When you think of it, a printed book adheres to certain structural conventions, both as a physical object (lines read from left to right; ideas are developed in sequentially numbered pages, etc.) and in the abstract ways in which content depends on syntax for its expression, and genre is defined by rigid rules. Thus we know when we’re reading a novel as opposed to a textbook, and we can be delighted and surprised by the antics of Lawrence Sterne or David Foster Wallace, both of whom made careers of bending these rules ever so slightly. Descriptive bibliography aside, a book’s primary “meaning” – the information it delivers – is contained in the concepts it imparts rather than in the information contained in its physical being.
The point of this windy statement of the obvious is that although we get a great deal of information from printed books, the kinds of information we get are constrained by the structural conventions – both physical and intellectual – of that medium.
As I’ve said in earlier blogs, a manuscript – though it may follow many of the same conventions as a printed book – offers a different kind of information. Most importantly, a manuscript provides what TV shows always refer to as “forensic evidence” about the writer and about the environment in which the manuscript was produced. Whether we’re reading a one page letter or a Pepysian diary, the handwriting gives us clues about the author’s age, education, and fine motor skills. Furthermore it’s often possible to determine if the writing was done under duress, in adverse conditions, all at once or serially. The immediacy of a manuscript provides us with a kind of information that a printed book cannot provide.
These were my thoughts when I began looking over a little archive that I bought last week. It was a group of letters and documents from the family of Nathaniel Brown Palmer, the famous Antarctic explorer. Palmer was a daring and resourceful seal hunter from Stonington, Connecticut, and he pioneered the Antarctic seal fishery, which in turn provided valuable furs to be used as trade goods in the American China Trade. When sealing dried up in the 1840s Palmer, who was still in his prime, went into the merchant trade. Then in the 1850s he used all that he’d learned on the high seas to help design and develop the first American clipper ships.
Rugged as a bear, smart as a fox, with nearly superhuman powers of endurance, and possessed of more than a lifetime’s share of good luck, the guy had always been a hero of mine.
So I was pretty excited about this buy – not because of the papers, which mostly pertained to the career of Nat’s brother Alex, but because the lot contained a white polished cotton vest that had belonged to Nathaniel Brown Palmer. We know it was his because he wrote his name on the inside of the back strap in his distinctive signature, “NB Palmer.” How could I resist trying it on? Talk about walking a mile in someone’s shoes! I was slipping into the vest that had once warmed the heart of an American icon.
It didn’t fit.
By today’s standards I’m not a really huge guy – 5 feet 10 ½ inches, 190 pounds – just about a Cruiserweight. And I’d always pictured my hero Captain Nat as a heavyweight champeen. A burly terror who could keep the unruliest sailor in line. Just look at his picture. He’s a bear of a man.
Except he was a bear who stood barely 5 ½ feet tall and weighed in at about 140. My hero had the body of a fifteen year old.
The book never told me that.
Small archive pertaining to the family of Alexander and Nathaniel Brown Palmer, 1840s - 1880s. Approximately 30 billheads, letters and documents pertaining mostly to the business dealings of Alexander Palmer, but also containing a 3 page ALs from Nathaniel to his brother, and Nathaniel's polished cotton vest, signed by him on inside of back belt. The lot. $300
Please note that The New-England chapter of the ABAA is inviting members of the trade and all interested observers to a special one-day "unseminar" entitled "New Tools: Marketing Approaches, Platforms, & Technologies for Antiquarian Booksellers," to be held Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
They plan a full day of presentations, speakers, and open discussion. Since all the panelists are either active book dealers or people serving the larger community of antiquarian booksellers, they are calling "New Tools" an "Unseminar" to emphasize the participatory and "bottom-up" character of the event.
I’ll be one of the speakers there, and this is the information I provided the organizers about my presentation.
Title: Blog Your Way to a New You!
Precis: Gibson unpacks forces driving brand lift through contextual commerce and strategizes around ways to incentivize, and ultimately to monetize core values and best practices going forward