Tag Archives: Katherine’s Bookshelf

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Atomic Energy in the Coming Era

Bohr model atom in gold on a dark blue cover.
Nothing warms the cockles of my heart like old timey stylized Bohr atomic model atoms on an old book cover.

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:

The spine of the book with the title Atomic Energy in the Coming Era. Nice.
ATOMIC ENERGY in the Coming Era. Perfect. Just perfect. I can feel the boundless optimism, the promise of cheap, bountiful electricity radiating off it like… well, ionizing radiation.

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.

The title page of the book. 1945!
1945! That’s some blisteringly fast research and writing. Also, it’s a very good looking book inside as well.

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.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Standard Mathematical Tables

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!

A big blue and gold old book, stuffed with tables for use with your slide rule.
This is the good stuff, right here.

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).

What a slide rule is, and how to use it.

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.

A big fat table of trigonometric functions to five places.
Trigonometric functions to five places. Squee!

Standard Mathematical Tables must 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.

A big fat table of integrals.
This is how you know you’re going to have a real good time.

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 Tables won’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 Tables and its technological eclipse is a reminder that a non-fiction book is sometimes much more than a means of serving up facts.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – China Under the Empress Dowager

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.

Faded yellow cover with red lettering.
LIES! It’s all lies!

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 Dowager Empress Cixi in a sedan chair with attendant court eunuchs.
The Dowager Empress Cixi in a sedan chair with attendant court eunuchs.
Dowager Empress Cixi and four Western ladies and a small girl in a frilly dress.
Obviously, you could visit, if you weren’t an intact biological male. That’s how the lion’s share of these photos were made: biological female photographer.
Dowager Empress Cixi as the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin.
Empress Dowager Cixi was very image-conscious and savvy. She commissioned many portraits and photographs of herself and her attendants. Here, she is depicted as Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of mercy, possibly to put a good spin on the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. This is a political statement, definitely not a frivolous game of dress-up.

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.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Etiquette by Emily Post

Dark blue with gold lettering Etiquette by Emily Post.
I love books on etiquette. I have a few, but this is the one I wanted to share. More could well be on their way.

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!

The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular copy. Lots of them.
The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular batch in 1929. Lots of them. I love appendices, end pages, indices, endnotes, and so on. I hardcore judge history books by how fat their endnotes are.

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.

Super fancy 19th Century ice cream knife. Solid silver.
This is an ice cream knife, 19th Century. Until the ice cream scoop, they used big ol’ knives with a ledge on the end to cut ice cream and serve it. The ledge is to keep the ice cream from slipping off the broad face of the knife. Weirdly specialized silverware was very common 100 years ago, and although asparagus tongs are pretty much extinct, along with sugar snips, and critically endangered cake breakers, you might still run into fish forks and knives in the wild, at a very, very formal dinner.

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.

very formal place setting anticipating lots of seafood before the main course.
Don’t panic. You can use the table setting to anticipate what will be served, if you neglected to read the menu. Caviar (tiny mother of pearl spoon on extreme right), escargot (rightmost fork resting in spoon, the tongs to hold the snail shells arrive with the snails), seafood cocktail (leftmost two-pronged fork), soup (round spoon on right), fish (broad fork second to left and broad rightmost knife), lobster (lobster pick third from left), salad (fork, second knife from right), main course presumably steak (tall fork fourth from right and steak knife), dessert (three tined fork closest to plate and knife closest to plate).

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating by Helen Koue

The title of the book on the spine in gilt letters.
The cover isn’t very exciting. It’s green. That’s it.

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:

What's rose and green and colonial all over? This living room.
If that sofa pattern qualifies as “a soft plaid”, I don’t think I can handle a bold plaid.

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.

Chartreuse walls and some kinda weird painted window border instead of moulding.
Baffling as it is now, the paint job here must have taken ages. Even with a stencil, this represents a monumental undertaking. Look at the figures on the closet door! Also, I can’t figure out how the window curtain works here. There’s no blind, so I guess sunlight just blasts through it. There must be a rail on the bottom too so that the whole thing can be pulled aside? I don’t know.

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.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee