Saturday, January 31, 2015

Steam-Engine Theory and Practice

William Ripper - Steam-Engine Theory and Practice (1899)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

This one is really about the pictures - since I'm not an engineer I can't read it and since I don't want a working steam engine I have no interest in doing so.  However it does serve as a sometimes useful reminder that technologies we dismiss now as simplistic and outdated were in fact fully formed and still beyond the reach of most of us today.  Anybody who's read Patrick O'Brian or Alexander Kent knows that "simple" sailing ships were actually some of the most complex machines ever built and the general idea is true of everything from saddles to printing presses.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia

Frederick Palmer - Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia (1922)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Title suggested by Jeremy G. Butler (Television Style).

A 1922 guide to writing screenplays?  If nothing else it shows how little has changed in the past 90 years, despite sound, color, widescreen and digital.  Frederick Palmer was pretty much identical to Robert McKee and his ilk, making sweeping generalizations about storytelling so that people who will never sell a screenplay will think that they can.  (Though probably no one since Palmer has referenced Schiller and Nerval in their preface.)  His Palmer Plan consisted of several small-ish books designed to tell the secrets of photoplay writing, sold by mail order and heavily advertised in magazines.  The board of advisors listed Cecil DeMille and Lois Weber.  Unlike McKee, Palmer has decent IMDB credits and from the report in one article (Advertising & Selling, August 2, 1919) that's likely just partial.  The Palmer Plan hasn't been entirely forgotten - David Bordwell has referenced it and Anne Morey included a chapter about it in Hollywood Outsiders: The Adaptation of the Film Industry, 1913-1934 (2003).

This particular volume breaks down the basic types of stories (well according to Palmer anyway) and then how they might be told.  There's a lengthy section detailing many recent films and the way they fit into that scheme.  (The Jack Ford who directed The Craving is better known now as John Ford. Though such plans always seem a little silly (and McKee even had to resort to a miscellaneous category to make his work) that's partly the nature of organizing material in a teachable way.  Stephen King's comment that to be a writer you have to read a lot and write a lot may be the only accurate path but it's not particularly useful and doesn't help with what most writing students (whether screenplays or MFA) really want to know - how do I sell what I write?

I'll have to find another Palmer book to see if he shows how silent screenplays actually looked.  For the past few decades scripts have been written to a rigid standard designed to fit a highly regulated production method but it's easy to imagine silent scripts being more open and descriptive, much like Alan Moore's comics scripts (or maybe more to the point one of the collaborative ones developed by Marvel).  It would also be interesting to know whether anybody who went through even part of the Palmer Plan ever had a produced script.  I'll see what the Anne Morey book has to say about this.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Abraham Lincoln and the London Punch

William Shepard Walsh - Abraham Lincoln and the London Punch: Cartoons, Comments and Poems, Published in the London Charivari, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) (1909)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

This fascinating work of social history examines exactly what the title says - Punch's changing views on wartime Lincoln through essays, poetry and cartoons.  It's not just a look at British attitudes (the author, an American, claims Punch was "the mouthpiece of the mob") but also how a comic publication negotiated the changes in the war from both moral and nationalist perspectives (British neutrality and debt were apparently key concerns).  Viewed purely as political satire/commentary it's interesting how much is still the same (editorial cartoons, broad humor) and how much has changed (there may be more poetry here than in a current issue of Poetry).  I do wonder how accurately this book represents Punch - the book's author is clearly critical of it and this blog's author, like most modern Americans, has never seen a full issue.  Still, as far as I can tell this is the only book that covers this topic even in part.

By the way, most cartoons (which were originally full-page sized) are by John Tenniel of Alice in Wonderland fame.  He didn't sign the earlier works but that little squiggle that looks somewhat like the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince's icon is his signature.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Swollen-Headed William

E.V. Lucas - Swollen-Headed William: Painful Stories and Funny Pictures after the German! (1914)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

One of the blog's ground rules is to avoid any prejudicial material but I just couldn't skip this bit of anti-German propaganda from the start of World War I.  It's a revised version of Heinrich Hoffman's 1845 Struwwelpeter (usually translated as Shock-Headed Peter) and if you're familiar with the original its tales of unruly children who receive disproportionately harsh punishments will seem a natural for the purpose.  In fact this was repeated again in 1941 as Struwwelhitler which isn't online but was reprinted by a German publisher recently.

E.V. Lucas was a very prolific writer in a variety of genres - essays, novels, anthologies, travel books, art criticism, humor and a book about cricket.  He edited Charles Lamb's works and spent 34 years on the staff of Punch.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Dictionary of Miracles

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer - A Dictionary of Miracles (1884)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Another one that I didn't find.  Instead an article by Neil Gaiman discussing his collaboration with Terry Pratchett mentioned they discovered a mutual interest in the reference books of E. Cobham Brewer.  Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is one of those many titles that booklovers have seen frequently and like most I'd dismissed it solely on that title.  A 19th century guide to myths and various sayings?  Yawn.

And of course I was completely wrong.  Brewer's books are enormously entertaining compendia from a well-read, obsessively detail-fixated, eccentric polymath.  About the many works in various languages he consulted for this book Brewer says "I had prepared a list, but have suppressed its publication at the last minute, fearing it may savour of vanity."  I may post about the others later (Phrase and Fable is still being updated but find an edition from around the turn of the century before Brewer was diluted) though for now A Dictionary of Miracles seems like a good start.

For one thing this is an awful lot of miracles - some 600 pages of small type.  Brewer was an Baptist reverend though he doesn't appear to have led any church (this unbelieving blogger doesn't even really know the right wording) and probably approached this project with the thought nothing should be wasted.  The sheer volume of material is pretty astonishing, at least for those of us who have rarely dipped into the vast mass of saints' lives.  (Blaise Cendrars of all people used to plow through the many, many volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina.)

Brewer's organizational principle seems odd though for all I know it's how this type of thing is usually done and in any case is certainly more useful than straight chronology.  Generally he groups the miracles of a similar nature together but often goes a step further and indicates that many are "imitative" of ones in canonical scriptures. A second section of "realistic" miracles are illustrations of Biblical material that's really not much different.  The final section are miracles that support Catholic dogma such as celibacy and festival days.

Overall Brewer is, if not a skeptic, then clear that most of these accounts are "delusions" and "deceptions".  There's certainly a bit of Protestant anti-Catholicism underlying this more than straight scientific reasoning but Brewer, trained as a lawyer rather than a historian, is overall fairly clear-headed.  Like most Protestants he's particularly dismissive of relics and can't reasonably omit them given the book's subject but frequently indicates that this time a line has been crossed.  (Page 274 has an illustration of where various parts of John the Baptist's head went - scalp to Amiens, brains to Tyron, chin to Lyonnais.)

And what an array of stories.  Some sample groups include "Head Carried After Decapitation" (a surprising number - St. Hilarian even gave his head to his mother), "Elijah Feed by Ravens" (saints fed by pigeons, mice, sparrows, eagles and bears), "Apparitions to Give Directions About Their Dead Bodies" (St. Januarius told where to find just his missing finger), "Dragons Subjected or Subdued" (many more examples than I would have thought - St. Bernard of Menthon (of the dog fame) subdued one in the Alps), "Men Like Trees" (alas only one example), "Glass and Pottery Miracles" (seems like a waste of divine power but several saints mended broken vessels).  The section on "Christ as a Child" lists some visitations but overlooks the bizarre infancy gospels (unless they're elsewhere in the book).  There are also groups of odd stories.  I'd never heard that Luke the Evangelist was by tradition considered a painter and that some of his supposed works still exist.  And the ghost of Thomas Aquinas helping a living saint onto his horse?  He didn't have anything better to do?

It's not all so amusing.  The heading "Herod and the Innocents" actually contains numerous anti-Semitic accounts of murderous Jews which seems to be more indicative of the original material than Brewer himself (who doesn't entirely disown this but does indicate doubts and in a couple of cases outright denies the stories' truth).

Admittedly A Dictionary of Miracles has more limited appeal than the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable but then it also covers less familiar material.  It's a glimpse into different ways of thinking, starkly at odds with how most people today conceive of religion and if nothing else is a vast trove of stories.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Les maitres humoristes

Caran d'Ache - Les maitres humoristes (1905)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Les maitres humoristes is actually a series of books devoted to cartoonists of the period.  I chose the d'Ache volume because his sequential illustrations are a forerunner of comics and also honestly because I can read a good bit of this one but not the others (which are more like anecdotes with an image).  There are still several wordless or minimally worded pieces so the language isn't a complete barrier.  D'Ache wrote what might be the first graphic novel (Maestro) but couldn't find anybody to risk such an odd idea so it wasn't published until almost a century after his death.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid

Oliver Byrne - The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (1847)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Another one I didn't discover - Taschen reissued it a few years ago and apparently it had a cult reputation before that.  But now you can flip through it (conceptually speaking of course) without having to buy a book that honestly we won't really read.

Byrne was a civil engineer and prolific author who developed a method of teaching Euclidean geometry using various colors.  Or maybe just coloring regular illustrations - honestly I haven't read the details but from some mathematician comments it does seem to be more a solid idea than an eccentric one.  What is definitely eccentric is to find a book in the middle of the 19th century using a long "S" which probably requires more an adjustment for readers than the coloring.

Not much is known about Byrne though his other works include a lot of what sound like routine engineering and math texts along with How to Measure the Earth with the Assistance of Railroads and Description and Use of the Byrnegraph, an instrument for multiplying, dividing and comparing lines, angles, surfaces and solids.  I can't help but think in some alternate universe he did a colored text of non-Euclidean geometry and thereby invoked Cthulhu.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Oriental Motor

The Oriental Motor (1920)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

This is one of those curiosities that's just a bit confusing.  Was the market really large enough in 1920 Shanghai for an English-language magazine about automobiles?  I can find almost no info about it - doesn't help that there's still a company called Oriental Motor which dominates web searching.  If nothing else this is an unintentional document of imperialism consisting as it does of mostly Britons (I'm assuming) with actual Chinese mostly appearing in the background (both in the photos and the text). I suspect this is more a trade journal since many articles are about production yields, prices and design improvements.  Though how can you pass up an article called "What and Where is That Thing?" (p6 of the March issue) - it's a breakdown of some engine parts.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heraldry In History, Poetry And Romance

Ellen J. Millington - Heraldry In History, Poetry And Romance (1858)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Heraldry occupies an odd position now where most of us know it means something but aren't quite sure what.  There are still guidebooks around though they seem (and here I'm wildly extrapolating from one picked up in a bargain bin a few years ago) to be heavy on the design elements and light on the history.  This isn't one of those books.  It's well illustrated but extensively covers various uses of heraldry throughout history and literature - in fact maybe more thoroughly than most people would want.  I have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing (what a contemporary review in The Gentlemen's Magazine called "antiquarian gossip") but describing the quarterings of Elizabeth I's shield in great detail may be more than I need.  Still, that's why skimming was invented.

I can't find much about the author.  She translated something by Schlegel, also a French work on Christian iconography and contributed a piece on poet Vittoria Colonna to Biographies of Good Women.

Monday, January 12, 2015

How to Make $500 Yearly Profit with 12 Hens

A.D. Corbett - How to Make $500 Yearly Profit with 12 Hens (1876)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Hey, don't ever say you never got any practical information from this blog.  Here's how artificial incubation can make you rich!  Sure the title says $500 but that was 1876 money - that's about $3.4 trillion in today's valuation!

Really this isn't quite that amusing beyond the title.  Corbett was clearly a self-promoter.  The title page announces "45 Diplomas and Medals have been awarded" (all listed in the back), he opens with a few pages of positive press clippings then starts with a discussion of his ingenuity and how he patented a device for the incubation.  Still he seems to have known his business - the entire last half of the book is a mini-textbook on chicken diseases.  Did you know they can get cholera?  Neither did I.  His remedy involves rhubarb, cayenne pepper and laudanum!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some of the Best from 2014

Edited - Some of the Best from 2014 (2014) site

Yes, this blog is about public domain books but there are sometimes more current, free-to-download books that might be of interest.  Tor lets you read some full material on their site then at the end of the year compiles some highlights in a more user-friendly format.  Stories from John Scalzi, Adam Christopher, Jo Walton,  Seanan McGuire, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nicola Griffith and others.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Brief History of Wood-Engraving from Its Invention

Joseph Cundall - A Brief History of Wood-Engraving from Its Invention (1895)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

I can't help but like titles that tell you exactly what you're getting.  Cundall, a Victorian publisher and photographer, takes the story from early saints' lives up to the 19th century, using plenty of illustrations.  There's even a couple of pages on the infamous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (currently available in a nice edition from Thames & Hudson).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Book of Ornamental Alphabets

F. Delamotte - The Book of Ornamental Alphabets, Ancient and Medieval (1914)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Engraver Delamotte released this collection of alphabets (not extensive enough to be fonts) that are decorative more than for everyday use.  There's no background information other than occasional dates but is still worth flipping through.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The File in History

Henry Disston & Sons - The File in History: Its History, Making and Uses (1920)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Yep, a history of the tool.  The file is an object so universal but so little noticed that I'd think a history would be hard to write and in fact the foreword mentions this.  This appears to have been something of a promotional item but is pretty detailed with the story running from the Stone Age to the Assyrians to medieval Germany.  Much of the modern section covers various uses and types of files, even distinguishing for those of us who didn't know rasps from files.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Calendar of Omar Khayyám

Omar Khayyám - The Calendar of Omar Khayyám (1903)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

It's a day off from being usable for 2015 but still worth flipping through since we aren't likely to remember this next year.  Each month gets a quatrain from the FitzGerald translation and an illustration by Blanche McManus (Louisiana born, Paris based and best known at the time for travel books co-written with her husband).