Recent Reads: Story Time

Reading with a friend

So we moved across the country. Things are mostly settled, and M has started his new job. I’ve started my new (hopefully brief) chapter as a stay-at-home mother. I am still lining up my thoughts on all the recent changes, but I wanted to exercise my rusty blogging skills. Normally, I loathe doing similar posts in a row, but I need something lightweight before the full move recap and/or welcome-to-Portland post. For now, there is another post on books.

Little Bear's bookshelf

I brought only one book with me on our travels from Boston to Portland: a Fodor’s guidebook of Oregon. I have most of my fiction favorites in digital form on my iPad, so I saved the weight and space. Somehow, though, the kid managed to get us to carry along three hardcover picture books for his use. Happily, they’re some of my favorites, too, so I didn’t mind that we had to read them again… and again… over the first weeks after arrival.

Three Bears in a Boat cover

Three Bears in a Boat
David Soman
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN 978-0-8037-3993-2
At a library near you

This book was a gift to the Little Bear on his first birthday. Because of the nickname we gave him, bears have been a strong gift theme since the baby shower, and one of these three bears shares his name, so it worked nicely. I had never heard of the book or its author before. M read this one to LB first, once when I wasn’t around, and from then on, the little guy requested it regularly (“beahs in boats, Mama!”).

Sometimes I have to remind myself that children’s books don’t necessarily have to have strong storylines. Young kids in particular generally don’t notice narrative deficiencies (Little Bear was over the moon about this weird example, which both M and I found clunky and hard on the eyes). But I do prefer stories that move along at an appropriate pace and with good development. If the story can also be one that teaches some sort of lesson, so much the better (hey, their little brains are wrinkling furiously at this stage—might as well take advantage). This book fits the bill on all counts.

Basically, the three bear siblings do something they shouldn’t, and they set out to hide their mistake before their mother finds out. They have some adventures and learn that sometimes the best thing to do is to admit when you’ve done wrong and definitely don’t try to blame someone else. The story itself is pretty straightforward, but the setting and illustrations elevate it to magic. These bears inexplicably live on a tiny island that is surrounded by lots of other tiny islands, so their journey of discovery is mirrored in the literal journey they take in their boat. By making these bears seafarers (or explorers in general), Soman is able to introduce a range of fun characters and visuals, and our Little Bear never fails to point many of them out along the way.

M and I are most tickled by the expressions of the little bears and their mama. Even though these animals can verbalize their feelings, their faces speak even more clearly. These characters are only bears because it’s fun, not because it’s necessary. They could be cats or badgers or gryphons or even humans. Their faces transcend their species, because their species isn’t the point.

Three Bears in a Boat page detail

Zen Shorts Cover

Zen Shorts
Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2005
ISBN 0-439-33911-1
At a library near you

In this next story, the shorts-wearing panda’s species is the point (in that the other three characters are human) but then again it isn’t (no one seems to care about his panda nature after the initial surprise). I confess, this book (and, later, its sequels) was part of my personal collection long before Little Bear entered the picture. I first came across it in the picture book section at my first library job. I was firmly into my East Asia fascination at that point, so the title immediately grabbed me. The dancing panda holding an umbrella on the cover obviously didn’t hurt, either.

This was the first book I ever read to LB, back when he was a tiny wee baby. It felt important to me somehow. I am not Buddhist, but there is something timeless and universal about some of Buddhism’s tenets. They align with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule and other maxims about treating others well and generally being a good person. But they also reach a bit higher sometimes, to the nature of the self and existence. As I said above, I like stories with lessons, and I like that Muth was bold enough to present those lessons via ancient Zen and Taoist tales. Sometimes those tales tax the faculties of grown-ups. I think, with their openness and simple worldview, children are probably much more receptive to them.

Zen Shorts inside spread

Stone Soup front cover

Stone Soup
Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2003
ISBN 0-439-33909-X
At a library near you

Technically, this book didn’t make the trek with us. But this was one of Little Bear’s favorite books to check out from the library, so on our first visit to the venerable Powell’s, we got him a copy of his very own.

I’ve never specialized in children’s librarianship, but I do appreciate a beautiful book, so I can’t help but admire so many kids’ books these days. Making non-graphic “adults'” books gorgeous sometimes seems like pure marketing, but visual appeal is an innate feature of picture books. When I read picture books (and yes, I do read them for my own enjoyment), I like both intricate illustrations and the whole presentation. Two of my longtime favorite practitioners of the former are K. Y. Craft and Jan Brett. Muth’s illustration of the banquet in Stone Soup is very reminiscent of some of their work. You can get lost looking at this image (he repeats the exercise gorgeously in the trick-or-treat double-page spread in his Zen Ghosts).

I think one reason the banquet scene seems so vibrant (aside from the fact that he was probably going for it to support the narrative flow) is that the rest of the book, the whole presentation I love so much, is very subtle and quiet. His trademark watercolor style is so soothing and wash-filled, but he includes some really splendid details. This is the only published example of this story (Aarne-Thompson type 1548 if you, like me, are into that sort of thing) I’ve seen set in Asia, which is a shame. It clearly works well there, though that could just be because Muth depicts the setting so lushly. Long after your fourteenth (in a row) reading, your mind can wander off the story itself and find no difficulty getting lost in the pictures. The magic of books for the young and not-so-young alike…

Stone Soup interior spread

Recent Reads: Japanese, Japanese, Not-Japanese

Library books

I never stop reading, even in the midst of cross-country-move prep, but my interests rarely overlap with M’s. Which sucks, because sometimes you just want to talk about what you’ve been reading, you know? So, blog readers, you’re up. Here are some of my recent book choices and thoughts on the same. Agree? Disagree? Have other must-read suggestions? Feel free to comment!

Japanese Farm Food

Japanese Farm Food
Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4494-1829-8
At a library near you

I was surprised and a little ashamed by my reaction to this book. Reviews were glowing, people were swooning, and I’d been putting off reading it because I wanted to savor the anticipation as long as possible. I believed I would fall completely in love with it. But… I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful book. I’m a total sucker for pretty pictures of places and food. The typography is good, the color scheme is lovely, and the use of Japanese patterns for page edges and spine works well. I brought it home from the library and immediately sat down to read (I generally read cookbooks like novels first, then note recipes to try after). The reviews I had read were not wrong. Hachisu’s writing draws you into Japanese farm life (with a bit of an expat twist) and immerses you. She talks about how their bicultural life requires its own rules, but also notes how much they insist on maintaining old traditions. It left me feeling a little unsure of her point (of course, maybe she wasn’t trying to make one), and that feeling extended a bit into the recipes.

Sometimes she dismisses haute kaiseki cuisine and assures you that humble ingredients are just fine. But she is also sometimes extremely particular about local (virtually impossible to get elsewhere) and organic ingredients. This tied in well with her anecdotes and essays about local farmers and specialty food artisans, which were delightful and informative. But I was somehow left with the sense that apparently the only way to be authentically Japanese was to be a rural farmer. I own several Japanese-food cookbooks written by Americans and Japanese who didn’t marry farmers and move to the country, and the food is still authentic. I have (or try to have) no illusions about Japan. I know that it’s not all geisha and master craftsmen and high art. But I’d rather not swing the other way and ignore that part, either.

It’s telling that my favorite page in the book included images of traditional ryokan architecture and artisanal charcoal. Long story short: Hachisu’s work is immersive and it is evocative of her lifestyle. It’s just not a lifestyle that appeals to me. And that’s perfectly fine! I’ll check it out again. The recipes were still attractive, and I made note of a couple dozen to try. As an Elizabeth Andoh fan, I’m interested to compare the two approaches, both by American women married to Japanese men and living in the country for decades. I wonder if it will show a clear town-country distinction, or if it will simply be Japanese.

Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook
Susan Briscoe
KP Books, 2005
ISBN 0-89689-186-0
At a library near you

As previously mentioned, I’ve been dabbling in sewing lately. As with most things, it didn’t take me long to want to move from the basics to something new. My Japanophilia drove me toward sashiko, a traditional Japanese embroidery style generally acknowledge to have begun as decorative mending in rural villages. It’s just so simple and graphic that it immediately drew me in. I started looking for books to learn more (my eternal m.o.) but was generally disappointed. They always seemed to be about machine sewing, and I couldn’t let go of the feeling that sashiko was meant to be done by hand, that the machine was simply approximating the look and not the actual craft.

Reviews on Amazon led me to Briscoe, and I am so glad. Though the book cover looks similar to any number of those machine-based titles, the inside is anything but. The pattern library alone is swoon-worthy. It may be a shallow generalization for me to make, but I believe the Japanese have a word for everything, and it’s so interesting to learn the names of all the patterns. It’s also fascinating how much meaning is (or was traditionally) attached to each pattern. Different patterns were applied in hopes of particular outcomes (good harvest, safety, health of a child, etc.), and their popularity waxed and waned throughout history.

Speaking of history, Briscoe opens the book with possibly my favorite part: eight pages of the history of sashiko, liberally illustrated with objects and photographs from her own collection. She succinctly demonstrates the inspiration of various patterns, talks about how trade may have spread the art, and explains why it evolved the way it did. I love me some strong history to bolster the learning of a craft, so it was a no-brainer to fall for this book.

Interestingly, the only thing I wasn’t slavering over were the projects. Oh, I definitely aim to do some, like the samplers and greeting cards. But a coast-swapping move precludes starting new hobbies that require an outlay for tools and materials, so for now, I’m just getting inspired. Lots of promise but not practical yet. When I’m ready, though, this book (and Briscoe’s follow-up) will be my go-tos.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Denise S. May Levenick
Family Tree Books, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4403-2223-5
At a library near you

This book surprised me a little. I earned my library science Master’s with a focus in archives management, and I’m used to seeing popular writing on the topic that ranges from incomplete to downright wrong. I was pleasantly thrilled, then, when I flipped open Levenick’s book.

I found it when searching for works that bridged the scholarly-popular divide. I have a family reunion coming up, and lately there has been more discussion of the papers and (especially) photographs we hold that need some care. My training has taught me how to provide that care, but I do it almost exclusively in a library/archives repository setting. I’m unused to helping with the stewardship of private collections (aside from my own). I wanted some guidance on how to discuss the issues without, I hope, coming across as too academic or snobbish. (I also wanted a book I could just hand over for perusal, because let’s be honest: sometimes advice is easier to receive when it’s coming from a neutral party.)

Levenick’s book fit the bill so perfectly that, in a time when my impulse-shopping tendencies are firmly kept in check, I was ordering a copy on Amazon the day after I brought the book home from the library. Why, you ask?

Her chapters are concise and well-organized. She starts at the beginning (the idea of the family archive, the inevitability of someone becoming—not necessarily by choice—its keeper, the many and varied materials that might be involved) and takes the process step by step. There are plenty of checklists, worksheets, and resources to help keep track and take it further. Levenick addresses aspects of both intellectual organization and physical storage (including the dreaded plastic tubs), and she’s realistic in her advice.

That’s probably the biggest draw of this book as opposed to the more scholarly/professional books I own and consult for work purposes. The audience is not professional archivists but people who may abruptly find themselves caretakers of dirty objects, warped photographs, and disorganized files. Unlike professionals, who are expected (though not always able) to maintain industry best practices, the people Levenick addresses probably don’t have access to specialized tools and supplies, and she is matter-of-fact about that.

Her advice is remarkably thorough, covering physical objects, digital files, and genealogical recordkeeping in enough detail to be useful but not going so far as to be dizzying. It might help, frankly, that Levenick is not herself a professional. She does not have a library degree but instead pursued an informal education based on her genealogical and research needs. The information she collected formed this book, just as it informed her family archives stewardship. She learned these lessons honestly, and I hope I can share them with my family in the same spirit.

Note: This post was very spur-of-the-moment. I had some thoughts about a book and really wanted to get them out of my head and into a potential discussion. Though this is unlike anything I’ve written here before, I enjoyed it a lot and expect to make it an occasional series. There will be a brief break while we relocate, but my reading list for Portland is already nearing triple digits, so another Recent Reads post is inevitable.

Continuing Education: My Quest to DIY Rare Book School

Gold tooling and raised bands

I’ve previously mentioned that I work as a special collections librarian. I was whining in my last post, preemptively bemoaning a potential but as yet hypothetical change in my professional life. I might end up in modern records or academic repositories or back in public libraries, true. But for now, I work in special collections. Generally, this means that I help steward a collection of manuscripts, rare books, maps, broadsides, art books, plans, ephemera, and photographs. One of the loveliest things about my current position is how astonishing that collection is, yet how unknown in many cases (notably some of the books). It provides opportunities for professional education that a larger organization might not. We have a small staff, and few of us are experts when we start. We learn as we go. Which is good, because otherwise I would just stay in school forever.

If you work in special collections, you have probably heard of the shining institution called Rare Book School. It is exactly what it sounds like: a school that offers week-long intensive courses in myriad aspects of the history of the book and bibliography. There are similar programs in California, London, and France, as well as various other seminars, workshops, and degree concentrations around the globe. Trouble is, if you’re a librarian, you have almost certainly spent a lot of money (or incurred a lot of debt) already in acquiring your Master’s. A week-long class at RBS costs about half the tuition of one of my grad school classes, and I went to a relatively expensive school. There are fellowships and whatnot, but they are fiercely competitive and, of course, require time for application. What is one to do when you’ve already hit the ground running in a full-time job (but haven’t been there long enough to afford the money or time off)?

If you’re like me, you find another way. I already work in a special collections repository. My work has always provided the catalyst for and direction of my learning. Now I’m just going to guide it in a (slightly) more focused way, and I’m going to occasionally present my findings here on my blog. (I do also write for my library’s blog, but we try to stay away from too many posts just exclaiming aren’t all these books so pretty?! Which are precisely the sort of posts you’re likely to find here.)

They say that you’ve mastered a subject when you can teach it to others. The point of this experiment, however, is that I am no master. Think of this more as inviting others to join me on a path of exploration. And because my interests run broader than rare books alone, it’s going to be mostly Rare Book School but occasionally Special Collections School. I hope to learn a lot, and if you’re interested, I hope you will learn something, too.

This introductory post features images of details. One of the things I love most about the information field is the intricacy. There are details related to providing intellectual access (a typo can make an item impossible to locate). There are details of physical structure (though some of the most fascinating are hidden in the finished object). And there are details that accumulate during the life of the object (adding history and mystery along the way). I’ve assembled a small selection of some of those details here. Peruse, enjoy, ask questions, and correct me if you find a mistake! This is above all a learning process.

Long s and &c

This example shows the long or medial s (no, it’s not considered an “f”) that was once common in printed works. It also shows the archaic “&c” abbreviation used for “et cetera”.

Kunten

Kunten refers to the smaller characters to the right of the larger Chinese characters at the top of the page. They are a type of gloss that was used to guide Japanese pronunciation (then called furigana or rubi) or indicate Japanese readings in kanbun literature.

u-v and catchword

Manuscript example of the early modern u used for what would now be a v in the middle of the word. In the bottom right, a manuscript example of a catchword, duplicating the first word on the next page. In printed works, it was meant to help guide the binder in correct placement.

Signature, catchword, and long s

Signature mark “Q3”. Catchword “labours”, indicating the first word on the next page. Signature marks (and catchwords, as mentioned above) were meant to assist binders/printers in arranging pages correctly. You also see the long s throughout.

Wax seal and flourished signature

Seal impression in wax, accompanying the flourished signature of its owner. Wax seals are not always easy to find on manuscripts. Those used to seal correspondence were generally removed in the course of opening the letter. Those on legal documents like this one have a better survival rate.

Corner piece

Decorative cloth corner piece, or kadogire (角裂), on a traditional Japanese binding. They’re lovely but don’t allow air circulation, encouraging insects to take up residence. Rebound or newer books tend not to include them.

Printer's device

A printer’s device, or a symbol or emblem used by printers in early printed books. Here, an imposing example in a work printed by Vincenzo Valgrisi in Venice. You still see echoes in modern books in the form of (generally) smaller icons, monograms, or logos of publishers.

Signed binding

Binder’s stamp: “Bound by Wood, London” in gold tooling on a front turn-in. One of several types of binders’ evidence, which is itself a form of provenance. I cannot get enough of this kind of information, which is why I follow the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library‘s Provenance Online Project photostream on Flickr. I’ve solved some mysteries thanks to their photos, and I also just love to browse.

Filing notation

Many manuscript collections were formerly stored trifolded, with brief notations on one end to aid in filing. Most modern archivists do not find this charming, as large collections can take a long time to unfold. (Also, note the fractured wax seal.)

Clove brush line cover (and library label)

Clove brush lines were a common decorative cover style on traditional Japanese books, particularly in the 18th century. A dye made from clove flower buds, safflower, or grey ash was painted by hand, generally as horizontal or vertical lines or a lattice pattern.

Armorial binding

This work was rebound and gold tooled with the arms of the owner, William Henry Miller (1789-1848). Armorial bindings can be a rich source of provenance. An example of the process to trace them is this great post on Folger’s Collation blog. Incidentally, you should really follow their blog. It’s a fantastic glimpse into the work of a wonderful repository, made all the better for its decision to delve into cataloging and other issues that may pass the layman by. The comments on each post show that there is a healthy interest in such things among library and book folk (and others), and I am so glad that blog exists.

If you’ve made it this far, I assume that you might have at least a passing interest in the topic. In that case, allow me to suggest some follow-up reading… There won’t be a quiz, but it might whet your appetite for future posts.

Suggested Reading:

Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. New Castle, De.: Oak Knoll Press, 2004. At a library near you, or available as a PDF here.

Far and away the classic for rare book and bookbinding terms, this was one text assigned to me in my Rare Books and Special Collections Librarianship course. The print version is charmingly designed to include select terms on the appropriate parts of the book. The only thing that disappoints me, as I delve into non-Western books, is that its focus is very much European and North American. Still, it’s an authority for a reason and gives a great foundation.

UPDATE, June 2016: The long-awaited, illustrated (!) 9th edition will be published by Oak Knoll Press this summer. It has been revised and edited by Nicolas Barker and Simran Thadani (of Letterform Archive) and has me completely swooning.

Suarez, Michael, and H. F Woudhuysen, eds. The Book: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. At a library near you.

A far more affordable version of the OUP’s behemoth The Oxford Companion to the Book, this covers virtually every aspect of the history of the book in a series of neat, digestible chapters. From writing systems to the advent of print to censorship to books in virtually every region of the globe, you will probably find something of interest, and I hope you glance at the rest anyway.

Greenfield, Jane. ABC of Bookbinding: A Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians. New Castle, De.: Oak Knoll Press, 1998. At a library near you.

This work covers much the same territory as the bookbinding terms in the first item and the essays on structural evolution in the second, but it does so with hundreds of clear line-drawn illustrations. It also focuses on Western books, but it touches at least briefly on the other major structures from around the world. There’s also a list of notable binders, which I have taken to comparing to my library’s catalog, in hopes of finding examples in our collection.

Brookfield, Karen. Book. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000. At a library near you.

If the other three options elude or exhaust you, seriously consider this one. It doesn’t matter that it was written for children (or maybe it does). DK’s Eyewitness series is stuffed full of pictures, and, much like this humble blog post’s, the ones in this book are meant to draw you in. It very quickly runs through many of the same topics as Suarez and Woudhuysen’s Global History, but it does so accompanied by full-color photographs of examples. Let it hook you and push you to search for more, and I’ll be back with another DIY Rare Book School post soon.

Administrative Note

I am aware that this post adds a new subject to my blog that some people (hello, loving family!) find detracts from the previous focus on the toddler and food. In light of this, I’ve rearranged the structure a bit to better enable readers to stick to the parts they prefer. The menu at the top of the page has two main categories now: Life and Work, and each has a drop-down menu with related links. I will add separate RSS feeds soon to make it even easier, but for now clicking on “Posts” under either option gives you just those posts in that category. I appreciate any feedback on the effectiveness of this approach. Until I can afford the time and money to move to self-hosted WordPress, I have to work within the template at hand, and I’d really rather not set up a totally separate new blog. Comments, questions, or curses are welcome. 👇