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“…the beauty of a hand-poured wee dram is that it is undefined…” @BodPublishing @NonFictioness #weights&measures

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Today’s #ReadIndies book is from a publisher who I am pretty sure qualifies as an independent one – Bodleian Library Publishing. The Bodley is part of Oxford University, and I think we *do* include Uni Presses; I’ve enjoyed a number of their books over the years and so I’m pleased to be able to feature one here! The title in question is “The Curious History of Weights & Measures” by Claire Cock-Starkey and it made for a fascinating read.

Cock-Starkey has featured on the Ramblings on a couple of previous occasions, when I explored her entertaining books on grammar/punctuation and libraries; so when I was offered the chance to review her new work I was very keen! How we reckon things in terms of size and weight is a really interesting subject, and as Cock-Starkey’s book reveals, there are more ways to quantify the world around us than you might think!

The book is divided up into sections covering Weights, Length & Area, Volume, Culinary & Informal Measures, and Scales & Scores. Within each section, the author investigates differents units of measurement, from the ‘Pennyweight’ in the first part, through things like the ‘Fathom’ in L&A, to such bizarre-sounding concepts as ‘The Glasgow Coma Scale’ in S&S. The book is just stuffed with fascinating facts and entertaining explorations, and Cock-Starkey delves right back into antiquity to tell us about old ways of reckoning things like the use of a hand to measure, now only really associated with horses. Weights and measures have, of course, changed radically over the years, and do vary widely depending on where you live. Even in my lifetime we’ve gone from imperial to metric and although some of that was an improvement for those of us who are a bit mathematically challenged, when it comes to measuring length, for example, I still think in ‘old money’ (inches) 😀

Then there are astronomical measurements, with the author touching on light years and parsecs, things she acknowledges are very complicated (and I’m glad about that, because I was thinking it was just me being thick…) I loved the Culinary section particularly, with its first chapter being entitled ‘Smidge, pinch, dollop, dash & drop’ – Cock-Starkey acknowledges wryly that these are always going to be undefined and might depend on whether you’re adding salt or wine to a recipe! The blurb on the back of the book asks how you might measure something like the heat of a chilli pepper, and the answer seems to be a thing called the Scoville Scale, which is again going to be very subjective as it depends on each individual’s heat threshold (mine is low – I’m a wimp…) Weather and planetary events are also covered, with the Richter Scale, the Beaufort Scale and the Fujita Scale featuring too.

Those are just a few of the joys of this book, and reading it really makes you realise how much of our daily life is spent assessing things! It’s a lovely volume to dip into, or read a section at a time, and there was so much here I’d not come across before. “The Curious History of Weights and Measures” is a wonderful read, brimming with information and fascinating facts which get you scratching your head and musing that you never knew *that* before! And as well as a fun read, it would also serve as a wonderful reference book, as it’s indexed, comes with a variety of scales and conversion charts, and on top of that has some lovely monochrome illustrations, including some marvellous vintage ones. Another winner from Claire Cock-Starkey and Bodleian Library Press, and a book that would make perfect reading for anyone with a curious mind! 😀

(“The Curious History of Weights and Measures” is published today; many thanks to the publishers for the review copy!)

A book of inspiration for ‘grammar vigilantes’!! #hyphensandhashtags @NonFictioness

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I seem to be spending quite a lot of time with non-fiction reading lately; I do think that sometimes, when life is a bit frantic, I don’t always have the mental energy to engage properly with fiction and I’ve spent many happy reading hours recently with all manner of non-fiction. “Hyphens and Hashtags” by Claire Cock-Starkey was a book I was particularly interested in reading; I read her lovely “Library Miscellany” back in 2018, and it was absolutely fascinating. Cock-Starkey is the author of a number of non-fiction works, and here she takes a look at the punctuation and symbols we use every day in written communication. As well as being a really interesting read, there was much I learned which I didn’t know before!

Here I should declare a particular interest: my dad worked in the print trade for much of his life, initially setting metal text by hand and then transitioning to computer typesetting when that came in. So the nuts and bolts of getting language onto a printed page really have a fascination for me. If you add to that the fact that I did a secretarial diploma course when I was young and learned to touch-type on old manual typewriters, then nice shiny new electric machines, it becomes obvious that I really am the ideal reader for a book about making marks on paper and understanding their meanings!

“Hyphens…” starts off with a section that looks at puncutation marks and their history; and it’s quite fascinating to follow the development of the various marks into the standardised forms we use now. Cock-Starkey then goes onto explors glyphs (hash tags, asterisk, pound signs etc), maths symbols and those endangered or lost forms we don’t use any more. Interestingly, she covers the Tilde in this section (one of these ~) and I recall these being commonplace in the early days of the Internet, and a friend of mind having to explain to me what one was! Apparently this endangered sign is possibly being rescued by use on Twitter, which is nice! So many of the symbols are fluid in meaning, often being reinvented for different usage as the world changes. And it was lovely (for personal reasons…) to see acknowledgement of the influence of typesetters in codifiying the use of signs over the years!

I really enjoyed my journey through our written signs and symbols; the book is surprisingly wide-ranging, reaching all the way back into history (ampersands in Pompei!!) and considering the future of the various marks we make, and how we use them. “Hashtags…” is very readable and stuffed full of fascinating facts – I was particularly interested in the influence of the Humanists on the standardisation of punctuation, which I’d not read about before. It’s a book which you could either dip into, or read straight through – either works, although there is perhaps a little repetition if you do the latter, though it’s not a problem.

Metal_movable_type.jpg: Willi Heidelbachderivative work: Daniel., CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a number of Bodleian Library books over the years, and they’re always beautifully produced; this particular edition is a compact hardback with nice thick paper and a lovely clear typeface which is a pleasure to read. You might not really have thought much about the punctuation marks we use every day, but as “Hyphens and Hashtags” reminds us, they’re absolutely vital, particularly for us readers. Without them, everything we read would just be an endless sea of words with no breaks or boundaries – and although some modernist authors might have aimed for that effect, by and large we certainly need our punctuation! This is a lovely book and a fascinating read – highly recommended!

The background to a seminal myth @BodPublishing #frankenstein

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The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Daisy Hay

Although 2018 is being touted as the centenary of the end of the First World War, this year also sees a very notable bicentenary – that of the publication of Mary Shelley’s seminal work of Gothic literature, “Frankenstein”, which was of course first published in 1818. There have been a number of new publications to mark that anniversary, but Bodleian Library Publishing have rather taken the prize, in my view, with a beautifully produced and thought-provoking volume which takes a look at the genesis of Shelley’s great work.

Mary Shelley, of course, came from literary stock: her mother was the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was author William Godwin. Tragically, Mary junior’s mother died after giving birth to her, an event which informed the daughter’s life and work. And indeed, Mary Shelley’s life was anything but tranquil and dull, being punctuated by regular drama and tragedy. The loss of her children by miscarriage or death and the drowning of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, informed her life and work; she was indeed a remarkably strong woman to survive such blows.

Daisy Hay’s excellent book takes a look at the forces that formed the Frankenstein myth, and pivotal to that is the fact that it is a mythology of birth; a weird sort of birth, at that, with a creature constructed rather than born naturally, but still it is a birth. Hay’s five chapters focus on different angles of that genesis, taking in Time, People, Place, Paper and Relic to delve into what caused Shelley to write her book. Certainly, the context is vital to understanding why “Frankenstein” is what it is, and Hay does a wonderful job of placing Mary Shelley firmly into her landscape, with the events of the first French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds; as well as showing the maelstrom of scientific experimentation and discovery that was taking place.

“Frankenstein” in its turn constructs an allegory for the French Revolution in which first the potential and then the vainglorious corruption of Revolutionary ambition is laid bare. The novel reacts too to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, and to its unlooked-for impact on labouring communities.

The people in Mary’s life were of course important to the development of the book. Being surrounded by Percy, Lord Byron, John Polidori et al, in creative and atmospheric settings, is going to stimulate the brain. It’s clear from Hay’s writing here that it was a complex interaction of external forces (world events, inventions, science) and internal (family) dynamics which formed the final story. She also clearly delineates the effects of childbearing and loss on the narrative, and it’s hardly surprising that Shelley ended up creating a birth myth like no other.

Hay takes things further by exploring the manuscripts left behind; not only of “Frankenstein” itself, but letters, diaries and works of art, all of which tell their own story, adding to the greater tale. Poignantly, we also see images of the relics Mary kept during her life: locks of hair from Shelley and their son, as well as her own; Shelley’s watch and seals; and his pen. These bring home the reality of what she lost, and although she lived on to produce more work, she felt more in touch with the past than the future, leaving her legacy to be taken care of by her loving daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley.

“Making….” is of course a beautifully produced book, lavishly stuffed with colour pictures on glossy paper, which I’ve come to expect from Bodleian. Many of the striking images are drawn from the Bodleian Library’s extensive collections and they enhance the narrative wonderfully, bringing Mary and the story of her creation to life. However, the narrative itself is fascinating and erudite, and I found it really enhanced my understanding of the achievements of the book as well as its meaning. I read “Frankenstein” back in the day, as well as Stoker’s “Dracula” and was struck by just how powerful and damn good the books were. Up until that time I’d known them through Hollywood cliché; well, the book is always better and that was certainly the case with these too. The excitement and suspense, as well as the exploration of ideas, with which these books were filled was miles away from Karloff and co.

Mary Shelley was a fascinating, inspiring woman, and her work left an immense, influential and lasting legacy. As Hay reminds us, the word ‘Frankenstein’ is in common currency, used for everything from Cold War symbolism to GM crops. The mainstream popular imagery surrounding her most famous book doesn’t do it justice, and “Making..” has made me not only keen to reread “Frankenstein” but also to explore Shelley’s life and work further; fortunately, as you can see from the image above, I have just the books on my shelves to do that…

(Review copy kindly supplied by Bodleian Library Publishing, for which many thanks)

A pioneering mathematical female – @BodPublishing

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Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist
by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice

First things first: I should state straight away that mathematics and I do *not* get on well. Which is a little odd, because part of my work involves being a finance officer! However, I can do this as I have lots of lovely computer programs to do the difficult work for me; so it’s not surprising, therefore, that I’m grateful to, and keen to learn about, people like Ada Lovelace who were in at the beginning of such things. Coincidentally, I watched an interesting BBC4 documentary re-run recently about Lovelace’s work; so I was very excited to see that the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library was bringing out this book and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Making of a Computer Scientist” is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated hardback which looks not only at Lovelace’s life but also her mathematical achievements. There is a certain amount of controversy about her status in the scientific world; claims are often made that she produced the first computer program, whereas counter-claims describe her work as simply being a condensation of other works. Certainly, she published no books of research or great scientific discoveries – but that’s because of the world in which she grew up and the way that women were educated at the time.

Ada was born Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord and his wife Annabella Milbanke; her father left when she was one month old and she had minimal contact with him. Her upbringing and education fell to her mother, who was determined to keep the girl’s mind on logical, mathematical subjects so as to counteract any tendency to madness (not for nothing had Lord Byron been known as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”). However, as this book makes clear, women’s education at the time was not straightforward; Ada was reliant on a number of personal tutors, including Mary Somerville (one of the first members of the Royal Astronomical Society) and the mathematician Augustus De Morgan. But her most significant intellectual relationship was with Charles Babbage, inventor of the ‘Analytical Engine’, considered the first computer. Their relationship lasted until Ada’s early death, and the latter had significant input into Babbage’s work on his engine.

Lovelace’s most visible contribution was left in her translation from Italian of a paper by Luigi Menabrea, who had taken notes of talks given by Babbage in Turin; the latter asked Ada to add something of her own, and her appendices were longer than the actual paper itself… Within her notes to the work, she included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (don’t ask…) and it’s this which has led to her being considered the first computer programmer and her method as the world’s first computer program. Frankly, I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a judgement on that, but it’s fascinating.

The text of this book is in itself interesting enough, giving a concise outline of Lovelace’s life and work; however, where it really comes into its own is the wealth of visual material it presents, not only about Lovelace herself but also giving context to her life and times. The book is packed with reproductions of unpublished letters, notes and images from the Bodleian archives; paintings of Lovelace and her associates; pictures of contemporary events and also happenings that informed Lovelace’s life. It really is a lovely and informative book!

It’s always important to remember how many things were stacked up against Ada Lovelace, and her wish to learn, analyse and discover. As the authors point out:

Success for a woman in science in nineteenth-century Britain required a combination of many fortunate circumstances: access to education and books; talent and ambition, recognized and nurtured by herself and others; good health; support from husband and parents; and wealth and social standing. Women were unable to attend university, or to join scientific societies or to access scholarly libraries. A woman needed a competent governess and tutors, and then, as her interests matured, mentors to give her access to scientific meetings and papers, and to work with her as intellectual equals, offering criticism as well as flattery. She needed to reconcile her talent and ambition with widespread concerns, among women and men, that mathematics was not an appropriate or decorous activity for women, that women were incapable of serious mathematical work or that they were not strong enough to undertake it.

Against this background, Lovelace’s achievements are all the more impressive and inspirational; although the class element has to be taken into account, as Ada had a husband and three children. If she hadn’t been rich, she wouldn’t have had the luxury of following her intellectual pursuits, having instead to give all her energies to her family.

However, it’s satisfying to note how highly she was regarded by the men she worked amongst. They appreciated her keen intelligence, perhaps acknowledging that as Ada had not been trained like a man in traditional ways of thinking she was therefore better placed to make instinctive leaps of reasoning. Her rigorous mind was often able to spot errors in the work of others (in particular an error of Babbage’s which she spotted and corrected) and it seems her contemporaries recognised a tendency in her to take the land of mathematics in new directions: “the way to enlarge the settled country has not been by keeping within it, but by making voyages of discovery”.

Time and time again, the authors highlight something Ada proposed and discovered, pointing out that she was right and ahead of her time. I confess that as the book progressed and Ada’s mathematical knowledge grew, I lost track of the various formulae explained (they were never my strong point…). Nevertheless, I can appreciate her remarkable achievements, stand in awe of how ahead of her time she was and lament the fact she died so young. If, like me, your maths is extremely basic (ahem), I wouldn’t shy away from approaching this book; it’s a beautiful and very readable account of a pioneering woman who made a notable contribution to science – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers via Emma O’Bryen – for which many thanks!)

“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” (Shelby Foote) @BodPublishing

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A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It probably wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that some of the most popular books amongst book bloggers are actually books about books! And to take that a bit further, who would argue that the next best thing to a book about books must surely be a book about libraries? 🙂 Authors like Alberto Manguel and Borges have of course written extensively and lyrically about libraries (real and imagined), and so this small and unassuming, but very pretty, volume might seem to be a more modest addition to the canon of works about libraries. However, what’s that old saying about never judging a book by its cover….?

“A Library Miscellany” has just been issued by Bodleian Library Publishing (who were kind enough to provide a review copy), and this unpretentious book is actually filled with riches on the stories of the libraries we love. “Miscellany” is an apt word here, as the book is arranged in bite-sized chunks covering such fascinating topics as “Lighting a Library” (hint: avoid naked flames…). “Some Fictional Libraries of Note”, Library Philanthropists, cataloguing methods, classification methods, statistics on type of books borrowed, number of books borrowed, largest libraries, oldest libraries, busiest libraries – the list is seemingly endless, and it’s all captivating for anyone who loves books and where they live…

Trinity Library, Dublin

For someone who loves the institutions and thought she knew quite a lot about them, I actually learned a lot from the book! For example, did you know that there was a specific type of handwriting librarians had to learn called ‘Library hand’? And that loose leaf card catalogues were invented in France in the aftermath of the Revolution? Or that the Vatican had a secret library? I could go on and on, as the book is full of wonderful nuggets as well as paragraphs on particular library treasures or library philanthropists or famous librarians (yes, my beloved Larkin gets a mention).

“A Short History of Public Libraries” was revealing; and the fact that philosopher David Hume was once a librarian was news to me too. I was also stunned to read about UNESCO’s World Digital Library, which I have somehow managed to miss and which has turned into a bit of a rabbit-hole I’m struggling to get out of at the moment, as it’s eminently browsable. The book also brought back happy memories of my early library-visiting days; I’m old enough to remember card indexes and cardboard library cards – you were limited when taking books out to the amount of cards you had. Yes, digital systems are so much more convenient, but I can’t help a certain nostalgia for the old analogue ones…

British Museum Reading Room

One of the most striking things the “Miscellany” did for me, however, was to highlight the role of universities in the evolution of libraries and the almost symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. It seems that so many libraries grew out of the university connection and yet the latter cannot function without a very well-stocked version of the former… The quote in the heading of this post is most apposite and I don’t imagine we could have libraries without universities or vice versa.

I’m not backward about coming forward and singing the praises of libraries and how important they still are, and in fact I’ve being made good use of my local one recently and gone on about it a lot here on the Ramblings. The press release for “Miscellany” calls it an “extended love letter to the library” and goes on to say “Their existence means our cultural knowledge, history and literary output is protected, organised and, above all, available to anyone.” I can’t argue with that, and Claire Cock-Starkey has produced an excellent collection of fascinating facts, stories, information, statistics and histories to celebrate one of our favourite institutions.

If I had any gripes, I would say that I would have liked the book to be bigger and longer (!) and perhaps have included some illustrations too. However, that’s a very minor quibble, and “A Library Miscellany” as it is would make the perfect gift for any book-and-library-lover you know (or even for yourself…) If you ever needed to be reminded what a thing of great wonder and beauty a library is, this lovely little book will do just that.

Review copy provided by Bodleian Library Publishing via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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