My Complicated Relationship to the Dust Jacket

On November 18, 2015, I published this post on Book Riot.

My Complicated Relationship to the Dust Jacket.

Book Riot_151115_6
When you pick up a book, the first thing that greets you is the cover. Often the cover consists of a detachable piece of paper wrapped around the front and back using folded flaps. This detachable piece of paper is called the dust jacket.

I have a complicated relationship to the dust jacket. Most of the time I just want to do away with it. In other words, most of the time I prefer my books as the bookbinder created them —naked.

There are several reasons why dust jackets bother me.

If you would like to read the entire post please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Riot

In May this year I became a Contributor to Book Riot. Book Riot is a blog that writes about books, books, and—I don’t know if I mentioned it already—books. For me this is a great thing that has happened. I love books and I have been a reader and follower of Book Riot and their other Contributors for quite a while. Book Riot does a great job and I’m honored to be part of their team.

Whenever I publish a post on Book Riot that is suitable for The Boomerang, I will write about it here and post a link so that you can read it too.

In the meantime, you are welcome to check out my

Book Riot Contributor’s Page

Book Riot Author’s Page

Enjoy!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Hwaet! The Thousand-Year History of the Audiobook

Hwaet.
Arguably the most famous word in English literature, hwaet is the first word in the eight-century poem Beowulf. The actual meaning of the word is up for debate, but regardless of which side you choose, the word is some kind of exclamation to indicate the initiation of the telling of a story. Hwaet is there because Beowulf was meant to be heard.

In a recent psychological study, published in Frontiers of Psychology and discussed by Rachel Smalter Hall on Book Riot, it is stated that listening to literature is the least efficient way of learning, compared to reading silently to yourself or reading out loud. According to the authors of the study this would have consequences for people living in the twenty-first century now that technological advances have changed the way we consume literature, from reading silently to listening to audiobooks.

It would appear then, that the human mind is not wired to absorb information by way of listening. What the authors seem to have overlooked is the historical perspective of the audiobook. Throughout history, literature was meant to be heard, not read.

Why did people listen to literature, rather than read it themselves?
There are several answers to this question.

It was a matter of literacy.
A population where almost 100% of adults are literate is a late phenomenon in human history. For example, during the early Middle Ages, those who were literate were mainly men and women belonging to the Church or a monastic order. Priests, monks and nuns were more likely to be able to read and write than a king or a queen. Later on, literacy spread among the social classes with the expansion of education and increased social mobility. Still, most people could not read. And those who could read did not necessarily know how to write. And among those who could both read and write, as in the case of merchants, many knew only how to write numbers and not letters. Moreover, there was a difference between sexes—men were more likely to know how to read and write than women.

All Saints North Street fönster 3
An example of women who were literate. Margaret Blackburn reading from a prayer book (c. 1420). The Blackburns were a prominent merchant family in York.
Church of All Saints North Street,York, England.
Photo: EH Kern.

It was a matter of availability.
Not until the introduction of the printing press during the fifteenth century did books become available on a wider scale in Europe. Before the printing press, books were copied by hand on parchment. Those who copied books were mainly monks who spent much of their time creating beautifully crafted illuminated manuscripts.

Royal 10. E. IV, f. 3v K043854
Pages from the manuscript Royal 10E IV, France late 13th century.
Source: Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

It was a matter of cost.
Because books were written by hand and decorated to become like pieces of art, owning books was something mainly for those who had money to spend. This continued to be the case even after the breakthrough of printing in the seventeenth century.

CT22372a
Initial letter in Leviticus/ויקרא‎, Vayikra/Wayikra, France, 1277–1286.
Source: Additional 11639, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library.

Literature continued to be read out loud well into modern times. Charles Dickens gained popularity from publishing his stories as serials that people read out loud to each other since not everybody could afford to buy a copy themselves. Charles Darwin wanted his novels read out loud to him rather than reading them himself. As late as the 1920s, professional reciters went on tour, reading literary works to the public.

In her Book Riot article, Rachel Smalter Hall questions how the results of the study were measured. Supposedly, the participants listened to a text but were quizzed on it in writing. Hall points out that this method could result in a misrepresentation of what the participants have learned since different parts of the brain are involved when listening or reading.

Hall’s doubts regarding the results fall in line with medical and linguistic research on reading. Medical research has shown that reading is a cognitive skill that needs to be learned and practiced, similar to playing an instrument. Linguistic research has shown that when reading a complicated text silently, our mouths and tongues move as if we are reading out loud.

Listening to literature is not a phenomenon brought on by technological advances in the near-past but an activity that has engaged human beings through thousands of years. If humans are less likely to learn from listening than from reading, I’m surprised that we have made any progress.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Rachel Smalter Hall “Are Audiobooks Worse than Real Books? Let’s Ask Science”
Sousa et al (2013) “The Way We Encounter Reading Material Influences How Frequently We Mind Wander,” Frontiers of Psychology.
The Independent “Listen! Beowulf Opening Line Misinterpreted for Two Hundred Years”
Medievalists.net “The Status of hwaet in Old English”
Modern Psykologi “Vad var det jag sa? Martin Ingvar om den svenska skolkrisen”

Neil Gaiman. Descendant of Monty Python and Stephen King

Writer Neil Gaiman always seems to be in the headlines. If it isn’t because he invited Jonathan Ross to host the Hugo Awards, it’s because he might be adapting Sandman into a movie or because he has grown a beard. In other words, Gaiman is enormously popular. And rightly so. He is a very talented writer. But as we all know, it takes more than just talent to become a success.

Why, then, are people so fascinated with Neil Gaiman?
I believe it is because his writing fits in with two other things people can’t get enough of — Monty Python and Stephen King.

The British comedy group Monty Python made its debut in 1969 with the first episode of the BBC comedy TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Circus stayed on the air until 1974, after which the group went on to film classic movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life Of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Not long ago, the group announced a number of reunions shows. All of them sold out in minutes.

The impact of Monty Python on comedy and popular culture can’t be overstated. The absurd sense of humor and the mix of low-brow and high-brow have even coined a new word, “Pythonesque.”

What Gaiman shares with Python is the juxtaposition of the absurd and the mundane as if the pairing is perfectly normal. For example, where Python in The Holy Grail let the Knights of the Round Table charge the filming location of a historical documentary, in the short story Chivalry, Gaiman has one of the Knights knock on the door of a lonely widow who happened to buy the Holy Grail in the Oxfam shop down the block. This type of story telling can also be found in Gaiman’s novels, for example in Anansi Boys, where it is perfectly normal that the trickster and spider god would have two kids.

Anansi Boys brings us to what Gaiman shares with Stephen King. Arguably the most popular horror writer of all time, King tells many of his stories from the point of view of a child, even when that child has become an adult. King uses this point of view most notably in the novella Stand By Me and the novels It and The Shining, as well as most recently in the latter’s sequel, Doctor Sleep. Apart from Anansi Boys, Gaiman uses the point of view of the child, as well as the child as an adult, for example, in Coraline, The Absolute Death and, most recently, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

One more thing that Gaiman shares with King, and which makes them into the compelling storytellers they are, is that they know when to end a story. Both Gaiman and King draw you in with a narrative that ends the moment just before all hell breaks loose. Instead of reading the story’s conclusion, you stare at the last sentence while in your head images of the end play out followed by a rumble and crash as the world you just immersed yourself in mercilessly comes tumbling down. This writing strategy is deployed by Gaiman in the short story The Price, about a cat that protects a family from evil. King uses this strategy in one of his novels written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, Thinner. Never before has a slice of pie been as frightening.

There are writings by Gaiman where these influences come together, most notably in Good Omens, although that could have something to do with the fact that he had a co-writer in Terry Pratchett. In Good Omens an angel and a demon live undercover among humans as owners of an antique shop which is open on appointment only.

I believe that Neil Gaiman is as popular as he is because he is a talented writer who merges the absurd with the mundane, innocence with loss of innocence, while having complete control over his own storytelling.

And because he looks like a rock star.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Sources:
Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek: http://www.nad.riksarkivet.se/SDHK
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
Nationalencykopledien:
http://www.ne.se Falu gruva
http://www.ne.se Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return