Monday, October 28, 2013

W43: The Carver’s Companion

This week’s Biblio-Mat offering came out of the machine with a quiet thunk. Being thin and wide, I was hoping for a book of illustrations but received a tome of crafts.

Published in 1958, The Carver’s Companion was a book on carving wood and stone by Peter Morton. With a brown non-descript cloth cover, the book very much resembled a piece of wood with a small oak leaf engraved on it. At 70 pages, it was one of the shortest books I’ve received from the Biblio-Mat, but felt much thicker due to the 46 unnumbered photo plates pages spaced throughout.

Also a lot of in-text illustrations.
The Carver’s Companion began with an introduction into the art of woodcarving. Interestingly enough, it focused on the two branching paths of apprenticeship versus art school with arguments that could be applied to many fields of study. Through apprenticeship there was more hands on practice but one would be limited to making the products the shop produces. While boring, it did eventually allow you to master a task completely and utterly. The path of art school, though, contained more theory and explored a wide range of mediums and styles but never focuses on anything long enough to be proficient at it. Seeing how the examples of the greatest carvers given all started as apprentices, the book was clearly leaning towards the side of learning through doing.

Most artsy fruit bowl ever.
From there, the book opens up into the actual craft of carving. Listing the tools required, which were a lot, it jumped right into exercises to practice the art of woodcarving. This pretty much amounted to buying planks of wood and learning how to gouge straight lines, curved lines, and intersecting lines into the wood. Once that was practiced enough came the next steps of carving block letters.

I own nothing that remotely like this. (This will be important later)
Surprisingly, the next section after these basic exercises focused on the importance of taste and design. With more focus on composition, the information provided didn’t actually teach design as much as implant the notion of its importance. Aspiring stone carvers were also told that they’ll need to become woodcarvers first as the disciplines build upon the shared principles of basic carving.

Carving made easy: Find a block of stone, then chip away anything that doesn't look like a man.
Moving onto furniture carving, it became apparent that this book wasn’t as much a how-to guide as it was a how-should guide. With the bulk of the lessons basically revolving around practicing and studying how the works of master carvers were created, it was less than useful to the carver looking for instruction. Thankfully, the Roman lettering section included picture guides that at least showed you what the final work should aspire to be like.

Basically: Keep practicing until it looks like this.
Ending on material selection and restoration, I felt that much of the important parts of carving, such as techniques, planning, and more importantly, mistake covering up, were eschewed for historical analysis of famous works, which was funny given the emphasis on apprenticeship over art school at the beginning.

Of course, that didn’t stop the grand tradition of participating whenever an arts and crafts book comes out of the random book machine. A quick trip to Home Depot resulted in a small plank of wood and a box cutter as buying a hundred dollar set of wood carving tools I would only use once was only a slightly worst idea than cutting down a random tree in the middle of the city for carving material. The result was less than satisfactory.

Yep, that's wood alright.
Even in high school I knew that woodwork was not for me, placing far below cooking, metalwork, and sewing. With that in mind, I went for an easy design – the Biblio-Mat. After all, rectangles meant easier straight cuts, which were simple enough, until the $2.50 nature of the wood reared its head and started splintering. Now I understand the desire for endangered exotic hardwood as the splintery texture of homegrown pine sucks for the delicate art of box cutter carving.
Two hours not very well spent.
I think I’ll stick to needlepoint.

Book rating: 5/10 (Interesting subject, bad follow through)

Random quote: “But the beginner should not be too kind to his hands and too harsh to his pocket.” (So true in almost every new hobby)

Monday, October 21, 2013

W42: RCA-Victor Records

Albeit a strange read, this week’s Biblio-Mat book was nothing less than fascinating in capturing a slice of music history.

Definitely has a kitschy feel to it.
RCA-Victor Records was actually a 1950 catalog of all the musical records RCA-Victor had produced up till then. The stylized blue/red gradient cover on cheap cardstock seemed to capture a beach sunset and evoked a surf culture vibe even though it predated the movement by a decade or so. The 297 interior pages were beginning to become brittle, which isn’t surprising as the 25 cent printed price pretty much guaranteed that the quality of paper would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Interesting enough, this catalog was printed for the Canadian market, which couldn't have been that much different than the American market at the time.

Copyright was a simpler thing back then.
My first memory of RCA revolved around their cassette tapes. My parents had a whole bunch that they would record Chinese music on and I was always fascinated by the RCA ones since they were all solid black with white ‘RCA’ on them, which stuck out from the multicoloured and transparent tapes of Maxell, TDK, Sony, etc. It would be many years before I actually learned what those letters meant.

Kids today have it easy.
RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, grew out of a monopoly backed by the US Army and Navy. Formed in 1919, it lasted until 1986 when it was bought by GE and then broken up. Like Sanyo, the brand license was sold to manufacturer goods with the name since it still held value to people, which explains why we continue to be able to buy RCA branded electronics today. The recording arm of RCA, though, split off into a separate entity and is still active under Sony Music Entertainment.

With the purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, RCA-Victor was formed and became one of two main record labels in the US. Going up against the 33 1/3 LP’s introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, RCA-Victor opted to push their 45 rpm vinyls hard but the format was a dismal failure, probably due to people having to swap records every five minutes. As such, this 1950 catalog was probably one of the last ones to have a 45rpm focus.

Probably a good thing.
The beginning of the catalog gave great insight into what the musical tastes of the time were. With a section on all the famous composers arranged in chronological order, it was clear that classical music was the big market at the time. Even more useful, though, was the pronunciation guide for foreign names and titles.

This was followed by a glossary of musical terms that proved to be more enlightening than first thought as it not only covered the standard common terms like Allegro and Forte but also the lesser known and more obscure ones like Fantasie, Pizzicato, and Scherzo. The eight pages of terms was probably the highlight of the book in terms of pure educational value, which was very much unexpected from a catalog.

This was quickly followed by what was expected from a catalog – advertisements. The three pages of ads contained the only images in the whole book shilling RCA-Victor’s brand of needles, record players, and storage albums, probably because you would need a whole book full of 45’s to play a half hour of music.

Not as fun as the stuff on the back of comic books.
The majority of the catalog itself wasn’t much of a read as it was just a reference for order numbers and prices. Though this section spanned 271 pages, it was actually much shorter in terms of unique items as each record showed up twice - once under the title of the song and again under the artist. That being said, it was still an enlightening read through as it not only showed where the musical tastes of the masses leaned towards at the time, but also the scope of music industry in 1950.

Is it a soundtrack if it only has one song?
This catalog contained every record RCA-Victor had produced up until the middle of the 20th century yet still contained fewer songs than probably half the people I know have on their computers. It’s a shocking reminder of how pop culture music as we know it is still a relatively young medium. Most of the records ranged between $0.85 to $1.25. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $8.00 to $11.75, which isn’t too bad for a record until you realize it only had two songs on it at most.

RCA-Victor seemed to have mainly backed the orchestral and classical scene and it wasn’t until they bought Elvis Presley’s contract in 1955 that their focus shifted into more pop culture. As such, most of the artists and songs in the catalog outside of play recitals and motion picture soundtracks were unknown to me so I will end this with the most famous RCA-Victor artist I found in the book:  

Spike Jones and Lisztomania at its best.

Book rating: 7/10 (Unexpected fun read)

Random quote: “Storage albums are readily stored in cabinets like books and the resulting library will gradually grow, enriching one’s life and providing unfailing entertainment for the leisure hours.” (Provided you have records to put in them and a record player to play those records…)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

W41: Cathedral Cities of Spain

This week’s blog post comes a couple days late on account of me taking a trip and not packing a laptop due to the Biblio-Mat spitting this out:

Yep, that's a quarter.
Published in 1909, Cathedral Cities of Spain was 347 deckle edge pages long and weighed a good four pounds. With gilded lettering on a dark red embossed cloth cover, it had a regal beauty to it that continued into the interior with red and black all caps typeface on the title page that set the tone for the rest of the book. 

Interestingly enough, the author, W. W. Collins, R.I, also illustrated all the remarkably beautiful plates inside. Upon researching him further, it turns out that William Wiehe Collins was actually a landscape painter, which makes it all the more impressive that he somehow managed to fill three hundred odd pages with words.

Worth at least a couple thousand.
My first thought when I picked up this book fell somewhere along the lines of ‘Cathedral Cities of Spain? Isn’t that pretty much all of them?’. My second thought was on how much it looked like a gothic phone directory. Luckily, my week consisted of going to Chicago to run the marathon, which meant two days of sitting on a balcony doing absolutely zero physical activity to rest up for the race, so there was actually ample time to delve through the tome on this trip.

Really, how many non-Cathedral cities are there?
For a 104-year-old book, this copy of Cathedral Cities of Spain held up remarkably well. Binding was tight and pages were still white and flexible. Most surprising, though, was that it included sixty plates reproducing Collins’ watercolour paintings of the cathedrals in full colour. Considering most of the newer books I’ve received from the Biblio-Mat only contained black and white images, this was impressively decadent. There were also a number of unopened pages that made reading difficult but I did not have the heart to slice them apart seeing how they survived a century in this state.

The deckle edges were legit.
The book itself was a very straightforward guide to all the big cathedrals in Spain, broken down into twenty-four cities. Speaking of each city as if it was a past lover and an old friend, Collins evoked a romantic feel into every location in the journey, whether it was a grand hub of commerce or a fishing town. However, he never shied away from discussing the negative aspects of each city either, pointing out bleakness and boredom in some areas and rampant poverty and begging in the streets of others. It was a refreshingly honest perspective that is seldom seen in travel books, oh like, say The English Lake District.

If you squint it looks like a Monet. Then again, so does everything else.
 Devoting an average of twelve pages per city, Cathedral Cities of Spain felt like a whirlwind tour of the country that was efficient yet satisfying. Each chapter contained a quick anecdote about Collins’ journey and a brief history of some notable events that happened there before launching full force into describing the cathedral scene. For the first few chapters this description was limited to how the buildings looked but as he travelled deeper and deeper into cathedral country he became more and more immersed in what the cathedrals contained.

More often than not: dead bodies.
In some instances, such as the Alhambra in Granada, not only was he was able to journey down into the crypts to see the tombs of kings and queens from another era, but also allowed to go through relics that the average visitor would probably never hear about, let alone see. It was truly an exploration into the history and culture of these cathedrals that felt like I was there uncovering the past with him.  

Who needs photos when you have immaculate watercolours?
Inspired by this, I decided to explore the cathedrals of Chicago, a city known for its architecture, and document my own historical findings. Unfortunately, it turns out that running 42 kilometers straight does terrible things to one’s ability to ascend and descend stairs so I gave up after reaching St. James Cathedral. However, I did make a visit to the very close by and very street level Chicago Tribune Tower, which contains numerous fragments of temples and cathedrals from across the world. Rubbing them is almost the same as visiting them right?

Not so forbidden now, eh?

Book rating: 7/10 (Bonus point for being ancient)

Random quote: “Next to it hangs Ferdinand’s sword, with a remarkably small handle. I had thought from the kneeling effigy in the Capilla Real, that both he and Isabella must have been “small made” and this verified my guess.” (Turn of the century PC?)

Monday, October 7, 2013

W40: The Facts About Shakespeare

This week’s Biblio-Mat book came out of the machine with a quick tumble. Pocket-sized, it had the non-descript look and thickness of a book that meant trouble.

And trouble it was.
The Facts About Shakespeare, by William Allan Neilson and Ashley Horace Thorndike, was a very generic looking book. Navy blue cloth binding with the title only on the faded spine, it fit in well with the other early century books I’ve received from the machine. First published in 1913, this was the 1931 revised edition that clocked in at 266 pages.

When I first picked the book up, I was intrigued. The Facts About Shakespeare sounded like a look into the mythos of the bard and I had high hopes for conspiracy theories, scandalous revelations, dark secrets, and unabashed criticism all around. Why? Because I cannot stand Shakespeare, or more precisely, the reverence that surround him and his work. Blasphemy coming from a an English Literature major, I know, but it’s not that I hate his work, I just think it’s greatly overrated and overanalyzed to the point where scholars have imposed countless meaning onto the work that was not there originally. If you dissect any piece of work enough you can argue any point and I feel that his work has become more and more abstract over the years as every university student shoehorns multiple levels of contrived significance into stories that were entertaining at best. I simply believe that we are giving the man, if it was really just one man, too much credit, which is why ‘Blackadder:Back & Forth’ is one of the most satisfying pieces of entertainment ever created. (How do you top Mr. Bean punching Mr. Darcy in the face?).

That being said, my said high hopes were seemingly dashed the moment I flipped the book open and saw that it was a study on the life and times of Shakespeare. Thankfully, it wasn’t all about the bard’s work but instead covered the world Shakespeare lived in.

The first section of The Facts About Shakespeare focused on England at the time, specifically London. Touching on the Protestant Reformation, it painted a picture of a society in change engulfed by a radical storm of culture. Roving gangs of actors and musicians filled the countryside spreading imagination in art drive-bys. Sleazy thespians filled the cobblestone alleyways reciting immoral lines for a few pence. Wordsmiths plied their wares under lanternlight as literature addicts scuttled about frantically selling their possessions for another page of the latest hand-illuminated manuscript. Or at least that’s how I first imagined it.

In actuality it turned out that it wasn’t far off with the Englishmen of this period being an industrious crowd that spent half their time bettering London’s infrastructure and the other half finding new ways of living in decadence that floated down across all the social classes. Theatre just happened to be one of these sources of entertainment. The book did stress, though, that above all else this was a time where individuality was allowed to bloom, which set the stage for Shakespeare to prosper.

Enough to get a few monuments.
The second section of the book explored Shakespeare’s history. In amazing detail. Right down to how his father, John Shakespeare, was fined twelvepence for failing to remove a heap of filth in front of his door in 1552, twelve years before William was born. For those that didn’t already know, he had a semi-privileged life growing up, being the son of a bailiff, and the book painted a comfortable childhood. Outside of his family life, it also detailed his rise in the theatre world at the time and the friends and enemies he made. Interestingly enough, it spent a few pages dedicated to a Robert Greene accusation of plagiarism that brought to light the nature of competition at the time.

The Facts About Shakespeare then moved onto his writing. The history of his work is well known already but the book specifically looked into his documents and records. While the book was mostly text, it did contain three photos – the frontispiece of the Shakespeare Monument in the Stratford-on-Avon Parish Church, the cover of the first folio, and three of his six known signatures. After looking at the signatures, his literacy comes into question a bit more.

"Written" is used loosely.
The third section delved into the literature of the time and where Shakespeare potentially got his inspiration and drew his knowledge from. Presenting a wide range of lesser known works, the book drew connections between those and some of his plays. The conclusion was that if Shakespeare wasn’t a scholar, he was at least an extremely well read man. Fair enough.

The following chapter attempted to piece together a chronological development map of his works. While I had seen many write-ups trying to explain when each piece was written, this book broke it down scientifically into three tables that deconstructed every play and re-ordered them, counting basic attributes like total number of lines to more advanced Rain Man-esque percentage of blank verse with feminine endings. Just goes to show that one cannot hide from math no matter where he runs.

Ruining my reason to go English Lit.
The next parts of the book explained the nature of Elizabethan drama and the Elizabethan theatre. Giving a rich history that was a bit on the dry side, it contained a wealth of information but what really made the book extraordinary was that in the section about the theatre, one of the previous owners had cut out a map of 1601 London from some newspaper and sandwiched it between two pages. Whatever acids on the clipping had also bled out onto those two pages to create an interesting preservation effect.

Someone really loved this subject.
The subject of Shakespeare’s texts came up again in the following chapter where another investigation occurred to piece together when he published his plays in written form. This drifted into the discussion of later editors modifying his work and culminated into the subject I had been waiting for – authenticity of his work. Breaking down different collections of his plays, the authors ultimately agreed that many works that had been attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by contemporary poets of 1612 – the year when an anthology of his work was published. The Facts About Shakespeare also pointed out that a number of his pieces were also written in collaboration with other writers with few actually having traces of his hand.
A folio of lies!
From here the subject matter became even more interesting as the book talked about forgeries and questions about authorship. While it doesn’t state anything concrete, the book did bring up many theories, including the famed Bacon discussion. Of course, it was a lot of speculation but it was satisfying nonetheless that there were other people with literary tinfoil hats besides myself.

All in all, The Facts About Shakespeare was a fascinating read as it painted a rich image of Shakespeare’s era, not just focusing on the writer alone. The fact that it presented all the main theories on his authorship lent a great deal of credibility to this unbiased view of his life. If more classes dug into this darker side of his work then I probably wouldn’t have skipped out on so many classes. Maybe.

Book rating: 8/10 (Bonus point for not actually dissecting any pieces)

Random quote: “Shakespeare’s England was merry England. At least, it was probably as near to deserving that adjective as at any time before or since.”