28 February 2011

A Meagre and Imperfect Picture

If you do much digging into the history of printing and publishing in Nova Scotia, one of the characters you will encounter is Joseph Howe (1804–73), printer, newspaperman, politician, and reformer. Howe is perhaps best known for defending himself against charges of ‘seditious libel’ in 1835 in a case that is now widely credited as establishing the of freedom of the press in Canada. One of Howe’s best-selling authors was Thomas Haliburton (1769–1865). Haliburton is best known for his literary character Sam Slick, an opinionated Yankee clock peddler who travels Nova Scotia.

I was recently looking over some photographs I took of one of Howe’s publications, Thomas Haliburton’s two-volume An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia, which Howe issued from his Halifax press in 1829. This handsome title page indicates that Howe was stocking a range of types, which are tastefully set by his compositor. Notice, however the awkward spacing between the V and A in “NOVA-SCOTIA,” and superfluous comma as well. This problem could easy have been fixed by optically spacing the capital letters, as is done below with “HALIFAX”. The subtile ornaments make a valuable contribution to the arrangement of this page.

The chapters headings of Haliburton’s book employ an out-dented and italicized summary at their head listing each chapter’s major themes. This once-common technique is now rarely used in contemporary books.

At first glance, the title page to Volume Two looks like it was printed from the same form as Volume One, but it is not. There are many differences. To name a few: the ornaments are different; the title line NOVA SCOTIA is set with a completely different font (though with no better treatment of the spacing of V and A); and the second volume shifts the word “by” to the final line of the publisher’s notice.

One of the things that caught my eye when I first looked at these volumes was a notice printed on a piece of paper and bound into the book before the title page. The notice reads:

The Publisher has to apologize for the appearance of the View of Halifax, which he regrets is not equal to his wishes. The person by whom it was politely furnished, not being aware that the engraver required a plain ink drawing, coloured the view; and as it was executed by an American Artist, quite unacquainted with the scene, it makes rather a meagre and imperfect picture.

An American Artist, quite unacquainted with the scene? It was not uncommon in those days for printers to commission steel or copper plate engravings to illustrate a work, and for these to be executed based on paintings or sketches provided to the engraver. Let’s have a look at this “meagre and imperfect picture.”

I wonder what fault Howe, or perhaps Haliburton, found with it – and how that fault might have been the result of the local artist providing the engraver with a “coloured” view instead of a “plain ink drawing.” Also, if it distressed Howe to the extent that he felt the need to alert the reader to its shortcomings, underwriting the added expense of printing the errata note and binding it into the book, why did he not simple omit the engraving from the work? Was there author-publisher politics at play here?

One of the other fine illustrations in the book (which was apparently not misrendered) is this one of the provincial House of Assembly in Halifax.

I also can’t resist these step tables illustrating various travelling distances. Composing these tables using type, metal rules and leading required a degree of typographic sophistication that does Howe’s Halifax print shop credit.

I also noted the binder’s ticket on the inside of the front cover. “Phillips. Binder. Halifax.” The only Phillips I’ve come across who was a Halifax book binder was William Phillips, born in 1841 in Connecticut. If it’s in fact his ticket, it would imply that Phillips rebound or repaired these books at some point in their travels.


16 February 2011

On CBC Radio’s Canada Reads

This was the first year ever that I have had the distinctly puzzling experience of listening to all the episodes of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads, the national public broadcaster’s well-intended attempt to cultivate a broader consumer base – er, I mean readership – for Canadian authored novels. To my ears, Canada Reads bore a closer resemblance to the CBC’s comedy program The Debaters than to anything I would consider an engaging discourse on books (other than the fact that it wasn't funny); that is, it was simply light entertainment.

I’d have no problem with this fact had the celebrity panelists actually succeeded at being entertaining, or had they had not, with every other breath, made such embarrassingly earnest and self-congratulatory declarations about their important role picking ‘the essential book’ which might tempt our nation of non-readers (really?) back to reading Canadian novels (graphic novels need not apply). First off, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that this is a flawed, foolish notion. This ‘essential’ book does not exist in any culture; a literature is built from many books. I can also tell you that if the nation’s literature (as distinct from its book trade) were ever actually in real peril, I hope to God that we could muster a better rescue squad to send to its defense than these five celebrities.

Is this the best we can hope for from the CBC with regards to its coverage of literature on the radio? Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Company is an excellent program that may point the way, and while I’d be the last to complain about its largely international focus, its contribution to the discussion of Canadian texts is slim. So where is its domestic equivalent? Do Canadian books not also merit this level of engagement, or will they forever be relegated to the fluffy coffeebreak chit-chat of Shelagh Rogers’ The Next Chapter and the gameshow nonsense of Canada Reads? Afterall, shouldn’t the CBC’s coverage of this important aspect of our culture aspire to be more than a vehicle for light entertainment and commercial book promotion?

Let's go, CBC. Step up your game.


Marginalia, Judges, Poets

A friend of mine is a library technician at the university library. Recently, he’s been cataloguing the sundry textbooks which have been donated to the achieves over the years. From time to time I’ll drop in and see what’s on his cart. One day I spotted a reader I used in grade school, The Dog Next Door, published by Ginn & Company in 1971. I like rediscovering books I used as a child and looking to see how well (or more often how poorly) they were designed. What effect does the typographic landscape have on you in your formative years?

Another day, my friend at the library told me that while cataloguing a little textbook he’d stumbled across a student’s drawing of his professor, the poet Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943). Which book? I wanted to know. Did you take a photo? Did you include this detail in the bibliographic entry? He pursed his lips and said he’d have to get back to me. He’d been through a lot of textbooks, you have to understand.

A week or two later he emailed to say that he’s turned up the book again. It was a tiny Greek primer, The Alcestis of Euripides, with short English notes for the use of schools, published by Oxford in 1864. The book seems to have moved through the hands of a number of students, but the last owner (and the apparent cartoonist, based on the handwriting) was one Asa James Crockett (1870–1966). Crockett was born in Wine Harbour, NS. After graduating from the Pictou Academy, he earned a BA and an MA from Acadia, which is most likely where he aquired this textbook and encountered Roberts.

Almost every available space in the tiny book was filled with annotations and drawings, including this fist.

Crockett went on to be a juvenile court judge in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. And I have to wonder if, from time to time, he did not resume his old habit of doodling while taking notes while on the bench.


14 February 2011

Danger Pay

Martin Levin at the Globe & Mail invited me to write a short piece for My Books, My Place, a regular feature in the paper’s Saturday Arts section. This required sending a photographer to the back corner of snowy Kings County to take a picture of me where I read. Lucky for me they sent a fellow New Brunswicker, Halifax-based freelancer Sándor Fizli. While shooting from the outside of the house looking in, Sándor ended up wallowing in thigh-deep snow.

You can see some of Sándor’s other work at his web site.