Monday, September 1, 2008


Barely back from Summer Vacation and wishing for a few more days to spend in the sand and the sun? While plans for renovating the sale lot to accommodate an Olympic beach volleyball court have been tabled indefinitely, we can offer instead an inconspicuous but entertaining collection of books on a subject that may alleviate the urge to return to the dunes: camels. Because as many eager but naive travelers have found, these exotic, mercurial beasts are as likely to frustrated as they are to fascinate. (Observe this uncooperative steed, photographed c. 2006 by a far-flung Blog correspondent, that lowered itself to receive an excited rider only to change its mind and refuse to rise. Luckily its handler had not demanded payment up-front.)

Fortunately for us, such realities were mostly unknown to the numerous 19th Century English-speaking traveler/authors who were willing to provide us with literary records of their adventures. Not even the United States Army could resist the lure of the camel - particularly the advantages its fabled durability could provide in negotiating the terrain of its newly conquered southwest. And so it was that in 1855 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis - himself a veteran of the campaigns against Mexico a decade earlier - presided over an expedition to import camels for use as Army transport across the unforgiving landscapes of the newest American frontier. The official record of the experiment (Washington, 1857; $250) is among the four titles waiting to be found in the shop's rare book room.
The report chronicles both voyages aboard the U.S. ship Supply that would bring a total of 75 Arabian camels from their native homes to the equally exotic port of Indianola, TX to determine just how these remarkable animals could benefit American expansion. The book's highlights include an illustration of the strenuous measures required to embark a semi-cooperative Bactrian camel, diagrams of Persian camel artillery (complete with suggested tactical formations in which a camel would be useful only in its ability to absorb massed rifle fire or deflect artillery projectiles), and a gift of camel hair socks made as a special gift for President Franklin Pierce. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the record of correspondence between Davis and the commander of the Supply, then Navy Lieutenant (Admiral would come later) David D. Porter. These two, of course, would find themselves on less cordial terms only a few years later.
Ultimately, it was the Civil War that doomed the camel experiment, though the soldiers (not to mention the horses!) involved generally found them to be less than willing allies. Better, perhaps, to enjoy the camel on paper; and at the Brattle, we're happy to oblige.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's Not Just a Good Idea...It's the Law

This summer the long arm has extended its reach to West Street - not a reference to the BPD's orchestration of the Celtics' victory parade or even our neighbors across the street at the Massachusetts Bar Association, but the arrival of an interesting group of new additions to the Law sections on the shop's 2nd and 3rd floors. Included are numerous scholarly analyses of courts and torts from the usual suspects at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale, but also contributions from centers of legal - and NCAA - excellence like Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Univ. of Michigan (Go Blue!). Also among the arrivals are studies of the history and development of laws and legal systems, with titles covering Roman, English, American, and even Massachusetts legal history.

One gem from the selection on display in the Rare Book Room is a three volume, leather-bound set of the spirited late 19th Century periodical, The Green Bag: A Useless but Entertaining Magazine for Lawyers (Boston, 1889-1891. $250, 3v). Filled with biographical features and articles on cases and decisions of the day, the magazine includes pieces treating subjects ranging from "Women Lawyers in the U.S." to the less socially substantial "Foot-ball in Law." Accompanying the text are scores of black and white portraits capturing contemporary legal personages at their most deliberative and distinguished, offering a fashionable panoply of 19th Century American lapels, neckties, and facial hair. Come on by for a closer look!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Spoken Here

In honor of the EURO 2008 soccer tournament being contested this month – and the timely arrival of a large new collection of books – June at the Brattle will feature a host of New Arrivals in the subjects of Linguistics and Foreign Languages. So while native speakers of various Romance, Germanic, Turkic, and Slavic languages arrive in Switzerland/Austria for the matches, stop in to browse an array of foreign language guides, readers, dictionaries (general as well as technical), and literature now available and continuing to appear around the shop. The more studious among us will be pleased with the myriad studies of all things linguistic, with MIT leading the parade of scholarly presses. Among the titles featured in the West Street window display is an entertainingly exhaustive (that’s all I’ll say) study of English usage and an example of the innovative work that earned Noam Chomsky tenure in the first place.

So stop by this week to say "Ciao" - although if you want to offer congratulations to the new European Champions I’d suggest practicing a few phrases of Dutch, as the Brattle Staff consensus (of one) agrees they are the side to beat.

Oranje boven!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Lot of Books

There's no better time than the home stretch of summer's slow approach - bringing with it, one hopes, some consistently accommodating weather - to check in on the bibliophile's open-air retreat amid Downtown Crossing's retail sprawl: the Brattle's sale lot. We know, of course, that it's not a background of sunny (or warm, or calm, or even dry) weather that matters in the lot. It's the books. And right now there is a dizzying mix of books on all imaginable subjects priced at $5, $3, and $1. The newest arrivals include recently published Business, Management, and Economics titles (published by Wiley, Harvard Business School, and the Productivity Press of Portland, OR, to name a few) and a diverse group of unusual antiquarian books covering subjects like Travel, Exploration, and History. Here's an example:
I will tell you that it's a quaint piece of 1850s Southern Americana marked with a yellow $5 sticker, but that's all the help you get. As regulars know and first-time browsers are bound to discover, the fun is in the search.
And remember, groups of new arrivals in the outside lot invariably mean new arrivals of "better" titles on the same subjects inside the shop.
Happy Hunting!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rare Americana

Among the New Arrivals to our Rare Book Room are two pieces of Americana representing the country in the second half of the 19th Century. That era of conflict and growth would begin to decide the evolutionary paths of countless institutions now understood to be ‘American,’ and our national pastime of baseball was no exception. Currently for sale at the shop is a magnificent primary source of this history, The Base Ball Player's Pocket Companion (Boston: Mayhew & Baker,1860). What is remarkable about this item is not only its novelty as an enduring record of how baseball was played and regarded by its early devotees, but its existence as a preserved tool once used to spread and grow the malleable 19th century game into the established 20th century sport, business, and institution. From the pamphlet’s explanation of the wildly divergent rules for both the “Massachusetts” and “New York” games, one can imagine groups of contemporary players deciding for themselves which game would endure. Even a cursory glance at the options hint at why our baseball evolved within the parameters of the New York game, and it was because of publications like this 1860 guide – and the good sense of our 19th century ancestors – that it did. The pamphlet is available housed in a velvet-lined, grey cloth clamshell case, for $12,500.

Baseball was well into its organized professional (if not entirely modern) stage in 1888 when Ernest L. Thayer wrote his final San Francisco Examiner column, a playful piece of narrative verse depicting the spectacular failure of a hometown baseball hero. Since its publication Casey at the Bat has managed to survive in popular memory, and even those with little interest in the game it celebrates can recognize it most famous lines. Few poems, however, can long endure in our consciousness as poems alone, and over the years others have helped maintain the crucial sizzle of Thayer's steak. Perhaps its most famous exponent was the vaudevillian William De Wolfe Hopper who - during stage performances, curtain calls, and, one must imagine, before every meal - is alleged to have recited Casey over 10,000 times! But the poem also survived in various printed forms, with an excellent copy of the first book edition (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1912) featuring the text enhanced by Dan Sayre Groesbeck's color illustrations now available in the shop, priced $3,750. The book is a splendid, collectible version of the poem that has remained, as its original subtitle claims, A Ballad of the Republic.

Follow this link for more information on the history of Casey at the Bat, including an audio recording of a Hopper performance.