Monday, March 30, 2015

Literary Taste: How to Form It

Arnold Bennett - Literary Taste: How to Form It (1910)

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Another audio version!  Check the link above.

Among Bennett's journalism are a few self-help books - How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, How to Become an Author, Mental Efficiency and this work.  He takes a pretty reasonable approach, recommending, for instance, that when starting on poetry never think about metre or form, to avoid modern works at the beginning, if doing this is not "agreeable" then don't do it.  "The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one's capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, for comprehension.  It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours."

But the real reason I'm posting this is because of his book lists.  The development of canons and tastes fascinates me and I often check out older lists or anthologies to see how they've changed.  Walter Scott was once considered the pinnacle of novelists but is now only intermittently read.  The wonderful short story writer John Collier frequently made mid-20th century "best of" anthologies but is now mostly ignored.  Spenser has been in a long decline - I recently read a Virginia Woolf make the same claim in an essay over a century old now.  The changes in the reputations of Melville, Faulkner, Orwell, Defoe, the metaphysical poets and many others are well known.  In fact Arnold Bennett himself would be one example.

Bennett divides his list of recommendations into three periods, excluding works not originally in English (with some exceptions) and works of mainly historical value.  He's admirably broad, stating "literature is the vehicle of philosophy, science, morals, religion, and history" - an idea most modern interdisciplinary advocates say but rarely do.

The prose writers of the first period include several that are still read such as Malory, Bacon, Hobbes, Bunyan, Pepys, Browne (or at least I've read all those--though admittedly not all of Pepys--and see them mentioned enough that most likely others have as well) and many that are known but little-read such as George Cavendish, John Evelyn, Richard Hakluyt and William Temple.  The one completely unfamiliar to me is Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Autobiography but I'm not sure why it's mentioned - most of what I found talks about the author's theological works, apparently still on the Catholic Church's Index.  Nearly all the first period poets are still familiar except maybe Robert Greene (primarily remembered for his attack on Shakespeare rather than his own work) or Philip Massinger.

I won't go through the other periods this way except to note a few subjects for further research because what better way to increase web hits than mentioning writers nobody is searching for?  So Bennett lists such current obscurities as William Law, James Morier, G.J. Whyte-Melville, Mary Russell Mitford, Alexander Smith and T.E. Brown ("a great poet, recognised as such by a few hundred people, and assuredly destined to a far wider fame" - oops).  Bennett does list some "justifiably" omitted writers that include Oscar Wilde.

Frank Swinnerton released a revised edition of the book in 1937 (Bennett had died six years earlier) and he included a fourth period that went up to 1935 allowing it to include Conrad, Woolf, Waugh, Wodehouse, Forster and surprisingly Oliver Onions, now mainly remembered for his ghost stories.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Companion to the Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture

Matthew Holbeche Bloxam - Companion to the Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture (1882)

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As you may have gathered I have a weakness for many types of older scholarship even if, as in this case, I don't have much interest in the subject.  This book's wonderful title, though, hides something even more specific - the book is entirely about vestments from the period of Edward VI as seen in church and other religious decoration.  Since the author starts immediately on the topic with no introduction I'm not sure if there's any particular reason for selecting it - maybe personal leanings, maybe attempting to reconstruct what was lost during the dissolution of the churches, maybe there was just a lot of material.  (By the way, the book that this companions can also be found on Open Library.)  In any case good for that antiquarian itch even if you're not an architectural or Church historian.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ladies' Manual of Art

Ladies' Manual of Art (1887)

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A guide to all types of decorative art and crafts (their idea of ladies' art) that starts with rudiments of drawing and goes to move involved forms such as stained glass, oil color landscapes, paper-flower making.  It's interesting to see crafts that no longer exist or more likely have been mechanized so much that nobody does them by hand - Pearl Embroidery on Velvet, Vitrimanie, Wax Art, China Painting.  The book doesn't hesitate to include photography and even taxidermy!  Not many craft manuals today would explain how to preserve insects and certainly not intestinal worms (p279).

As you can see from the second illustration below it's generally on such an introductory level that I'm not sure the instructions would help anybody learn anything.  Who could possibly figure out how to draw from being shown the idea of perspective?  The previous pages even explained what a circle is.  I don't think this is entirely due to it being aimed at the "Ladies" in the title since the introduction says this is also intended to teach children.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading

Mary Olmstead Stanton - The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading (1889)

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When starting this blog I expected to include more crank/kook works but they've been sparse in the digital library (though the rest of the digital world is overrun with them).  My suspicion is that digitized books are drawn from libraries who tended to either not collect this material or to have purged it over the years.  And there might not just been too many printed during this public-domain time.  Sure, there's a fair amount of spiritualist and Theosophical material but that seems quaint today if not outright dreary and hardly worth the trouble.

The Encyclopædia of Face and Form Reading is full-blown kook territory, maybe not as amusing as elaborate Illuminati conspiracies or cryptozoological fantasies but it has all the marks of somebody gripped in an obsession.  For one thing it's 1200 pages of dense, small type.  Stanton is certain about physiognomy, the idea that a person's outside appearance indicates their character and has created an elaborate, detailed system to present her conception.  It's minutely detailed, categorized and sub-categorized - if nothing else the structural presentation is quite impressive and I'll have to admit that Stanton was a fairly sturdy and clear prose stylist.  Still, the overall effect is bizarre.  A contemporary review of one of Stanton's earlier books in The Atlantic Monthly (1883, p719) said "No one who had not previously seen a human face would be likely to recognize it in the extraordinary collection of faces which illustrate this volume. Indeed, the general analysis of the human being leaves one a little in doubt whether he ever saw a man or woman."

Some excerpts:

"A high cultivation of the color-sense is a religious duty, and all parents should see that their children are instructed in this direction. The lives of thousands are dependent upon knowledge of colors, as in comprehending the signals by colored lights at sea and on railways. Boys, particularly, should be instructed in chromatics, as many of them will follow professions which necessitate the knowledge of colors." (p412)

"A round dimple in the chin denotes art-loving tastes, for the reason that a round dimple is caused by a combination of the round muscle with the round bone, and this combination is the one best adapted to assist every species of art-work, except sculpture. The latter requires square bones and round muscles for its best illustration." (p777)

"I believe that the squareness of his [Beethoven's] bony system, which is well defined in his forehead and shoulders, had a great influence upon his conduct, causing it to be square and honest." (p678)

"A comedian of the first rank must possess high artistic qualities and a many-sided nature. He must be adaptable and keenly apprehensive. He requires a very sensitive brain and a nervous system of fine quality, together with a large endowment and fine degree of muscle, an excellent thoracic development, and a good share of the vegetative system, to give power to the domestic and social sentiments and to afford nutrition essential to his arduous labors." (p1130)

It's easy enough to mock this today though many if not most people still think some milder variation is true - how often do you hear somebody explain what body language means or how certain facial movements indicate that somebody is lying, even though clearly if these have any truth at all it's very narrow and contingent.  Stanton apparently has no doubts whatsoever but it's hard not to wonder.  Reading that first excerpt (and she goes on about color for a few more pages) makes it seem like people had some widespread color-viewing deficiency.  Elsewhere she makes definite statements about things she can't possibly know - Julius Caesar's thoracic capacity for instance.  And her standards would appear to exclude most of us from the highest quality,  (Physiognomy is easily racist and though I'm certain there must be examples in this book Stanton seems to have not bothered.)

I've found little information about Stanton.  She was a member of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association and even briefly its treasurer.  She lived at Monterey Bay, California and her husband apparently was A.P. Stanton, business manager of the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Berthold Laufer - Geophagy (1930)

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This is the final post in the Berthold Laufer series.  There's more but the remaining available books tend to be straightforwardly scholarly and the other interesting titles don't appear to have been digitized yet - Was Odoric of Pordenone Ever in Tibet? (1912), The Gold Treasure of the Emperor Chien Lung of China (1934), Oriental Theatricals (1923).  You can view The Bird-Chariot in China and Europe (1906) at The Hathi Trust but I haven't based posts on that source because downloading requires that you be associated with a partner library.

When I was a kid there was a small embankment where the road by my father's office was cut through a hill.  From time to time people would come by and dig handfuls of a white clay out of the embankment which it turns out they would eat.  The story is that their diet was missing certain nutrients and this is how they filled that need.  Whether that's true or whether that's just why everybody thought this practice existed wasn't clear.  My father says he hasn't seen anybody do this in twenty or so years so maybe it's died out.

Laufer's Geophagy looks at this practice in a wide variety of cultures and times.  (Though sadly he's a bit too hopeful noting "The days are gone when the discussion of a problem started with the Greeks and Romans whose importance in the history of civilization is not much greater than and in many respects inferior to that of the Asiatic nations.")  Laufer notes that geophagy can result from various reasons - religious, culinary, severe hunger, experimentation and medical.  He references several studies in dismissing the nutritional explanation though this is one instance where more recent information would be useful.  Results of a quick Google search tend to support the idea that there's no nutritional benefit and perhaps unsurprisingly reveal that there's people even today who claim otherwise.

The bulk of the book, though, is basically a catalog of geophagy broken down by region.  The reports tend to be the same whether it's Chinese famine-food, Siberian stone butter, Aztec cakes and so forth.  Sometimes the earth material is eaten straight, sometimes mixed with other food. There's even a tiny dispute about whether the South American Otomac added crocodile fat to their clay or not. Why people think they're doing this, though, varies widely as noted in the introduction and that's where Geophagy is most interesting.  It helps that Laufer approaches his sources with a critical mind, calling one writer "credulous" or noting where another is condescending (Laufer clearly has the idea of racism in mind but doesn't seem to label it as such).

Friday, March 20, 2015

Jade: A Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion

Berthold Laufer - Jade: A Study in Chinese Archaeology and Religion (1912)

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We approach the end of the Laufer series with this look at jade in China.  A full-length book this time, Jade catalogs fruit dishes, sword ornamentation, funerary items, protective amulets, chimes, decorative sculptures and early uses as axes and hatchets.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ivory in China

Berthold Laufer - Ivory in China (1925)

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This could be considered a sort of companion to the last post about diamonds in China though the focus this time isn't so much on folklore (though there's plenty of that) as on early Chinese accounts of the elephant along with art, walrus ivory, ivory substitutes (sea-horse teeth?), things made from ivory (including cricket cages) and ivory making its way through Europe and the Americas.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Diamond

Berthold Laufer - The Diamond: A Study in Chinese and Hellenistic Folk-Lore (1915)

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This title is one I would haven't looked at twice if it wasn't from Berthold Laufer but anybody following the last couple of weeks of posts will guess correctly that it's a collection of assorted information, stories and proto-Borgesian footnotes.  Chapter titles include "Legend of the Diamond Valley", "Toxicology of the Diamond", "Acquaintance of the Ancients with the Diamond" and "Stones of Nocturnal Luminosity" (which should be the title of a prog-rock album).  Laufer claims that since diamonds don't occur naturally in China the diffusion of the stones from the West carried alongside diamond folklore and is an unusual chance to study that progress.  Like all these pamphlets there's not room to develop that idea in any great detail but any work that goes in one page from the Alexander Romance to Nizami to a Sindbad story is certainly worth the time.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Domestication of the Cormorant in China and Japan

Berthold Laufer - The Domestication of the Cormorant in China and Japan (1931)

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Laufer this time looks at how cormorants are trained for use in fishing.  How can you resist a chapter called "Relation of Cormorant to Otter Fishing and Egret Taming"?  Though as usual Laufer is mainly interested in the historical and ethnographic background there's a section on training methods in case you find a stray cormorant in your backyard and decide that's a more exciting way to acquire fish.  (As with training other animals for hunting the key point is to ensure that they don't eat the catch - cormorant trainers sometimes use a neck-collar.)  The closing chapter is an assortment of folklore, including the three times that Shakespeare mentions cormorants.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Reindeer and Its Domestication

Berthold Laufer - The Reindeer and Its Domestication (1917)

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The next Laufer work is a look at the history of domesticating reindeer.  According to this the earliest reliable accounts are from the 15th century in Europe though there are stray references earlier.  Laufer also traces some mentions in Chinese literature before briefly describing some methods of domestication and wondering whether the practice of using reindeer to pull sleighs derives from the similar use of dogs.  This pamphlet is a bit more focused than other Laufer posts (and also not published by the Field Museum) but it's likely none of us have thought about this topic before.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Chinese Grave-Sculptures of the Han Period

Berthold Laufer - Chinese Grave-Sculptures of the Han Period (1911)

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The topic of the next in the Laufer series is amply indicated by its title - the Han period lasted from the 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD.  It's more focused and conventionally scholarly (in other words contains less did-you-know information) than other Laufer works that I'm posting but is short enough that it's not likely to get tedious and still interesting to those of us with antiquarian turns of mind.  Or you can just go to p25 and read the distinctions between types of dragons called lung, huang lung and ch'ih.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ostrich Egg-Shell Cups of Mesopotamia

Berthold Laufer - Ostrich Egg-Shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times (1926)

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The next in the Laufer series starts with Mesopotamian cups made from ostrich eggs then looks at the birds in the Levant, Egypt, Africa, China and finally modern domestication in America.  As usual with Laufer there are such intriguing bits as examples of calling people ostriches as insults among Arabs, French and ancient Romans; mentions in the Hebrew Bible; the use of feathers as decoration; techniques for hunting them (some hunters waited in holes then used the first kill as a decoy for others); and even a quote from Macaulay about John Dryden, "His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar."

Friday, March 6, 2015

Insect-Musicians and Cricket Champions of China

Berthold Laufer - Insect-Musicians and Cricket Champions of China (1927)

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The next in the Laufer series is this look at cricket musicians and fighters.  This isn't an entirely unknown topic (some experimental musicians have based work on insect sounds) but probably not familiar in any definite way.  "Corresponding for their fondness for crickets, the Chinese have developed a special literature on the subject."  Laufer then describes the development of this fondness and the poetry devoted to it, almost making it sound like the cricket is to Chinese poets as the nightingale is to English-language ones.  He describes the various containers as well as "cricket ticklers" (the second page below) which are "for inciting crickets to sing or fight".  The last half is about how crickets fight ("not so revolting as the bull-fights of Spain and Latin America").  He says the Field Museum has an extensive collection of the cricket "cult" - I wonder if it's still on display.

I asked somebody I know about the status of crickets in China today.  She hasn't lived there for about a decade but says you could still buy crickets from vendors on the street.  They came in little woven cages and were kept because they made pretty sounds but didn't live long.  People still fight crickets as well though she never saw that in person.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Pre-History of Aviation

Berthold Laufer - The Pre-History of Aviation (1928)

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This time Laufer looks at human dreams of flying and attempts to do so.  Just consider chapter titles - "The Romance of Flying in Ancient China", "The Air Mail of Ancient Times", "Kites as Precursors of Aeroplanes" and the positively steampunkish (or even Fortean-sounding) "The Dawn of Airships in Ancient India".  It's full of nice stories such as "the Bodhisatva as a divine horse rescuing merchants from flesh-devouring ogres by carrying them from Ceylon to India, traversing the clouds and passing the sea to the other side" or the reports of St Peter fighting Simon Magus who was flying with "four fiery horses".  There are also more concrete accounts of kites, balloons and carrier pigeons that would eventually result in actual flight.  Laufer's detailed look into Indian and Chinese sources is admirably multicultural in a way that would be even remarkable today - I found one recent book that even starts with a chapter "The Prehistory of Flight" that covers only Europe.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet

Berthold Laufer - Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet (1923)

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Berthold Laufer's The Giraffe in Art and History was the subject of an earlier post.  He turns out to have written enough interesting titles that it seemed worth starting a small Laufer series.  Laufer wasn't a flashy stylist (don't hope for another Urne-Buriall) but he did have an eye for cultural oddities.  These publications are actually closer to pamphlets and were all produced by his employer, The Field Museum in Chicago.  They have available two biographical pieces (one, two) and a pretty extensive bibliography.

Let's start with Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet.  This is a pretty short work, drawing mainly from traveler and ethnographer accounts of skulls used as ceremonial drinking vessels, occasional jewelry and sometimes musical instruments.  (The latter employed by more recent groups like Current 93 and Psychic TV.)  Laufer tries to tie this to more ancient usages (including an account from Herodotus) though not very convincingly.