Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scrabbling Through the Big Attic of Project Gutenberg

When I was a kid, we had a big 1880s farm house in northern Michigan, which we had bought with all contents included.  This included many shelves of old books of all sorts.  (Also many odd things like old aviator goggles, stereoscopic pictures, and a Victorian era wheelchair -- which we used to chase horses around the pasture.)

On long lazy summers it was great to just go and browse through the books.  There were a lot of great kids books there, but also books which were just old (and therefore strange to kid-eyes).  There was the beautiful handmade Arts and Crafts edition of some Longfellow stories (I think, might have been someone else).  And that weird book on calligraphy, in which it showed how a single spiraling stroke of a pen could draw a beautiful portrait of Jesus Christ (via thicker and thinner line width).

There's nothing better than being a kid in a room full of old musty books to explore. Not necessarily to read, mind you.  Some might be great reading, but a lot of them will be stultifying as reading material.  But even those can be fun to explore as objects, as artifacts.  Things that were hits before your mother was born.  Or grandmother.

The thing about it that is different from a library or bookstore is that the books in an attic (or a trunk) are often not in any particular order.  You couldn't just go find your favorite genre.  You have to browse through them all to find the gems.

And since really old books didn't have dust jackets or back cover blurbs, finding the gems could really be a challenge.  Even if you identified a book as a novel, or a kids book, you might have no idea what it's about. (Unless it had a title like "The Bobbsey Twins Find a Ghost on The Old Farm.")

What you had was the weight and size and state of wear and age of the book.  The sense of its age and style compared to others. The covers might have something interesting on them, but mostly not.

The one thing they had that most modern novels don't have: Illustrations.

And there is the thing that has made Project Gutenberg as much fun as that old farm house.  I follow the Project Gutenberg account on Twitter, @gutenbooks.  They tweet a dozen or so titles a day -- mostly new releases, but with some older books thrown in.  They have everything from political tracts to personal travel journals to magazines and newspapers, to pulp novels and classics and poetry.  Books in foreign languages of unknown type.  Somebody is scanning the whole set of Encyclopedia Britannicas one small slice of a volume at a time.

Every couple of days I go through every one of these books, and unless the book is clearly of some interest, I look to see if it has versions "with images" and if so, I click straight past the main page into the "More files" link and through a few folders to the "images" folder.  And there I sit and browse, like I did as a kid.

I find a lot of fun stuff that way.  Sometimes good books to read, like Phroso, the book I reviewed on Friday. But other times, I just find great art to look at, or reference books.

I also learn a lot.  When you browse a lot of pictures quickly, you start seeing what kinds of images are immediately attractive and which ones make you click on by.  And sometimes I'll see a stylistic puzzle.

For instance, the three pictures I posted in that review of Phroso.  Here is a smaller version of all three side by side.

There are three more illustrations in the book, all in the same ink and wash style of the first and third image you see here.  ("Wash" is like water color. Often just diluted ink, painted in with a paint brush to make the grays.)  The center picture here is just pen and ink.  No wash. (Except maybe for a very light wash on the vest and sash of that central figure with the dagger.)  The shading is done mainly in cross-hatching.

Why is this image different?

Well, when you read the book you see why: that scene is a flashback.  The other scenes were all witnessed directly by the story's narrator, but that scene was something he hears about from a witness -- the old woman you see cowering in the doorway in the background.

It made me very happy to see this little added touch to the story.  It wasn't necessary.  An illustration like the others would have done fine.  But there is something almost subliminal about this sketchier image -- an image which almost looks like an over exposed photograph, or a faded one.

This was before the movies.  This was done in the 1890s.  It is interesting that today, we use similar techniques to signal flashbacks and dreams in visual media today.  We depict the haziness of memory with blown out exposures and crowded hazy details.

I'll be talking more about the interesting images (and books) I find in the virtual (and therefore not dusty) attic of Project Gutenberg.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I used to love leafing through my grandmothers' books when I was a kid, too. Very interesting sketches. You're right on target about the reading material--could be great, could be awful. But the pictures were good.

The children's books they had usually had good content.

Nice idea to use Gutenberg to find inspiration!

The Daring Novelist said...

I suppose that inside every writer you find an amateur archival librarian.