Notes from Underground

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Last September, during typhoon season, I was in the Chinese city of Macao at the invitation of a local literary festival to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Luís de Camões, the Portuguese national poet and author of the epic Lusiads. Like many things to do with the shadowy life of Camões, the […]

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Cooking the Books

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Who owns a recipe? Although the publishing and legal worlds in the USA and UK today agree that you cannot copyright a list of ingredients and instructions, the food world is full of fights over rights. Some restaurants and chefs, particularly in the USA, scrap over the rights to signature dishes created by the cook […]

Learning from Werewolves

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Before he became known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien taught English language and literature at Oxford University. Back then, his area of expertise wasn’t yet Middle Earth but the medieval poem Beowulf, about a legendary hero who fights terrible monsters. Already interested in the fantastical, Tolkien had […]

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The Past Is Another Cupboard

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Archives’ sound like something sorted, suggesting that the evidence of a life, a community or an institution has been collected in a way that will enable future generations to study it or simply turn over pages and get some sense of it. The word has a soothingly completed feel to it. But how mistaken that […]

The End of the Long Lunch

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1984, when I started working at the book trade journal The Bookseller, many of the most prominent publishers of the day were within walking distance of our office near New Oxford Street. Jonathan Cape, the Bodley Head, Michael Joseph and Hodder & Stoughton were in Bedford Square. André Deutsch, publisher of Updike, Naipaul and […]

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To Brideshead Born

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

My parents burdened me with two middle names. Three forename initials were commonplace once – sported by the captain of an MCC touring side in the 1920s, say – but nowadays they are a nuisance. Official forms allow for only one middle name, although if there is space I shoehorn both in, somehow feeling I […]

The Maker’s Hand

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1935 the critic Walter Benjamin published a now-famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he argued that new technology for making high-quality copies would render originals largely worthless. When indistinguishable copies could be had easily and cheaply, the line between the ‘real thing’ and the reproduction would […]

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Marginal Interests

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I didn’t recognise the book on my shelf. In fact, I barely noticed it, scanning the titles quickly for a different one I had mislaid. But somehow the thin, tattered spine of its  dust jacket caught my eye as it rested in the shadowed end of the bookcase. It was one of my dad’s from […]

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Deconstructive Criticism

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida first met in 1966 at the salad bar of a Baltimore hotel (Lacan holding, we are told, a plate of coleslaw; Derrida’s choice is unrecorded), they immediately leapt into conversation about Lacan’s great concern regarding his new collection, Ecrits, which was about to be published. The concern was a […]

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Summer in Weimar

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The English-speaking world has no precise equivalent to Weimar, which is at once a beguiling historical town and a place of passionate literary pilgrimage, most of all to the shrines of Germany’s uomo universale Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Stratford-upon-Avon, the first comparison to come to mind, has a prestigious theatre and so does Weimar, but […]

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No Reading, Please, This is a Rare-Book Shop

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

On the third day of a careers seminar on selling rare books, we opened up to questions from the floor. A young participant grabbed the microphone and cocked her head at us accusingly. ‘I’m finding it hard to gauge whether any of you actually, you know, enjoy reading,’ she said. I glanced along the table […]

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There’s a Cow in the Library

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Around a table in Cambridge sit twelve people, each absorbed in a book. There’s an atmosphere of intense concentration, but they’re not reading. Or not exactly. They’re pulling tabs and string, turning dials, lifting flaps and manipulating all kinds of other bits and pieces. It’s all part of a London Rare Books School course on […]

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Sing Him Victorious

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sometimes you realise that words you know by heart, even sing now and then, don’t quite make sense. The perfect example is the National Anthem. It’s the ‘send’ in the fourth line (‘Send him victorious’) that always strikes me as odd. I have a recollection of raising an objection to it at my primary school, […]

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They Died So We Could Read

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Nowadays, the average reader gives little thought to the actual material their books are made of, perhaps because those materials are unimportant to the text itself. Back in the Middle Ages, however, the relationship between writing and writing surface was a bit more complicated, with the former shaping the latter and vice versa. To illustrate […]

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Her Cottage Industry

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

For Nancy Cunard, the Second World War was a time of heart-hurting silence. She was working in London, cut off from her home in occupied France. No word came from her many friends there; she had no way of knowing the fate of Le Puits Carré, the cottage in the village of La Chapelle-Réanville in […]

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Shakespearean Samizdat

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Bending over a vitrine at a rare-book fair, a father and son asked me to name the most exciting discovery I’d ever made inside a book. ‘What sort of thing?’ I asked, thinking of pressed flowers, locks of hair, tram tickets. ‘Have you ever found a treasure map?’ It surprised me that it was the […]

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My Dearest Dust

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

An autumn evening long ago, rusty hedges lining minor roads, mist in the headlights. The church was down a lane between flat fields, a shuttered barn to one side, wide oak gates ahead. I had persuaded a car full of student friends to take this diversion off the homeward road to Cambridge because of a […]

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Grain Waves

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The private-press world is somewhat arcane and tends to be little known and appreciated beyond those who work in it and outside the membership of obscure bodies such as the Wynkyn de Worde Society and the Double Crown Club – named respectively after Caxton’s assistant and an old paper size. Books printed by private presses […]

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Meetings with Ezra Pound

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Auberon Waugh, formerly editor of this magazine, could be a cruel tease, as I recall from my time at Downside, where he was two years above me. Met a little later, in the Catholic chaplaincy at Oxford in 1960, Waugh was politeness, charm and restraint. One of his early feats was to torment Ezra Pound […]

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Matutinals & Lucubrators

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure’ is the celebrated incipit of Du côté de chez Swann (1913), the first part of Proust’s giant masterpiece. Going to bed at a decent time has never been one of my accomplishments, though I’ve tried. Working for three years in the late 2000s in Indonesia, an equatorial […]

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