A splendid, challenging mixture of information and fun.

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THE BOOK

A COVER-TO-COVER EXPLORATION OF THE MOST POWERFUL OBJECT OF OUR TIME

From barely decipherable scratches on ancient surfaces to the latest bestseller: a history of the book, its numerous ancestors, and its underlying technologies.

Houston, who has written a history of punctuation (Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, 2013), returns with a text that is erudite, playful, and illuminating. His massive research informs his discussion—research he has absorbed so well that it seems to flow effortlessly from his pen. Accompanied by many useful illustrations, the text approaches the subject in several ways: the author recounts the history of the writing surfaces and implements humanity has used (from papyrus to paper, reed to keyboard), rehearses the evolution of illustrations in texts (from illuminated manuscripts to our contemporary mass-produced pages), and describes the advance from the scroll to the codex. In each of these major sections, Houston is both witty and intensely detailed, thus appealing both to general readers and to bibliophiles who will wish to know the specifics of making papyrus, of stitching together pages, and of learning how we arrived at today’s paper sizes. Humor appears almost always in the punny, allusive chapter titles—e.g., “Etching a Sketch: Copperplate Printing and the Renaissance.” The author calls out onto his stage numerous principals in his play—names not widely known—and gives them their due, among them Flemish scribe Colard Mansion (the first to use engraved copper plates in the late 15th century) and Martial, a Roman poet, whose first-century (C.E.) volume is the first known use of the codex. Houston also continually refers to the published version of the book he is writing, pointing out its similarities to others, ancient and contemporary. And we sometimes have to “unlearn” things we thought we knew—e.g., Gutenberg’s first book was not the Bible but rather a grammar text.

A splendid, challenging mixture of information and fun.

Pub Date: Aug. 23, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-24479-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

THE LIBRARY BOOK

An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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