Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

19 JULY, 2011

7 Obscure Children’s Books by Authors of Grown-Up Literature

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What a moral cat has to do with a lost boy, a happy prince and the rules for little girls.

We’ve previously explored some beloved children’s classics with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, plus some quirky coloring books for the eternal kid, and today’s we’re looking at the flipside — little-known children’s books by beloved authors of literature for grown-ups.

JAMES JOYCE

James Joyce may be best known as a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. But in an August 10, 1936 letter his grandson, Stephen, Joyce planted the story seeds of what became The Cat and the Devil — a charming children’s picture-book, originally illustrated by French cartoonist Roger Blachon, about the cat of Beaugency and a moral dilemma, a classic fable narrative mixing Irish wit with French folklore, shaken and stirred with Joyce’s extraordinary storytelling.

Joyce’s original letter to “Stevie” can be found in Stuart Gilbert’s 1964 volume, Letters of James Joyce. We Too Were Children has more images, a synopsis and a timeline of different editions.

MARK TWAIN

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, titled Advice to Little Girls, in which he challenged children to digest the kind of intelligent humor and knowledge he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. The story was eventually published in The 30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories.

This year, Italian publishing house Donzelli Editore released a beautifully illustrated Italian translation of the story, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums the children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

You ought never to take your little brother’s ‘chewing-gum’ away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In 1923, with her greatest works still ahead of her, Virginia Woolf responded to a submissions call from a family newspaper called The Charleston Bulletin, published by her teenage nephews. The Widow and the Parrot is, roughly, a tongue-in-cheek moral story about kindness to animals and though Quentin, Woolf’s older nephew, bemoaned it as a disappointment and “a tease…based on the worst Victorian examples,” devoid of Woolf’s typical subversive humor he had hoped for, it remains a sweet reflection of character, her taking the time to contribute to a small family pet project in the heat of her literary career.

The Widow and the Parrot stayed dormant in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over half a century, until it finally saw light of day in the 1982 issue of Redbook, celebrating 100 years since Woolf’s birth.

Ariel Wright has more on We Too Were Children.

T.S. ELIOT

T.S. Eliot is often regarded as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eliot, under his assumed name “Old Possum,” wrote a series of letters to his godchildren, in which he included a handful of whimsical poems about feline psychology and sociology. They were eventually published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, originally illustrated by the author himself. But, given our affinity for mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey, the even bigger treat is the 1982 edition illustrated by Gorey in his signature style of black-and-white drawings at the intersection of the macabre and the whimsical.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats.

MARY SHELLEY

Between the time Mary Shelley published anonymous edition of her iconic Frankenstein in London in 1818 and the publication of the second edition in France in 1823, where her name appears for the first time, she penned Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot — a children’s story Shelley wrote in 1820 for a daughter of friends. Shelley tried to have the story published by her father, William Godwin, but he refused, burying the text for nearly two centuries. In 1997, scholars discovered a manuscript copy was in Italy, considered one of modernity’s great feats of literary forensics.

The story, written in the straightforward Romantic language of poet William Wordsworth, whose work Shelley was reading at the time she composed Maurice, is about a boy searching for a home and his encounters with a traveller who turns out to be his long-lost father. With its melancholy tone and autobiographical undercurrents, the rediscovered text revealed a new glimpse of Shelley’s character and offered a precious missing link in the evolution of her literary style.

LEO TOLSTOY

Iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy may be best-known for his epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, considered two of the greatest novels of all time, but he also had a keen and active interest in children and children’s literature. He founded a school for peasant children on his family’s estate, followed by a second, more experimental school with the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like” — an early model for open education. Inspired by the simplicity and innocence with which the children of his schools told stories, he began writing about his own childhood, eventually publishing a series of alphabet books after War and Peace. Known as “The ABC Book” (Azbuka) and “The New ABC Book” (Novaia Azbuka), these easy readers were widely adopted in Russia’s education system and remained in use throughout the Soviet Era.

Classic Tales and Fables for Children features a selection of stories and fables from Tolstoy’s classic primers. Always delightful, frequently humorous and never patronizing, these wonderful tales bespeak Tolstoy’s profound respect and appreciation for children’s unique creative and moral sensibilities, as well as his dedication to the broader aspirations of education.

OSCAR WILDE

In 1888, before his most iconic plays and essays made grand their debut, Oscar Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and other Tales — a poetic collection of five children’s stories about happiness, life and death. Though the most popular Western version, illustrated by Laura Stutzman, is certainly a treat, nothing compares to the astounding 1992 Chinese translation (which features an English version in the back of the book) illustrated by renowned Chinese artist Ed Young.

The anthology’s title text, The Happy Prince, can be read online in its entirety, courtesy of The Literature Network.

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18 JULY, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Vintage Typographic Scripts

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From Victorian letters to modernist lettering, or what Venice has to do with children’s penmanship.

Iconic design writer Steven Heller has previously delighted us with a peek inside the sketchbooks of famous graphic designers and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships. Now, he and his partner of 28 years, acclaimed designer Louise Fili, are back with Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age — a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century. Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.

We started gathering materials for the book by just going through the shelves of my studio: the stunningly timeless black, white and red St. Raphael enamel sign, French button cards, type specimen books and of course my albums of sign photos. While many of the selections were obvious, some were serendipitous: For example, while teaching a summer masters workshop in Venice, two of my students gave me a composition book they had unearthed from a recycling bin on the Grand Canal. It was from 1923 with verses written in perfect Italian school children’s penmanship.” ~ Louise Fili

At once sentimental and visionary, Scripts is a living capsule of the near-forgotten beauty and allure of vintage lettering, but also of books themselves — lavish, vibrant, tactile, with lush typography winking at you from the page in come-hither seduction unlike the screen ever could.

Images courtesy of Felt & Wire

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13 JULY, 2011

From Old Books: Heaven for the Visual Bibliophile

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Making good use of geocentric models of the universe, or how to brush up on 18th-century British slang.

Thanks to the tireless curators behind brilliant sites such as 50 Watts, BibliOdyssey, Paleofuture, and How to Be a Retronaut, to name just a few of the Internet’s treasure troves, we now have collections of archival material that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

A newcomer to this stable of gems, From Old Books is similarly fueled by an individual’s passion for preserving graphics, and so also the culture, of bygone eras. Its creator, a British web developer named Liam Quin, has assembled a stellar selection of over 3,000 images from — and of — more than 180 rare antique books.

From fantastically creepy momento mori, to beautiful children’s book illustrations, and enough examples of typography that you could take up whole days just browsing, From Old Books is a fantastic place to look for royalty-free inspiration. We’ve gathered a small handful of the site’s weird and wonderful objects for your viewing pleasure.

Armillary Sphere

From Ebenezer Sibly's Astrology: A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences (1806)

I have subjoined a plate of the Armillary Sphere, which is an artificial contrivance, representing the several circles proper to the theory of the mundane world, put together in their natural order, to ease and assist the imagination in conceiving the constitution of the spheres, and the vairous phenomena of the celestial bodies. For this purpose the Earth is placed at the center, pierced by a line supposed to be its axis”

Strange Machine

From T. Antisell's Handbook of the Useful Arts (1852)

Hour Glass

From William Andrews's Curiosities of the Church: Studies of Curious Customs, Services and Records (1891)

Of the few remaining specimens of the hour-glass, a fine one is preserved in the church of St. Alban’s Wood Street, London. It is mounted on a spiral column near the pulpit, and the minister can conveniently reach it when preaching.”

Machines for Boring Holes in Castle Walls

From Charles Knight's Old England: A Pictorial Museum (1845)

Switchboard

From Sydney F. Walker's Electric Lighting for Marine Engineers (1892)

It will be understood, of course, that there should be an ampère meter on each circuit, so that the engineer can see what is going on. This, however, is not always done. In many “tramps” not even one ampère meter is to be found.”

The Sun Typewriter

Advertisement from Charles Scribner's Scribner's Magazine No. 11 (1903)

Enjoy more gems on From Old Books — but don’t say we didn’t warn you: bibliophilia takes hold quickly, and as far as we know, there’s no cure.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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