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What Are Librarians Reading?

When it comes to voracious readers, we know no better example than librarians. These are the people steeped in the day-to-day curating, maintenance and knowledge of the collections in the stacks of our local libraries. We couldn’t help but wonder – when immersed in endless books day after day, how do you choose what to read?

We asked 10 librarians what books they were currently reading. Their eclectic selections ranged from a thriller set in a home furnishing store (IKEA Noir?) to Thomas Hardy and one of the Monty Python stars and far beyond. Let’s discover what the experts on reading are reading.

What Are Librarians Reading?

The Most Expensive Book Ever Sold On AbeBooks


It’s been an exciting couple of weeks at AbeBooks. We’ve been in operation since 1996, and in that nearly two-decade history, the two most expensive sales ever placed on the web site both hovered around the $65,000 mark – one was a 1937 first edition copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and one was a 1644 copy of Areopagitica, John Milton’s treatise on the importance of feedom of the press.

Those records were obliterated – tripled in fact – by the recent sale of a rare ornithology (study of birds) book on AbeBooks, which sold for $191,000. The 1765 Italian title can be summed up as A Natural History of Birds and is full of gorgeous, detailed art, sourced in an unusual fashion:

“The book’s artwork was drawn and etched by Violante Vanni and Lorenzo Lorenzi, while the text was penned by Saverio Manetti – an Italian physician, ornithologist, and director of the botanical garden in Florence from 1749 to 1782. The artwork was created using dead specimens from an Italian nobleman’s ornithology collection as models, and the birds are displayed in rather dramatic, eye-catching poses. Some consider the book to be a commentary on 18th-century Italian high society because the bird poses are almost human.”

You can see a slideshow of some of that art, as well as learn more about the book, here.

Go Set a Watchman, A New Book From…. Harper Lee!

Five years ago we put together a feature called “To Kill A Mockingbird and Other Literary One-Hit Wonders“. As it had been 50 years since the publication of her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee, in her 80s, seemed to want nothing more than for people to stop badgering her, we felt it was a safe assertion.

Happily, wonderfully, delightfully, we were wrong, and if it weren’t for the fact that it is February 3rd, and not April 1st, I wouldn’t believe it. News reports this morning are all in agreement – Harper Lee is publishing a new book. The novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, was actually completed in the mid-1950s, and while it will be Lee’s second book, and will act as a sequel to Mockingbird, it was in fact completed first. The book is about an adult woman named Jean Louise, who has left her home in New York to return to her childhood home of Maycomb, Alabama to see her father. Lee’s editor read the story, 60 years ago, and convinced her to write a prequel about the childhood of the character. That book became Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchman was forgotten. Lee herself was unaware that any copies of the manuscript had survived.

While Lee, now 88 and very private, is unlikely to do much publicity to promote the book, something tell me it will also not be necessary – the book is being published in its original state, as Lee wrote it, with no revisions – and the initial print run will be two million copies.

Go Set a Watchman is due for publication in the U.S. on July 14th by HarperCollins.

Madonna’s heartbroken after losing to a book on military incompetence in latest BookFinder report

Madonna's not happy

As you can see, Madonna is absolutely heartbroken after her Sex book fell to third place in the latest BookFinder.com report on the most searched for out-of-print books. The popstar was beaten by On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F Dixon and Lovely Reed: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Building Bamboo Fly by Jack Howell.

Read the report.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: A Computer-Generated Cookbook

This is fascinating to me as a food lover, a tech employee and member of the book industry. Jeopardy devotees may remember the 2011 episodes in which Watson – IBM’s famed cognitive computing system – was pitted against human contenders on the trivia show. Brad Rutter, who first appeared on Jeopardy in 2000 and is now the all-time highest money-winner on the show, and Ken Jennings, who holds the title for longest run of wins on Jeopardy (74 days) both lost to Watson, all three times they played.

Now, Watson is being used to enhance the lives of humans, rather than just crushing their hopes and dreams: Watson is putting out its very own cookbook – Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, set for release in April, from Sourcebooks.

In a creative attempt to break free of culinary ruts and open the minds of chefs to new flavor combinations, project members at IBM trained Watson, by inputting tens of thousands of recipes, flavor profiles, chemical composition of foods, complementary ingredients and the like, and Watson “learned”.

The computer then used three different metrics to analyse ingredients, rating them for surprise (suggesting ingredients which are rarely found together), pleasantness (“researchers have carried out studies on the flavours that give people pleasure at a molecular level,” says the book), and synergy (“studies indicate that foods sharing common chemical flavour compounds taste good together”).

“The system essentially worked as follows: the cook enters some basic elements that serve as a foundation for a dish, which Watson then processes using an extensive database of recipes, cultural studies, and chemical flavour composition, all of which results in an ‘output’ of ingredient lists that Watson finds interesting on scales of pleasantness, surprise, and flavour pairing,” said Michael Laiskonis, Institute of Culinary Education creative director.

The result is often surprising, sometimes strange, but usually delicious, using different criteria for combinations than a human might, and without our expectations and limitations. Some of the most successful recipes Watson has invented so far include Creole Shrimp-Lamb Dumplings, Peruvian Potato Poutine, and an Austrian Chocolate Burrito.

Three of my favorite things (books, food and technology) embodying two of my favorite adjectives (weird and delicious). I’m in!

via The Guardian

A Handbook on Hanging by Charles Duff

handbook-hanging-charles-duffIf you’re in the mood for some scathing, dark and wickedly barbed satire, look no further – A Handbook on Hanging by Charles Duff will fit the bill nicely. First published in 1928, this slim volume is a withering condemnation of capital punishment and the bloodthirsty nation that condones the practice, disguised as a helpful how-to manual. Its full title is A Handbook on Hanging: Being a short introduction to the fine art of Execution, and containing much useful information on Neckbreaking, Throttling, Strangling, Asphyxiation, Decapitation and Electrocution; as well as Data and Wrinkles for Hangmen, an account of the late Mr. Berry’s method of Killing and his working list of Drops; to which is added a Hangman’s Ready Reckoner and Certain Other Items of Interest, All Very Proper to Be Read and Kept in Every Family

A member of the European AbeBooks office, Charlotte, came across the book on her recent visit to the Ludwigsburg Antiquarian Book Fair in Germany.


The book has been compared to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal by nearly everyone who has come in contact with it, and it’s no wonder. Swift’s 18th-century acerbic essay outlining his plan to alleviate Irish poverty by eating spare Irish babies (thus securing a food source while effectively reducing mouths to feed) is one of the most famous pieces of satire in existence. And following in its footsteps, Duff’s book uses the deadpan, total embrace of a hideous subject to elucidate its point. Written as a tribute to the art of hanging (and other means of execution), backed up with genuine facts and statistics, it masterfully forces the reader to see the grotesque, brutal hypocrisy inherent in the practice. Even while much attention is paid to the humor of the writing, there is no pulling punches, and consequently no denying the absolute horror involved in execution. The guide is quite thorough, with Duff covering everything from cases of bungled hanging, to executions of innocent men, to the dying (ha!) art of hanging.

In some passages, he writes wistfully about the depreciation of the ceremony and artistry of execution, lamenting its inability to achieve its fair recognition:

In the United Kingdom there is an average of about 150 cases of murder known to the police every year. Of these only ninety on an average are proceeded against, and in only about twenty-five are there actual convictions for murder. We execute a mere baker’s dozen of human beings every year. It will be seen from this that, unless the emoluments of the English hangman were very high or at all events brought with them very substantial perquisites, our public executioner could never hope merely by virtue of his office to become a rich man. Although this may be in the best tradition of the Government Service, you will agree that it is deplorable. And it is all the more deplorable when we compare the delicate art of the hangman with that of the ‘electrocutioner’ or the guillotiner, or the garrotter of other countries less civilized than ourselves.

What skill is required to turn a switch? What skill is required to twist a garrote? What skill is required to decapitate with the aid of an elaborate engine? I do not include in the same category as these three the German method of beheading with a sword. Thank Heaven there is still some art — or rather science — remaining on the Continent of Europe. The Germans go even further than we do in recognition of their science, for their executioner performs his ceremony in full evening dress, like a violinist playing a symphony to an enraptured audience at the Wigmore Hall; like Smeterlin playing Szymanowski; or any other virtuoso appearing at a public function. Our hangman performs in a lounge suit; or, for all I know, in plus fours. He certainly does not function either in evening dress or even a smoking jacket, though in Scotland he has before now worked in kilts. This shows how casually we English treat the business.

Charles Duff (1894-1966) was an English naval officer and linguist, by and large. A Handbook on Hanging was only one of nearly two dozen books he wrote, but the subject matter of the others stuck to more straightforward fare, chiefly language studies and travel guides. He was passionately anti-fascist, a fact which led him to resign from the Foreign Office in the 1930s, less than a decade after publishing A Handbook on Hanging.

The New York Review of Books issued a reprinting in 2001 with a foreword by Christopher Hitchens, fittingly enough. All in all, the book remains somewhat obscure, but has garnered a devoted cult following and has been reprinted many times, as recently as 2011.

Canada Reads 2015: The Five Finalists

Earlier in January we posted that the CBC’s  Canada Reads competition for 2015 was kicking off and the longlist had been announced. Now, two thirds of that list has been whittled away, leaving just five remaining titles. Sadly, the single entry on the list that I had read did not make the cut, so I’m going to have to get reading! The five finalists will each be championed by a Canadian involved in the country’s media culture in some way. The debates will take place in front of a live audience and be broadcast on CBC Radio One for the English-language edition, and on Première Chaîne for the French. From March 16th to 19th, the five panelists will hotly debate why their selection should be declared the winner. The 2015 theme is “One Book to Break Barriers”, and challenges panelists to prove that the horse they’re backing has what it takes to increase accessibility between marginalized subcultures, challenge stereotypes and give a voice to silenced people.

Here are this year’s finalists and their defenders, with plenty of time to get your hands on copies to read:

1. Ru by Kim Thuy, defended by film critic and festival programmer Cameron Bailey

2. When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid , defended by reporter and TV personality Elaine Lui

3. And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, defended by folk-rock singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright

4. The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, defended by children’s activist Craig Kielburger

5. Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee, defended by actress Kristin Kreuk


Guantánamo Diary – Mohamedou Ould Slahi Writes From Captivity


Portions (heavily, repeatedly redacted portions) of the diary of a Guantánamo Bay prisoner have been released – even if the author hasn’t. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been detained at the infamous facility since August, 2002 after turning himself in to the Mauritanian authorities for questioning months earlier. Slahi, who admits to past Al Qaeda ties, maintains that he has been removed from all connections to the organization since 1992.

The American government clearly disagrees, and Slahi remains in custody today. In 2005, Slahi wrote a memoir of his experiences in Guantánamo, and (some version of) that book is finally available today, a decade later, called Guantánamo Diary. The memoir is written in English, Slahi’s fourth language, which he has learned through his time in captivity. Excerpts were first seen published in Slate in 2013. The book contains vivid and frank descriptions of beatings, extreme temperature exposure, sexual assault, relentless interrogations, and all manner of torture. Given the US government subjected the manuscript to over 2,000 redactions before declassifying it, it makes one uncomfortable to imagine what was stricken.

Slahi’s book is available in both hardcover and paperback. It is the first book ever published by a prisoner still held at the Guantánamo Bay facility.

Five books Mark Zuckerberg won’t be recommending

I had some fun with this one. Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, has a book club. So far he’s recommended The End of Power by Moisés Naim – a non-fiction book about how power is shifting around the world – and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature – another non-fiction title about about how and why violence has steadily decreased throughout history. Here’s five books that he won’t be recommending and I’m sure you can guess one of my recommendations before watching the video.

2014 Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair opens on Friday

Visitors to the 2013 Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair

Dasa Pahor, one of the sellers to be found at this year’s fair

The 54th Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair begins on Friday. It’s one of the major events in the European rare book calendar.  More than 80 booksellers from Germany, the UK, the United States, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, France and the Netherlands are displaying rare books and manuscripts, autographs, and prints.

One of the themes of this year’s fair is women in bookselling. They are making a major effort to prove that antiquarian bookselling is not entirely a man’s world. A number of female booksellers have been profiled in the fair’s website.

All of Germany’s finest rare booksellers will be present and many events have been scheduled in conjunction with the event.

The three-day fair concludes on Sunday and more details can  be found at the fair’s website.