus — a core of wood or bone to which the roll was attached — did the true nature of the find become apparent. Here was a trove of ancient texts, carbonised by the heat surge of the eruption. About 1800 were eventually retrieved.

A cluster of the villa’s papyrus scrolls, in much the same state as they were found 250 years ago, lies in a display case [continue]

The gospel of Judas: mistranslated?

Last December you read about the controversy regarding the translation of the gospel of Judas. Were there serious errors in the translation? Here’s more on that story from The Chronicle: The Betrayal of Judas: Did a ‘dream team’ of biblical scholars mislead millions?

When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world — with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic’s cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel’s history, behind only a documentary on September 11.

But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn’t see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. Those early voices of dissent have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic’s handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice. It’s a perfect example, critics argue, of what can happen when commercial considerations are allowed to ride roughshod over careful research. What’s more, the controversy has strained friendships in this small community of religion scholars — causing some on both sides of the argument to feel, in a word, betrayed. [continue]

Vinegar Bible returns to Nova Scotia

From thestar.com: With a little bit of vinegar, rare Bible returns to N.S..

Richard Luckett knew he had a problem when a water pipe burst in his college room where 10,000 books – some dating back 400 years – lined the walls from one end to the other.

"Water is the worst possible thing for books," he said in telephone interview late last week from the historic Pepys Library of Magdalene College in Cambridge, England, where Luckett is the librarian.

But in a strange twist of fate, that disaster more than 20 years ago which damaged several books means a nearly 300-year-old Bible is returning home to the fishing hamlet of Lunenburg, N.S.

Among the books damaged that day was a Bible John Baskett printed for King George III. [continue]

(Link found at Rare Book News)

Found at last: the world’s oldest missing page

From The Independent: Found at last: the world’s oldest missing page.

A year after the Romans packed up their shields in AD410 and left Britain to the mercy of the Anglo-Saxons, a scribe in Edessa, in what is modern day Turkey, was preparing a list of martyrs who had perished in defence of the relatively new Christian faith in Persia.

In a margin he dated the list November 411. Unfortunately for the martyrs, history forgot them. At some point, this page became detached from the book it belonged to. Since 1840, the volume has been one of the treasures of the British Library. It is known only by its catalogue code: ADD 12-150.

The missing page has always been a fascinating mystery for scholars and historians. Now, after an extraordinary piece of detective work, that page has been rediscovered among ancient fragments in the Deir al-Surian monastery in Egypt. It is, according to Oxford University’s Dr Sebastian Brock, the leading Syriac scholar who identified the fragments, the oldest dated Christian text in existence. [continue, see photos]

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In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts

From csmonitor.com: In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts.

Abdel Kader Haidara carefully picks up one of a dozen small leather-bound books lying on his desk and leafs through the age-weathered pages covered in Arabic calligraphy.

This tiny book is centuries old and one of more than 100,000 manuscripts that can be found on shelves and in boxes in Timbuktu, the ancient Malian city of mud-brick walls nestled between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert.

"The manuscripts are our heritage," says the curator of the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library, the largest of more than 20 private libraries in the city. "They have been passed from generation to generation. They are the history of Africa, the history of mankind."

But if not for an $8 million donation from South Africa, this history might have been lost forever.

The manuscripts in Arabic and African languages cover almost every conceivable subject from [continue]

The Lost Archive

From the Wall Street Journal: The Lost Archive.

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God’s word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars — and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave. [continue]

Real Scrooge ‘was Dutch gravedigger’

From The Telegraph: Real Scrooge ‘was Dutch gravedigger’.

He is synonymous with the traditional image of the Victorian English Christmas but Ebenezer Scrooge may have his roots much further afield.

According to Sjef de Jong, a Dutch academic, the Charles Dickens character may have been inspired by the real life of Gabriel de Graaf, a 19th century gravedigger who lived in Holland.

De Graaf, a drunken curmudgeon obsessed with money, was said to have disappeared one Christmas Eve, only to emerge years later as a reformed character. [continue]