The opening of the gospel of Matthew, in Persian. Possibly acquired by the Vatican in the 16th century (Library of Congress)
The Vatican Library, with its gaudy halls and astounding troves of rare manuscripts—not to mention that ever-exciting aura of deep dark mystery—is about to get a whole lot less secret. Last week, the Vatican began a multi-year project to digitize 1.5 million pages from their 82,000 manuscripts. Then they’re going to post it all online.
According to the Chicago Tribune:
“The manuscripts that will be digitized extend from pre-Columbian America to China and Japan in the Far East, passing through all the languages and cultures that have marked the culture of Europe,” said Monsignor Jean-Louis Brugues, archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church.
In short, very cool.
This idea seems like it was a longtime coming. Take the micro- (or nano-) brewery concept that’s been gathering speed across the country, particularly throughout the Midwest, and combine it with reading. Books and beer.
Per the Indianapolis Star, University of Michigan English major Jason Wuerfel is starting up a certain kind of awesome with his new “Books & Brews” storefront:
A personal touch isn’t the only thing setting Books & Brews a part from the competition. All of the beer served in the bar section of the store is brewed on site by Wuerfel. The bookpub owner (yes, I just coined the term bookpub) also is channeling Willy Wonka by allowing folks who pledged $500 or more to the project’s Kickstarter fund to help design a brew, name it, make it, and put it on tap…
Yes, he made all the furniture himself.
(h/t: The Roundup)
The Admont Benedictine Monastery was established in Austria in the year 1074 and is still a going concern. Impressive enough. But add on to that the existence of its stunning Baroque library, finished in 1776. Inside its glorious assemblage of bright walls and frescoed ceilings, the library contains tens of thousands of volumes, including 530 incunabula (books printed before 1500).
The Admont’s builder, Joseph Hueber, was a man of the Enlightenment, who believed in beauty of all kinds:
As with the mind, light should also fill the room.
After having gone from being the rare gangsta rapper who had actually lived the life instead of just rapping about it to loud monotone fixture on Law & Order: SVU and too many horrendous movies to count, Ice-T has a new gig: Recording audiobooks. It makes sense, given his clear, bottom-heavy voice. But according to Paste, he talked on a recent podcast about running into some trouble recording an unnamed Dungeons & Dragons novel. Just realizing the depths of nerd-dom that he’d gotten into (“They were talking about ‘pegasuses’ and ‘pegasi.’ That’s horses with wings”) was an education in itself:
It took Ice three-and-a-half hours to record 25 pages of the book, whose title he does not reveal. But, he added, he will slay the fantasy-lingo dragon and let fans know when the audiobook goes on sale.
“It’ll be a treat to watch me, with my South Central-educated ass, trying to read some Dungeons & Dragons shit,” he promises.
The O.G. further notes that “Considering the way music is right now, you’re better off listening to a book … Honestly, it’s more entertaining.”
Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments was one of the great music novels of the past few decades. Published in 1989 and serving as the start for Doyle’s unofficial “Barrytown Trilogy” (also comprising The Van and The Snapper), it followed knockabout Dubliner Jimmy Rabbitte’s attempt to put together a great soul/R&B band with nothing but Irishmen. Doyle’s newest novel, The Guts, picks up with Jimmy many years on, still working with music but saddled with middle-aged responsibilities and a new problem: Cancer.
My review of The Guts is at PopMatters:
Jimmy’s reflexive fear of sentiment is a powerful force in the book, and it works both for and against what Doyle is trying to achieve. In refusing to turn Jimmy into some sad, caterwauling victim baying at the moon, Doyle keeps the book from being just another sickness story. It’s Jimmy’s story through and through. Within a few dozen pages, he has pushed on past the cancer and is concerned more with the other matters that will not wait; family, the bills, what to do about that old female friend he just ran into who seems keen. Most problematic is work at the small excavatory Irish music site he started (“Finding old bands and finding the people who loved them”) whose fortunes were as bitterly unforgiving as any 21st century creative enterprise…
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote: “Folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they’re always wrong.”
One more note on the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Back in 2004, he was interviewed by The Believer and the talk sprawled over beyond life and acting into things literary.
Hoffman has played a few great figures from both sides of the literary page (Willy Loman, Truman Capote), but that’s not what gave him the credentials for this interview, it’s that he was clearly a passionate reader. Not a lot people out there these days who will stand up and shout for the dark glories of somebody like Richard Yates:
If you do any great art you’re somehow exposing a part of you. Like Richard Yates, Jesus Christ, that book, you almost don’t want to meet him. I kept feeling for the characters as if they existed.
But perhaps most beautifully, he identifies one of the great solaces of reading, that it’s an act in and of itself with no need to be justified. Some won’t care for his comparing it to smoking, but the linkage is clear:
When you read, you think, and when you smoke, you think. It’s a pleasurable thing, and not a duty.
Language is a virus from outer space.
—William S. Burroughs
Burroughs, who would have turned 100 yesterday, liked to repeat this quote and variations on its theme in his speaking and writing. Like with much else that he put out there, it’s not meant to be taken with complete seriousness, but he certainly believed in the metaphor of words and ideas as a virus that can spread with disease-like rapdity.
Along those lines, check out China Mieville’s science-fiction novel Embassytown, in which (among other oddities) he invents an alien race which is actually sickened by words and the transmission thereof. I wrote about the book for The Millions.
Every year, BookFinder.com compiles a list of the 100 most sought-after out-of-print books. Their 11th annual list was just released and it’s quite the read.
For our sins, the #1 title is Madonna’s oh-so-scandalous “book” Sex. Stephen King makes a few high-up appearances, most surprisingly for the little-known My Little Pony, which was released as a limited edition in 1989 with illustrations by Barbara Kruger. Some other highlights:
- Nora Roberts (?!) – Promise Me Tomorrow
- Cameron Crowe – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
- Salvador Dali, J.R.R. Tolkien, others – The Jerusalem Bible
- Ricky Jay – Cards as Weapons
Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.
In the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:
…working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.
George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.
Best-of lists are particularly absurd when it comes to books, with thousands of titles being released in 2013 alone and easily hundreds of them most likely being worth forking over $25 for. But nevertheless it’s helpful to pull notable ones out of the stacks of new releases; otherwise where would you even get started?
To that end, I published a piece over at PopMatters with short writeups on my 15 favorite books of 2013. It’s a good collection with something for everybody, fantasy to military history, graphic novels to current affairs, Thomas Pynchon to Scientology. You can read it here.