Let’s Get Small: On Loving Miniature Books

“The miniature is mysterious. We wonder how all those parts work when they’re so small. We wonder ‘are they real?’”
-Lia Purpura

A Lilliputian Webster's Dictionary

A dictionary of Lilliputian dimensions.

I just made a shamelessly sentimental purchase on eBay: a replacement for a tiny dictionary I once found in the toe of my Christmas stocking as a kid: a 2″ x 1-5/8″ Little Webster.

I am holding this miniature book in my hand now. I can’t help but marvel at the crisp clarity of its tiny font and the impossibly thin translucency of all of its 640 perfect-bound pages. I have other dictionaries that are more comprehensive (not to mention the anytime, anyplace access to reference works the Internet enables), but there is something in this book’s scaled-down completeness, the Lilliputian other-worldliness of it as a working object, that makes me love this dictionary not so much as a reference tool, but as a thing.

Miniature books can be mysterious too.

Miniature books are mysterious.

So, with a hat-tip to Lia Purpura’s brilliant gem of an essay, “On Miniatures” (which you can read in its tiny entirety in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore), I’d like to invite you to join me in exploring a few of the many mysteries and wonders of the miniature book.

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The Shelf-Space Dilemma: Which Books Stay? Which Go?

Double-shelving: Should you do it?

Double-shelving: Don’t try this at home.

We lit-loving folk tend to accumulate an overwhelming number of books.

Even if you’re a diehard eBook reader, audiobook listener, or library borrower, chances are you’ll still find yourself receiving the odd hard copy as a gift, or springing for an exciting new release or two at a local author signing.

Next thing you know, you’re running out of shelf space. So how do you decide which books to keep and which to give away?

I’ve been surveying own collection lately, searching for a pain-free but expedient means of thinning the rapidly multiplying herd. I’ve got to admit the situation’s spinning out of control.

Books perch in wobbly stacks on my nightstand and have taken roost on top of my filing cabinet. Not even my six, 6-foot industrial metal bookcases can contain them; I’ve already resorted to shelving yards of books in spine-obscuring, dust-trapping double rows.

March of the Penguins. I collected these old editions while working for a used bookstore. The Virgil has its own little paper dustjacket and a 35-cent price stamp.

March of the Penguins. I collected these sweet, old editions while working at a used bookstore in Toronto. The Virgil has its own little matching paper dust-jacket and is priced at 35 cents.

There are yellowing, dog-eared texts from college coursework, beloved novels that once belonged to my late mother, quirky editions I picked up back when I worked for a used bookseller, and memory-laden ones from my years as a book reviewer and literary publicist. There are crisp, new story collections and memoirs, snapped up at AWP and bookstore events, and lavishly illustrated orphans rescued from garage sales and library discard piles.  Oh, and then there are my husband’s books….

Until we get that mansion with 12-foot ceilings, acres of built-in shelving, and a rolling library ladder to reach it all, I’m afraid it’s time to divest of some of these darlings. But where to begin?Continue Reading

Exercising Your Craft: 3 Writers Who Get Physical

Haruki Murakami, a notable runner-writer.

Haruki Murakami, a notable runner-writer.

I have a writer friend whose employment info on her Facebook profile always makes me laugh. Under “Position,” she wryly reports “Hunched Over a Desk.”

Treadmill desks and Hemingway-style standing aside, most writers spend a lot of time sitting. We’re exhorted to with quotes like this one from Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Or maybe just with the modern-day, abbreviated version: “Get your butt in the chair and write.”) Personally, I do some of my best work in an even more sedentary position: reclining with my laptop in the lazy comfort of my own bed.

But getting out of the chair (or futon) can be pretty great for your writing too. Sports, dance, or even just a brisk walk through the neighborhood can provide the perfect antidote to “writer’s hunch.” And there’s something in the rhythm and fluidity of physical movement that can dissolve the stubbornest of mental blocks.

My story: I was never much into sports as a kid or teenager, but I took up running in my early thirties, around the same time I started working on my novel. Short runs in Central Park during the early days of sketching scenes soon turned into longer distances. I eventually began signing up for marathons, which I trained for while pacing-out and enduring multiple manuscript drafts. I’ve completed eight marathons at the time of writing (and, if all goes well, by the time this post is published, I’ll have just finished my ninth: Berlin on September 29th). I often wish it were the other way round: nine novels and one marathon. But, hey, you do what you can do.

I credit running with lending structure to my writing sessions, building discipline and mental stamina, and giving me the physical means to limber up my mind. I wondered whether it was the same for writers who rely on other forms of physical activity, so I asked a few: a classically trained dancer, a certified yoga instructor, and a former lifeguard. Here’s what they said.Continue Reading

Reading Cookbooks Like Novels: Bookseller Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick (Image: Nora Maynard)

Looking for an international cookbook by horror-film actor Vincent Price? A 1920s etiquette manual suitable for Jay Gatsby? Or Alice B. Toklas’ infamous tome with its recipe for fudge spiked with hashish? Bonnie Slotnick‘s got you covered.

With a collection of some 4,000 out-of-print and antiquarian culinary titles stocked in her cozy shop in New York’s West Village, Bonnie takes a refreshingly hands-on approach to selling. Whether she’s locating a replacement copy of an out-of-state customer’s well-loved, well-worn family cookbook, giving a local chef expert historical advice, or offering a visiting dog a biscuit, she always provides a personal touch.

I sat down with Bonnie to chat about her love of culinary writing as she cleaned and prepped some new arrivals for sale.

You once said you read cookbooks like novels. I’m intrigued.

I suppose you could say I first read cookbooks like children’s books, because I started when I was little. My mother had a 1940s copy of The Settlement Cook Book. This was put together by Jewish women who ran a settlement house in Milwaukee; it was originally published in 1901 and sold as a fundraiser.

The cover design especially appealed to me: a row of little girl cooks parading toward a heart, with the motto “The way to a man’s heart” above the title. There were also illustrations of children cooking at the start of some chapters. I used to just sit and read that book over and over again. Some of the recipes used words that were German or transliterated Yiddish or otherwise exotic—syllabub, timbale, kumquat, ramekin. I didn’t look them up, I just savored the sound of them in my head.Continue Reading

How to Feed Your Characters: The Food Timeline

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you're writing about would have paid for a case of soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help.

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you’re writing about would’ve paid for a soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help. (Image: Nora Maynard)

Writing about some hungry characters? In a time or place very different from your own? The Food Timeline might just save your bacon.

Founded by New Jersey-based reference librarian, Lynne Olver, FT is a free, open-access website and research service devoted to the history of all things culinary.

I interviewed Ms. Olver to find out more about this remarkable personal project—and to get some advice about writing food-related scenes in historically and culturally accurate ways.

PSHARES: How did you get the idea for the Food Timeline website?

LO: The website was inspired by James Trager’s The Food Chronology. This epic reference book chronicles key food events from prehistory to the 20th century. I was intrigued by the concept. As a reference librarian working in a public library, I encountered food history questions on a regular basis.

W71EK7T2XW7L._SY300_hen the Food Timeline debuted in March 1999, it offered a single page with links to vetted research sources. As time progressed, additional links, original content, and topical pages were added. Today’s site has 50 pages. Most of the content is researched, transcribed, HTML coded and uploaded by the editor (me). Food Timeline entries are selected based on questions frequently asked by our patrons. It is a work-in-progress and a labor of love.Continue Reading

Top 10 Movies Starring Books

Trivia Challenge: Can you name the 1997 neo-noir thriller in which this 1939 tennis tome so prominently appears? (Hint: “Funny old world? Dog my cats indeed!” Read on for the answer….)

Trivia Challenge: Can you name the 1997 neo-noir thriller in which this 1939 tennis tome  prominently appears? (Hint: “Dog my cats, indeed!” Read on for the answer….)

The Great Gatsby. Les Misérables. Silver Linings Playbook. Sure, plenty of successful movies owe a big debt to books. “Based on the novel by…,” “Best Adapted Screenplay” and all that.

But what about great films in which books get out from behind the scenes to drive plot, reveal character, and create atmosphere, becoming actors of a kind themselves?

Welcome to my unabashedly biased list, Top 10 Movies Starring Books. Hang on tight, because we’re going to be hopping through genres and decades, crossing some international borders, rubbing elbows with some cinematic A-listers—and partying with some bold and brassy B’s.

Getting Meta: Turns out some of these movies starring books are also based on books. Can you spot them? Bonus points if you can name the author too. (Answers are at the bottom of this post.)Continue Reading

Pop Survey: Do You Write in Your Books?

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In PloughsharesBook Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numero Cinq, used with permission.)

Marginal notes re-purposed to create fine art: “A black rose is planted over the scrawled notes of some long ago student struggling with the text of Macbeth….The student’s handwriting is so uncertain and you feel the tremendous desire to understand. I like the anxiety and striving to grasp the meaning of the printed word.” Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numéro Cinq, used with permission. Visit NC’s site for the full interview.)

Okay, Ploughsharers, it’s time to share some of your opinions! Today we’re taking a little squiggly, ink-stained side road in our journey through book arts with a special question just for you:

Do you write in your books?

Or do you prefer to keep them pristine?

(Tell us in the comments section below!)

Readers are a passionate bunch. I did a little informal pre-survey of some of my friends and found the responses ranged from horrified gasps of “No, never!” to enthusiastic, fist-pounding  “Hells, yeahs!”

Along the way, I gathered some colorful (and sometimes methodically color-coded) stories I’d like to share with you.

A Confession

But first a confession. I’m a careful abstainer, a longtime, diehard member of the Keep It Pristine club.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don Delillo's Mao II from the mid-1990s with its tiny scrap of Post-It still sticking strong.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don DeLillo’s Mao II from the mid-1990s, its tiny shred of Post-it still sticking fast to a passage I loved.

Writing instruments never touch my reading materials. I’ll mark pages and passages with a Post-it, jotting down my thoughts, with their corresponding page numbers, in a notebook. There’s always a crisp roll of Brodart book jacket covers at the ready in my desk drawer.  I take care to use bookmarks and never dog-ear. My books are scrupulously clean.

Doesn’t sound like much of a confession, does it?

Well, here’s the thing: I’ve always somehow wished I was the kind of person who wrote in books, who was so full of spontaneous creativity, literary passion and spark that I just had to scrawl all over them. Once, as a teenager, I even tried to deliberately cultivate the habit, but my heart just wasn’t in it and the whole thing felt contrived. As I self-consciously circled and underlined and annotated, all I could think was You’re ruining that book.Continue Reading

Milk-Producing, Duck-Billed, and Venomous: The Reanimation Library

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In Ploughshares’ Book Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Andrew Beccone, proprietor of the Reanimation LIbrary

Andrew Beccone, founder of the Reanimation Library (Image: Nora Maynard)

Knife-throwing manuals. Fondue cookbooks. Air raid shelter handbooks. Guides to the care and maintenance of prehensile-tailed skinks.

They’re the kind of outdated, discarded books you might find in a dusty corner of a thrift store, or branded with a big “WITHDRAWN” stamp at your public library’s annual sale.  Dog-eared orphans of the information storm.

Andrew Beccone, a Brooklyn-based visual artist with a Masters in Library and Informational Science, sees these castoffs as treasures. Fascinated by the visual goldmine of diagrams, illustrations, and photographs these oddball books contain, he created a dedicated home for them, the Reanimation Library, offering each forgotten volume a second chance at life.

I interviewed Andrew in order to find out more about this fascinating project.

PSHARES: You once described the Reanimation Library as being a “platypus.” Please explain.

BECCONE: I use a platypus analogy because I find the library somewhat challenging to classify. I understand it as both a library and an art project, and I try to give each of these elements equal attention, but sometimes they work against each other or contradict themselves in ways that feel unwieldy or awkward. It’s an odd creature. The Wikipedia article on platypuses states that they are milk-producing, egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, and otter-footed. This seems like a pretty good description of the library to me.Continue Reading

Reading the Environment: Book Artist Melissa Jay Craig

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In Ploughshares’ Book Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Book and paper artist Melissa Jay Craig gets an earful. (Image credit: <a href="http://ziagallery.net/hughes.html"Anne Hughes, ZIA Gallery)

Book and paper artist Melissa Jay Craig gets an earful. (Image credit: Anne Hughes, ZIA Gallery)

Whether she’s rescuing and repurposing discarded mass-produced paperbacks or harvesting wild plants to make her own paper, Melissa Jay Craig’s always discovering new “reading materials” in her environment.

Working her own kind of alchemy, the award-winning, Chicago-based artist has transformed these natural and manmade materials into sculptural, book-like hybrids: delicate, leafy books that bud, blossom, and decay with the seasons; poisonous-looking “bookshrooms” delivering pointed political statements; canned paperbacks that become trash after they’re consumed; and a single, poignant volume that mirrors the artist’s own hearing loss.

I interviewed Melissa Jay Craig via email earlier this month to learn more about the methods behind her fascinating body of work.

PSHARES: Much of your artwork concerns reading: both the printed words in books and the wordless communications in nature. Are you telling us “books” are everywhere to be read?

MJC: It’s not so much that “books” are everywhere; it’s more that I want to point out that we are always “reading.”  We’re taking in, processing and responding to information everywhere, constantly.Continue Reading

Binding Community: North Branch Projects Turns Pizza Boxes into Books

Regin Igloria at North Branch Projects. (Image: Nora Maynard)

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In Ploughshares’ Book Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Frustrated by the gulf between the contemporary art world and the people he cares for most, visual artist and bookbinder Regin Igloria founded North Branch Projects in the Chicago neighborhood where he grew up, Albany Park. In this small, independently run project space, Igloria offers hand bookbinding sessions free of charge six days a week, using inexpensive, often re-purposed materials. He calls these informal gatherings “community binding.”

A refreshing departure from the usual white cube gallery space, North Branch Projects exudes a sense of youthful energy and fun. Located in a bright, airy storefront on a residential street dotted with walk-in clinics, discount clothing stores, and jobber shops, its neon welcome signs invite curious passersby to slow down and take a closer look.

Once inside, the visitor is greeted by cheery yellow walls, a large worktable, and shelves and display cases plentifully stocked with bookbinding materials and tools, as well as an impressive array of finished books. To the back of the main workspace is a collection of handmade hula hoops and a ping pong table that has seen many heated tournaments. A mirrored disco ball hangs cheekily from the ceiling above.

We interviewed Igloria via email earlier this month to get his thoughts on this remarkable ongoing project.

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