Monday, July 29, 2013

W30: Book-Prices Current

This week’s Biblio-Mat book was a bit surprising in that the subject matter was so relevant it was a wonder why I hadn’t received a book on this earlier.

Note to self: Don't name anything "current".
As the title suggests, Book-Prices Current was a book on the current market value of books. Edited by F. Partridge, it was published in 1940 and covered the book auction sales from October, 1939 to August, 1940. With a dark greenish-blue waxed cover and decently thick binding, it felt heavier than its 507 pages suggested. An ex-libris from the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University, it gave good insight into book collecting and what the trends leaned towards back in the day. 

Pennies on the dollar would be my guess.
The first few pages before the title page were actually advertisements for not only other books, but publishers and rare booksellers as well, which is not surprising since there are usually relevant ads in most trades. What was surprising, though, was that the first ad was actually selling the Book-Prices Current book itself with a tongue in cheek self-referential description.

Sadly, the humour stopped after that and jumped into a small intro that talked about a few highlight sales from that year:

- The first being a Library of books on Angling by Arthur N. Gilbey which fetched £4,126 16s. 10d., the equivalent of £195,250 after adjustment for inflation.

- The second highlight was £1,600 for a first edition set of I. Walton’s Compleat Angler, which translates to £75,720 in today’s money.

- Number three was £170, the equivalent of £8,000, paid by a Mrs. W. H. Robinson for a copy of Dame J. Berner’s Booke of Haukyng, Huntyng and Fysshyng.

The conclusion? People in 1940s Europe spelled things funny and really loved their fishing and hunting books.

After this intro, the book jumped straight into 507 pages of nothing but auction records. Having collected comic books since I was in elementary school, I was already quite familiar with the format of trade price guides thanks to The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. Unlike standard price guides, though, Book-Prices Current gave in-depth descriptions of each book as each entry was an individual sale.

Not unlike reading a dictionary.
Reading through the entries, some notable sales included:

- 1859 first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection sold for $130 USD ($2100 after inflation). Current 2013 market value: $45,000 - $130,000.

- The super rare 1924 first edition of Hemingway’s in our time sold for $20 USD ($323 after inflation). Current 2013 market value: $36,000.

- 1816 first edition of Austen’s Emma in 3 volumes sold for £5 (£240 after inflation) on three separate occasions. Current market value: $10,000 - $30,000.

As an avid collector of rare books, I was intrigued by the possibility of looking some of pieces of my library up. Unfortunately, most of my collection consists of contemporary editions and as expected, none were found in the Book-Prices Current records. However, if this book is any indication, picking up rare books is a sound investment strategy, which is why visiting The Monkey’s Paw regularly has kept my bank account in check.

My favourite scores: 1910 copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1902 Roycroft edition of Self Reliance.

Book rating: 7/10 (Great historical values for reference)

Random quote: “Demy 8vo, bound in blue cloth, and printed on good paper, with fine margin for notes.” (The Book-Prices Current entry on the Book-Prices Current book)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

W29: Elementary Italian Grammar

I had thought last week’s book was the most non-descript looking text that I would ever receive but this week’s Biblio-Mat offering took it to a whole new level.

I almost felt bad for judging it by its cover. Almost.
As I picked up the small worn green clothbound book with the lettering faded away on the spine, I shivered. Past experience has taught me these kinds of books turn out to be either textbooks or incredibly boring novels. I was not wrong. Elementary Italian Grammar, written by Joseph Louis Russo, was a 342 page textbook published in 1929 that taught, well, elementary level Italian grammar.

New edition as of 1929.

It’s funny that a week ago a friend and I were discussing learning languages and she had said that she wanted to learn Italian as it was “the most beautiful language in the world”. Having once dated an Italian girl that was angry all the time, I strongly disagreed. Unsurprisingly, the Biblio-Mat decided to chime in. Coincidentally, another one of my good friends is actually in Italy this month for a wedding and could have probably used this book to get by.

The preface of Elementary Italian Grammar laid out Russo’s interesting theory on teaching languages. He sees it from a practical standpoint and sets out to present as few rules and as many exercises as possible, which is something I would have expected from a traveler's guide as textbooks usually concentrate on teaching the theory behind the practice. Indeed he goes against this outright with examples and exercises being presented first then followed by the rules and explanations. As the type of student that thrives on learning how and why things work, I did not find this method optimal.

At least the pictures were pretty neat.
What were useful, though, were the exercises themselves. Ranging from simple fill in the blanks to matching words to images to build vocabulary, these created welcomed diversions from the tables of text to be memorized. An added touch, though, was that some of the previous owners of this book had filled in some answers as well as scribbled various notes in the margins.

I hope whoever had this first knew what they were doing.
Also of note were the photographs of various historical Italian figures and places scattered randomly throughout, which reminded me of the Roma book received from the Biblio-Mat months before.

A country frozen in time. According to the pictures, anyway.
In terms of pronunciation lessons, the book was quite well-rounded in using a variety of English words to help isolate the sounds of Italian vowels. Skipping the dictionary phonetics in favour of using common words as examples did help a lot, however, learning from a book will never be as accurate as actually conversing with a native speaker so I would place my pronunciation at a preschool level at best. Another helpful section of the book was the vocabulary at the back. The last 53 pages at the end contained not only an English to Italian dictionary, but an Italian to English one as well. In a pinch, this would at least let a person fumble their way through ordering a meal in Italy.

The point-at-a-menu method will still always win out.
To be honest, this was not a terrible book as far as language textbooks were concerned. However, I am currently trying to pick up French again and the similarities of the two Romance languages overlapped too much to properly decipher in one reading. Reading this through in a week also did not leave a lot of time to absorb the knowledge, unfortunately, so after 342 pages the only grammatically correct sentences I can form without looking at the vocabulary section are quite useless:

- Non parlo con nessuno.
- Mi mostri le tovagliolo!
- Il mio asino ha pelliccia verde.
- Voglio comprare un'arca.

Perhaps in another point in life I will pick Italian up, but it would only be to read The Divine Comedy in its native language.

This would seriously be my only reason.

Book rating: 8/10 (A respectable language book that was teaching the wrong language)

Random quote: “Drill in idiomatic expressions.” (Should probably explain them first)

Monday, July 15, 2013

W28: Land of the Long Day

From the Biblio-Mat this week came a maroon book that suggested a novel. In the suffocating humidity of the Toronto summer, it turned out to be a welcome psychological escape.

Doubled as a fan a few times.
Clothbound with gold lettering, Land of the Long Day, published in 1956, was a 257 page recounting of author Doug Wilkinson’s experiment to live with the Inuit on Baffin Island. While non-descript, upon opening it did contain an interesting surprise – sandwiched between the cover and the first page was a piece of the original spine of the dustjacket. In addition to gleaning some insight on what the cover once looked like, it also functioned as a fitting bookmark.

24 hours long, if you can believe it.
As I write this post it is close to midnight and still 30 degrees Celsius. Reading about the frigid north in this weather created more than a twinge of envy for the author dealing with the cold for the Canadian mentality has always seemed to be wishing for winter in the summer and pining for summer in the winter. Thankfully, the book had more to offer than descriptions of frigid landscapes. It also had pictures.

Winter was harsh, but summer was in tents! (Sorry.)
Supplemented by both colour and black and white photographs, Land of the Long Day revealed itself to be much more interesting than first thought. Beginning in media res with a mysterious narrator living with an equally mysterious Inuit family, the first chapter dove right into a seal hunt, describing in vivid detail how one would track and harpoon a seal. While it wasn’t thrilling in the sense that the narrator was ever in danger, the prose was well written enough to stir up excitement on whether he would get the seal or not. Suffice to say, I am now confident that if I were stranded in the arctic with a harpoon and a seal, I would not starve to death.

Chapter two introduced what the framework of the story was. Up until this point I had assumed that this was fiction, however, the narrator clarified that it was actually a research piece. Developing a curiosity about life in Northern Canada, Wilkinson decided to live with an Inuit family for a year to document their world. My first thought at this point, of course, was that it would be the written equivalent of Nanook of the North, however Wilkinson actually referenced the film midway through the chapter and stated that he intended to go deeper than superficial coverage, and indeed he succeeded.

Staying with a man named Idlouk and his family, Wilkinson adopted the lifestyle fully, participating in hunts and trading. Free of judgment and open to trying new things, it did feel like a research piece that presented events and knowledge as facts instead of spectacle. In addition to describing the Inuit culture, he goes on to explore the flora and fauna of the north, covering all the wildlife that they had seen and promptly killed.

Bear was pretty majestic, until they shot and ate it.
The most interesting subject covered, though, was the interaction between the Inuit and white society. At the time this book was written, the north wasn’t the hostile barren unknown it was a century ago and numerous posts had been set up. Even in the 50’s the Inuit were conflicted between embracing modern conveniences and keeping tradition, but most had already progressed to hunting with firearms and utilizing technological advances, acquired from fur trading, for more comfortable living.
Funny enough, a few weeks ago I read a Vice magazine article on a giant international fur auction that takes place in Ontario once a year. It was one of the few venues where you can purchase a polar bear pelt legally, starting at $10,000. The $5.00 per pelt asking price in the book seemed like a bargain, even with inflation taken into account.

One day this will prove to be useful.
A few terms that are not often used anymore, namely ‘eskimo’ and ‘primus’, dated the book a bit but overall it had a modern feel to it. Chalk it up to great writing to keep a reader engaged in information that had now become common knowledge taught in elementary schools.

Book rating: 8/10 (A history lesson wrapped in a fun read)

Random quote: “She is my friend, who has given me food and shelter on countless nights, has repaired boots and mitts torn on the hunt; but I wish she would die, for until she does no one with her is safe.” (The ice ain’t the only thing that’s cold…)

Monday, July 8, 2013

W27: 1001 Yiddish Proverbs

Perhaps the Biblio-Mat was feeling that I needed more spirituality in my life and had thus sent me a book to reflect on. Or perhaps it felt that I needed a break from reading textbooks and sent me a book of quotes. Either way, this week’s book was a welcome change from the density of recent offerings.

A very tasty shade of green.
1001 Yiddish Proverbs, written by Fred Kogos and published in 1970, has a lime green cover with a title that was written in what one would assume was the Comic Sans of the 70s. The back cover showed a photo of Kogos, who looked not unlike a cross between Kevin Spacey and Ernie Coombs.  A moderately-sized hardcover, the book felt very comfortable to hold with one hand and the proverbs were spaced sparse enough at seven per page that they were not overtly overwhelming.

Mr. Dressup meets House of Cards?
All the proverbs in the book had the Yiddish text first, followed by the English translation below it. Every twenty or so pages there would be a cartoon drawing to go along with one of the proverbs, which was a fun distraction.

Funny enough, when I first moved to Toronto, I went to the One of a Kind show looking for items to decorate my place with. The only thing I ended up buying was a print by Ian Kochberg containing a Hebrew proverb. To this day it’s the only thing adorning my walls, so you could imagine my enjoyment of reading a whole text of proverbs.

"In places where there are no good people, be a good person."
True to its title, 1001 Yiddish Proverbs did indeed contain 1001 entries. However, there were a handful of duplicates that appeared twice in different slots due to the Yiddish wording being slightly different. For example:

165: An alter freint iz besser vi a nei’eh tsvai. One old friend is better than two new ones.
328: Besser ain alter freint vi a nei’eh tsvai. / One old friend is better than two new ones.

621: Got shtroft mit ain hant, un bentsht mit der anderen. / God punishes with one hand and blesses with the other.
729: Mit ain hant shtroft Got un mit der anderer bentsht er. / With one hand God punishes and with the other he blesses.

But who's keeping track, anyway?
So in actuality, the book was more like 985 Yiddish Proverbs. Another interesting thing of note was how the proverbs would often contradict each other:

16: A friend you get for nothing; an enemy has to be bought.
18: A friend you have to buy; enemies you get for nothing.
665: There are no enemies for free; you have to pay for them.

38: A heart is a lock: you need the right key to it.
39: A heart is a lock, but a lock can be opened with a duplicated key.

592: Money causes conceit and conceit leads to sin.
594: Money rules the world!

What everyone did seem to agree on, though, was the role of women. While not quite outright misogynistic, none of the proverbs painted the fairer sex in a good light. Among the better ones:

64: A maiden is like velvet – come on, fondle her!
719: More blemish, more dowry.
905: When the wife wants the husband to stay at home, she talks less and cleans more.

If I had a nickel for every reference of a shrewish wife... I would have $1.15.
All in all, it was an entertaining read and while the proverbs skewed on the side of being more humourous than profound, there were nonetheless some gems in there that I will carry with me for a while so I shall pass them along:

56: A wise man knows what he says, a fool says what he knows.
71/400: Man thinks and God laughs.
189: When your enemy falls, don’t rejoice; but don’t pick him up either.
226: If you’re going to do something wrong, enjoy it!
386: The body is a sponge, the soul an abyss.
732: At night all cows are black.
1001: Everything ends in weeping.

Book rating: 9/10 (Half a point off for the duplicates)

Random quote: “They reveal the warmth of a people and, above all, their indomitable humor, well expressed in the proverb, ‘Suffering makes you laugh, too’” (Schadenfreude?)

Monday, July 1, 2013

W26: Great Men of Canada

Knowing that today was the celebration of our nation’s birth, the Biblio-Mat did not fail to deliver a relevant book for the week.

Half expected it to open up to a mirror.
Great Men of Canada delivered what it set out to do. Published for the Government of Ontario in 1928, author John Henderson covered the most important male figures in Canadian history as of the turn of the century. The book itself was a tightly bound 239 page hardcover that had the unexpected surprise of being an ex-libris piece with a name plate on the inside cover dating it as a Sept 1, 1928 addition to the Library of the Teacher’s Institute.

More curious to know what kind of glue they used...
Another interesting thing of note was that on almost every page, there was an illustration in orange ink at the bottom depicting a scene or event from Canadian history. Much like the Sergio Aragonés doodles in the margins of MAD magazine, it provided a fun distraction from the main text. The colour scheme of orange highlights with black text on cream coloured pages itself added a nice aesthetic value to the book and made it look more modern than it actually was.

Alright, so not quite exactly like a MAD margin doodle.
While it is missing some prominent figures of the 20th century, the list was hard to argue against. Not all the men in the book are household names, but after reading their chapters of exploits and contributions, you can understand why they have schools and random suburb streets named after them. 

Mackenzie did not get a chapter, but at least he had a photo in here.
The list along with their role in Canadian history in a nutshell:

John Graves Simcoe – First Governor of Ontario, abolished slavery.
Lord Durham – United Upper and Lower Canada.
Sir John A. Macdonald – First Prime Minister of Canada, probably the greatest Canadian in history.
George Brown – Acclaimed journalist and politician, founded what is now the Globe and Mail.
Sir Georges Cartier – Brought Quebec into Confederation.
Joseph Howe – Journalist and politician, fought for freedom of press, Nova Scotia self-government, and building a railway in the Maritimes.
Sir Alexander Galt – Helped establish the Confederation, founded Lethbridge, AB.
Sir Charles Tupper – Lead Nova Scotia into Confederation, shortest term in office as Prime Minister.
Sir Leonard Tilley – United the Maritimes and brought them into Confederation, created prohibition in Canada.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee – Worked towards Confederation, only Canadian federal politician to be assassinated.
Lord Strathcona – Helped build the first transcontinental railway, seemingly held roles at every prestigious position at the time, philanthropist who gave away a fortune.

Slightly more pensive than on the $10 bill.
The list was definitely skewed on a political angle to the forefathers of our country. While just due must be given, a lot has happened since 1928 and this list is far from comprehensive if one were to talk about the great men of Canada. Off the top of my head, I feel there is a strong case for the inclusion of these, even if they aren’t all political:

Pierre Trudeau – Promoted both Canadian nationalism and multiculturalism, helped create the The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Tommy Douglas – Father of Medicare (universal healthcare!).
Louis Riel – One of the founders of Manitoba, fought for Métis rights.
Alexander Graham Bell – Scientist, inventor, creator of the telephone.
Terry Fox – Embodiment of hope and will.
Wayne Gretzky – The Great One deserves a showing.
Chris Hadfield – Bowie in space is an automatic inclusion.

There are no doubt a lot more that I missed, so feel free to make some arguments for other inclusions.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (A great trek through Canadian history)

Random quote: “He still drained his mug of rum at eleven a.m. in order that he might be sustained until the time of his mid-day meal, and the real drink.” (Prohibition was doomed from the start)