#2 – Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Next up in my challenge to read 25 books in 2018 is Just My Type by Simon Garfield.  Hey Book nerds, this one is right up your alley!

One of the things I do when starting a new book is to check if there is a ‘Note on the Type’ somewhere at the start or end of the book. Sometimes it’s just a sentence like ‘Set in Times New Roman’, sometimes though the book provides a detailed history such as this from a reprint of a Dashiell Hammett book I have:

‘This book was set in Janson. The hot metal version of Janson was a recutting made direct from type cast from matrices long thought to have been made by the Dutchman Anton Janson who was a practicing type founder in Leipzig during the years 1668 – 1687. However, it has been conclusively demonstrated that these types are actually the work of Nicholas Kis (1650 – 1702), a Hungarian, who most probably learned his trade from the master Dutch type founder Dirk Voskens.”

This Note on the Type goes on like that for another couple of sentences.  I find it interesting, but then again, I’ve worked in Publishing since 1988.

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This is the type of non-fiction book that provides an overview of the subject, without using too much technical information and jargon which might bore the reader with just a casual interest in the subject.  There’s lots of historic anecdotes on the development of typefaces and bios of type designers.  Garfield profiles some of the well known historic designers like Berthed Wolpe, Hermann Zapf, Eric Gill, William Caslon, Adrian Frutiger, and a few more recent designers like Zuzanna Licko.  There are stories about how governments have used typefaces for various forms of propaganda, like the Nazis who started off using very traditional German gothic black typefaces but changed to more modern sleeker designs.  Or the story of how a United Nations organization released posters and ads discouraging the use of pirated media, but was found to have used a typeface that they had not asked the designer permission to use.  Of course there are stories about specific typefaces, such as why did Helvetica become so universally used here in the U.S?    Coke, it’s the real thing!  Helvetica!    Or how Cooper Black is an awesome typeface to use when you need enormous, readable words, such as how EasyJet used it on the sides of their planes.  Then again, Cooper Black is not so readable when it’s used in a much smaller font, it looks great as the title of The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ album, but it’s just about unreadable when used to list the song titles on that album.

A feature that seemed novel at first but obvious after a few pages is that the text will briefly appear in the type being described.  So when he is writing about the dreaded Comic Sans, the words appears in that type, though thankfully very briefly.  (I’ve found that it’s not that easy to change the typeface in WordPress, so I’d do it here, but from reading the directions on how to do it, it looks like it would take too long!)    At least one thing I learned is that the name of the typeface that I’ve always admired, which I’ve seen used on a lot of book covers from the 1950’s – 1960’s,  is Albertus.  Here’s a few examples below, Faber & Faber used this typeface a lot for their book covers during this time.

I’m sure that I’ve bought books that used this typeface just because I liked the cover. It’s also used on the blue plaques describing historic sites in the UK.

I’ve worked in publishing a long time, but I’m no expert on type, so I  learned a lot from the book, but it did leave me wanting to know more.  There’s not much of a conclusion to the book, there’s no speculation as to where typography is going, and the emphasis really is on the designs of the 20th century.    I would have liked a bit more information on how typefaces are chosen by designers, there’s a little of that, but a few interviews with current designers on how they use type would have been interesting.   And how about that cover!  That white on black typeface used is just about unreadable, why did the designer use that?  Is it even an official type?  Doesn’t even look like it’s a book on type at all.   Overall though it’s  a fun, quick read.

So that’s two so far of the goal to read 25.  It doesn’t help the ‘To Be Read’ pile though as this one was a library book.  Getting library books helps me in getting the book read though since I have to return it, instead of letting it sit in a stack for months.

Mr. C read ‘The Incorrigible Children of Aston Place’  by Maryrose Wood.  He was quite proud that he read this since his school lists it as a fifth grade level book, and he’s just in the third grade.  I’ve read some of it, its pretty funny in a very wry way, maybe “deadpan” or “straight faced”  could be other terms to use to describe it:

“Miss? Miss? The conductor stood in the aisle next to her seat and spoke a bit louder than he normally would, in order to be heard over the screechy din of the train’s brakes being applied.

“Is it bandits?” Miss Lumley cried, half asleep, “For, though unarmed, I will fight!”

The most recent book that Ms. J has read is  ‘Red Scarf Girl’ by Ji Li Jiang, which is a young adult book that adults would like it too.  It’s a memoir of how the author was told to renounce her parents by the Communist party during the “Cultural Revolution”,  she refused and still managed to survive.

Ms. J has somehow managed to read eight books so far this month.  How is this possible, I wondered.  Turns out that she has been finishing a lot of books that she had abandoned earlier.  A finished book still counts to her goal of fifty, I guess.  I have to catch up!

 

 

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2018 Reading Challenge

I always have some kind of resolution each year, never really having much success with any of them.  Last year I was supposed to somehow become more organized, weight loss is also a perennial favorite, this year I’m going with reading more.  I’ve been wasting too much time on my smartphone, so I’m going to combine two goals and say that I’ll stop using the smartphone after dinner, using that time to read instead.  The goal is to read 25 books this year.  Ms. J is joining in with a much more ambitious goal of 50 books.  We have too many books in the house too, so another benefit of the plan is to maybe reduce the piles of unread books that are stashed everywhere.  Reading 25 books might seem like a modest goal, but I’m trying to reduce the smartphone use gradually, so my progress might be slow at first.  I suppose blogging about this combines  yet another goal of posting more often, I’ve probably been averaging one post per month lately!     I’ve never been very good at keeping resolutions, but maybe posting the progress will add an incentive. If I could only somehow exercise or organize things and read at the same time, I would have all resolutions covered.

My first book is ‘Home Before Night’ by Hugh Leonard.  A memoir of Mr. Leonard’s life in Dublin, from the late 1920’s through the late 1960’s. I had never heard of Hugh Leonard before, I’ll admit that I picked this entirely based on the cover illustration, which was done by Michael O’ Shaughnessy.  My copy was published by Penguin in 1979, it seems as though more recent editions have a different cover, a photo of a toddler in a pedal car.  It’s a cute photo, I’m assuming it’s of the author at a young age, but it doesn’t really give the potential reader the added impression of the setting that this cover does.

What little I’ve read that has been set in Ireland has been in rural settings, this one though is entirely based in Dublin, just as the cover illustration leads you to believe. Dublin is important in the book, but the main focus here is the characters that Leonard describes; family, neighbors, school teachers, workmates, friends.  Here’s how the book begins, with a description of his grandmother:

‘My grandmother made dying her life’s work. I remember her as a vast malevolent old woman, so obese that she was unable to wander beyond the paved yard outside her front door. In those days people confused old age with valor, they called her a great old warrior. This had the effect of inspiring her to gasp even more distressingly by way of proving them right and herself indomitable.’

Here’s another:

‘My great-aunt Julia lived in a ramshackle drunkard of a house. Hardly a year passed without part of  the ceiling falling down in one room or another, and when the damage became severe enough, she simply locked the door and never set foot in that room again.’

The memoir is filled with mostly humorous stories, nothing really traumatic happens, he gets along well with his parents, he has a large extended family, which is the source of a great deal of the stories and vivid descriptions.  The one somewhat tragic incident involves his pet dog, (of course it does, when a dog appears in a memoir you just know something sad is going to happen), but even then the story turns out OK in the end.   The vast majority of the book focuses on his grade school days and then his time in college. However, later in the book, a civil service job he held for fourteen years only manages to get a few pages. This job seems to be the one source of any regret in his life. He managed to spend fourteen years doing a job he hated, leaving that job to become a full time writer. He won a Tony award for his play ‘Da’ in 1979.  I’m sure he used the time in that job to accumulate characters he would use later in his plays.  His detailed description of his boss, a Mr. Drumm, is one of the best written I’ve read in a long time.

From the two examples of his writing above, it might seem as though he is a bit mean-spirited, but I never got the impression that he didn’t love every one of the family members and friends he describes, even the ones who received the most cutting of remarks in his descriptions.

This memoir covers the part of his life up to when he quit his civil service job, a second memoir covers his later life ‘Out After Dark’.  This is a very funny memoir,  If you can find a copy, highly recommended, probably the best book I’ve read in a long time.

I read that Hugh Leonard also wrote a weekly humorous column for the Irish Sunday Independent, in which a frequent subject was his abhorrence of a broadcaster named Gay Byrne.  When Leonard retired from writing the column, Gay Byrne took it over. When asked if it bothered him if his old nemesis was writing the column, his reply was, “It would gall me more if he was any good at it”.

Here’s what Ms. J has read so far, with her very brief reviews  She’s already ahead of me, having read three books so far.

Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff – ‘More of the same, if you like ’84 Charring Cross Road’ you’ll like this.’

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart – “Already forgotten most of it”

The Clothes they Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van by Allan Bennett – The first is supposed to be funny but it’s just dated and not at all funny, the second is strangely exploitative of the person in the title.

I’ll add in what Mr. C has read too!

A Tintin story, ‘The Cigars of the Pharoah’

How did you like it Mr. C?

“Oh you know, the usual,  Tintin looks for the bad guys, he gets bonked on the head, he finds the bad guys, it’s good.”

From the library of …

Let’s start 2018 with a story about a book.

Yesterday, I was looking through the stacks of unread books we have in the house and picked out a copy of ‘The Pilot’ by James Fenimore Cooper.  It’s an old book, looks like it was published in the early 1900’s.  We picked it up at a library book sale in Massachusetts last year.

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Something I usually do with old books is check to see if there are any ownership marks, bookplate or signatures of the previous owners anywhere.  It’s fairly common for old books like this to have some kind of mark like that, sometimes they have long gift dedications too.  If there’s enough information, sometimes I’ll do an internet search to see if I can find any further information on the person who owned the book.  I’ve found some interesting things over the years in older books, but most of the time I just find an illegible signature, or if the name is legible it will often be a very common name with no further information.  This one has a signature on the first flyleaf, it’s in pencil, very faded, but still legible as  ‘Douglas Peabody’.

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Douglas Peabody seems like a family common name, so I didn’t think I would be able to find anything further about the previous owner.  But then I saw that there was also an ink stamp on another page that lists not just the name, but a town and state as well; Star Prairie, Wisconsin.

Seems like  small enough town that there might be some further info available online.  The top result from a quick Google search listed a Douglas Peabody of Star Prairie who passed away in 1945. The second result listed was a post from another WordPress blog!

From the blog post it seemed like it could be the same Douglas Peabody who owned the book, so I sent the blogger a message  – and here’s her response:

“That is amazing. Douglas Peabody, of Star Prairie, Wisconsin was the uncle of Arla Mary (Peabody) Guion, the wife Grandpa lost when she was only 41. My Dad, their oldest child, was 17 and Dave, the youngest, was just 7.
My Uncle Ced, child # 3, hitchhiked to North Dakota and Wisconsin in 1934 when he was 17. He took his Mother’s death quite hard and decided that he needed to meet her family and see where she grew up. He spent four days at the Chicago World’s Fair and spent time with most of the Peabody’s, including Douglas. What a small world.
Thank you for letting me know. I am still flabbergasted !!!”

Appropriately enough, she blogs stories about her family history!  Here’s a link to her blog .

I wonder how the book managed to get from Wisconsin to Massachusetts and who else owned it over the years?

Best Gift Ever

A few months ago, I was reading ‘Frontier Wolf’ by Rosemary Sutcliff, a historical novel about a Roman army officer sent to England to command a fort on the Antonine Wall.  I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books and young adult books lately. Mostly so I can then have Mr. C read the good ones once he’s old enough to read them, but also because I missed out on a lot of good books when I was a kid.

A few pages in the style reminded me of a book I had read when I was a kid.  What was the name of that book?   The more I read, the more it bothered me.  It reminded me so much of a book I had read when I was about ten years old.  Then I remembered that I didn’t finish that book. I had to return it to the library before I was done. This was years before libraries offered renewals of books.  Once three weeks were up, you had to return the book or get fined.   What was the title of that book, and was it really a Rosemary Sutcliff book ?  At about the same time I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the science of memory.  There’s actually a German word for this experience.  The zeigarnuk effect, which is what happens when unfinished thoughts or activities weigh on the mind more than those that have been completed.

First,  I checked a list of all the books she wrote.  From the titles alone nothing seemed familiar.  I did remember a few details of the plot though.  There were two children living in a village in England where the towns people were preparing for an invasion of Vikings, and I remembered that there was a Viking holding a shield on the cover. A Google search of “Sutcliff Viking book”  brought up the familiar book cover that I was trying to remember from forty or so years ago, “The Shield Ring”.

Apparently it is a difficult book to find in the U.S., at least in the hardcover edition that I remember.  It was first published in 1956 and appeared in hardcover in only one edition, most of which went to the library market. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’ll never find that book, I thought.

Months later, a package arrives in the mail.

A gift from Ms. J for my birthday.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

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Here’s a quick review of one of the books on Mr. C’s shelf.  He thinks it’s hilarious that I’ve been reading the books we’ve accumulated for him, but I like to check out books before he reads them to see if they’re any good first.

‘When You Reach Me’, by Rebecca Stead, published 2009, it was awarded the Newberry Award in 2010.  This is the story of Miranda, a sixth grader living  with her single Mother.  We’re introduced to her routine, her walk to school, the places she likes to go, her group of friends.  All with a great deal of details of the time and setting, New York City in the mid 1970’s, which should appeal to any adult who lived through that time.  Amanda’s mother tries to become a contestant on the TV game show ‘The $20,000 Pyramid’, which I remember being a big hit when I was a kid.  There’s also plenty of details of how hard it was to be a single parent in the 70’s, such as deciding what to make for dinner or paying the rent.  Amanda  starts to receive mysterious notes, placed in her room by she does not know who.  From the way they are written it becomes apparent that something strange is going on. The notes seem to be written in odd verb tenses, were they written in the past, and she is just finding them now ?  Or is it possible that they are from the future ?

“I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.”

Miranda then tries to figure out who is leaving these notes for her, carefully questioning her classmates without seeming to be a crazy person.  As a subplot, she is also trying to figure out why her friend Sal was punched while walking home from school, by another kid that neither of them know, for apparently no reason.  Hmm… maybe those two stories will meet up by the end of the book. If you’ve seen a few episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ you’ll probably figure out the mystery fairly quickly, but I doubt that a kid will figure it out.   Rebecca Stead references the classic ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ throughout the book, both as Amanda’s favorite book, and in a variety of plot points.  This is good and bad in that it gives so much away to the adults who are reading it, but for a kid I’m guessing that it just adds to the mystery, and could lead them to read that book as well if they have not already.

This is the type of children’s book that will most likely make a strong impression on middle grade kids. There are books I read years ago that I’ve bought for Mr. C, some of which he likes and some have barely registered for him.  Must be a generational thing, there are just some books that become classics, but maybe just for those people who read them when they were published.   An older kid than Mr. C, maybe age 8 or so, will read and remember this as their favorite book.  For adults reading it to their kids, while they might appreciate the period details, they’ll probably prefer the book that made that big impression on them when they were eight, such as ‘A Wrinkle in Time’.

This is a bit too advanced for Mr. C for now, it’s probably a good fit for kids aged 8 and up. Especially those who like things like ‘A Wrinkle in Time’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob, Son of Battle

I didn’t really read a lot when I was a kid.  I could read, of course, but I didn’t really start a habit of reading on a continual basis until I was at least a teenager.  So, since I missed out on a lot of the books that are written primarily for children, I’ve been reading a lot of “Young Adult” books lately, both old books and newly published ones as well.  Once I find good ones I read them to Mr. C, or if they are too advanced for him now, I’ll at least keep track of them to read to him when he is older.

Recently, while browsing the remainder table of a bookstore,  I came across some children’s books published by New York Review Books.  NYRB specializes in reprinting neglected and out of print fiction, mostly adult fiction, but they do also have a large selection of books for children.  One of the books on the remainder table was Bob, Son of Battle by Alfred Ollivant.  From the cover, it appeared to be a story about a dog, and since Mr. C loves dogs, and I usually like books from this publisher, I bought it.

Once I came home, Ms. J told me that she thought that she might have an old copy of the book in a box somewhere. I thought I’d compare the two editions and was amazed that I actually found the original in our stack of boxes in the garage.    Here they are, old and new.

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I thought I would just have to compare how the books were published, book nerd things like differences in the illustrations, and fonts,  but then I saw the note on the front cover of the new edition “A new edition by Lydia Davis”.   It seems that the new edition is a “reinterpretation” of the original book by Alfred Ollivant.  According to a blurb on the back cover, Lydia Davis has “rendered the challenging idioms of the original into fluent and graceful English of our day.”.    When I bought the new edition, I didn’t know anything about the book or the author.  I’ve since learned that it was a popular children’s book when it was first published in 1898, there is also a sequel ‘Danny’, published in 1902.  The dialogue is written in the dialect of the setting, Northern England area of Cumbria.   I then assumed that any changes to the original, more than 100 year old children’s book, would only be to make the dialog easier to read.

Here’s a sample of some dialog from the original, the speaker is a farmer who is bragging about his dog, the title character, Bob:

“G’long, Sam’l Todd!” he cried. “Yo’ never happy unless yo making’ yo’self miser’ble. I niver see such a chap. Never win agin?  Why, oor young Bob he’ll mak’ a right un. I tell yo’, and I should know. Not as what he’ll touch Rex son o’ Rally, mark ye! I’m niver saying’ so, Sam’l Todd. Ah, he was a one, was Rex. I could tell yo’ a tale or two o’ Rex.

At first, it can be a bit hard to understand, but imagine reading it aloud to a six year old. You can’t help but read it in the same dialect, waving your arms around acting like the farmer in the story. At least that’s what I do!

And now here’s the same passage in the new edition:

“Come, come Samuel Todd!” he cried. “You’re never happy unless you’re making yourself miserable. I’ve never seen such a chap. Never win again?  Why, our young Bob will be a fine example, I tell you, and I should know. Not that he’ll be anything like as great as Rex, son of Rally, mind you!

I can see why they “updated’ the dialogue.  The updated version is easier to read, I suppose.  Though there’s no acting required here to show the character of the speaker, you can just easily read the updated dialog. Definitely easier, but a bit bland. Sometime it will also loose the true meaning when it is updated.  Here’s a passage that was updated, most likely for political correctness; “A proper Gray Dog, I tell yo’.  Wi’ the brains of a man and the way of a woman. Ah, yo’ canna beat ’em nohow, the Gray Dogs o’ Kenmuir!”  The updated version reads;  “A proper Gray Dog, I tell you. As clever as any person, and as gentle as the spring sunshine. Ah, you can’t beat ’em, the Gray Dogs of Kenmuir!”.   The meaning is just about the same, but also not really the same.

Only the dialogue in the original could be considered difficult to read. The rest of the book is written in fairly standard prose of the time.  Maybe the changes to the dialog would be OK, if that was the only thing changed, but unfortunately it is not.  It seems as though the whole book has been rewritten, not just the dialog, but words, descriptions, entire paragraphs are changed.

Old:

‘In the kitchen, a long room with a red-tiled floor and latticed windows, a woman, white aproned and frail faced, was bustling about her morning business.”

New:

‘The kitchen was a long room with a floor of red tiles and windows covered in patterns of crisscrossing ironwork. In it, a woman in a white apron with a delicate face was bustling about her morning work.’

I don’t get it, is “latticed” a hard word to understand ?

One more example, the farmer’s wife is encouraging a neighbor boy to have breakfast:

“I welly thowt yo’d forgot us this mornin’. Noo sit you’ doon, beside oor Maggie.”  And soon he, too was engaged in a task twin to the girl’s.

New version:

“I really thought you’d forgot us this morning. Now you sit down beside our Maggie.” And soon he was bending over his own bowl of bread and milk.

What’s wrong with ‘engaged in a task twin to the girl’s.’?   I think if a kid is reading this, and has made it this far into the book, it’s only page 7, then they probably can figure it out.  The new version has completely removed the style of the old.  All of the examples above are taken from just the first eight pages of the book.  Oh well, no returns on remainder books.   I think I’ll stick with the old version.