I love it. Everything about this book is great. Look at this stylish cover. You know exactly what it’s about: ATOMS, and THE FUTURE. Check out the spine:
This next paragraph is going to be bibliophile heresy, so you might want to sit down first.
Most of the time, you CAN judge a book by its cover. This is because publisher’s marketing departments exist for a reason. They exist to sell books, and get those books into the hands of the people who will want to pay for them, as quickly as possible. One of their methods is cover design. It’s actually a very rare cover that does a truly terrible job at conveying what the book is about, commercially, in a target audience sense, rather than a plot sense. Imagine a romance novel cover. Imagine a sci-fi space opera book cover. Imagine a teen dystopian fiction book cover. Imagine a shojo manga cover. You can. You know what these books look like, because they’ve all drifted into similar designs, so that someone expecting a romance novel doesn’t get stuck with a dry, navel-gaze-y sci-fi book instead. You know what you want and you know what it looks like. This book looks like pure, uncontaminated optimism and faith in a future that is only going to get better. Through SCIENCE.
If there’s any scientists reading this post, please keep reading and talk to some historians. This epic tragedy of the late 20th Century and the use of scientific cachet for marketing is a piece of the puzzle of why a good chunk of the American public has lost trust in scientific messaging. Throughout the century, there was a whole endless parade of products and innovations sold to the public with the promise of science. A lot of which turned out to be terrible ideas (ironically often discovered to be so with more science): DDT, plastic everything, throw-away culture, tetraethyl lead in the gasoline, eugenics (don’t get me started on the intensely creepy history of beauty pageants), radium suppositories. Not kidding about that last one. There were a few decades there in the early 20th Century when they were putting radium in everything. Including butts. In case you think this was an isolated thing, here’s a completely different brand of radium suppositories. Both of these courtesy of Oak Ridge Health Physics and Instrumentation Museum Online exhibits. Fun!
Yet, every once in a while, I read a very depressing article from scientists wondering why the public has so much skepticism about important issues. There’s a history here, which is part of the problem that I rarely see explored or even acknowledged by scientific publications. Never underestimate cultural memory or the power of marketing, whether to sell a product to the public, or to distract the public from the damage that same product is causing. Look to the tobacco industry for a history lesson in marketing and using scientific authority – or the appearance of it – as a means to shield an industry against the interests of defending public health. This is why academic disciplines need to talk to each other. Go read The Cigarette Century, and learn.
Here’s the punchline: this book, written in 1945 – when atomic energy was a mere possibility on the horizon – is eerily, stunningly accurate. This is in fact a very sober and measured accounting of the possibilities and challenges of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Weren’t expecting that, were you? I bet that giddy images of mid-century futuristic flying cars and jetpacks and moon colonies were practically dancing through your head up to this point. NOPE. I was so shocked and impressed by how grounded this book was, and how disciplined its journalism, that it’s one of the few vintage books I own that I have read absolutely cover to cover. In this case, science got it right at the dawn of an age, even in conjecture.
Comics are a medium, one that comes in an many formats. Below is a short guide to the rich variety of these publications.
Album – European comics with larger page size and higher number of pages than comics in the U.S. See Pamphlet
Anime – Animation, for TV or the movies, made in Japan, and for the Japanese market. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Animation– A form of film using drawings (and sometimes other techniques) to create the illusion of motion
Asian Comics– Comics are called manga in Japan, manhwa in Korea, or manhua in China. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Audio Comics – A form of audio narrative that is structured like a comic when created. Important elements such as action and setting are explained in detail. Sound cues are used to indicate shifts from panel to panel. For people who are not blind, it sounds something like an old-time radio serial
Bande Dessinée (or BD) – French term for Comic Books. They are usually published in the Album format
Bluesies – See Tijuana Bible
Caricature – a drawing style that exaggerates features, particularly of the face, to portray individuals in an easily recognizable manner. Often used in editorial Cartoons
Cartoons (when not animated) – Typically, these are single panel comics of an editorial nature
Chick Tracts – Short Pamphlet with Evangelical Christian themes. This type of comic gained its name from the most prolific publisher of the form, Jack Chick
Comic Art– A form of Sequential Art
Comic Books (or Comics) – The most generally used name for individual issues of comic art; often they are Soft-bound(Comics). See Pamphlet
Comics Strips – Short pieces of comic art to be published in a periodical (such as a newspaper or magazine), most often to be read horizontally
Comics with hand-sewn spines – Comics assembled like a scrapbook
Comics with tête-bêche binding– A rare format for comics wherein two different comics are bound together back to back, each reversed from the other so they share the same spine. Tête-bêche is French for, roughly translated, “head to tail.” These works are sometimes called double books or reversible books
Crossover – The placement of two or more otherwise discrete fictional characters, settings, or universes into the context of a single story. They can arise from legal agreements between the relevant copyright holders, or because of unauthorized efforts by fans. Most of these comics are not part of the canon of any of the original works
Digest-sized (Comics) – Comics which are roughly the size of paperback books
Digital Comics– Comics that are released digitally. They may be Motion Comics or Webcomics
Film Comics – Sometimes known as Cine-Manga or Ani-Manga. Manga works which use illustrations directly found in an Anime rather than original art, and which utilize dialog from that anime
Flipbooks – Comics where each page’s art varies slightly and when flipped creates the illusion of motion
Floppies – See Soft-bound (Comics)
Foldable Comics– Comics that are shaped in some manner (like a work of origami) and are to be read as the shape is unfolded
Fumetti – Italian term for comic books as a whole. Some use this term to designate a specific format using photographs and word balloons (which was very popular in Italy during the 1940’s and 1950’s). In the English speaking world, this specific format is known as the Photonovel
Graphic Adaptations – These are works that use a story from another medium (poetry, movies, or novels are most common) but translate them into a comic format. They may also be called Tie-Ins with relation to a particular current popular work (where they act primarily as advertising for that work)
Graphic Novels – In the purest form, a stand-alone comic of book length with a clear beginning, middle, and end to its story. However, the term is often used interchangeably with Trade Paperback
Hard-bound (Comics) – Publications with a stiff cover (like a book or graphic novel)
Hybrid Comics– Printed comics that are read in tandem with digital content
Illustrated Book – A book with words and pictures but where the story is coherent without the pictures. Contrast with Wordless Comics
Infinite Canvas – A format for comics on a computer wherein the monitor does not replicate the printed page. The screen is seen as a window to a story told in any direction, theoretically ever-expanding. Hyperlinking and touch options may add interactive elements to works
Light Novel – A Japanese publishing format of short stories, liberally interspersed with manga illustrations. Typically, the story is about what would be classified as a novella in the U.S.
Magazines– Serial pamphlets of a larger size than the average comic book in the U.S., often printed on higher quality paper. See Pamphlet
Manga – Comics made in Japan for the Japanese market. In Japan, titles are published first in magazine format as part of a larger anthology. If successful, an individual manga will be reprinted in a collected edition. There are many genres of manga, catering to a wide variety of audiences. For more info, see our Manga and Anime FAQ
Metacomic – In brief, a metacomic is a comic about a comic. The characters are able to take advantage of the comic’s structure to progress in the storyline. Or – if the characters remain unaware of their fictional status, the story itself comments on those structures, conventions of genre, or fan expectations
Mini-comics– Comics which are not professionally published, often having an unusual size. See Zines
Motion Comics –Digital Comics that combine motion, sound, or interactive elements with pictures and words to tell a story. Some feel that Motion Comics are really just a kind of Animation
Pamphlet – A complete publication of generally less than 80 pages stitched or stapled together and usually having a paper cover. There is no particular size requirement, thus Albums or Comic Books or Magazines fit the category of pamphlet if they are not Hard-bound
Phonebook (Comics) – A term for a certain type of collection of previously published comics that is printed on pulp paper and is very thick (like old-fashioned phonebooks). The style was made popular in the 1980’s by Dave Sim when he collected story arcs of his comic, Cerebus
Photonovels – Comics which use photographs rather than drawings. See Fumetti
Picture Book – A book where words and pictures are used to tell a story but where the pictures are of equal value (or are more dominant) in doing so. Most often picture books are for children
Poetry Comics – Comics that use poetic structure rather than the more typical prose style. The term may also be used for Graphic Adaptations of poetic works
Sequential Art – A term defined by Will Eisner as, “an art form that uses images deployed in sequence for graphic storytelling or to convey information”
Soft-bound (Comics) – Single issues of comics with a floppy spine, often stapled in the middle. They are also sometimes called Floppies
Square-bound (Comics) – Publications printed on flexible cardstock that are bound on the side like a book. Known in the publishing industry as a Trade Paperback
Tankōbon– A Japanese term for a book length, stand-alone comic (similar to how Trade Paperback or Graphic Novel are used in English)
Tebeos– Spanish-language term for comic books. In Spain the term is more specific, used to denote a magazine that contains comics
Tie-Ins– See Graphic Adaptations
Tijuana Bible – Sometimes known as Bluesies. Small-sized pornographic comics, often parodies of mainstream comics, that were published from the 1930’s to the 1950’s
Topper – A smaller comic that runs across and/or around the borders of another comic. This was once a popular technique used in comic strips when the size of comic strips and the space allotted to them in the newspaper was much larger than today
Trade Paperback – A book of previously published issues that originally appeared as individual comics. In common parlance, this is often referred to as a Graphic Novel
Treasury-sized (Comics) – Oversized comic books, approximately the size of an unfolded newspaper page
Typography Comics – Comics which play on the graphic element of words to tell a story. They often have pictures to accompany the words
Webcomics– Comics created for and published on the Internet. They may be limited to what is immediately on the screen, hyperlinked to other information, or use the Infinite Canvas format
Webtoons – A style of Digital Comics that originated in South Korea which takes advantage of the Infinite Canvas and which may include animated or audio elements. They are designed to be best consumed on a phone or tablet
Wordless Comics – Stories told using only pictures. Contrast with Illustrated Book
Zines– D.I.Y. Magazines that combine any number of art styles, particularly self-created comics
Welcome back! Although I have the occasional novel, and a focus on non-fiction, I have a particular weakness for really old and hilariously dated textbooks. Today’s special guest star isn’t outdated in terms of its content – like all math textbooks, the math itself is still perfectly good – it’s outdated in terms of its actual function. The very existence of such a book is made obsolete by digital calculators. Let’s explore!
Behold! This is Standard Mathematical Tables, 16th Edition. It’s about two and a half inches thick, printed on thin thin paper, and it’s crammed with exactly what it says in the title – tables. It was for a high school or college student, as a vital companion for a slide rule. Before there were pocket calculators or calculator apps on the phone in your pocket, there were slide rules. Here’s a nifty video on what a slide rule is, and how to use one (at least for the simple stuff).
Nifty, right? So, to make things faster, you might need a big fat reference book of various functions, worked out to several places, hopefully beyond whatever precision you need. Ultimately, this lovely book is all of the things – in text – that your phone can do in less time than it takes to turn a single page. This particular copy is actually in very nice condition, and I really like seeing all the neat and tidy tables inside. It’s a masterpiece of organization and precision.
Standard Mathematical Tablesmust have been pretty miserable to proof read, though, and check that all of these were actually correct. It went through sixteen different editions, too! I have no idea what they were adding, correcting, or updating, but I hope it was worth it.
When I saw this book for cheap one day, I decided to get it and keep it partially out of respect for the immense effort and expertise that went into making it, but mostly out of amazement for the forgotten calculating technology it represents. After a certain amount of time, this book stopped being merely out of date, and became a piece of history in its own right. But, at least, if I ever get a slide rule, I’ll be prepared.
A wildly obsolete calculating tool like Standard Mathematical Tableswon’t be found in the library’s collection, although our Friends of the Library book sales might offer up some unique finds if you are willing to hunt for them. The story of Standard Mathematical Tablesand its technological eclipse is a reminder that a non-fiction book is sometimes much more than a means of serving up facts.
This time, on a Very Special Episode of Katherine’s Bookshelf, I’ve got a Very Special book for you, and it’s one of my favorites, but not for the reasons you might think.
Cover to cover, this book is basically the history writing equivalent of a fresh cowpat steaming in the crisp autumnal air at dawn. A giant pile of bullplop and a hot mess. In fact, it’s one of the most notorious history non-fiction forgeries of the 20th Century.
Published in 1910 – just two years before the Qing Dynasty would fall, this book about the life and policies of Dowager Empress Cixi claims to be based on the diary of a court official, which just so happened to fall into Backhouse’s hands. Backhouse then went to Bland, who was a journalist at the time, and wrote the book with his assistance. Yes, this is absolutely a work of wild-eyed sensationalism, designed to appeal to what the English-reading audience already believed, and wanted to have reflected back at them.
The first tip-off that the whole thing was a hoax probably should have been that Backhouse was a dude, his co-author Bland was a dude, and the supposed court official was also a dude. (This wasn’t, for example, claiming to be based on letters of a court official’s daughter who was serving in the inner palace, which would have been at least plausible.) There is absolutely no way that any of these biological males ever would have gotten firsthand information of what was going on in the private quarters of the Forbidden City. That’s why there were court eunuchs, whose primary job it was to relay information and orders between the Empress and Dowager Empress’ offices and the court. It’s called the Forbidden City for a reason, not the Everybody Come in and Make Yourselves at Home City.
The most obnoxious part of all this for me is that it’s not like China Under the Empress Dowager by J.O. Bland was the first and only book about the topic available in English at the time. There were at least two previous accounts of Dowager Empress Cixi’s inner court atmosphere. One, published in 1907, was written by Katharine A. Carl, a painter who had made a portrait of her, and the other was a 1909 collection of published letters by the wife of the American Minister to China, Sarah Pike Conger. In 1911, just one year after the publication of China Under the Empress Dowager, a third account was published, this time by one of the ladies of the court, Princess Der Ling. But, of course, all three of these authors were women, which probably impacted their reception by the public. That’s not to say, of course, that these three books are without bias – Sarah Pike Conger and Katharine Carl had their own agenda and racist prejudices, naturally, and Princess Der Ling wanted to defend the Qing Dynasty. Nevertheless, they weren’t made up nearly whole cloth, as Backhouse’s infamous book was. Keeping their inevitable biases in mind, these firsthand accounts can be used to approach the truth, or at least something nearer to it.
Despite these accounts, two of which beat his to publication, and each of which had more direct information, Backhouse’s book was more salacious and conformed better to what his audience wanted to believe. The media echo-chamber is not a problem of the present alone, it’s a problem of human nature, and definitely not unique to the 21st Century and the Internet. Does anyone remember the Maine? William Randolph Hearst? Turn-of-the-century Yellow Journalism? We should. So spare a thought for your information, how you get it, from where and why.
Rather than a collection of books, here’s a pair of books that enrich each other if read together!
Content Warning: contains depictions of animal abuse. (Yes, especially for Black Beauty. Wait, you don’t remember that? Read the unabridged version, they probably cut all the really harrowing bits to make it more palatable for kids.)
Let’s talk about the changing place of animals in society!
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eatby Hal Herzog is built on the premise that animals that live in close association with humanity are framed by human cultures in terms of three broad categories: pets, vermin, and livestock. Different cultures might construct the categories along different lines, or even apply them to individuals rather than entire species, but the book nevertheless seeks to apply this theoretical framework to all of them in order to better understand the place of animals in the human world. Interesting topic, and the first of two books to bookend this discussion.
Complications and Guinea Pigs
While Herzog’s book is certainly valuable, there’s a lot of nuance in current and historical cultures that complicate things, and for that, let’s talk about the very strange ride guinea pigs have had. Today, in the continental USA, we see them as pets, a popular choice for the classroom, or children. Alternatively, they’re the proverbial lab animals, which isn’t quite the same as a pet or livestock, but isn’t vermin, despite the fact that the other major lab animal, rats, are definitely thought of as pests before pets outside an experimental setting. Guinea pigs as a species already occupy a complex place in our society, and it used to be even weirder.
Historically, and currently, in the cultures of the Andes which created the domestic guinea pig, the animal is a highly regarded food source, called cuy in Peru (cuyes, plural). Okay, so I might have to have to ease you into this if you didn’t know already. You know how there’s the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to promoting the use of beef in American kitchens? It’s what’s for dinner. They’ve got beef recipes, and information, and function as a means for beef producers to communicate about the state of the industry, as well as make beef look as good as possible to the public. There’s a similar industry and promotional board in Peru, for guinea pigs, and they have a website, too: Cuy Peru. More than worth a click if you can read Spanish, and even if you can’t. Just brace yourself for whole roasted guinea pig, like we do chicken here. (Scroll almost to the bottom for recipes.) So, pet in one culture and livestock in another, simple, right? No. The guinea pig had a long breakout career in Europe as a status symbol, more akin to a fancy watch, designer purse, or car than a pet or even a purse dog.
At the time the Spanish brought guinea pigs back, European cultures had a very different relationship with animals than we do today, mostly because the framework of morality in general was very different. In this context, it didn’t matter whether animals could think and feel, because morality was about sin, and the God-given order. This is how there were pig trials in the middle ages – a killer pig was acting out of this order, and it was up to human ecclesiastical court systems to put it to rights. (If you’re wondering why a pig would kill someone, the answer is that they’re seriously omnivorous, and are absolutely capable of killing and eating people, especially if the person is unconscious or can’t get up under their own power at the time. That’s why it’s such a big deal in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls in the pig pen. At the time, I guess people would have known this. Modern audiences probably don’t have enough experience with farm animals to recognize the danger. Anyway, just go to your search engine of choice and look for “killed and eaten by pigs” for a nicely horrifying roundup of the recent cases.) Animals, in this framework, were there to be used by humanity as we saw fit. This led to a huge amount of horrible animal abuse, society-wide and often formalized. I’m not talking about bullfighting alone, either, more like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting, anything-baiting, organized fights between basically any animal that will fight, goose pulling, cock throwing, and fox tossing, just to list a few.
I chose the fox tossing example above, because this is the time period that saw the rise of the guinea pig in European culture. Arriving from South America with the silver galleons, guinea pigs acquired an association with this trade, and the power and wealth that came from it. Guinea pigs featured in portraits to underline elite status, and guinea pigs also played a starring role in still life paintings, whose purpose was often a visual treatise on the dominance of the expanding European trade empires. Here’s some weird European guinea pig art.
Britain and Horses
Eventually, though, there was a major shift in the calculus of European morality, a key part of which was an equally major re-evaluation of the way in which animals were treated. Beginning in the late 1600’s, and concluding in the mid 1800’s, new measures of morals emerged, focusing on the idea of avoiding doing harm and being compassionate. It was believed that compassion shown to animals mirrored a person’s capacity for compassion to their fellow human beings, and so kindness became a new standard of behavior. The series of prints by Hogarth, The Stages of Cruelty, presents a moral along these new lines, just as the idea began to get popular traction, and here’s a link to the Tate Museum’s online exhibit on the print series so you can examine it in further detail. In a nutshell, the inevitable end result of animal cruelty is that it becomes cruelty to humans, which ends in the murderer’s corpse getting dissected by surgeons in public, as was the practice at the time.
Protip: if you have to propagandize about morals, they’re new and need to be taught.
Although modern ideas of the right way to treat animals come from the Enlightenment and Victorian Sentimentalism, a much more similar place than the earlier medieval framework, there are some key differences. Emerging nationalism also played a vital role, and in the case of Britain, the way in which people should treat horses in particular became a defining cultural touchpoint that persists to this day. In case you were curious, here’s a retrospective on the Great Horsemeat Contamination Scandal of 2013. The book that in large part forged this identity was Black Beauty.
Black Beauty follows the life of the eponymous horse through a series of thoughtless and cruel masters, highlighting the way in which horses were used and abused, and advocating for better treatment by tugging at the readers’ heartstrings rather than laying out a rational argument, in contrast to Hogarth.
Ultimately, filtering down to us from Hogarth’s time, and Anna Sewell‘s, our own cultural sorting scheme for animals settles into the categories outlined by Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. It has only been two and a half centuries, yet we take this understanding for granted.
Available in book, downloadable ebook and audiobook formats.
Here are some of my favorite comics read in 2019. They may or may not have been published this year. Also, a few have more than one volume and I have not designated a particular volume if I would recommend the whole series.
My picks are listed in alphabetical (rather than rank) order.
of these works can be checked out from LFPL. Each title has a “Check Our
Catalog” link that will take you to where you can view the location and status
of the specific item in our system.
After taking a look, if your selection is not available at the branch you wish to go to, you may have the item shipped there by placing a hold request (using the “Place Request” button on the right-hand side of the item’s catalog entry).
If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group. Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 7:00 PM.
The next meeting is Monday, January 13, 2020. In honor of Korean-American Day (held every year on January 13th), we will be taking a look at Korean-American Comic Creators.
For more information, contact Tony at (502) 574-1611.
This is the grand dame of the bookshelf, an early-ish edition of Etiquette by Emily Post. When it comes to the bookshelf collection, I don’t really care whether I get a first edition. But I do like my etiquette books to be from a range of dates, and this one, whose publication history to this point spanned almost the entire 1920’s, shows just how much American society was changing. Take a close look at that list of editions!
End pages and such are anything but boring. Read closely: the use of the word “edition” indicates that the book was altered and edited for the print run. If it was just being reprinted to meet explosive demand for the book, they would be labeled “printings” instead – as you can see after the publication of the New and Enlarged Edition in 1927. So, something was actually being changed in the content of the book, continuously, from July 1922 through November 1927. There are five editions in 1923 alone. I would hope that the core content of the book was ready for publication with its first edition, but this is a huge number of subsequent tweakings, and I would wager that they weren’t all simply fixing typos. Given that it’s an etiquette book, it looks like it’s being edited to keep up with the changing expectations of society.
Polite behavior is, as nearly every etiquette manual points out, a matter of being considerate and compassionate. That doesn’t change. What does change is whether you’re expected to know what an ice cream knife is for, and if visiting cards are necessary, or if you must be able to play bridge and golf in order to survive in business. These details can change very quickly.
We don’t use ice cream knives, and bridge is no longer so vital to building business and social connections. Dining has become steadily less and less formal, too. However, the fancier the occasion, the more it might conserve practices of a century ago. If you find yourself faced with the prospect of a twelve-course dinner, Emily Post has you covered.
This book from Katherine’s Bookshelf is, exactly as the title suggests, an encyclopedia of interior design… from 1947. Hmm. So, what were fashionable home interiors like in 1947? Let’s see:
Having flashbacks to grandma’s house yet? In 1947, Colonial is in. Nothing says 18th Century Colonial like a giant plaid sofa. Also: ashtrays, ashtrays everywhere. There’s an ashtray on every single table and end table in this picture. I like the rug though. I can definitely appreciate a nice hooked rug. It’s huge. All you need to make a hooked rug is a small crochet hook, some burlap, yarn, and time – lots and lots of time.
Basically, the entire book is exactly like this, which points up the problems with many interior decorating and home improvement books. If it’s incredibly fashionable, it’ll go out of fashion eventually. On-trend rapidly mutates into dated, exactly because it’s so evocative of the time period in which it was popular. Warm gray wall paint and white tile are headed that way very soon.
Another interesting aspect is that it’s fundamentally aspirational. Nobody buys a book on home improvement if their home is already improved. You don’t need advice for painting if you’ve already painted. Everything in this book is about how things should be, but aren’t yet. In the same sense that the styles shown within might be evocative of grandma’s house, few people in 1947 actually had houses that already looked like this. Like us, they made do with hand-me-down furniture and their walls were already painted. Not everyone was moving into new houses in Levittown. Some people had apartments, and some people had 1920s Cape Cod houses, or Victorian era townhomes, or shotgun houses. It’s important to read books like The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating to remind ourselves that the actual Mid-Century as it was actually lived in wasn’t entirely Mid-Century Modern. For every hilarious Uranium Red Fiestaware plate, there’s a whole lot of very bland porcelain teacups. Cultural memory is highly selective, filtering through only the most novel and iconic designs. The past as we remember it is not the past as it was lived.
Today is the officially recognized 573rd anniversary of the publication of the Hunminjeongeum (translated into English as The Correct Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People) by one of Korea’s greatest Joseon kings, Sejong. He is, in fact, often given the honorific of “the Great” (as in “Sejong the Great“). His book gave us the modern Korean alphabet, known as Hangul (sometimes spelled Hangeul).
Prior to the invention of Hangul, Koreans used the complex system of Classical Chinese characters, along with Hanja (certain Chinese characters that were assimilated into the Korean language). It was very complicated and only a small elite at any one time would master it. With the invention of Hangul, literacy was able to spread rapidly throughout the lower classes.
It’s usage eventually paved the way for both of the Koreas to be two of the most literate countries in the world. Literacy rates in North Korea are difficult to establish independently but the CIA World Factbook listed it as 100% as of 2015. That same year, South Korea’s rate was estimated to be approximately 99%.
The Hunminjeongeum has been listed as one of South Korea’s National Treasures since 1962 and on UNESCO‘s Memory of the World register since 1997. There is even a National Hangul Museum located in Seoul. So important to the Korean culture, Hangul Day is not only the recognized anniversary but is also a national holiday in South Korea!
The holiday is celebrated on January 15th in North Korea, where it is known as Chosongul Day. This is in order to commemorate an earlier announcement of the creation of Hangul (prior to its publication). The differences in the name of the holiday derive from what names the two countries use for Korea (“Hanguk” in the South and “Choson” in the North). In both cases, the name translates into English as “Korean script.”
Another interesting fact about Korea related to literacy is that the first known movable metal type occurred during the Koryo (or Goreyo) dynasty. The Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun (translated into English as The Prescribed Ritual Text of the Past and Present) was completed in 1250 C.E. Credit for this innovation is traditionally given to Choe Yun-ui (a civil minister for King Gojong), who invented the process in 1234 C.E.
I just so happen to own a dusty, crusty, musty old copy of The Shuttle. Here it is. I have read it, and I assure you that it is incredibly boring soppy domestic melodrama, cover to cover. It does not read well to post-modern sensibilities, aesthetic or moral. Will the Gilded Age American heiress marry into English nobility?? Spoiler alert: of course she does. I keep it as a curiosity, a piece of historical flotsam because I personally post-date atomic weapons by forty years (exactly: 1945 – 1985). I just can’t get emotionally invested in this.
Ever wanted a time machine, but for what people thought and felt in the past? To be able to imagine what it was like to live in the head-space of English-language readers before the Great War? Through the magic of digital archives, record keeping, and a healthy dash of imagination, you can try, but ultimately, you can’t. From our perspective, we know that the Great War will be just the first of two World Wars.
I found, on Project Gutenberg, a list of the top ten best-selling books of every year, from 1895 – 1923. With links to those that they have in digital form for free download. Nice. Intriguingly, these seem to be derived ultimately from the Publisher’s Weekly lists. How, exactly, Publisher’s Weekly compiles these lists is a trade secret, so I wouldn’t completely trust it. However, it’s still very, very interesting. The New York Times would begin keeping their own best sellers list in 1931, in case you were wondering.
Please, feel free to go to Project Gutenberg’s Bookshelf of American Bestsellers, and have an extensive look. If you want to read them in paper form, you might have to luck out and discover one at a book sale, and check our collections, although most of them will be very hard to find. How, exactly, best selling books end up falling so far into obscurity is another question, so here are my own observations of the list. I’ll cover the earliest ones, from 1895 up until WWI, in 1914.
I haven’t even heard of most of these books.
It’s true. Most of them are completely unfamiliar to me. Even if it’s a smash hit in its own time, a book can clearly just drop off the popularity cliff and into the void in the course of a few generations. That’s a sobering thought. Maybe it’ll happen to Game of Thronesor Harry Potteror anything by James Patterson or Steven King too, just like it did to 1900’s Red Pottageby Mary Cholmondeley. I know it sounds impossible, but clearly it can happen.
The ones I have heard of.
Special Case: The Shuttle
Oh, hey, it’s The Shuttle. I only know it exists because I found a copy super cheap once. I didn’t realize it was that popular in its time. I think I’ll write a Reader’s Corner post about it. And now you’re reading it. Awesome.
Aside from this one, there’s three rough categories the other books I know fall into: famous author, famous book, and movie books.
People clearly just ate up whatever Winston Churchill wrote. Not too familiar with the books, but I do know about Winston Churchill. Other authors I’ve heard of, although I’m not familiar with these particular titles on Project Gutenburg: J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and that’s pretty much it.
The Book Itself is Famous – A Timeless Work of Literature?
Alright, now for the actually famous works in here, and what they’re famous for. If I can recognize a book by title, not author, and I can give you a rundown of what it’s about even if I haven’t read it, it’s on the list. These are the elite few that are still in print, over a century later:
The Jungleby Upton Sinclair. Mostly famous today for the meat-packing plant scene. Everybody likes sausage leaf lard, but nobody wants to see how sausage leaf lard is made. Arguably contributed to the formation of the FDA. Lovely. If you’ve read it at all, it was probably for history class.
Pollyannaby Eleanor H. Porter. I know about this one, but haven’t read it. Named after its endlessly-optimistic heroine… which isn’t necessarily seen as a heroic quality these days, which tells you a lot about why the rest of these books are so obscure. Calling someone a Pollyanna is not a compliment.
Cultural drift over time has made the majority of the books on the list very boring and/or difficult reads.
Continuing on the theme of cultural drift, there’s the third, weirder category. This time period coincides with the rise of cinema, so there are a handful of books that are definitely still sort-of-well-known to very-well-known, but they’re famous for the movie that’s based on them, no longer necessarily in their own right. Ultimately, the movies are more famous than the book.
First, there’s The Prisoner of Zenda, which is also the most obscure, being a clutch of movies that were themselves adaptations of the book, play, and then other movies, for decades. IMDB suggests that the most recent adaptations were a very straight 1984 TV miniseries, and a sports-comedy adaptation in 1993. Weird.
Second, The Clansman, is arguably the most famous of these movie-books, because the film it was made into – The Birth of a Nation – is standard watching in film classes, for the fact that this movie represents the invention of modern film editing. As for the story, it’s awful, gut-churningly racist propaganda about the KKK being heroes. In case anyone wanted to plead “but morals were different back then” – no, I’m going to nip that in the bud right here. The director, D. W. Griffith, immediately made another film – Intolerance– to try to absolve himself of contemporary accusations of racism, so, for the record, it was definitely seen as racist at the time. His efforts didn’t work, in large part because The Birth of a Nation was, by far, the most popular, and overshadowed everything that he did after, and also because as a rebuttal after all that, Intolerance was incredibly weak, and also a flop so catastrophic that it ruined him. So, ultimately, the answer is that racism was incredibly popular in 1911.
Third, The Virginian. This is a very quirky book, and arguably the first true literary Western. Before, there were plenty of Westerns, but they were relegated to dime-novel adventure stories and cheap entertainment. This book was adapted to a play, several movies, and in very broad-strokes terms, a well-known 1962 television show.
Whether for pop-cultural or historical reasons, nearly as many books survive as movies as they do as books. Maybe this will be the fate of books like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, where the book was certainly popular, but the movie franchise even more so. Only time will tell.
The Path to Timelessness?
So, in the end, only very few of these best-selling monster smash hits actually managed to pass a full century in the public imagination. I’m also fairly sure it must have been difficult to predict which of these works would make it. Let’s not forget that nearly half of them are known purely because they had the good fortune to be made into movies. And remade. Lots. If you ever hear people complain about how today’s movie theaters are stuffed with bland safe remakes, remember this: a quick search for the title “The Prisoner of Zenda” on IMDB turns up no less than eight movies or TV series with that exact title. This isn’t a new problem, really.
Ultimately, if you want your book to become a true classic, you need luck, specifically the luck to treat a major concern of your own time, which also will go on to be a major concern of the future, or at least be relevant to future history classes. How was Frances Hodgson Burnett to know in 1907 that the phenomenon of American heiresses marrying English nobility would represent an entire world killed stone dead by two whole world wars bookending a global financial collapse? She couldn’t have known. Nobody really could in her day. Even the list-dominating book is a pinball in the arcade of history. Only few people can claim a spot on the eternal literature high-score list. But, if you want to give luck an extra boost, though, definitely sell the movie rights if you can.