Archives For Archaeology

The Ugliest Book

October 26, 2018 — 9 Comments

mayan image.png

Every reader knows “not all books are created equal.” This fact has two applications. Most importantly, since books are built from words, the comparison refers to comparing the content or message of different works. In a totally distinct sense, it may distinguish between the differing presentation or physical aspects of the book itself.

Fifty-four years after its discovery, the oldest surviving Mayan text has been officially authenticated. One of the reasons for the delay was that “for a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn’t Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ of them in terms of figures and color.”

What does that mean? It means that just because the tree bark pages were composed by a less skilled artist . . . in a more primitive age . . . living in a relatively impoverished region . . . with a smaller pallet of colors available . . . its authenticity was questioned.

Not quite what I would consider top flight analysis. Fortunately, Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology has finally righted that wrong. They declared, “The Mayan Codex is authentic and the oldest, legible pre-Hispanic manuscript in the Americas,”

Seriously, the only flaw I can find in the facsimile of the pictograph portrayed above is the attachment of a right hand to a left arm. Then again, if Mark Twain could make the very same mistake roughly eight centuries later, I can forgive the ancient Mayan illustrator.

Illustrative Options

Frankly, the more one learns about the publishing industry, the less responsible we can hold authors for the final look of their works. Rarely do they even get to choose the cover art for their books, although sometimes particularly prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are granted that privilege. That is how the artwork of Pauline Baynes became intimately associated with the two Oxbridge giants.

The lucky few may even be able to select their own fonts, with many wisely opting for the more trustworthy serif families.

For the common woman or man, we are lucky if our publishers even let us have a veto over the artwork that they commission. The exception to this comes with the nature of the self-publishing industry, where the author possesses sole authority in choosing their cover, illustrations, fonts and format.

Still, those hoping for “traditional” publication should recognize in advance how much control over their book they will forfeit to editors and publishers.

With Paper at a Premium

Even with influence in the selection of artwork, some aspects of publishing lie outside the control of writers. A perfect example of this is found in rationing of paper in Britain during the Second World War. The British War Economy Standard meant books visually declined in production quality.

rationing

Paper was rationed, beginning in March 1940, when publishers were allowed only 60 percent of what they had used in 1938-39. The proportion fell to 37.5 percent by January 1, 1942, when the Book Production War Economy Agreement took effect.

The scheme mandated smaller type, less white space, and inferior papers and bindings. It resulted in some remarkably ugly books, but it conserved raw materials. (“Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970” by Jonathan Rose)

A number of Lewis’ books appeared in these wartime editions. They are quite collectible.

Scarce first impression of the true first edition, produced on wartime economy standard paper, and thin boards, published during the Second World War, especially hard to find in its complete original dustwrapper in collectable condition.

Let’s consider an unlikely scenario. In eight centuries, C.S. Lewis’ writings have been forgotten. Then, one archaeologist stumbles across a rare physical copy of a book, that survived the universal “grand purging” following the transfer of such items to some post-digital, post-electronic format.

What would historians assume about the value placed on Lewis’ work if it was a wartime edition compared to other “regular” books by other authors? They could not be faulted for assuming that the people of our day valued the inferior publication less than the “nicer” editions. (This is assuming that the acid-laden paper of the war years would not simply flake apart in their hands.)

The quality of the paper and print make a strong impression on readers. Just as we often judge books by their cover.

C.S. Lewis, a true bibliophile, illustrates how even a modest book (in terms of content) can be deemed “exquisite.” In a 1935 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he humorously describes the impending publication of The Allegory of Love.

I have finished my book which is called The Allegorical Love Poem, and is dedicated to Barfield. The Clarendon Press have accepted it and hope to have it out by May.

As I am to get 12 free copies (Dents only give one 6) you and Tchanie shall each have one and save your silver: and whatever you think of the matter, I hope, from experience of the Clarendon Press, that binding, paper etc will be—in our old formula—excellent, exquisite, and admirable.

In other words, if you can’t read it, you will enjoy looking at it, smelling it, and stroking it. If not a good book, it will be a good pet! It will be about 400 pp, they say. (It will be funny, after this, if they do it in double columns and a paper cover.)

Returning to the Mayan pages with which we began, we sadly are unable to judge them by their original codex in its pristine state. However, the extant pieces possess great historical value, even if scholars took a long time determining the fact . . . and whether or not they would ever consider it to be “a good pet.”


In case you are interested, Mere Inkling has explored Mayan books before, in “One Weakness of Modern Books.”

 

Dangerous Slang

July 2, 2013 — 15 Comments

toilet 2When we moved to Alabama, my wife innocently offended some of her young students by using a slang word that in our family simply meant “stuff,” but apparently is used elsewhere for more vulgar purposes.

In a reference to something such as things being in the way, she said the word “crap.” Obviously she was definitely not using it in the Thomas Crapper sense. But some of the Southern kids had never heard it applied in an innocent way, so they naturally assumed she was using it in a crasser sense.

She wasn’t. I grew up with the word meaning “junk, stuff or clutter” with the connotation that they were unwelcome, and “in the way.” My sainted mother—from whose lips I do not ever once recall hearing a vulgar word pass—used the word “crap” often.

And because the source of the word’s usage was so pure and unadulterated (my mom), I mistakenly assumed I fully understood the word’s meaning.

Still, old habits are hard to change, and I find myself occasionally using that very word. And, I must confess, I sometimes even use it as a minor expression of irritation. For example, I just used it in the subject line of an email I sent to some fellow students of ancient Roman history. “Crap, I Just Missed This” was the exact phrase, and the body of the message consisted only of a link to a fascinating conference held in Rome just a few days before I learned about it.

The link was to this site. . . and if you don’t have the time or inclination to check it out, allow me to share the fascinating subject it addressed:

It was sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome, quite a prestigious organization. No fewer than seven scholars who have been excavating Rome’s ancient latrines were slated to speak—I’m eager to learn whether or not their presentations will be published for the benefit of those of us unable to attend.* They generously offered “free seating” to members of the public desiring to attend the historic programme.**

C.S. Lewis apparently respected the Roman Empire enough to take the Roman name of an ancient Italian city for the name of fabled “Narnia.” While I’ve yet to find any references in Lewis’ corpus to Roman plumbing, I found this appraisal of a History of Rome which he noted in his diary (16 March 1924). During an extended country walk with two friends, he dined at an inn and browsed through its public library.

After some time we went on to Stanton Harcourt where we were to lunch. Before we reached it the sun suddenly disappeared and the sky got white and a cold wind sprang up. In the inn parlour we consumed large quantities of bread and cheese and draft cider. Harwood found a delightful book here—a History of Rome “related in conversations by a father to his children with instructive comments”. The children made such comments as “How pleasing is filial piety, Papa!” and “My dear Sir, surely you have been too indulgent in describing the vices of Honorius as weakness.”

One wonders what sort of refined comments the children would have made about the recent conference. Perhaps something like, “Most honored patriarch, it is enlightening to learn just how elaborate was the attention the Romans devoted to the facilities dedicated to their private bodily functions.”

Well, enough about such matters. We have terribly digressed in a post originally intended to serve as a warning about the dangers of using slang. I guess I am just so disappointed about missing the conference that I needed to vent that here.

_____

* One wonders how they were able to adequately address this complex subject in a one-day seminar.

toilet 1** The invitation does not expressly say whether it would consist of individual seats, or in a bench design, similar to that pictured below, from the workshop’s brochure. Speaking of pictures, the one at the top of the column, also from the promotional publication, is a fresco from the ceiling of a toilet on the Palatine. (And we think our bathrooms are fancy!)