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Germany’s Parthenon of Banned Books

In Kassel, Germany, at the place where the Nazis once burned books by Jewish and Marxist writers, Argentinian artist Marta Minujín built a huge tribute to free speech called the Parthenon of Books. It featured more than 100,000 books donated by the public.


John Lithgow’s Broadway show sparks hunt for obscure 1939 short story collection

John Lithgow performing in Stories by Heart at the Roundabout Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

New York theater-goers are scrambling to find copies of a long forgotten 1939 book of 100 short stories featured prominently in John Lithgow’s one-man Broadway show, Stories by Heart.

Lithgow’s show is based around Tellers of Tales, a collection of stories selected by English author Somerset Maugham.  The actor’s father, Arthur Lithgow (also an actor and director), read stories aloud from the book at bedtime to his family and Lithgow has that actual well-worn copy in hand during the show, which opened on January 11. Arthur Lithgow would act out the stories, making an indelible impression on his son, and John Lithgow returned the favor by reading the book to his father while caring for him in his later years.

Published by Doubleday Doran, Tellers of Tales has been out of print for decades. All copies that were listed on AbeBooks.com have been sold this week at prices ranging from $8 to $120. AbeBooks could have many more copies if they were available. Only a print on demand version of Maugham’s collection of stories is now available. Due to the book’s age and obscurity, it’s likely that only a small number of original copies still exist.

Lithgow’s Broadway show is about old-fashioned storytelling and is inspired by those bedtime hours listening to his father. He acts out two short stories from Maugham’s collection – Ring Larder’s Haircut and P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By.

Maugham (1874-1965), known as W. Somerset Maugham, was a playwright, novelist and short story writer, who enjoyed great popularity between the two world wars. His most famous book is Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical novel. There have been numerous film adaptations of his writing.

This PBS interview shows Lithgow with his family’s copy of Tellers of Tales and explaining its significance.

Lithgow – who has won awards for his stage, TV and movie work – is best known for his roles in 3rd Rock from the Sun, The Crown, The World According to Garp, and Terms of Endearment.


Reading the hours – the medieval experience of the bible

The Saxby Psalter Hours circa 1425-1440

This blog post first appeared on the Medieval Text Manuscripts blog where the team at Les Enluminures delve into the world of medieval manuscripts

by Christopher de Hamel

This post takes a closer look at what’s in a Book of Hours, which is arguably the most important text of the late Middle Ages.  This is why.  If we are ever to understand social history of any period, we must go to what was known and used by the largest number of people at that time.  One could claim that the Divine Comedy or the Roman de la Rose or Beowulf were the greatest medieval texts, and one might be right, but ultimately these were part of the experience of only a tiny percentage of the population.

The Book of Hours, however, was the first text read all across Europe by all people at every level of literacy.  Its words reached an enormous audience, more than any written text had ever done.  It was the book from which medieval children were taught to read.  It was a text which most people knew by heart. Its phases were the most familiar usage of the Latin language for several centuries.  Extraordinarily, although the more famous literary monuments have been published thousands of times, there is still no modern critical edition of the text of the Book of Hours.  It would be an invaluable publication for the study of language and daily life, and as a record of the aspirations and fears of everyday people.

The historian Eamon Duffy has famously said that the history of prayer is as important and as difficult to document as the history of sex, and for many of the same reasons. The Book of Hours brings us directly into the mindset and intimate thought process of a medieval person. They are very private and personal.  The prayers on death, plague, warfare, travel and bad weather, all found in Books of Hours, touch us with a vividness that no literary text can ever evoke.

To understand the Hours of the Virgin one must go back to the medieval understanding of the Annunciation.  Around the year zero, the archangel Gabriel appeared to an ordinary woman in Nazareth to tell her that she had found ultimate favour with God.  Implicitly, every Christian woman since that moment aspired to such supreme perfection.  What was the Virgin Mary doing at that precise holy instant?  According to medieval tradition, she was interrupted while kneeling in private, reading passages from the Old Testament in a prayer book.  She is shown doing precisely that in the picture for Matins in almost every Book of Hours.

Books of Hours were probably mostly used by women.  The texts of the Hours of the Virgin were made up almost entirely from the words of the Bible which Mary could actually have been reading and thinking about.  Probably 85% of the text is extracted directly from the Bible.  It comprises psalms and quotations from the Old Testament prophets, interspersed with the words with which the Virgin was interrupted, “Hail, Mary” and “Blessed art thou among women.”   In reading these texts, a devout medieval woman recreated for herself the identical experience of the Virgin Mary, opening herself to divine favor.

Hours of Philippote de Nanterre circa 1420

The Hours of the Cross in a Book of Hours were similarly devised to help evoke the experience of the final day before the death of Christ.  Any Christian man was encouraged to imagine suffering the torments of Christ himself, but a woman too was taught to imagine watching the Crucifixion.  The Virgin, attended by Saint John, appears in nearly every picture of Christ on the Cross.   This is why pictures of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are the two most common images in all of medieval art and in every Book of Hours.

The Seven Penitential Psalms in a Book of Hours were reputedly written by King David in remorse for having committed every one of the seven Deadly Sins.  Again, this is a text taken directly from the Old Testament.  In reading them devoutly, the owner of a Book of Hours was repeating the exact words used by David, who was ultimately restored to God’s favor.

The Office of the Dead was a reminder of the imminence and unpredictability of death.  The most substantial parts of its text are taken from the Book of Job, also in the Old Testament.  Every imaginable disaster happened to Job and yet he endured and came through; and in reading the text the medieval owner of the manuscript shared that experience of humanity with humility and patience.  Probably quite literally millions of people had their lives and outlooks on life affected by these ancient texts.

Most collectors now regard Books of Hours exclusively as picture books by illuminators, but in actually reading the text and looking at the images we are transported into the presence and into the most intimate thoughts of men and women (especially) of 500 years ago.

Find more articles at the Text Manuscripts blog.

Christopher de Hamel is the author of several books, including the recently published Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World.


First David Bowie book club pick becomes a used bestseller

Duncan Jones says his father was a “beast of a reader.”

David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, has launched an online book club to honor his avid reading father, and its first pick, a novel originally published in 1985, is already a bestseller on AbeBooks

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

Jones described his father, who died in January 2016, as “a beast of a reader,” and got the book club up and running on Twitter by naming Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor as the debut selection.

Alright gang! Anyone who wants to join along, we are reading Peter Ackroyd’s “Hawksmoor,” as an amuse cerveau before we get into the heavy stuff. You have until Feb 1. ❤️

– Duncan Jones

This novel was last published in 2010 and is out-of-print, so Bowie fans have turned to the used book market to find copies. Yesterday, Hawksmoor was AbeBooks’ bestselling book and most searched for title.

David Bowie’s official Instagram account said: “Hawksmoor is in DAVID BOWIE’S TOP 100 BOOKS list, indeed it’s one of the books we illustrated in our montage back in 2013. It’s also a work we’ve loved for a long time here at DBHQ, since David first recommended it many years ago.”

Hawksmoor won Best Novel at the 1985 Whitbread Awards and the Guardian Fiction Prize. It’s described as postmodern by critics. Two stories run in parallel but in different eras – one character is building churches in 18th century London while a modern 1980s detective is investigating murders committed in the same churches.

Ackroyd, a CBE, writes mainly about the history and culture of London. He has written biographies on artist William Blake (seen as the best, most readable bio on Blake by some), author Charles Dickens and poet TS Eliot.

There has been much interest in Bowie’s list of favorite books since his death from cancer. The list stretches from Homer to modern bestselling authors like Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz. Bowie was rumored to read a book a day, and his taste ranged from A Clockwork Orange to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Saul Bellow’s Herzog, as well as Orwell, Faulkner, Kerouac, and Capote.

Find copies of Hawksmoor


When Book Covers Came of Age

We take beautiful book covers for granted these days. Subtly or blatantly, they tell us so much about books’ content and mood. It’s hard to imagine browsing without them! But as Martin Salisbury explains in the introduction to his own beautiful book, The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920 to 1970, just published by Thames & Hudson, book covers were once simply protective wrappings, designed to be discarded.

Salisbury says, “It was not really until the 1920s that the jacket as we know it today became a familiar sight in bookshops and the art of book jacket design became an important branch of the applied arts and an area of opportunity for artists.” And what artists they were, from the Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to Milton Glaser, N.C. Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Tomi Ungerer, and Edward Gorey.

We hope you’ll enjoy the following excerpt from The Illustrated Dust Jacket.

The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970

Introduction, by Martin Salisbury

In 1949, the then editor of Graphis, Charles Rosner, curated the first international exhibition of book jacket design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Of around 8,000 jackets in the museum’s collection, 460 were selected that were “deemed to be worthy of hanging on the walls of a national museum.”  Presumably, such a statement addressed the possibility of the illustrated dust jacket’s aspirations to the status of art. The jacketed books in question were selected for the outstanding quality of the artwork that adorned them and the extent to which each one fulfilled its function in exciting interest in the book itself. The word “illustrated” of course embraces the use of a variety of forms of imagery, including photographic, hand drawn or painted. This book is particularly concerned with the last of these – the work of artists whose hand-rendered pictorial illustrations were reproduced on book jackets over a period of fifty years, from a time when publishers were beginning to see the possibilities of high-quality artwork in this context around 1920, to one when photography increasingly began to usurp the traditional artist’s skills at the end of the 1960s. The purely typographic tradition, exemplified by the work of Berthold Wolpe at Faber and Faber in these years, is also outside this book’s remit.

In Rosner’s later publication, The Growth of the Book Jacket (1949), he quotes from a deliciously pompous comment on the exhibition in the Observer newspaper by the essayist, caricaturist and general wit Sir Max Beerbohm. Writing from his home in Italy, Beerbohm pronounces:

I gather that to many other arts has now been added the art of the book-jacket, and that there is an exhibition of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I doubt whether, if I were in England, I would visit this, for I have in recent years seen many such exhibitions. To stand by any book-stall or to enter any book-shop is to witness a terrific sense of internecine warfare between the innumerable latest volumes, almost all of them violently vying with one another for one’s attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and color. It is rather like visiting the parrot-house in the Zoological Gardens, save that there one can at least stop one’s ears with one’s fingers, whereas here one merely wants to shut one’s eyes.

Beerbohm, by then in his late seventies, was of a generation that had seen the book jacket grow from its humble origins as a purely functional plain protective bookseller’s wrapping in the nineteenth century, to something closer to the illustrated jacket with which we are familiar today. Beerbohm was not alone in being somewhat underwhelmed by the virtues of this emerging area of the graphic arts. In his Dent Memorial Lecture in 1936, Richard de la Mare, a member of the board of Faber and Faber, commented that:

The history of the book jacket is a strange one. The wretched thing started as a piece of plain paper, wrapped round the book to protect it during its sojourn in the bookseller’s shop; but it has become this important, elaborate, not to say costly and embarrassing affair, that we know today, and of which we sometimes deplore the very existence. How much better might this mint of money, that is emptied on these ephemeral wrappers—little works of art though some of them may be—be spent upon improving the quality of the materials that are used in the making of the book itself!

Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent

Such skepticism about this nascent field of creative endeavor was clearly not uncommon despite the contribution of a number of outstanding artists, who were beginning to apply their talents in this direction. Among those doing so in the UK were Edward Bawden, John Piper, Barnett Freedman and Edward Ardizzone, while in the USA, jackets designed by N. C. Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Arthur Hawkins, Jr. and Cleonike Damianakes were adorning some of the great works of literature. In fact, far from working to the “fallacious doctrine that the loudest shout brings in the most customers,” these and other artists were contributing to the development of a new art form that the Book Jacket Designers Guild defined in terms of “successful integration of concept with graphic means, taste in design and idea, and expression of the spirit of the book.” The Guild had been formed in New York in 1947 by a group of graphic artists who were applying their talent to this field. They were keen to raise its profile and to gain wider recognition for designers and illustrators who were creating something a little more subtle than a squawking parrot.

More generally, the illustrated dust jacket as an integral aspect of the hardback book has been variable and patchy in its evolution around the world. In many cultures, including China and Japan, the jacket seems to have been something of a rarity. In Japan, the obi, a wraparound paper band much smaller and narrower than a full jacket, is used to give most of the textual information about the book, and folds over the printed boards, or sometimes over a jacket. Within mainland Europe there has been variation too, with some countries tending towards the use of illustrated stiff-card wraps as part of the binding, extended to form flaps that fold in and contain further information. For many years in France, certainly until the mid-1930s, the ubiquitous yellow paper jacket printed with black letterpress type prevailed. In Eastern Europe, the richly inventive graphic traditions were often applied in the form of printed, paper-covered boards rather than the detachable jacket. An exception was during the Weimar Republic. In that period, Germany, and Berlin in particular, was at the epicenter of avant-garde experimentation in book art and design, with richly varied approaches, including photomontage, pictorial typography and painting.

There is thus an inevitable bias in this overview towards the English language book. Though even here there can be found differences between British and American developments, as greater emphasis was placed on formatted series with consistent visual identity in Europe, whereas US publishers tended towards a more individualist approach to commissioning jacket designs. From the illustrators’ perspective, the emergence of the dust jacket opened up a new source of freelance employment. It would be rare, however, for an artist to be seen as specializing in jacket design; most would need to work across many other areas of commercial art. Nonetheless, the critic Steven Heller has observed that jacket design in America in the late 1940s “was still practiced by a small tight-knit group.” He quotes Ben Feder, one of the founding members of the Book Jacket Designers Guild, as recalling that, “There were probably no more than thirty artists working on a regular basis.”

The Otterbury Incident illustrated by Edward Ardizzone

In view of its origins as a plain protection to be discarded on purchase, and the relatively recent acceptance of the detachable jacket as an integral part of the book and its identity, it is ironic that for today’s book collectors the jacket is key—the presence of an original jacket on a sought-after first edition now greatly adds to its value. And if the design of the jacket is by a highly acclaimed artist, then that value will often increase further, at a time when awareness and appreciation of the book as a designed artifact is growing.

Before attempting to trace a brief history of the dust jacket, it might first be advisable to untangle the terminology, which has become confusing. The first “jackets” were generally referred to as “dust wrappers” and were exactly that, plain paper wrappings that protected the booksellers’ wares from the dust and dirt of the city up until the point of purchase. At which time the buyer would immediately discard it in order to enjoy the often ornately decorated leather binding that it had protected. The term “jacket” specifically describes the detachable paper cover that wraps around the hardback book, extending beyond its overall length and folding in at either end.

These “flaps” hold the jacket in place and are usually printed with information relating to what the book is about. The jacket’s role as a protector has diminished over the years as it has become primarily a form of display and promotion, a mini-poster that gives a taste of the contents, catches the eye and, once picked up, leads us to a “blurb” about the author and perhaps advertisements for other titles from that author and/or the publisher. Although book jacket would seem the more proper term now for this object, dust jacket has clung on tenaciously in everyday language, long after its role in protecting the book from dust and dirt has become redundant. And although opinions vary among scholars, bibliophiles and the general public as to whether the jacket should be seen as part of the book itself or as an entirely separate, ephemeral addition, it would seem clear that the jacket is a historically important indicator of, and contribution to, contemporary graphic style and visual culture.

Although the almost universal early tendency to discard the jacket has hampered later scholarly research, it used to be generally accepted that the first printed dust jacket was for The Keepsake of 1833 for the publishers Longmans in London. Until 2009, this was considered to be the earliest surviving example of a designed wrapper printed front and back, with a title design on the front (including border and decorative fleurons) and text on the back advertising other titles in print. Then a librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library unearthed an example from 1830: a printed wrapper for a book called Friendship’s Offering. However, in general through the 19th century publishers were slow to see the possibilities of the jacket as a promotional tool. The jacket itself became an increasingly common phenomenon as leather bindings were gradually superseded by cloth-covered boards, but most of them continued to be in the form of plain paper. Occasionally, transparent glassine coverings were supplied, which allowed a view of a pictorial binding. Plain jackets were also produced with die-cut “windows,” giving a glimpse of what was underneath.

By the early 20th century jackets were becoming increasingly common but design tended to be limited to the addition of an image taken from the interior of the book or some form of random decoration. It was not really until the 1920s that the jacket as we know it today became a familiar sight in bookshops and the art of book-jacket design became an important branch of the applied arts and an area of opportunity for artists.

Dance of the Quick and the Dead illustrated by Barnet Freedman

The process of arriving at a design for a book’s jacket is and has always been a collaborative one. Those involved include some or all of publisher, designer, illustrator and printer. Once the brief for the work is agreed, accommodating whatever house/series style or other ingredients are required, the design begins. A jacket might be purely typographic or may combine typography and image, photographic or illustrative. As indicated, this book is concerned with the latter and aims to spotlight the high-quality pictorial art and design that adorned the jackets of books through much of the twentieth century and, more particularly, the contribution of the artists and illustrators who created that work. Terminology is again an issue here and, happily, for a considerable portion of the period under discussion, the words “artist” and “illustrator” were not quite as irreconcilable as they are today. Some of the leading gallery artists of the time engaged with the design of book jackets, particularly in the immediate postwar years, notably John Craxton, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Keith Vaughan. In many instances “artist” and “designer” were one and the same person.

A well-designed jacket requires close synthesis between type and image. Some of the best designs therefore have been by artists who were comfortable working with type themselves, often in the form of hand-rendered lettering, or by artists with an empathy for type and able to consider the overall balance of the design  in relation to the ideas of the typographic designer. As Steven Heller has observed, “successful cover design requires the expertise of an artist, typographer, poster designer and logo maker,” For much of the period surveyed by this book, the artists also needed to have a thorough grasp of the reprographic processes by which their work would be transferred to paper if they were to achieve the best results. Understanding and exploiting the limitations of, for example, letterpress line-block separations or autolithography was a feature of the work of a number of artists who became particularly influential in Great Britain, notably John Minton, John Nash and Barnett Freedman.

The legendary American designer George Salter outlined some of the key skills of the pictorial jacket designer in his article The Book Jacket in 1950:

The question whether a jacket can be designed by one artist and lettered by another may be answered in various ways. As it is possible to use an old print or photograph for a certain function in a jacket it must also be possible to combine the work of two artists in one jacket. Both drawing and lettering are a means to an end: the jacket.

Salter goes on to make it clear that the design process must always come first and that lettering and image must be considered in harmony from the outset. Equally important is the artist’s sensitivity to the text. An ability to absorb fully a book’s meanings and “tone” is essential:

Two elements not necessarily interrelated establish today the basic requirements for the makings of a good book jacket: graphic interpretation of the book’s intrinsic character and the method by which the publisher wishes to promote the title.

And on the importance of reading the full manuscript rather than submitting to publishers’ instructions or designing on the basis of a plot synopsis, he is even more unequivocal:

It seems utterly paradoxical to think that a person who makes it his profession to promote reading should voluntarily claim exemption from it for himself.

Salter was the chairman of the Book Jacket Designers Guild and he and his fellow founders were keen to counter the rise in sensationalist and titillating pulp-fiction design. Salter’s writings in the catalogues of the annual exhibitions have a somewhat evangelical and at times puritanical tone, perhaps reflecting the ongoing battle to gain acceptance of their work as a serious area of creative endeavor. Eventually, however, the importance of maintaining a record for scholars was acknowledged by the Library of Congress in the USA in the form of an archive of almost every published example. In the UK, what is now called the British Library Dust Jacket Collection had been started in the 1920s, initially in the form of a selection of jackets that were chosen on the basis of being of particular artistic interest.

Phocas the Gardener illustrated by Edward Bawden

As in most areas of the commercial arts, the graphic style of dust jackets through the twentieth century generally mirrored the fashions and movements of the times, and some are outlined on the pages that immediately follow. However, in the case of the more pictorial, illustrative jackets featured in this book, an artist’s unique personal visual vocabulary could often transcend fashion and in some instances lead to a long career. Artists such as Boris Artzybasheff, Bawden and Victor Reinganum employed their instantly recognizable talents across many decades without needing to reinvent themselves artistically in order to accommodate changing graphic trends and motifs. But others came and went or cleverly developed multiple visual personalities that brought them commercial reward but perhaps less cultural, critical acclaim.

What was clear as the century wore on was that the pictorial design of dust jackets was becoming an increasingly appealing and prestigious area of employment for the illustrator. Having your name on the dust-jacket flap (or perhaps even a discreet signature on the front of the jacket) could mean considerable exposure for the artist and, on occasion, close association in the public’s mind with great works of literature. Conversely, for some authors it would be seen as a major boost to have the work of certain high-profile artists gracing their covers or jackets. Regrettably, many dust-jacket designs also appeared with no acknowledgment of the artist, with some publishers being more routinely guilty of this crime than others. Of course, ultimately, as the writer Jhumpa Lahiri observes in The Clothing of Books, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist. The great majority of covers, like our clothes, don’t last forever.” Nonetheless, I hope we can extend the lives of a few in this book.

Excerpted from The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970, by Martin Salisbury

© 2017 Martin Salisbury

Reproduced by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.

This article first appeared on the Amazon Book Blog.


Vietnam War documentary turns Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried into AbeBooks’ bestselling book of 2017

The PBS documentary offers testimony of nearly 80 witnesses from the war

Ken Burns’ epic 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War has turned Tim O’Brien’s 1990 collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, into AbeBooks’ bestselling book of 2017.

The series, directed by Burns and Lynn Novick, cost more than $30 million and took over 10 years to produce. The first episode aired in September and it has been widely acclaimed for bringing a new perspective to the conflict, which ended in 1975.

A 1990 first edition of The Things They Carried

The documentary uses numerous interviews with ordinary combatants from both sides. Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in the 23rd Infantry Division, is one of the interviewees. The Things They Carried is a collection of connected short stories about a platoon of American soldiers. Usually classified as fiction, The Things They Carried blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. O’Brien includes himself as a protagonist and some of the narrative is semi-autobiographical.

The Things They Carried tackles numerous themes from platoon camaraderie to family ties, religion and death. There are stories describing events before, during and after the war.

According to news reports, the PBS premiere of The Vietnam War attracted an audience of 9.6 million viewers, which made it PBS’ most popular show since the series finale of Downton Abbey in March 2016

Donald Trump’s on-going clashes with Senator John McCain, a former US air force pilot and Vietnam POW, may also have contributed to demand for The Things They Carried. In 2015, Trump said about McCain, “He’s not a war hero, I like people that weren’t captured.” McClain repeatedly opposed Trump initiatives in 2017 and revealed Trump had never apologized for his 2015 remarks. Trump, who visited Vietnam in October, received five deferments, according to the New York Times, from serving in the Vietnam War.

O’Brien also published a memoir in 1973 on his wartime experiences called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. In 1978, he wrote a Vietnam War-themed novel called Going After Cacciato, which won a National Book Award for Fiction.

The top 20 bestselling books on AbeBooks in 2017 also includes The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which enjoyed a revival following a TV adaption in 2017, and three more war-themed books in Night, Catch-22, and All Quiet on the Western Front. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, first published in 2013, also saw a revival thanks to PBS, which aired a documentary based on Brown’s rowing book in August.

AbeBooks’ bestselling books in 2017

1 The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

2 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

3 Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca Cavallo & Elena Favilli

4 1984 by George Orwell

5 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

6 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

7 Night by Elie Wiesel

8 The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

9 East of Eden by John Steinbeck

10 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

11 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

12 We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

13 All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

14 Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

15 Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

16 The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

17 A Separate Peace by John Knowles

18 A Game of Thrones (book 1) by George RR Martin

19 Holes by Louis Sachar

20 In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


William Carlos Williams – the poet behind the plums in the icebox meme

It’s been fun to watch the numerous Twitter memes riffing on the “This Is Just To Say” poem about plums in the icebox written by William Carlos Williams in 1934.

A signed photo of William Carlos Williams

The original poem, a true example of modernist poetry, goes:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The meme sees people applying the style of zero punctuation and sharp, short wording to numerous pop songs such as Mambo #5, Ice Ice Baby, and Call Me Maybe. It’s one of Twitter’s more cerebral memes of recent times but it’s wonderful to see poetry alive and vibrant… even when there’s a Vanilla Ice connection.

Williams was an influential poet in his day and even contributed the introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. This Is Just To Say is taught in American high schools but today almost no-one buys books of William Carlos Williams’ poetry. AbeBooks has only sold seven copies of his books in 2017 and we usually do very well with poetry since regular bookstores rarely carry large selections.

Williams (18831963) paid the bills by working as a physician. He was chief of pediatrics for Passaic General Hospital in New Jersey from 1924 until his death. In his spare time, he wrote short stories, plays, novels, and essays. His modernist style of poetry was not always well received although he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems in 1963.

In 1920, he published a book of experimental prose and poetry called Kora in Hell: Improvisations., which was dubbed “incoherent” by American expatriate poet Ezra Pound. His 1923 collection, Spring and All, was overshadowed  by TS Eliot’s Waste Land, which was universally acclaimed. He published an autobiography in 1951 and copies are easy to find.


8 unscrupulous ways that cigarettes were promoted in vintage adverts

Television and newspaper adverts warning about the risks of smoking are now appearing across the United States as the result of the landmark 2006 legal ruling that finally concluded tobacco firms misled the American public on the dangers of cigarettes.

These ads are not being placed by cancer charities or health organisations – they are funded by the major tobacco companies themselves, under the orders of the US federal courts.

But just how much did the tobacco firms mislead people? We looked at tobacco adverts placed in numerous vintage magazines from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s offered for sale on AbeBooks.com. The ads showed cigarette firms were using almost every marketing ploy in the book to promote their products, ranging from celebrity endorsement to lifestyle advertising and technical mumbo jumbo extolling health benefits.

1 Cigarettes are healthy

For years, Lucky Strike cigarettes claimed their “toasting” process made their cigarettes better for you than the smokes offered by rival companies. Interestingly, they admitted that “harsh irritants” were present in raw tobacco but their manufacturing process removed them.

“It’s toasted. Your Throat Protection – against irritation – against cough.

“Harsh irritants present in all raw tobacco are expelled by toasting. They are not present in your LUCKY STRIKE. No wonder LUCKIES are always kind to your throat.”

Fortune Magazine, June 1931

This ‘ancient prejudice’ advert from Lucky Strike takes the scientific technical jargon a step further, claiming “harmful corrosive acrids” have been removed by the toasting process.

“No throat irritation” – a Lucky Strike advert from 1929

Craven A cigarettes combined health, a sporty lifestyle and two beautiful people in this to-the-point advert from the Illustrated London News in August 1934. At least the polo player is wearing protective headwear. “For your throats’ sake – smoke Craven A.”

Craven showed the upper classes enjoying their cigarettes

2 Celebrities smoke – cigarettes must be good

Anyone who was anyone flogged cigarettes in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s. Ronald Reagan, during his acting career, often appeared in cigarette adverts. Our examples show Fred Astaire and his sister Adele endorsing Chesterfield cigarettes during their run in The Band Wagon musical on Broadway in 1931, and John Gilbert appearing in a Lucky Strike advert that appeared in the September 1929 issue of Photoplay magazine. Gilbert was one of the stars of the silent movie era, rivaling Rudolph Valentino as Hollywood’s leading man.

Fred and Adele Astaire selling Chesterfields

Silent movie star John Gilbert selling Lucky Strike smokes

Even Santa Claus smokes according this seasonal Lucky Strike ad, which appeared in the January 1937 issue of Needlecraft Home Arts Magazine. We could have lived with Father Christmas puffing on a pipe but a cigarette simply looks wrong.

Naughty or nice? Santa smoking a cigarette

3 Cigarettes are cool

Adverts portraying cigarettes as the essential element in a cool lifestyle were commonplace. This Fortune Magazine advert from August 1930 shows a beautifully designed beach scene with three good-looking young people enjoying their cigarettes. It’s Jazz Age style personified.

An example of lifestyle marketing

4 Cigarettes are fresh

Camels claimed their cigarettes were fresher than the smokes offered by the opposition. Their “Humidor Pack” apparently guaranteed freshness and the copywriter doesn’t hold back on the hyperbole in this advert that appeared in Fortune Magazine in June 1931. “Now, wherever you go, you can always be sure of getting a fresh, throat-easy cigarette when you demand Camels.” There’s nothing to explain the actual properties of a Humidor pack.

Camels claimed “Humidor” packs made a difference

5 Smokers are in good company

This Camels ad from a Fortune Magazine in 1930 mirrors the Art Deco imagery of JC Leyendecker and tells us that “the road to pleasure is thronged with smokers.” Amazingly, smoking was only banned on US domestic flights in 1990 after years of campaigning from the Association of Flight Attendants. However, it took another 10 years before smoking was banned on flights between the United States and foreign destinations.

“Road to pleasure is thronged with smokers”

6 Athletes smoke – they must be good

Health and celebrity combined – smokers can’t lose. This vintage Chesterfields ad from 1947 shows tennis player Bobby Riggs, football star Sid Luckman, golfer Lloyd Mangrum, baseball slugger Ted Williams, basketball star Nat Holman and swimmer Adolph Keifer – the crème de la crème of American sports. Imagine any sports star from today being prepared to be photographed with a cigarette hanging out their mouth like Riggs in 1947?

Some of America’s top sportsmen endorsing Chesterfields

7 Cigarettes are worldly

Well, Turkish ones are. That the message that Murad used in their advertising in the 1920s. No health message, no technical jargon – just be an international man of leisure without ever leaving home by smoking their brand. The highly stylized imagery shows little expense was sparred in the development of this 1921 advert.

Murad promised worldly pleasures without the travel

8 There’s research too

This plain and simple 1943 magazine advert from Old Gold openly talks about nicotine and “throat-irritating tars and resins” but also mentions that research shows the superiority of their cigarettes. As is typical with any research referenced in advertising, there is little detail supplied to the reader.


China in Print – Asia’s leading fair for rare books, prints, maps & ephemera

“Peking Dream Pillow” offered by Asia Bookroom

China in Print is Asia’s premier international fair and exhibition for rare books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and ephemera with a particular focus on printed material from Asia itself. The three-day fair is set in the central waterfront location of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and features some of the leading specialist dealers from Australia, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Sweden, United Kingdom and the USA. AbeBooks is thrilled to once again be a sponsor of this event.

Fine Books Magazine has previewed the event on its blog.

Among the highlights at Asia Bookroom’s stand will be two color woodblocks on oban tate-e sheets, diptyche style, satirically depicting the Opium War. Known as the Peking Dream Pillow (see above), it was created by Japanese artist Imaizumi Ippyō in 1884.

One of the fair’s most popular exhibits is bound to be the “lost” Agatha Christie manuscript notebook at Lucius Books. The unpublished notes relate to her novels, A Murder Has Been Arranged and They Do It With Mirrors, and her plays, Spider’s Web and Miss Perry. According to the seller, “Of the 74 Agatha Christie notebooks known to exist, this recently discovered one is not only the richest in content but is the only one outside of the author’s estate.”

And from Jonkers Rare Books: a Jessie M. King hand-painted vellucent binding of The Story of Rosalynde (1902), made for Cedric Chivers. It has been called “The most beautiful, and certainly the most ornate” of King’s vellucent binding designs.

The event runs November 17 -19 at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum Special Exhibitions Gallery, Central Ferry Pier No. 8, Man Kwong St, in Hong Kong.

Friday 17 November 16.00 – 20.00
Saturday 18 November 12.00 – 19.00
Sunday 19 November 12.00 – 16.00

Admission is free. Visit the fair website for more information.


175-year-old fig leaf just sold for $660. Find out why.

This might be the world’s most fragile piece of art – a gouache painting on a Chinese fig leaf from the 19th century that had been mounted on paper. It’s just sold for $660 on AbeBooks.com.

To be accurate, it’s from a peepal tree, which is also called Ficus religiosa or the sacred fig, a tree native to South-West China and the Indian subcontinent. Sometimes known as Bodhi trees, the Peepal is strongly associated with Buddhism and monks often meditate beneath its branches.

These delicate miniature paintings were produced in the 19th century in order to satisfy demand from Europeans for Chinese art and novelties. The seller estimated that this painting was created around 1840. Very few of these Chinese leaf paintings have survived for obvious reasons. Gouache is a type of watercolor.

The painting shows a riverside scene that probably depicts the 18 Arhats, who were the original followers of Buddha. A group that followed the ‘Eightfold Path’ and attained the ‘Four Stages of Enlightenment.’ These disciples are frequently portrayed in Chinese Buddhist art. You can also see the delicate outline made by the leaf’s skeleton on the left side of the paper.

It’s hard to imagine a more fragile or fleeting piece of artwork – one gust of wind or some clumsy handling and this beautiful leaf could be gone.

There are modern artists using leaves as canvases for paintings, but will their artwork still be around in 150 years?