Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925

Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925 by First Edition Club
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For “books on books” freaks like me, this is a fantastic read. Basically, it’s a detailed catalogue of all of Lord Byron’s published material known at the time of the First Editions Club conference in 1925. It pulled from two amazing collections, Mr. Wise and Mr. Murray (yes, of that Murray family). Explicit details of editions, layouts, sizes, signatures, etc. This is the hardcore stuff. I was a happy reader.

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The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (translated by John Conington)

The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of HoraceThe Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace by Horace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was happy to find an eBook version of Horace’s Odes that were translated by John Conington. I have his Aeneid queued up on my shelf and it’s always neat to read multiple works translated by the same person. You kind of get a feel for how they see the original language. But, having found a cool copy of what I wanted to read, I wasn’t overly thrilled with Horace. I’m glad I read this and will turn to it again in the future, I am sure. At least to read two odes that dealt with the seasons and were beautiful.

Book I, Ode 4 (“Solvitur Acris Hiems”) was a wonderful homage to the coming of spring, surely something that many of the Romantic poets must have read and enjoyed:

The touch of Zephyr and of Spring has loosen’d Winter’s thrall;
The well-dried keels are wheel’d again to sea:
The ploughman cares not for his fire, nor cattle for their stall,
And frost no more is whitening all the lea.

The other piece I liked covered the full turn of the seasons, Book 4, Ode 7 (“Diffugere Nives”):

Naked the Nymphs and Graces in the meads
    The dance essay:
“No ‘scaping death” proclaims the year that speeds
    This sweet spring day.
Frost yields to zephyrs; Summer drives out Spring,
    To vanish, when
Rich Autumn sheds his fruits; round wheels the ring,—
Winter again!”

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Reading across the globe

I’ve read a few interesting articles lately about trying to find fiction books that come from more diverse sources. Much of what we read comes from a predominately white, male group of authors. And living inthe US means most of them are American. This isn’t to say many of those books aren’t great. But, there are plenty of great women writers, and writers of different backgrounds in the US. There are also many options from countries across the world. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been exposed to some of these writers. I thank independent bookstores and online sites that highlight “unconventional” authors.

So, I got to thinking about what I’ve read and tallied up authors from 57 different countries. I thought that was pretty cool.  I’ve read almost all of them in English or English translation, but I’ve read several in French, one in German and snippets of pieces in classical Greek (Homer, Plato, Euclid and a few others). For some of the countries, I only read a short story, but each thing I read was both similar and unique.

I thought I’d share some stats. Countries I’ve read books from: Algeria, Australia, Austria-Hungary, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America and Wales. I have read one or more novels from 27 different countries. For eight of those countries, I’ve read both male and female authors. They are England, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, the US and Wales. I only read a female author for Brazil (Edla Van Steen), Czechoslovakia (Iva Pekárková), and Lebanon (Hanan Al-Shaykh).

I’ve read short stories from Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Egypt, Finland, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.  Most of these came from three books: An Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, Arabic Short Stories and Best European Fiction 2010.

This post isn’t meant to “toot my own horn” but to show people that there are so many books out there that are a pleasure to read and mind-expanding.  As you can see from my blog, I read a great deal of 18th and 19th century British literature and poetry, but I still seek out other ideas, other points of view to enrich my life.  I still have a lot to read!

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Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical ProblemFermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember sitting in an office with a friend and downloading his proof when it was published. I had a small background in abstract algebra and I was able to get through a few pages, but then became utterly lost. I was still enthralled and flipped through it like it was a gift for my birthday! Based on recommendations from two people, I jumped into Simon Singh’s book on Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Singh is a fantastic writer. His writing is lucid and fluid: never too many words, but also never too few. I enjoyed the mathematical background (and enjoyed working through the appendices), historical tidbits, how mathematicians work and the actual story of Wiles’s approach to the proof. It was a detective story with a touch of romance and history to it. It was exciting as each piece of the puzzle came together. I knew the ending and I still couldn’t wait to work through each page!

I enjoyed the history that Singh provided, from the classical Greek mathematic Pythagorus, up through the centuries to Fermat and then to the present. This was a lovely romp through my two true academic loves: mathematics and classical studies. I was happy that he incorporated the story of female mathematicians into his narrative, something I didn’t know and that rarely pops up in general discussion of great mathematicians. Also, I enjoyed the chapter devoted to Yutaka Taniyama and Goro Shimura, and their conjecture that sought to equate modular forms with elliptic equations. This conjecture was the ultimate lever that Wiles used to prove Fermat’s theorem.

Singh also builds a strong case for pure research, even into seemingly unimportant topics. Fermat’s theorem was a cool idea, but on its own, it really didn’t seem that crucial. Yet the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, and the follow on work by Gerhard Frey and Ken Ribet, tied a solution to something that would unite disparate parts of very important contemporary mathematics. Fermat provided the motivation, originally by accident, to improving modern mathematics. Wiles said “the definition of a good mathematical problem is the mathematics it generates rather than the problem itself” (p. 163).

As for Wiles, he did amazing work and fulfilled his childhood dream. The book ends with a quote from him that I take to heart: “I had this very rare privilege of being able to pursue in my adult life what had been my childhood dream. I know it’s a rare privilege, but if you can tackle something in adult life that means that much to you then it’s more rewarding than anything imaginable” (p. 285).

My problem with Wiles is that his success was due to other people doing what he refused to do. I think Singh implies it occasionally. Wiles succeeded because he was able to look at the work and ideas that other mathematics published. Taniyama, Shimura, Frey, Ribet and others had interesting insights directly or indirectly related to Fermat’s Last Theorem. They could have kept those ideas secret, like Wiles did. But, that would have slowed, or possibly stopped him in his tracks. He kept his task secret for seven years, even going so far as to publish unrelated work to throw people ‘off the scent.’ I know this was his lifelong dream and he wanted to solve it on his own. But, mathematical progress seems fastest when ideas are put out into the community and others can add their points of view. This isn’t meant diminish Wiles’s intellect or accomplishment, but it makes me wonder if Fermat’s theorem and the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture could have been proved sooner. Most mathematicians, including Wiles, seemingly went into mathematics due to the beauty of the system, rather than for money or glory.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, from people with no interest in math up to PhD’s at the top of the field.

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Poems by Mr. Gray: A New Edition

Poems by Mr. Gray: A New EditionPoems by Mr. Gray: A New Edition by Thomas Gray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My interest in Horace Walpole led me to Thomas Gray. They were fellow students and close friends until they clashed during a grand tour of Europe. They mended their friendship somewhat, and Walpole even printed some of Gray poetry at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Press. In this collection of poetry, there’s even an ode that Gray wrote after the accidental death of Walpole’s beloved cat, Selima.

My edition of this work opens with an advertisement by the publisher, John Murray. He is addressing a lawsuit raised by another publisher, the Rev. Mr. Mason against an earlier printing of these poems. Murray strongly takes on Mason and delivers a scathing critique of Mason’s suit and Mason’s practices in general. Today, someone reading such an exchange might say “oh, snap!” In an short biography, also by Murray, he says of Gray: “a propensity to melancholy, the constant attendant of genius, was observable” (p. xxiii). So true.

I think the best poem in the collection was “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” I thin he absolutely nails nostalgia, the innocence of childhood, the desire to look back as one ages but the realization that it was a different time and you can’t go back. He writes well of the innocence of with

Alas! regardless of their doom
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today”

I lived that and can imagine myself saying that today.

“The Descent of Odin” is a poem that Gray translated from the Norse language. It reminded me of Homer’s epics. The previously mentioned “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” ends with a great warning, for the cat and for all of us, “Nor all that glisters, gold.” The sentiment is very old, and was used by Chaucer and Shakespeare before Gray used it to end his piece.

“Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” is one of Gray’s most remembered poems, and I enjoyed it except for the epitaph at the end. Some research suggests it was added after an original draft. I think it cops out a little, taking the reflection, melancholy and resignation at death out of the poem. In the main body, I enjoyed:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Await alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave

The Notes at the end of this edition were also enjoyable, more so on a meta-level. They made me pine for a better classical education, for myself and others. Thankfully, I have enough of a classical education to realize that I need to learn more. Examples of what induced these feelings were quotes in classical Greek from Homer and snippets from Shakespeare, Dryden and other important writers.

For me, one of the beauties of poetry is its ability to evoke an emotion or trigger a memory that then evokes the emotion. And a poem that is timeless is even better, in that it also connects me to the writer and times in which they wrote. Coleridge once said: “Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in the best order.” I have been lucky in that many of the poems I’ve read over the last few years have been the best words in their best order.

I finished the book yesterday and am writing my thoughts a day later. I remain confident that it deserves 5 stars and I’m happy to have read it.

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The Prisoner of Chillon and other Poems by Lord Byron

The Prisoner of Chillon and Other PoemsThe Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems by George Gordon Byron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read several books on books in a row, it was nice to get back to some poetry. This was a great volume to choose. The title piece was wonderful. Its rhythm was excellent. Byron used nature to cheer the prisoner, but not in a way that diminished the despair or hopelessness of the situation. It was a moment of beauty that wasn’t over-written. He captures the sadness of the prisoner’s food and the cruelty of his captors:

Our bread was such as captive’s tears
Have moisten’d many a thousands years
Since man first pent his fellow man
Like brutes within an iron den (lines 134-137)

I originally bought this volume for ‘Darkness’, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is an apocalyptic tale that was influenced by a real world Indonesian volcanic eruption that affected weather throughout Europe (darkness, cold weather, etc.).

‘The Dream’ is a sad tale of young lovers who went their separate ways yet never could forget each other. As the man reflects while he is getting married, his new bride wasn’t “The Starlight of his Boyhood” (line 148).

Overall, a great read that I will come back to again.

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The Bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press by A.T. Hazen

A Bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press: With a Record of the Prices at Which Copies Have Been Sold, Including a New Supplement,A Bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press: With a Record of the Prices at Which Copies Have Been Sold, Including a New Supplement, by Allen T. Hazen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic! I love the details of everything that came off the Strawberry Hill press. I also enjoyed Mr. Hazen shine light on forgeries, unauthorized prints and items incorrectly assigned to the press. He covers the history of their printing, citing from various sources, including the original journal of the press done by Horace Walpole. The facsimiles of title pages and other printed items are joyous to behold. This bibliography is true biblio-porn!

I love seeing bibliography used not just as a dry recording method, but as a tool to solve mysteries, date printings, reconstruct history and uncover forgeries. Hazen inspected many copies of each item, comparing fonts, paper, watermarks, etc., to figure out which items were true editions and which came later, produced by Strawberry Hill’s at times unscrupulous printer Thomas Kirgate. For example, Hazen looks closely at an item that was supposed to have been published in 1757 and was quite valuable. Upon inspection, he finds that the font used in this particular edition hadn’t been invented until 1764, hence the piece was done at a later date and “pre-dated” to increase its value (pp. 154-158). This bibliography is full of interesting examples like this one.

For anyone interesting in Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole, 18th century society, or small press printing, this is a great read.

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