Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Epitome of the Natural History of the Insects of India

E. Donovan - An Epitome of the Natural History of the Insects of India (1800)

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More natural history illustration - this title popped up in my Twitter feed or maybe not this particular one but something similar.  The title of this one suggests that there's a full version of the book but I haven't located a reference yet.  Still, it has these wonderful illustrations and minimal text that's mainly identification.

Donovan authored similar books on British quadrupeds, insects, fishes and shells along with a work on Chinese insects.  I'd love to find the two-volume Naturalist's Repository of Exotic Natural History (1823) but it doesn't appear to have been scanned.  Some of his work is in the Ruskin Museum but I can't find anything by Ruskin himself about it.  Donovan apparently has a brief walk-on in Patrick O'Brian's Reverse of the Medal.

Edward Donovan was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in London and rarely left it - another one of those intriguing people who decided to write about the world from their safe European home.  His books were apparently quite successful though on his death he "left a large family in destitute circumstances".  (According to the Gentlemen's Magazine for July 1837 - it might have been worse since the following obituary for a minor poet gives cause of death as "Died by the Visitation of God".)  There's not much biographical information available.  The longest treatment appears to be a couple of pages in Michael A. Salmon's The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and their Collectors (2001) which notes his works were unsystematic and that surprisingly for an illustrator there's no known portrait.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Birds of Asia

John Gould - The Birds of Asia (1850-83)

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Gould was one of the 19th century's premiere ornithologists and illustrators - the bird specimens from Darwin's Galapagos journey (including the famous finches) were given to him for identification and there are several birds and two reptiles named for him.  He created Birds of Europe (1832-37), Birds of Australia (1840-48) and Birds of Great Britain (1862-73) before getting to Asia.  (He also did Mammals of Australia (1849-61) despite the topic being outside his focus - I was looking for that because of its entry on thylacines when finding Birds of Asia instead).

The text is a bit hard to read due to its size but that's why we have magnification tools.  The descriptions combine field reports, museum inspections and naturalist publications, displaying more personality than reference works generally do today.  Gould almost exclusively worked from preserved specimens.  There have been reprint editions of some illustrations but I can't find a listing that the entire thing was.  Alas, he dedicated the work to the "honourable East India Company", not how most of us would view that today.

There's a section on Gould, Darwin and birds in Jonathan Smith's Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (2006).  There's a shorter discussion by Christine Cheater in Frankenstein's Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture (2008), edited by  Christa Knellwolf King, Jane R. Goodall.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Comic Insects

F. A. S. Reid - Comic Insects (1872)

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A short book where children encounter caterpillars, bees, snails, beetles and spiders (three-fifths of that list not insects so clearly not a science book).  Included mainly for the illustrations.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Gothic Ornaments in the Cathedral Church of York

Joseph Halfpenny - Gothic Ornaments in the Cathedral Church of York (1795)

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Posted because of the great illustrations - below is only a small sample.  Like many 18th century books it has a list of subscribers who helped fund its publication - a practice still current with Kickstarter.  While researching it I discovered that Dover reprinted this in 2005 under the title Gothic Ornament.

Halfpenny was an engraver who did a few other publications but this is his best-known.  The text is fairly minimal and basically just descriptive.  One plate seems to me to depict the Green Man but the text identifies the faces as "bosses".  Apparently parts of the church were later damaged by fire and this is the only record of those sections before.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Space Time and Gravitation

Arthur Eddington - Space Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory (1920)

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Freeman Dyson recently chose this as one of the best books on physics.  He said, "Eddington’s book was the main reason why Einstein was better understood and admired by the general public in Britain and America than he was in Germany. No comparably clear account of Einstein’s ideas existed in German."

As it turns out one of my favorite writers also recommends this - Rudy Rucker.  He wrote "One does not soon forget Eddington's pleasant style, relaxed, slightly humorous, but totally serious; engagĂ©, but never partisan."  (Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension, p124)

And other than physicists, Eddington's book appealed to philosophers, particularly British and including Bertrand Russell.

(If for any reason that link is dead the Dyson interview was in the April 16, 2015 New York Times.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

The History of Signboards

Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten - The History of Signboards (1866)

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While researching John Camden Hotten for the last post I found this book he co-wrote about a subject that probably most of us have given no thought.  In our defense signboards have really just become logos and not something that a history would seem worth the while but clearly there's plenty of material (this book runs over 500 pages).  The authors mention the "numerous absurd combinations" in addition to signboards' almost necessary utility before widespread literacy.

The book starts back with ancient Egypt and Rome then include all sorts of ballads, Parliamentary proceedings, advertisements, artists such as Hogarth, French names, and an inventory of current London signboards (which included "5 Artichokes", "10 Dolphins", "6 Flying Horses", "12 Kings of Prussia", "23 Lord Nelsons", "9 Pitt's Heads", "3 Three Kings", "8 Tigers" and "15 White Bears").  The rest of the book delves into how all these kings and animals and weather conditions and clothing came to appear on signboards.  Not something to read straight through since it's mostly a mass of material but pretty amusing material, especially given the authors' frequent inclusion of original texts and fondness for all sorts of trivia.  Chapter 15 is devoted to "Puns and Rebuses".

A sample:

"Lastly, we may mention the PICKLED EGG, in Clerkenwell.  As the origin of this sign, it is said that Charles II here once partook of the dish, which so flattered the landlord, that he adopted it as his sign, and so it has remained till this day.  It has given its name to a lane called Pickled-Egg Walk, in which there was a notorious cocking-house, frequently mentioned in advertisements circa 1775."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words

John Camden Hotten - A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1860)

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It's easy to get lost in these old slang dictionaries.  Some of the usages are no longer considered slang (such as "bore" as a troublesome friend) while others fell into obscurity and are entertaining to recover.  Seeing them collected isn't just a glimpse into a different time but creates a feel for the instability of language more effectively for most of us than a squad of deconstructionists could do.

This particular dictionary is the best-remembered work by author, antiquarian and publisher John Camden Hotten.  He wrote frequently for the literary press, published biographies of Thackeray and Dickens, did a study of Macaulay's histories and compiled several other reference works.  When one of Swinburne's publishers retreated after legal issues Hotten took over publication of the work.  He was also a sub rosa publisher of erotica, many of which seem to have focused on le vice anglais.  (One was included last November in Christie's auction of the Fekete collection and sold for £5000.)

The dictionary opens with an account of slang and cant along with his sources.  He was particularly focused on "gipseys" but also gets to vagabonds, rogues, "bastard Italian" and highwaymen before moving onto military, religious, legal and university slang.  Hotten also references earlier works on slang and even includes a bibliography that could well supply material for future posts.

On p251 you can find "Some Account of the Back Slang, the Secret Language of Costermongers" where it's claimed that the costers have slang that's more or less the word spelled backwards ("edgabac" is "cabbage").  It's peculiar and I wonder how truthful it is but then again I've never understood why rhyming slang exists either.  Oh, the section on rhyming slang starts on p263.

Some samples:

BUFFLE HEAD, a stupid or obtuse person.


DOG-ON-IT, a form of mild swearing used by boys.

FRUMMAGEMMED, annihilated, strangled, garotted, or spoilt.

NAP THE REGULARS, to divide the booty.

QUOCKERWODGER, a wooden toy figure, which, when pulled by a string, jerks its limbs about. The term is used in a slang sense to signify a pseudo-politician, one whose strings of action are pulled by somebody else.

SNOOKS, an imaginary personage often brought forward as the answer to an idle question, or as the perpetrator of a senseless joke.

YACK, a watch; to "church a yack," to take it out of its case to avoid detection.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Shakspeare and His Friends

Robert Folkestone Williams - Shakspeare and His Friends or, "The Golden Age" of Merry England (1838)

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This is not the history the title might suggest but instead a three-decker novel, listed here because it appears to be either quite bad or passable but written by an author who just can't shut up.

Try the opening:  "I prythee have patience, courteous reader! the whilst I describe a certain chamber well worthy of most minute delineation--as thou wilt see anon--from its having been the retreat, or closet, or place retired from the public eye, in which the master spirit of his age, an the glory of all times to come, did first develope those right famous qualities from which the world hath received such profit and delight."

Or this, a single sentence:

"At this instant a serving man entered, to whom orders were given for the bringing of the Ippocras; and Sir Walter Raleigh noticing a peculiar suit of armour, Sir Robert Cecil then did acquaint him how his father, the Lord Burghley, took great delight in making a collection of offensive and defensive arms, of different times and countries, the which he had that room built on purpose to receive, in preference to keeping them at his magnificent mansion at Theobald's, or at Burghley House; and when Sir Walter, being very learned in these things, did explain to him the age and nature of some, he listened with exceeding respect." (Vol 1, p79)

One reason I'm quoting is because I can't find a description or plot synopsis of this book while skimming doesn't reveal much.  Not just Raleigh but Burbage and Will Kemp are characters, some of it seems to be set in Shakespeare's youth and there's a toothpulling scene where the wrong teeth are pulled.  Honestly if anything it looks pretty dull but there are some of those wonderfully convoluted sentences scattered around.  There was an unsigned review in Burton's Gentlemen's Monthly for Nov/Dec 1839 (edited by Poe) which just calls it a "valuable running commentary" but objects to the use of antiquated style for the prose.  At least one scholar attributes the review to Poe but others disagree and in any case it's pretty bland - there's no more indication that the reviewer read the book than I did.

There's not much else available about the author who appears to have been a live-by-his-pen hack now pretty much forgotten.  He wrote several novels (including Mephistophiles in England (that's his spelling) and Youth of Shakspeare), completed an unfinished Marryat novel and was a sub-editor of New Monthly Magazine.  The March 1932 issue of PMLA even attempted to ascribe Mephistophiles to Bulwer Lytton but a June 1984 issues ascribed it right back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Illustrated Descriptive Price-list of Magical Apparatus and Illusions

Illustrated Descriptive Price-list of Magical Apparatus and Illusions (1884)

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Otto Maurer (1846-1900) was a German who moved to New York and ran a famous magic shop in the Bowery for almost 30 years.  According to a probably apocryphal story the back palm entered the repertoire when a Mexican (or some accounts say Cuban) magician entered Maurer's shop and showed him the technique, then left without giving his name.  (Actual credit for the back palm generally goes to Howard Thurson.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?: The Government's Effect on the American Diet (2014)

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The U.S. Government is sometimes called the world's largest publisher so it's hard to decide whether it's predictable or surprising that it's been slow to embrace ebooks.  Poking around the GPO website turns up many but they're mostly recent and seem to still be only a selection.  There's a charge for most of them - at least one was double the price of the print book.  When I was a kid the local college library was a government documents depository and I used to read collections of Indian legends there.  When we were older the thrift stores around a nearby Army base had lots of military government publications including histories (though we were more interested in the tactical guides).

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? is actually an exhibit catalog but it's full of old promotional images, photos, documents, etc so that I think it stands on its own.  Plus this one actually is free.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Near Home, or, the Countries of Europe Described

 Favell Lee Mortimer - Near Home, or, the Countries of Europe Described (1849)

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This is where I regret using book titles for post titles.  Instead of that rather bland one this should be called "Arrogant Homebody Trash-Talks Foreigners".  The author did indeed write a kids book about the countries of the world but she couldn't repress, and apparently had no idea she was making, a stream of snide, condescending and prejudicial remarks.

Some examples:

"Have you not already found out the character of the Spainards?  They are not like the French, lively and talkative: they are grave and silent. They are not active like the Scotch, but indolent; nor warm-hearted like the Irish, but cold and distant; nor fond of home like the English, but fond of company."

"The Russians live in very miserable dwellings, made of trees cut down and laid along the ground one on top of the other.  The windows are very small, and some of them have no glass, but only wooden shutters.  In the middle of the room is a large stove that fills it with smoke."

"Do you think you should like Berlin?  I have not told you yet of the kennels, or ditches, which are found in every part, even near the king's palace, and which are so black and dirty, that the whole city is quite unpleasant in summer-time.  The Prussians think nothing of it, and say, 'Are not all cities like this?'"

"Do you not hope that these industrious, honest people [Belgians], love to read their Bibles in their pleasant cottages?  Ah! you will soon see that they know very little about God.  Alas! they worship idols.  They are Roman Catholics."

I didn't discover Mortimer - that credit goes to writer and editor Todd Pruzan (McSweeney's, Blender, New Yorker).  In 2005 he introduced her to the world with a selection from her travel books called The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.  It's still in print and an ebook is available.  (Mortimer hadn't been entirely forgotten though close enough - there were pieces on her in the (London) Times in 1933 and the New Yorker in 1950.)

Mortimer became a sensation in 1849 with The Peep of the Day, which instructed children in both reading and religion.  Having found her calling she wrote several similar books, the oddest of which is Reading Without Tears (1857).  It's full of blatant class privilege and at times resembles modernist poetry - one highly repetitious section describes the duties of a housemaid.  "She makes the beds and the cribs. / She shakes the mats and the rugs. / She bakes the cakes and the loaves" and so on for an entire page.

Mortimer wasted no time in helping children understand the world around them by producing Near Home describing Europe and then two volumes of Far Off for the rest.  Did I mention she never traveled?  All research was done from books.  Even if some of her sources were far outdated, Mortimer clearly made some attempt at accuracy which is why the books have more a disconnect than a straight rant.  As a hardcore evangelical she didn't like Catholics and often comes across more negatively about them than other religions.  (Still, even genuinely great writers can also be petty and narrow-minded as anybody who's read Graham Greene's book on Mexico knows.)

But Near Home is a compulsively browsable book.  Some more selections:

"Is there a king of France?  There have been many kings.  But the French often send away their kings.  The last king left his palace in great haste.  There were crowds under his window and he was afraid they would burst in."

"There are a great many other foolish amusements in Italy.  Sometimes people put on masks and run about the streets, and see whether anybody can find them out when their faces are hid.

"But many [German women] are not as fond of reading as English and Scotch ladies are.  When they read, too often they read novels--histories of people who have never lived.  It would be better to read nothing than such books."

"The chief town in Turkey is built by the sea.  Like many other towns it looks beautiful at a distance, but turns out, when you arrive there, to be very unpleasant."

"The Greeks do not know how to bring up their children."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Comic Poets of the Nineteenth Century

W. Davenport Adams (ed) - Comic Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1876)

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The last post was also humorous poetry but how can I help it?  April is the month of both poetry and fools.  This volume again has Carroll, Gilbert and Harte along with George Meredith, Austin Dobson and others making the tone a bit more toward the poetry than the comic.  "A Song of Good Greeks", for instance, is about how important classical Greek is to European thought.  It has such laugh riots as "For never was language at all,/So magical-swelling,/So spirit-compelling,/As Homer rolled,/In billows of gold".

Still, there's a collection of (printable) limericks (Walter Parke's "Nursery Nonsense"), extravagantly silly wordplay (Pennell's "How the Daughters Come Down at Dunoon"), a ballad parody (Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The Spectre Pig"), a Chaucer parody (Parke's "Ye Clerke of ye Wethere"), a tribute to salads (Mortimer Collins' "Salad") and so forth.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Poets at Play

Frederick Langbridge - Poets at Play: A Handbook of Humorous Recitations (1888)

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Two volumes of comic poetry might seem a bit much but this amount was probably meant so reciters would have a wide selection.  Skimming shows that these don't appear to be classics but the emphasis is on the comic not the poetry.  Best-known names are Lewis Carroll, Bret Harte and W.S. Gilbert (the book's dedicatee) but the bulk are unfamiliar.  Still, I can't resist "The Chimpanzor and the Chimpanzee" which could be a hoot spoken aloud (with its Professor Balaam Vermicelli Lepidoptera FitzApe) or titles like "Fugitive Lines on Pawning My Watch", "The Weather in Verse", "The Puzzled Census-Taker", "Christmassing a la Mode de Slumopolis" or "Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves".

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Falstaff and His Companions

Paul Konewka - Falstaff and His Companions (1872)

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"This Falstaffiade owes its origin to one of the strangest revivals of unauthentic tradition and distorted history."  The author of the introduction is referring to Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One which took an old, certainly false story about the prince hanging out with common folk and transformed it into a play (apparently one of his most popular during his lifetime), along the way creating the indelible character of Falstaff.

For this book artist Paul Konewka (1840-1871) made silhouettes of Falstaff and other characters accompanied by quotes from the plays.  This introduction isn't clear but one source says Konewka worked by paper cutting and another that he worked by pen.  Konewka also did Midsummer Night's Dream and Goethe's Faust but neither seem to have been scanned.  Lewis Carroll mentioned him positively in a letter (May 7, 1878) though Konewka sadly never illustrated Alice.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds several of his works - none are online or on display.