Monday, April 29, 2013

W17: The Wonderful World of Books

Compact, worn, and looking like it was on fire, the Biblio-Mat offering for the week was the epitome of a 1950s vintage book. Luckily, it read a bit better than most of the other 1950s fare received thus far.

But... what about love?
The first thing one would notice about The Wonderful World of Books is the colour scheme. The second would be the evangelical fervor of the cover preaching the amazing benefits of reading. Let’s be honest, anyone that did not enjoy reading probably would not have made it past the fifth line of text on the cover. At 319 densely-spaced pages, it’s amazing this book explaining the joys of reading for people who don’t like to read didn’t make it into that Alanis Morissette song.

That being said, one of my favourite books is Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, which breaks down the importance of reading, particularly reading with a critical eye. It is a life goal of mine to read every book that was referenced in his book, and I would probably have put a reasonable dent into the pile if not for the discovery of the Biblio-Mat. That, and alcohol. Helps with writing, not so much with the reading.

Wait, you mean reading isn't its own reward?
The Wonderful World of Books is edited by Alfred Stefferud, as the book itself is a collection of seventy-two short essays, thoughts, and anecdotes from a variety of people I have never heard of but I’m sure were big in the book club circles of 1953. Organized under various subject matters, they are grouped into sections such as ‘Books Are Friends’, ‘Reading for Citizens’, ‘Choosing and Using Books’, and ‘Libraries Are for You’.

'Pleasures While Reading' was tastefully omitted.
As a fan of short stories and opinion pieces, the book piqued a lot of interest. Diving in, there turned out to be a good mix of formal research pieces written with an academic eye broken up by stories from run of the mill people who just like to read. In short snippets that rarely ran longer than four pages, it was easily digestible and if the writer was awful, there’s a new one a few pages later. One of the better pieces was #23 – ‘Boyhood: Made in America’ by Louis Redmond, who gave a concise explanation of the impact Walt Whitman and Mark Twain had on American poetry and literature. In two pages it captured what took an entire university course to explain.

Here I was reading the words like an idiot.
The book was a fast read, and would have been an even faster read if the piece entitled ‘How to Read More Efficiently’ was placed at the beginning instead of seventy pages in. With studies on eye movements, text comprehension, and the art of skipping words, it was a breakdown of the classic speed-reading technique that you once had to mail a dollar to an address in the back of a magazine to learn. Strangely enough, there are thirty pages in the middle of the book that are brown, in contrast to the off white of the rest of the book. With no other explanation, I will assume that it was a racing stripe.

Reduces drag on page turns.
Overall, The Wonderful World of Books achieves what it sets out to do. With an abundance of motivational and spiritual quotes around the value of reading mixed in with references to variety of classic works from Dickinson to Kipling, it does indeed make one want to explore more literature. Then again, my willingness to humour books from a random vending machine may suggest I have a predisposition to this whole reading thing.

Book rating: 8/10 (A great pick up & flip to a random page book)

Random quote: “I love, personally, to read the pessimistic poets, so that I may sustain and then contain my temperamental optimism.” (Truth)

Monday, April 22, 2013

W16: The Book Collection

Once again a brown non-descript book came out of the Biblio-Mat. Luckily, this week it was much smaller and much more entertaining.

But unsatisfying.

I turned the book over and the spine read The Book Collection. Below that were hand written numbers ‘025.2’ above ‘Sha’. My biblio-senses were tingling. I opened it up and I was right. This was a book on book collecting. Specifically, book collecting for libraries. Written by Kenneth R. Shaffer in 1962, the foreword emphasizes not only the importance of reading but also the importance of keeping a well-stocked public library. However, at the bottom of the foreword was a stamp denoting that it was an ex-library book... The irony was delicious.

I imagine it was a town filled with people in hockey masks.
When I read the foreword my first notion was that this would be a book on collecting books. Seeing how I now have a respectable collection of texts from The Monkey’s Paw, this interested me. However, upon delving deeper it turns out that The Book Collection wasn’t as much about collecting books as it was about the trouble of curating a public library.

Indeed, the book was filled with twenty five case studies on what one would assume are common occurrences in the librarian world circa 1962. Outside of people shoving books onto the shelves in misplaced order, I had never considered what problems librarians go through but after reading this book, new found appreciation was gleaned. 

99 problems and a tome was one.
The first case study hooked me off the bat. Following a curator named Sanford Ames, it presented an interesting story of publishing rights. Ames, while working for a university, had created a microfilm of an unpublished work for reference with the blessing of the author’s descendant. However, when the descendant passed away and his estate was purchased, legal action was brought to Ames by the purchaser of the book for possessing a copy of this unpublished work, claiming that it was no longer an unpublished manuscript if any form of the text exists outside of the book. The chapter ends with a question of what Ames was to do. Growing up on Encyclopedia Brown, I quickly formatted a solution and turned to the back of the book.

Nothing.

More Nate the Great than Encyclopedia Brown.
Unlike a university calculus textbook, this book does not present solutions to the questions it asks. Not even the odd number questions. This continued for twenty three more case studies. Thankfully, the last case study had not one but two solutions provided to the dilemma of parents objecting to the books in the young adult section of the library. As a fan of anecdotes and moral dilemmas, I enjoyed the questions posed in the situations of the different libraries, but not knowing the possible answers dampened the experience just a tad bit.

Book Rating: 8/10 (the lack of resolution really hurts)

Random quote: “Remembering the importance of good public relations at this particular time in this particular institution, how would you suggest that the director of the library handle the matter otherwise?” (I don’t know, how? How??)

Monday, April 15, 2013

W15: The Pony Book

This week’s Biblio-Mat book came out without a dustjacket, just a cellophane wrapper, making the random book even more mysterious than usual:

This could be anything. Anything at all.
Picking it up, a thousand thoughts went through my mind on what it could be. It looked to be quite scholarly and the Monkey’s Paw does carry a wide selection of niche academia so perhaps a text on surgical procedures or a history of mental health studies? Maybe even an exploration in philosophical discussion or a study into world geography. I slowly turned the book over.

Yep. Ponies.
Published in 1966, The Pony Book by Jeff Griffin is everything it sounds like it would be. At 287 pages, it is an encyclopedia on everything one would ever need to know about ponies in the 1960s. Outside of preteen girls and mid-19th century socialites, there’s a certain fanatical subculture that this would greatly appeal to. Unfortunately I do not belong to that group.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Outside of them being small horses and a euphemism for the male organ in a Ginuwine song from the mid-nineties, I actually know very little about ponies. The Pony Book quickly rectifies this with an intro chapter that gives the history and usage of the modern pony, painting them as animals that have had many uses in the past but are now primarily bred for shows and harness/chariot racing. Besides the obvious Shetland pony, the book continues on to showcase fifteen other breeds. Fourteen of them look like small horses. The fifteenth is a miniature donkey. It was clear early on that I do not have the eye or appreciation to make a pony salesman.

A part of me also gets a bit hungry when I look at this.
Although the images are in black and white, they are plentiful and the captions offer a lot of detail into what is being shown, making proper use of images instead of using them as filler. But what is most impressive about this book is not only the amount of historical and biological information contained within, but the sheer amount of ownership and cultural information. Many of the photos come with descriptions on the pony and the owners, who seem to mainly fall into two categories – rich aristocratic women and children with rich aristocratic parents. When the pedigree of the owners is longer than the pedigree of the pony the accessibility of the hobby comes into question.

I didn't even have PowerWheels growing up.
The later chapters deal with the purchase and upkeep of a pony. Hand drawn diagrams show what perfect specimens look like as well as what problems one should avoid while purchasing a showhorse. I can proudly say that I am now aware of the symptoms of bowed tendons and sickle-hocks should I have the opportunity to purchase a ‘Mare in foal with foal at side’ at the local pony swaps. There are also diagrams on constructing the perfect stable and the various types of fencing, which appears to be counterproductive as a few chapters later the book goes into training your pony to jump over fences not unlike the ones you have just built to keep it in your field.

If it's not a gift, look to your heart's content.
The training section itself is a wealth of information for those that foresee owning a pony in the future. With clear strategies on teaching a pony the different types of walks, circuits, and jumps, it turns a brand new pony into a show pony in what seems to be a few hours of work with a bundle of sticks. It is also pretty clear that I would make a horrible pony trainer. However, even though it was printed in 1966, I still feel the information contained within is still valid and useful since not much seems to have changed in the last fifty years of pony development. The Pony Book will probably be a relevant guide for ponies until we figure out a way to increase the amount of horsepower in a horse so until we have cybernetic ponies, I will most definitely keep this book on hand in the case that I happen upon a pony auction while strolling the cotton fields with my socialite friends.

Book rating: 8/10 (Really, who doesn’t like ponies?)

Random quote: “Pony people are always a friendly, helpful lot who love to gas about their favorite pastime.” (As anyone who has ever accidentally wandered into the more fanatical sections of a comicon can attest)

Monday, April 8, 2013

W14: Quest Under Capricorn

I did not have high expectations when I saw the book this week, for I am not the sort that readily finds pleasure in reading National Geographics and the cover that fell out of the Biblio-Mat screamed nothing but dated misconceptions.  And then I read the author’s name.

A lesson to set aside budget for cover design.
Quest Under Capricorn is an ambiguous title that could pass for many things – video game, romance novel, fantasy film. In this case it was belonged to a 1963 first edition hardcover recounting an expedition into Northern Australia by the esteemed British naturalist David Attenborough. This man is to nature what Carl Sagan is to space. I had never read any of his books but have seen much of his BBC programming growing up and own all the Life, Planet Earth, and The Blue Planet boxsets. I read the entire book with his voice in my mind.

38 BW photos, 5 in full colour. Waiting on the HD release.
Contrasting with last week’s Scandinavia, Quest Under Capricorn is everything a travel book should be, and more. Recounting a journey to Northern Australia, Attenborough weaves in modern life, culture, history, and adventure together seamlessly while peppering it with bursts of humour. Starting off in Darwin, he makes no apologies on the ruralness of the city and sets the tone of the book – to explore the places that tie the past to the present. For even though the town is small and has not kept up with progress in the rest of the world, it was still vastly important technologically as it was the entry point of the underwater telegraph cables into Australia. Along with a cameraman and a sound engineer, he treks the surrounding areas to explore and document the culture and histories of the small towns and aboriginals that still live off the land. 

The part of Australia where only 70% of things are deadly
The first section of the journey has Attenborough embarking on a quest to film buffalo up-close. After meeting an endearing butcher his team encounters setback after setback, ultimately concocting a grand scheme of using a car to herd a stampede of buffalo towards the tree they were hiding behind to get a close up shot. It’s as dangerous as it sounds but at the last moment it was foiled by a flock of heckling cockatoos. Yes, that is the type of stories this book is full of.

While the first few sections dealt mainly with the flora and fauna of the land, the later sections are the ones that shine for he delves into the lives of the citizens of Darwin and the aboriginals. The characters he meets are the true heart and soul of this book as they are so unique and eccentric that one would think they were made up if not for the photographs. In one story he meets a British expat that is the epitome of polite anti-socialism, living along in the middle of nowhere playing classical violin all day. In another he befriends an aboriginal who is so gracious he ends up secretly giving him a tribal relic, a giant didgeridoo named “the Roaring Serpent”, which he has to smuggle out by stuffing it in a light aircraft. Along the way he also encounters a man who is being paid by the government to watch over a dock and catch the lines of visiting ships… who refused to catch the line of his ship as it was visiting.

The giant tribal didgeridoo. Worshiped by many, except the guy that gave it away.
Punctuating these adventures are short snippets of the history of the land told through fascinating anecdotes, such as the problem of the setting up of the telegraph network being hampered by aboriginal hunters stealing the ceramic transistors atop the telegraph poles to make spearpoints, which was solved by having tourists throw their empty glass bottles at the foot of poles as they journey through to give the hunters a better material. These brief windows into the past show a different side of the rich history in a way that is both enlightening and entertaining and the book was an extremely fast read.

Either Australian totem poles or a man just trolling the visitors.
What was refreshing about this book though, is that it makes no judgment on the people that live in these environments. Unlike expositions that skew the perspective of the subjects to paint them either in a pitiful existence or a human spirit triumphing over great odds sort of way, it is just a window into the daily lives of people living the way they do an ocean away.  It is a true exploration of life in a different culture, but then again, one would expect nothing less from Attenborough.

Book rating: 9/10 (a delightful read that holds up beautifully after fifty years)

Random quote: “These buffalo sound rather bad-tempered,” I said in what I hoped sounded like a nonchalant tone. “What does one do to avoid trouble?” “Shoot ‘em,” said Alan, draining his glass.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

W13: Scandinavia

The Biblio-Mat knows what you want but often gives you something related in the most facetious way, which is part of the reason I love it so. Feeding the fire on this notion is the fact that I had wanted to take a trip for the Easter weekend and wanted a book on travel to whet my appetite for wandering a new city (in this case Montreal) so the Biblio-Mat gave me a travel guide. Unfortunately it was a 255 page travel guide. On Scandinavia.

Everything one needs to know about Scandinavia, unless you're visiting there.
Scandinavia by Eric De Maré, published in 1952, is billed as a travel guide and remains very relevant today, on account of it having very little to do with vacation activities. Seventy percent of this text recounts the history of Scandinavia while twenty percent goes into detail about the architecture contained within and ten percent follows the journey of the author through the countries. A one percent margin of error contains the information that might actually be important for the standard tourist.

This was the most useful part of the book.
While not bone dry, it the sheer length of it decided that it would make a better read during my trip instead of before it, seeing how there was a six hour drive between Toronto and Montreal. Unfortunately this plan did not take into account that I would be travelling with an attractive and interesting French girl so it was read at night between reading modern Montreal travel guides, which gave a glaring contrast to what Scandinavia was missing.

No info on food, but if you needed to recite a Swedish refrain...
Split into three parts for each of the three main Scandinavian nations, this book had a section each on Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Each section begins with a very in-depth look at the history of the country, starting from prehistoric times (5000 B.C). Fifty or so pages later the subject shifts to the culture of the country, and how it came to be. The sections for Sweden and Norway were interesting, if for nothing more than the insertion of random artworks, music scores, and umlauts, but the section on Denmark left a bit to be desired since the cultural discussion lead back to the inspection of the history of the country. Instead of concentrating on what Denmark is like, the author chose to delve on what happened to it.

Everyone loves the Scream.
Interwoven in the later parts of each chapter, though, is the recounting of the trip the author took across each country. It meanders quite a bit as tangents into the history of the country fly off left and right, but it is still entertaining in how little time is spent seeing attractions versus admiring the geography. Not the landscape, mind you, but the beauty of how towns and rivers are laid out, which were somewhat already covered by the maps preceding each chapter. The long descriptions on various forms of architecture also seemed redundant since the best quality about this guide was that it had ridiculously high amount of photographs of buildings.

Just like Montreal, if you squint at it from a distance.
This is not all to say that the information in the book wasn’t interesting, just that it was fairly useless for any tourist that wasn’t a scholar of Scandinavian history. The important aspects of a travel guide, such as where to eat, what to see, or how to say “Where is the bathroom?” in the native tongues were missing, but I guess sometimes having no information on a guide is better than having incorrect information such as, say, on the closing time of the Montreal Botanical Gardens resulting in a certain Biblio-Mat blog-writing tourist getting locked in and having to scale a turnstile and two eight-foot fences to get back to civilization.

Book rating: 6/10 (At least the maps were useful)

Random quote: “The purpose of travel, a modern writer has declared, is to obtain ecstasy. That is one of those wild, sweeping generalizations which are helpful, if not entirely true.”
There was an error in this gadget