Archives For Illustrations

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.”

 

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Mark Twain  drew a number of sketches that he (hopefully) never intended for publication. Four of them appear here.

Perhaps Twain drafted them as a starting point for a one-day illustrator. It’s odd to think they were intended to appear in their initial, rough state. However, since “How to Make History Dates Stick” was published posthumously, Harper’s Monthly Magazine decided to capitalize on the use of the author’s own “illustrations.”

Calling the scribblings “illustrations” is quite generous. The manuscript drawings remind one of the quick drawings that C.S. Lewis sometimes included in his correspondence.

In this essay, Twain says the key to learning and remembering key historical dates is associating them with pictures.

These chapters are for children . . . Dates are difficult things to acquire; and after they are acquired it is difficult to keep them in the head. But they are very valuable.

They are like the cattle-pens of a ranch—they shut in the several brands of historical cattle, each within its own fence, and keep them from getting mixed together.

Dates are hard to remember because they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don’t take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help.

Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick—particularly if you make the pictures yourself. Indeed, that is the great point—make the pictures yourself. I know about this from experience.

Setting aside the merits of Twain’s suggestion, the final encouragement to personally draw the illustrations is intriguing. It suggests that Twain may have honestly desired that these very sketches would be included in the published text. In this scenario, the writer would be setting the illustrative bar so low that no one could doubt their ability to draw at least as well as the author of Tom Sawyer.

Twain’s Antipathy Towards Editors

Many writers sympathize with how Twain wielded the blade of his wit against unsympathetic editors. “I hate editors,” he declared, “for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words.” (Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field)

He also praised the French emperor for committing a misguided murder. “How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good.” (Correspondence, 1906)

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

Incorporating editors into his study requires a bit of a stretch, and each sketch is associated in the text with a British monarch. You can see them in that context at TwainQuotes.

I’ve culled the four editors from Twain’s work, and provided a portion of his description about each. They appear here out of order since I wish to end with the one I find most entertaining . . . because it evokes the image of an impish helper in Screwtape’s sulfurous scriptorium.

editor 2

That is an editor. He is trying to think of a word. He props his feet on a chair, which is the editor’s way; then he can think better. I do not care much for this one; his ears are not alike . . .

I could make him better if I had a model, but I made this one from memory. But it is no particular matter; they all look alike, anyway. They are conceited and troublesome, and don’t pay enough.

editor 3

That is a society editor, sitting there elegantly dressed, with his legs crossed in that indolent way, observing the clothes the ladies wear, so that he can describe them for his paper and make them out finer than they are and get bribes for it and become wealthy.

That flower which he is wearing in his buttonhole is a rose—a white rose, a York rose—and will serve to remind us of the War of the Roses, and that the white one was the winning color when Edward got the throne and dispossessed the Lancastrian dynasty.

editor 1

This editor is a critic. He has pulled out his carving-knife and his tomahawk and is starting after a book which he is going to have for breakfast.

This one’s arms are put on wrong. I did not notice it at first, but I see it now. Somehow he has got his right arm on his left shoulder, and his left arm on his right shoulder, and this shows us the back of his hands in both instances. It makes him left-handed all around, which is a thing which has never happened before, except perhaps in a museum.

That is the way with art, when it is not acquired but born to you: you start in to make some simple little thing, not suspecting that your genius is beginning to work and swell and strain in secret, and all of a sudden there is a convulsion and you fetch out something astonishing.

This is called inspiration. It is an accident; you never know when it is coming. I might have tried as much as a year to think of such a strange thing as an all-around left-handed man and I could not have done it, for the more you try to think of an unthinkable thing the more it eludes you; but it can’t elude inspiration; you have only to bait with inspiration and you will get it every time.

Look at Botticelli’s “Spring.” Those snaky women were unthinkable, but inspiration secured them for us, thanks to goodness.

It is too late to reorganize this editor-critic now; we will leave him as he is. He will serve to remind us. [One can only imagine what a delightful time an editor would enjoy, chopping up that stream of consciousness writing?]

And now for the goblinesque editor. It offers Twain’s most artistic element, which was most likely an accident. Note how the end of the pencil serves to substitute for the eye which may or may not reside behind it.

editor 4

Another editor. That thing behind his ear is his pencil. Whenever he finds a bright thing in your manuscript he strikes it out with that. That does him good, and makes him smile and show his teeth, the way he is doing in the picture.

This one has just been striking out a smart thing, and now he is sitting there with his thumbs in his vest-holes, gloating. They are full of envy and malice, editors are.

Hopefully, if you are a writer who has submitted your work to an editor, you have been fortunate enough to have avoided these characters.

Editors are, after all, our friends. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but good editors can certainly help make our work better. May God graciously lead you to editors of that sort.