Old Medical Books and Lindentree Literature’s First Historic Hottie

The November-December workload has consisted chiefly of dry, dusty leather-bound medical texts from the late 1700s to mid-1800s. I have inhaled more 200-year-old dust than I care to admit, but otherwise the venture has been fun. As you might suspect, the medical knowledge of those days is not what you would call sophisticated. Arsenic is a favorite homeopathic remedy, miscarriages are a mystery (maybe you didn’t take enough arsenic throughout your pregnancy?), and blood-letting ranks highly as a cure-all. And whereas breastmilk today is considered ambrosia for sick and premature babies, if you kept those little wains on the tit too long back in the 1800s you were actually thought to be damaging them more. Observe:

“There is one grand mistake, however, against which I must caution young mothers; which is, not to indulge the vain expectation that feeble infants will become robust, in proportion to their indulgence. On the contrary, it is the more necessary to be strict with feeble children, because they are feeble. To keep them hanging at the breast to invigorate them, is the very way to counteract our own intentions, and defeat our own purpose. Seasons of entire rest are even more important to their stomachs than to those of other persons.” -Wm. A. Alcott*, The Young Mother, or Management of Children in Regard to Health (1836)

Poor wains.

Quack science of course continues to exert itself, 19th century or no, so I won’t bore you with the obvious diatribe. Moving on, here’s a sample title from one of these medical texts: Eight Chirugical Treatises, on These Following Heads: Tumours, Ulcers, Of Diseases of the Anus, Of the King’s Evil, Of Wounds, Of Gun-Shot Wounds, Of Fractures and Luxations, of the Lues Venerea. Ah. Roll that around in your mouth for a bit. The King’s evil was a term for scrofula, a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes. Does not look pleasant.

I don’t know whether amputations of the leg at the hip-joint could be called better or worse than scrofula, but I also looked at a Civil War-era report on this very topic. I took some images for my own references just because the affected soldiers were posed like Odalisques, in various states of undress. Observe:


Continue reading

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Confessions of a Crazy Bookperson: Or, How I Sniff Rag Paper on a Regular Basis

In an effort to get this dirigible of a blog off the ground again, here’s an overview of this past week’s literary happenings.

Wednesday: Attended new eight-week course at Important Special Collections Library (not to be confused with Local Special Collections Library, where I humbly serve as volunteer and employee hopeful). To kick off, the class was split into two and each section taken back to tour the vault, where compact mobile shelving offered glimpses of fat, ribbed leather tomes. One aisle was tantalizingly marked ‘incunabula.’ In the half-light, I could see 550-year-old quartos and folios, so still and ancient that they looked like sleeping forest animals in a fairy tale. The instructor, whisking through the tour on autopilot, paused to open a flat-file at what looked like random. Within was a plate from Audubon’s Birds of America, the first I had ever seen. Only a glimpse of deep turquoises and aquamarines, then the tissue guard was laid over the illustration again and the file closed. He, and indeed the rest of the class, seemed unmoved. The vault was labyrinthine. Each door seemed to lead back into the room we had just walked through, but opened into an entirely new section. Here were some H.G. Well manuscripts, there were more hand-lettered vellum spines than I’d ever seen in my life. Ho hum. On we go.

Will I ever lose my romantic ardor for books? Working beneath a crabby, book-loathing used-bookstore owner for five years certainly didn’t blunt it. I doubt that the day-to-day tumult of a special-collection setting can dull it. Funnily enough, and I know I haven’t mentioned this yet, I have no desire to possess any of these books. My own library is mostly comprised of modest reading copies worth no more than four dollars. Yet rare and antiquarian books make me paternal. I want to cuddle, cradle, and stroke. I regularly crack open two-hundred-year-old volumes just to dip my nose in the margins for the dusty vanilla smell of rag paper.

I’m curious to see how the class progresses and I signed up to fill in the gaps, most likely innumerable, in my haphazard expertise.

Ongoing: Attempted to finish The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi. A Colin Firth film this is not. It begins briskly enough, with a comprehensive but concise biography of Mark Logue’s grandad, Lionel Logue, from birth until Logue’s transplant from his native Australia to London. Not surprisingly, there is far less drama in the bio than in the film. Although Prince Albert (the future King George VI) struggles mightily with a stutter before seeking out Logue’s assistance, the speech therapist’s treatment puts the Prince’s enunciation on an upward trajectory that never really flags. In fact, he made such good progress that he may have never needed Logue’s services again had it not been for his unexpected rise to the throne. There is no climax in a cinematic sense. Extraordinary events happen–King George V dies, Albert’s brother David takes the throne as King Edward VII and abdicates shortly thereafter for the love of a twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, leaving the underprepared Prince Albert to take the reins. World War II breaks out. But King George VI is faithful to duty, enlisting the aid of Logue again whenever major speeches are necessitated. The story is calm and factual. Extraordinary, to be sure, but not the most habit-forming read.

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Borges y Mi

Late morning, stormy. Early afternoon, stormy. Banks was holed up cozily in the Special Collections vault doing inventory of the rare and fine materials . . . 

Last week at the library, I took account of the Italian collection. There were some lovely old* volumes of Dante, with stiff vellum bindings and hand-lettered spines. The oldest book I stumbled across was from 1593. The collection I work with only has one incunable, so the 1500s is as aged as I am likely to see.

But I sense that you are more interested in this week’s work! The big find** today was a hardbound edition of one of Jorge Luis Borges‘s stories–you’ll forgive me for not remembering which–which was signed by the illustrator, translator . . . and Borges himself.

I would hate to be the person transcribing his manuscripts.

This is not the first nor the last time I will say this, but I am an ardent romantic when it comes to signatures. Just two weeks ago, I was rearranging, and by extension culling, our book collection***. Pascal and I both own volumes of Ficciones, one hardcover and the other softcover, but I couldn’t bear to part with either. One can never have too much Borges, I thought. And two weeks later, his signature beneath my fingers. He died the day after I was born, so this is the closest I can ever get to shaking his hand, to looking into his eyes or lolling on his floor like a plump white cat. That is the experience I get when I happen upon the signature of somebody whose words have sunk into me, numinously.

Briefly, the other diverting finds were of the Arts & Crafts persuasion. First, a set of Little Journeys signed by Elbert Hubbard and the illustrator who hand-colored the volumes. Then, a striking morocco-bound book, the binding all teal and silver falling stars, which within revealed itself to be a collection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Pascal and I are dedicated Arts & Crafts devotees, so its always a treat to see books by the movement’s founding fathers.


Apologies for the grainy cell-phone pictures.

*Alright, so the 1600s is hardly old for Signor Alighieri and his ca. 1310 book

**Local University is smaller and acquired a designated Special Collections librarian in the last decade. There was a pretty savvy curator who oversaw the collection in the ’70s and ’80s, but he did not get around to inventorying everything. Furthermore, materials acquired after he died were not necessarily inventoried properly. To catalog a rare or fine book “properly” means to note any special attributes: autographs; binding; press; typography; noteworthy illustrations, etc. Furthermore, the rare and fine collection is not the university’s big money-maker–the more unique collections are–and it has been neglected since the 1980s and we’re not 100% certain of our holdings. Hence the inventory

***Pascal and I have been absorbed in home renovation recently

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The History of Printing. And The Princess Bride.

Because the first post is always the hardest, here is what I’ve been reading lately.

1. The Book: The Life Story of a Technology by Nicole Howard.

2. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1. This one lives up to its somewhat dry and uninspired title, being a somewhat dry and uninspired book. Problematically for me, I’m already familiar with the history of printing, from papyrus to e-book. So this book was basic review (although I finally did learn what Linotype and Monotype are). The arguments Howard makes for the book as a technology are standard, too: streamlined and / or mechanized production –> high quantity of cheap books –> greater dissemination of information. Howard’s text also explores how in its early days, the printed book allowed for the proliferation of heretical, humanist ideas concerning science and religion. Both of these arguments, if you could call them that, are givens. Furthermore, the chapters are split up by subheadings of uneven lengths–some a few paragraphs, some a few pages long–a choppy format that makes the book a choppy read. The book is a functional introduction to the history of printing if you’re not familiar with it, but I’m more partial to Michael Olmert’s The Smithsonian Book of Books, which traverses the same territory in spicier language and does it with gorgeous, full-color pictures.

Maybe I’m disappointed because I expected something meatier and more daring. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, anyone?

2. Ah, The Princess Bride. I was not one of those children for whom the movie adaptation was formative, although I came to appreciate its cheekiness and non-sequiturs as an adult. I found a brand-new copy of the book in a thrift store a couple weeks ago and have been reading it as an escape from the looming responsibilities of grad school.

Like Wuthering Heights, it is a nested story. Unlike the movie adaptation, the bookends are not Peter Falk and his grandson, but William Goldman and his life. Real elements of his life. In fact, I was so tricked by his blending of fictional details with autobiographical ones that I had to Google The Princess Bride and make sure that there really was no S. Morgenstern. Even though I’ve been working in bookstores for years and knew that Morgenstern was a literary device. That’s how good Goldman is.

So far it’s a swift and smooth read, a veritable creme brulee of books. With frequent asides delivered within parentheses–asides ostensibly from Morgenstern but impossible to divorce from the author himself–it is meta-fictional from start to finish. Also provocative is Goldman’s subversion of the romantic fairy tale. Here is a love story told from a man’s caustic point of view. Lest Goldman be accused of sexism, he is cynical toward the behavior of both men and women in a very Jane Austen sort of way. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is a delight to read.

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