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June 2014

This title is sixth in the series of Dr. Quirke, Dublin police pathologist, and his associate Inspector Hackett.  I bought it in Dublin in 2014 on Grafton Street.  "Benjamin Black" is the pen name of the reputed novelist John Banville, a fact trumpeted on the book!

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It is easy to read and full of local colour in 1950s Ireland when the Roman Catholic Church ruled all.  The streets, the rain, the repressed atmosphere are all there drawn with a light hand.  I said 'repressed atmosphere' but none of the characters seems particularly to feel that, but much is forbidden but so well forbidden for so long perhaps people don't even think about it. And yet Quirke has a sinful, sexual relation with an actress, his wife having died earlier.

The plot concerns the news today from that time, the sexual use and abuse of children, and to add the exotic, some Tinkers (travellers, gypsies) and their argot.  That latter seemed a strain to me.

There is nicely done scene where Phoebe, Quirke's daughter feels some lesbian impulse, no doubt a thread to be picked up in the next novel in the series.  I also liked Quike's hallucinations and that, too, would seem to be a thread for the future.  He is last seen in this having a head X-Rayed to see what, if anything, is causing his blackouts.

Like the heroes of many krimies Quirke spends far too much time feeling sorry for himself, and yet is irresistibly attractive to every woman he meets.  

The resolution of the weak plot was cheap and nasty.  Yet I will certainly read on, by starting with the first in the series.

I re-read Hanah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," inspired to do so by the film "Hannah Arendt."  By the way, the subtitle "The Banality of Evil" is implicit in the book and stated only on the last page by way of conclusion on page 252.  At the end of this review staunch readers will find a note about Howard W. Campbell at the end.  (Don't know about Campbell? Then read on to find out.)

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Despite the furore at the time, portrayed in the film, Arendt did not:

1. In any sense exonerate Eichmann, 
2. Condemn Jews in any way, 
4. Blame Jews for their own destruction, 
5. Assail the court proceedings, 
6. Oppose the death sentence, 
7. Question the legitimacy of the trial, and
8. Assert that Eichmann was a Zionist.

Though each of these lies was said at the time dutifully repeated by those that do not think but react.

Once one of these falsehoods was said, it was repeated by other journalists too lazy or irresponsible to check the facts, long before Rupert Murdoch could be blamed.  Needless to say none of the journalists who recycled these falsehoods ever apologised.

Nor was such intellectual laziness limited to journalists.  Over the years I have heard them from academics who should know better than believe everything they read, something they quickly condemn in students while doing it themselves. 

First things first, the role of Jews in their own destruction is there, reported as fact throughout the book, the local organization of the Jewish Council.  Where a Jewish Council did not exit the Nazis tried to set one up.  Some Jews who cooperated with the Nazis in these councils were later themselves tried for crimes in the Successor Trials that followed The Nuremberg Trials but not specifically for crimes against Jews.  She does not sensationalise this Jewish cooperation, and acknowledges that in its early stages in Western Europe it may well have seemed the best thing to do.

She also points out that others cooperated in their own destruction at times when whole peoples were moved, deported, and then murdered.  Likewise she is very clear that resistance was impossible.  

In all these references to Jewish cooperation amount to, say, fifteen pages of the 300 in the book.  Perhaps a little more.

Second, it is forcefully argued that Eichmann in Jerusalem was demonised in order to allow the trial to tell the whole story of Jewish persecution and destruction.  That is why the prosecution introduced volumes of material that had nothing to do with Eichmann.  He was a cog, albeit a vital one, but nonetheless a cog, not a director, decision-maker, influencer of others.  He was a cog who could have been easily replaced.  But the trial was not about him, and is that not what trials are supposed to be about, the defendent. In exile on Argentina, Eichmann did boast of his part in the Final Solution, true, but perhaps he did this to ingratiate himself with the exiled Nazis he found there as much as anything else. Men do brag and exaggerate, now don't they?

Third, all the nations occupied by the Nazis had Successor Trials shortly after the Nuremberg Trials.  None of these trials presented indictments about murdering Jews. Having no state, Jews did not.  Israel as the Jewish state had as much right to hold such trials as any other state, she concludes.

Eichmann's self-defense was that the emigration, evacuation, and destruction of Jews were acts of the German state which were above the law and normal morality.  Though he did often refer to orders, "ein befehl ist ein befehl," and even mentioned Immanual Kant. His six-day interrogation, his testimony in the trial, his many written submissions are muddled, inconsistent, repetitive.  He was working only from memory in Jerusalem and he was not a bright man to begin with. No Albert Speer he.

While rejecting resistance as a possibility she also reviews and dismisses the pop psychology explanations of the Jewish cooperation in their own destruction as some kind of death wish. One reviewer of the book said the same of her.  That she had written a negative book about Jews because she hated herself as a Jew.  There is no limit to imbecility.

All of Eichmann's social, intellectual, bureaucratic superiors knew and accepted the destruction of Jews.  Who was this functionary, one-time salesman, to judge compared to them?  Remember not all the professional officials were Nazi thugs.  At The Wannsee Conference where Eichmann did the coffee, Count Ernst von Weisacker represented the Foreign Office.  Eichmann was thrilled to be in such distinguished company at the time.  

There seems also to have been a big difference between the approach to the Final Solution in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe.  In the east there was no local government, e.g., Poland, a puppet government, e.g., Croatia, or a Fascist ally like Hungary.  Sometimes for a while Western European Jews had some protection afforded by their own governments, although Jewish refugees say in France were surrendered quickly.  But by 1944 even this protection was not enough.  Italy seems overall to be the best place for any Jew, including refugees who could disappear into the crowds, hills, forests.  Bulgaria is another country where the unwillingness of locals to cooperate stymied the Nazi killing machine.  Belgium is another exception because there many, many Jewish refugees and almost no Jewish organization, the Nazis had no place to start. But almost from the start German, Polish, and Russian Jews were murdered on an industrial scale. By 1944 nothing stopped the Death Machine.

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Eichmann on trial

Her argument is that the crimes were unprecedented and so the justice done them had to be likewise unprecedented.  [Everyone knew they were crimes which is why all the euphemisms were used. She does not consider this point, though she notes how seldom there was an explicit reference to extermination, killing, murder, etc.]. Law serves justice.  Law should not thwart justice. No graduate of a law school would ever say that!

She has many criticisms of the lackadaisical and incompetent defense attorney who seemed to neither know nor care much about the events, Eichmann, or the trial.  She is also very scathing about the melodramatic, wandering prosecutor who never seemed to focus on the accused.

In the end we have great evil partly done by this pathetic, hardworking, if stupid and unimaginative individual.  He was shallow, unread, incapable of learning from his experiences, unreflective and untroubled by what he was doing.  What he did care about was his career advancement and he spent lot of time, rather incompetently, trying to secure promotion.  He never read a book, certainly not a novel, a poem, or a play, and probably nothing more taxing than a few pages in coffee table books, if that. He flunked out of both high school and vocational training. He repeated clichés and stock phases he heard without grasping their meaning or their trite nature. He is no Faust aware that he had sold his soul to the devil for a few magic tricks.  

The Nazis were able to destroy as many Jews as they did, in part, because Jewish communities were so well organized and disciplined.  When the Jewish Council in Poznan told a list of families to assemble at the train station for resettlement, they did.  This order made the fiction easier to bear, as Eichmann dimly realized, but it made the killing easier.  If the Jewish Council had told the truth, it is not resettlement but murder, or refused to cooperate the result would have been terrible, but perhaps fewer would have died.  Perhaps.  It is a question Arendt asks, and she speculates that fewer would have died though with foreknowledge and dread.  Does the doctor tell the terminal patient the truth of allow the patient to die in hope? 

Safe to say we have all met people like this Eichmann, but fortunately none of them held the power of life and death over us.  They even exist in universities, a PhD is no guarantee of thinking. [Jackson pauses to recall several exemplars.] We all react to stimuli but seldom do any of us think.  Some people never do.  Ameboa react to stimuli, too.  

Not everyone who does great evil is a fearsome demon.  Readers may recall that in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Brothers Karamazov" the devil that visits Ivan is a dirty, smelly, stupid, and vulgar lout.  He is no Mephistopheles, but rather Anyman.  Simone de Beauvoir said something similar about Pierre Laval, evil but insignificant. Of course, years after their crimes, defeated,captured, reduced to prisoners, not even vicious killers seem very threatening.

The book exudes urgency and importance.  The prose is hard and clean, no embellishments, no learned references, very few citations of other studies though some. It is easy to imagine the author pounding it out on a typewriter to meet a deadline, not an editorial one, but In this case a moral one, namely get it all and get it right. There will never be another chance. Of course, she made mistakes in proper names, sometimes, in dates by a week or a month, and there are overstatements a few times. These errors have been pounced on by reviewers for years, who themselves evidently have never made a mistake, to discredit the entire book.

I noted that the Dutch journalist Harry Mulisch is cited a few times.  I found his novel "The Assault" a compelling book, ditto the film based on it.  Infinitely sad and yet somehow satisfying it was when the message is at last delivered.  That would have been a better name for the novel, "The Message."

Assault.jpg

In reading this book again I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night" and it's protagonist Howard W. Campbell who never laid a finger on anyone, spied on Nazis at great personal risk, sublimated his own personality to his espionage, and .... was a war criminal because "you are what you do."  

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A detailed and comprehensive biography of the man, includes much of his family life and personal relations, as well as his long career as a diplomat, which started at his father's knee.  The trials and tribulations of his wife following him around Europe and the east coast of the United States, with repeated miscarriages and small children in tow is exhausting.  What she put up with is remarkable and yet as the author intimates the norm of the time though exaggerated in the case of JQA.

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JQA had three distinct but interacting careers, the first as a professional diplomat, second as the sixth president, and third, subsequently, as a Congressman for nearly twenty years.  Throughout these careers he wrote and published poetry, and earned a little money from it, very little.  There was no family wealth and he earned his own living and had constant money worries.  One of the attractions of Congress after the presidency was the (pitiful) income.

There were many achievements in the diplomatic career, hard won though they were.  He also did some noteworthy things as a Congressman.  His least successful career was in the White House, and the poetry.

Because JQA spent so much time in Europe he saw, met, and mixed with many of the great personalities of the age including Napoleon, Wellington, Humphrey Davy, Russian emperors, Jeremy Bentham, Prussian generals, Italian inventors, etc.  on his brief returns to the United States in Boston, New York, or Washington he mixed with the leading lights in politics (Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, James Monroe) and inventors like Robert Fulton.  

His diplomatic career started at age 13 when his father, in Paris to secure French support for the Revolutionary War, was sent to Russia to interest it in commercial contacts, and Adams Senior took along his prepubescent son, JQA, as secretary-translator.  JQA has been schooled for several years in French in Paris and was fluent at his age level, and the language of diplomacy was French, and the language of the Russian court was also French.  Adams Senior never learned any French despite his many years in Paris on several missions.  

JQA's last diplomatic posting was to Great Britain as ambassador.  In between there was an array of appointments as minister (ambassador) to the Netherlands, Portugal (though this fell through before he embarked for Lisbon), France, Berlin, and back to Russia, and also many ad hoc missions to negotiate commercial contracts here and there.  The most significant of the latter was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812.  

The major themes of the book are:

Jefferson ran for president as the anti-Washington establishment candidate, as later did Andrew Jackson.  

The French decadent and absolutist monarchy supported revolution but USA has much more in common with the more egalitarian, mercantile English. My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Identification with France of the southern Jefferson and his embryonic democratic party versus the identification with England of New Englanders like the Adamses.  The Jeffersons wanted a weak central government and strong states (to protect slavery) as the price of their adherence to the Union.  The New England Federalist wanted a strong central government to hold the union together to protect rights and make for commerce.  To the Jefferson democrats a strong central government was monarchical.  Besides the tariff the only source of funds would be from the sale of western land, but the pressure was to sell cheap, not dear.

Tension between the human rights of the Declaration of Independnce the reality of slavery.

The effect of the 3/5ths counting of slaves allowed the south to dominate the House of Representatives where presidential elections were solved, and presidential voting.

Constant conflict between French and English involved USA as a bystander, the more so when Napoleon was active.  JQA was in St Petersburg when Napoleon burned Moscow and in Paris when Napoleon returned from Elba and in a theatre when he appeared.

Impressing seaman from American merchant ships was a recurrent event.  Britain was both desperate for manpower to blockade Europe and contemptuous of USA ability to stop it.  

The idea of concurrent majorities that States had to agree to federal laws even regarding foreign relations, designed to keep the central government weak.  To advocate local improvements meant federal government taxation to pay for those improvements.  That meant bypassing state governments.  Most federal income came from tariff on New England trade.  

JQA had a brief term as a state senator in Massachusetts and also as a USA senator.  In each case he had no chance of re-election because he did not vote exclusively for the immediate, narrow, short-term interest of Massachusetts.  

Monroe made him Secretary of State and several previous Secretaries of State had succeeded to president.  But by then JQA seems to have had no party.  The extreme Federalists had abandoned him and the moderate federalists dissolved.  The swarm of job seekers startled him.     

His election was a result of the combined efforts of ambitious others who wanted to stop Andrew Jackson.  They (Henry Clay, John Calhoun, William Crawford, and Daniel Webster) threw their votes to JQA.  Jackson had the most popular votes but lost.  In those days elections without a majority of electoral votes went to the House of Representatives where the anti-Jackson's combined for JQA because he had no future.  He had no party, no constituency, no ambition....

The intellectual, Indian-loving Adams had no chance the second time against the man of the people Andrew Jackson.  Calhoun swung to Jackson. Crawford died. Clay huffed and puffed. Webster had less influence than he,thought. The anti-Jackson coalition split. JQA followed his father as a one-term president. He was comprehensively defeated.  Like John Tyler and Millard Fillmore later, and perhaps Teddy Roosevelt, he was a president without a party.  He started as a Federalist and served in Congress first as a Republican, then a Democrat, and Whig as president and in his last stint in Congress.

Though JQA thought parties perverted democracy with deals, compromises, and coalitions, yet he rejected the direct democracy implicit in the nullifiers position.  

Indian-lover because he tried to honour existing Indian treaties.  The slave states suspected him to be a closet abolitionist though his attitude to blacks was ambivalent.

Haiti and it's black government loomed very large in the minds of slaveholding Southerners.  They would not support any meeting of Latin American States that included Haiti.

Like Monroe before him, President JQA did not rush to recognise rebellious Latin American countries.  

Adams is credited in these pages with writing the Monroe doctrine. Even if he wrote the words, which are quite matter of fact, not declamatory, it was always and only Monroe's decision.  

Major achievements of his presidency were peace and prosperity.  He negotiated several boundary disputes on the Maine border with England, and also commercial treaties to keep shipping open.  More important, he negotiated the Spanish out of Florida. Domestically he proposed many internal improvements, some of which were successful, but most were rejected.  

While president he planted about 200 trees on the White House grounds, sometimes doing the work himself.  It seems to have offered an escape from the unremitting and thankless job, as he saw it. He did not enjoy the politicking and working on the grounds also hid him from the press of job seekers.

As many as eight states proclaimed nullification of Congressional acts that did not suit them.  The most obstreperous were, no surprise, Georgia and South Carolina.  JQA always saw this as code for slavery.  He never seems to have challenged slavery in any way, though, in the first two careers.

When he left office he was 64, and not robust. Yet when a retiring Congressman from Plymouth suggested that JQA bid for his seat, he was easily convinced to do so, despite the protests of his wife and grown children. He may not have like politicking but he still had a case of Potomac fever.  He said going into Congress would allow him to speak his mind of the great principles without the onerous duties of the executive.  I translated that as 'I will have the satisfaction of carping at Andrew Jackson even if no one listens.'  The author takes him, on this as with everything else, at his word.  

JQA was interviewed by Alexis de Tocqueville.

In Congress he chaired the House committee on tariffs which the front line in the battle between the States over nullification.  But more importantly, he became ever more committed to abolition and said so often, repeatedly, and well.  He accepted the assignment to defend the Amisted Africans before the Supreme Court, and though the case was decided on a technicality there is no doubt his arguments left the Court no choice but to find for the defendants.  It was a giant cause célèbre at the time.

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Adams the Congressman in an 1848 photograph

He is also credited with steering the Smithsonian bequest into the museums we now know.  Believe it or not, Ripley, the original reactions to the gift were to reject it.  New Englanders suspected there was some nefarious trick to it by the English, while Southerners did not want anything to increase the size of the federal government.  They both wanted to reject it.  President van Buren wanted to take the money, disregard the stated purpose of the gift, and use it to buy votes in his re election bid by investing in worthless state bonds in Arkansas, Ohio, and so on. There was pressure from the Brits to use it as intended or give it back to them.

JQA, because he had no party and no future, was finally made chair of a committee to deal with it.  His own goal was a national university system starting in D.C. But that would cut across States rights so it never started.  He compromised on the establishment of the natural history museum.  A fine result, I say, having visited Smithsonian museums not enough, but what a terrific struggle to bring them about.  There were several later efforts to ambush it which JQA saw off.  It all seems as frebile, selfish, and shortsighted as a curriculum committee meeting.

He died at his seat in the House of Representatives.  He had become in his last years a tiger for abolition and a skilled maneuverer in Congress.  The book ends there.  There is no summing up, retrospective, legacy, score card of strengths or weaknesses.  

He continued to write and publish poetry throughout his life, and also published many speeches and essays on topics of the day.

The book rests on a mountainous knowledge of JQA, thanks in part to his diaries. Perhaps because so much comes from that source, the book sometimes seems to see the world only as JQA did.  Any alternative view could only be explained by bad will, thus Henry Clay is written off as a self-serving cipher, he who knew he had destroyed his career with the Missouri Compromise.  So, too, for others like Calhoun, who never compromised on his (despicable) principles. Only JQA seems to have been animated by the greater good, oh, and President Monroe, too, but only because he made JQA Secretary of State.  

The book gives a premium to what JQA wrote as the mark of the man, and much less to what he did, until his last Congressional career. But in one reading of these pages he abandoned his wife and family routinely, often in very difficult circumstances though he was anxious about it, in his diaries, he did it time after time in the name of duty (but might there not have been a different way).  He was hardly ever there for his children and when he was it was to chide  and restrain them.  He seems largely friendless.  The author refers to many people as his friends but there is no detail so they seem more like neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues.  In Washington he was a profound outsider because apart for the preceding eight years as Monroe's Secretary of State he had lived outside the USA.  Yes, eight years in which he seems to have made no friends, nor found allies.  A loner he learned to be in his diplomatic life and loner he stayed even in the hive that is Washington.  

I found the book hard to read at times.  Not quite sure why.  Convoluted sentences, there were a few, but no more than in most books dealing with complications.  There was a great deal of detail especialy about his family life, that did not add to a reader's understanding of the man, but was repetitious.  In the chronology another account of the wife, Louisa, fainting spells did not sharpen the picture of JQA.  I know the author left much out but I wondered if there might have been more -- left out.

Another winner from this Sydney University graduate in Ancient History.

Corby with PC.jpg

Nicolaos (Nicos) and Diotima find more trouble to get into with a very young and very annoying Socrates in tow. Will he never shut up! (We all know that answer to that now. Prattling away on his deathbed.)

This is volume four in the series, which began with ‘The Pericles Commission’ (2010), and this one closes with a teaser for the next installment. Hooray!

These are krimies for time-travellers. They are set in the world of Pericles, Themistocles, Aeschylus, the greatest generation of Greeks who turned back the mighty Persian Empire, not once but twice. Pericles in these stories is a young man on the make, and he suborns the even younger and far more naïve Nicos into his service as messenger, go-between, agent, spy, and detective, while keeping him at arm’s length in case anything goes wrong! Nicos brushes with the great but, as in this case, spends his time following bear droppings in the woods.

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The touch is light, the history is real but measured out to amuse not choke by showing how much the writer knows, the characters are human beings and not ciphers or stereotypes, and Nicos’s realization that all is not what it seems, is always fun.

In this volume we learn about the education of highborn Athenian girls, how divorce works (and how it is best avoided), the limits on the husband’s rights over a wife, while seeing that Socrates was a pest right from the start. We also find out a lot about that battle at Marathon, a site I saw in 2007. It is always good to have Diotima your side, she is a dab hand with a bow and arrow, but even better to have a huge bear on your side. This is what Nicos learnt this time out.

The 192 Greeks who died at Marathon were buried in this mound which I saw in 2007.

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Readers of the early Platonic dialogues will know that in the 'Symposium' Socrates credits Diotima with much of his education. Now we know why! She, by the way, is the only woman named in all the Platonic dialogues.

A book about the bookshelf and, more importantly, how bookshelves and books interacted and evolved by a civil engineer. It starts from papyrus scrolls and ends with the e-book which in 1999 was referred to as the Overbook.
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As Books Bagshaw once said ‘Books do furnish a room.’ English Prime Minister William Gladstone seriously demonstrated that two-thirds of a gentleman’s home should be dedicated to books. He was thinking of about 25,000 books. Yes, 25,000! (If Books Bagshaw is unknown, show some initiative and find out who he is.)

There was much to learn as books and the shelves that store them progressed through history.

In the 15th and 16th entries books were often sold as loose leafs which the purchaser then had bound, either at the place of purchase or back home in the castle.

In the medieval and early Renaissance Europe context books were precious.

There were traveling book cases, useful to be able to pick up the collection and move when the bad guys came, be they royal agents looking for booty to steal, ahem, taxes, brigands looking for loot, a foraging army in the Thirty Years or One Hundred Years Wars.

These shelf-boxes were often designed to press the books within when closed. Book presses. In time individual books might have a lock on the cover or a hasp with a strap. With parchment books, moisture was the enemy and the books presses, in boxes, straps, or locks were designed to pressed the pages together to exclude moisture. Though over time books pressed would deteriorate anyway. These boxes often had three locks taking three quite different keys held by three different individuals. That is even more distributed security that the firing pin on a nuclear armed Polaris missile on a U.S. Navy submarine. They have only two keys.
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Henry Petroski

From these boxes we get the armoire, and the linen press.

It came to pass that bound books were shelved vertically. Who started that is lost in time, but it was a revolution that led to more revolutions.

At first the spine of the bound book faced inward on the self for several hundred years. It often accommodated a metal hasp which held a chain, the other end of which attached to a rod bolted to the furniture. This is the chained library such as the one I saw in Avila. A reader consulted the book right there as the chain was short. The lectern beneath the shelf served the reader with its angled face and foot to keep the book stable. From this evolved the lectern in the front of the class room. The books were chained, as all librarians immediately understand: to keep readers from nicking them!

On those very rare occasions when a chained book was freed, say to be lent to another monastery, it was a major effort to uncouple it from the iron bar that might have twenty (20) other books attached to it. The bar itself was held in place by a lock, which often took more than one key to open as above.

Then there was the question of light. First candle light, then windows, then electric lights. In the early 20th Century glass floor tiles to diffuse the light had a fashion. Light was also an enemy when the inks and dyes were organic, yet it was also necessary so great efforts were made to find a balance.

Petroski compiled many drawings, wood cuts, plates, paintings, and other illustrations to show the evolution of the storage and use of books in Europe which edify and amuse. My favorite is the book wheel. It has been literally true for some readers of my acquaintance who always (claimed to) read many books at once and beyond the literal, more importantly, it is a metaphor for the life of a reader like me.

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When books became cheaper and thus less valuable, the chains came off. That made it possible to turn the binding outward, and in time the title was printed on the spine, in Britain reading up and then in the United States, thanks to Ben Franklin, reading down.

George Orwell said that ‘People write books they cannot find on library shelves.’ Nowadays we scholars write book no one is looking for.

One of the pleasures of the book is seeing mention made of many libraries I have visited, like Widener at Harvard, the Bibliothèque National in Paris, the Library of Congress, the British Library, the New York City Public Library, the Bodelian at Oxford, Firestone at Princeton, the Hoover Library at Stanford, and so on.

The book ends with an whimsical appendix on methods to order books on bookshelves in a private collection. Each of the 20 or so methods Petroski enumerates has drawbacks that require an arbitrary rule apart from the method. For example, if the method is alphabetical by the author’s last name, the pitfalls come quickly. Is ‘O’Henry’ with the ‘Os” or it is “Henry, O’ with the 'Hs" and if that hurdle is past what do we do with pseudonyms. Then there are multiple authors and so on. O’Henry was William Porter by name.

By the way, the Overbook is the Kindle today.

This gem was unearthed in the process of sorting and cataloguing books at home. I am pretty sure I have his great book The Pencil (1990) somewhere.
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